Practicing Wildlife Photography at Your Local Zoo

Some folks dream about going off on safari, to far-away lands, or even to some nearby wilderness to try and snag that perfect shot of a majestic creature in the wild.  We all see those amazing National Geographic posts that leave us in awe making us think to ourselves, "Wow, wouldn't it be great to pull off shots like that!!"  Let's take it a step further and say that we have the funds and the time to go on this dream adventure.. Wouldn't it be better to practice taking shots of animals (other than pets) before spending a small fortune and embarking on this trip of a lifetime?  Wouldn't it be devastating to go on such a trip and wind up with lousy, or less than ideal photographs due to inexperience?  Well, fear not!!  Most cities have their very own zoo, and what better place to practice exposure, composition, and most importantly, patience than a place just full of subjects just waiting to pose for you!!

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 210mm f4 

Our most recent escapade found us at the world famous San Diego Zoo!  Coming from New York where we boast our own Bronx Zoo, I wasn't sure I would be wow'd too much.  Needless to say, I was wrong. There are many factors that make this zoo particularly amazing, but the one that is least often talked about has nothing to do with the specimens or the grounds.  One of the things to seriously consider before venturing out to a zoo is the amount of time you will be on your feet.  Seriously, you will end up walking more miles during a visit to a zoo for a day than you might accumulate in an entire week.  That being said, the weather in the San Diego is PERFECT!  While in part this has to do with the particularly glorious condition of the particular day we visited, it has mostly to do with the climate in San Diego in general.  With 0% humidity, it is an absolute pleasure to not sweat at all.. especially when lugging around a camera bag.

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 210mm f4 

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 210mm f4 

Since we're mentioning the fact that this is an all-day event, there are a few things to consider when deciding what to pack for your photographic trip to the zoo.

The Gear

I know there are a lot of people who love lugging around EVERYTHING in their photographic arsenal whenever they travel about riddled with the fear of missing a great shot because they didn't bring the proper lens.  This isn't really necessary. However, can I say that there is one perfect lens that covers all aspects perfectly?? Nope.  Still, being conservative with what you carry can be a big benefit. Having less options means you will be forced to be more creative, spend less time fidgeting about with lenses, and have greater practice at being patient.

The Bag

Bag selection can be a big deal to most photographers, as many of us have multiple camera bags for different needs/occasions.  For anything involving a whole day walking about, I suggest something light and efficient.  I have traveled with almost every type of camera bag you can think of, from backpack, to messenger bag, to waistbag, etc., and often struggled with what really fit my needs. I've found that shoulder/messenger bags put too much strain on one shoulder, waistbags don't distribute weight naturally (plus, they look really cheesy), and backpacks aren't that great for quick access to lenses and such.  Of all the bags I've tried, the type that I found works best for this instance is the slingbag.  It's compact size and easy access make it perfect for a trip to the zoo.  My sling of choice is the Think Tank Turnstyle 10. 

This particular bag, while able to fit a larger crop sensor camera and a few small lenses without a problem, is designed to hold a mirrorless camera system.  Luckily, that is exactly what I'm packing, having switched to the Olympus EM-1 (review in the works).  Here, I was able to hold my camera, 3 lenses, 3 extra batteries, some cleaning tools, a phone charger, and a small tabletop tripod.  I had it on my back for about 10 hours and had zero pains, problems, or discomfort. There's a link at the bottom of this post in case you're interested in taking a look at his fella.

The Lenses

Wildlife shoots generally means one thing in terms of lenses: telephoto!  You're obviously not going to be very close to your subjects when shooting animals in the wild, or in this instance those far from the public.  This means you're going to need some serious range if you want to get some expression and detail in your shot.  I suggest using something like a super-zoom (depending on your system, examples are 18-300mm, 24-200mm, 14-150mm, etc), or a trusty 70-200mm f.2.8.  While the super-zooms are great since that means you'll only really need one lens, they have a major drawback.  All of these lenses have very limited apertures, usually ranging from f3.5 on the widest end to f5.6 or even f6.3 on the long end.  Now, you won't really run into too many low light situations at the zoo since they're only open during peak daylight hours, but you might want to open up that lens to at least f4 or greater for some gorgeous bokeh. Even more so, zoo scenes can be super busy as they are attempting to mimic the animal's natural habitat. This can make isolating the subject from the background a complicated task. Working with a lens that allows you to shoot at at least f4 will allow you to blur out that background and help you tell your story more elegently.

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 200mm f4 

Contrary to everything I just said, there will be instances when the subject might be extremely close and extremely large.  In this case, you would need a lens with a much wider focal length (herein lies the advantage of the ultra-zooms that can cover both tight and spacious compositions).  Now, exactly how wide depend on your particular setup but a typical zoom of 14-40mm, 18-50, or 24-70 depending what type of system/sensor you're shooting with should do the trick.  If you have room and the budget for an extra lens, you might want to take along an ultrawide. This lens isn't necessary, but it does give your shot an all-encompassing effect.

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; Panasonic Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f4 @ 7mm f4 


This is at the heart of photography in general, but never as poignant as when dealing with animals that simply couldn't care less about your shot, the light situation, or your desire to move on.  Without a healthy dose of patience, there is no way you will be able to snag the shots you're hoping for.  Some wildlife photographers wait days or weeks to get that special moment.  Luckily, while practicing at the zoo, there is only so far the animal can go. Still, if the subject is of the fidgety sort, It might take longer than you'd think.  Speaking of moving subjects, make sure that your focus points are not fixed to one spot, since having more focus points active will raise the chance of getting the shot.  Also, remember to switch your camera to continuous autofocus or even tracking.  This will tell the camera that what you're shooting isn't static and will allow it to track that movement.  With wildlife, I tend to activate the top center half the focus points.  Since the most important parts of the subject are the eyes and overall face this helps assure that what I need is tack sharp. Still.. more importantly.. is the patience.

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 200mm f4 

Some Final Words of Wisdom

1. Stay hydrated!  It can be easy to not realize how much your body is working.  Between walking around all day, standing in wait for that perfect moment, and simply lugging around gear and holding up a camera (with a telephoto lens) it can really take it's toll.  Carry a water bottle around with you.  The Zoo might boost a ton of water fountains, but that doesn't mean they all work.

2. If you're going with company, make them/ he or she aware that you will be taking serious photographs.  Don't just stop there though.. explain all that this entails: you'll be taking your time at most exhibits, and you might even be as long as 20-30 in a single spot.  Trust me, they might say, "Sure, ok, whatever you want!", but that usually means they have no idea what they're in for unless they know you well enough and are used to it already.

3. Find out the zoo's policy on tripods.  Most won't allow you to bring one or set it up, while others don't mind if you ask permission beforehand.  There's no need for you to carry the extra weight if you can't get a chance to take advantage it in the first place.

4. Maybe bring some snacks.  Food stuffs at zoo's can be simply awful, and on top of that, they can be almost offensively overpriced.

5. Just have fun.  Don't get too caught up in getting perfect shots.  Remember, this is just practice.  Plus, you can always come back another day

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 120mm f4 

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 110mm f4 

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 40-140mm f2.8 + MC 14m 1.4x Teleconverter @ 155mm f4 

This last shot wasn't taken at the zoo, but at La Jolla Cove about 15 miles awayStill, it captures the essence of patience & preparation and is an example of an actual wildlife shot (since the seals there are actually in the wild).

Until next time---- > Happy Shooting!

Olympus OMD-EM 1 ; M. Zuiko 14-40mm f2.8 @ 40mm f2.8 & 3 Exposures @ 2 stops HDR 



Link to Think Tank Turnstyle 10