For many people, the opportunity to observe and photograph the beauty and behavior of animals like wolves, raptors, and big cats in the wild is limited by many factors, including the scarcity of these animals and the need for massive lenses to observe them from great distances. For many of us, our local wildlife preserves, zoos and other environmental education centers, provide good, and in some cases the only, opportunity to see and photograph many species of animals.
Having worked with a variety of nonprofit zoos, animal rescues and sanctuaries, here are some things to keep in mind when at these locations to make great shots.
Please note, this article is not about the ethics of whether zoos or preserves should exist, or your personal feelings toward them. Personally, I work only with nonprofit organizations, with a stated mission that involves conservation, rescue and/or education, where proceeds from my photography permit fees or workshops help support this mission. While I wish we lived in a world where there was not a need to have these places, the simple fact of the matter is, we do. And will continue to as long as there is habitat loss, fragmentation, poaching, and a view that the Earth is a limitless resource to be exploited. Extinction is forever. Zoos, preserves and rescues help hold extinction at bay in very tangible ways.
One of the more challenging issues of shooting at a preserve or zoo can be finding uncluttered backgrounds free of man-made objects. Even at locations where animals have open acres to roam, your angles of shooting may bring fences and structures into the backgrounds of your images.
When composing your images, look at your background first, and be alert for little things that can distract from your subject and composition. Fences in particular, even if out of focus, have such distinct lines and patterns that they can easily pull your eye from your subject. Little adjustments left or right and up or down are often all it takes to move a distracting background element out of your image.
Over the past few decades zoos in particular have worked to change their enclosures so we no longer look down at the animals, but are instead at eye level with them. Avoid situations where you’re shooting down from a height, photographing from eye level makes your images more intimate and compelling.
With many locations you are limited by their operating hours which may not coincide with the warm light of early or late day. If you visit at midday many animals will be resting out of the sun, which will limit your photo opportunities. Light may also cast shadows through fences on to the animals you are photographing. When planning your visit try to visit early or late, or if you have flexibility in your dates, wait for a slightly overcast day. The overcast light will reduce the contrast and harsh shadows in your images. Look for shadows from fences or other structures, and try to avoid having these cross your subject or interfere with your composition.
Follow the rules
Not that I think any of our readers would ever do it, but having worked at both zoos and state parks once upon a time, I have seen many people ignore signs, cross fences or climb barriers to take pictures. NEVER do this! No pictures are worth your life or the animals’, and, believe me I have seen some pretty close calls.
If you are on a tour of an animal preserve listen to your guide, they know the animals, are very familiar with their body language and mood and have your safety and the animals first in mind. Also check their rules for photography — some may restrict commercial use of photos taken on their property or require you to obtain a permit or pass.
So try to take some time out of your schedule to visit and support your local preserve, rescue or zoo. From a photography standpoint, these are great places to learn and practice, giving you time to think through settings and compositions. Even if you don’t take a single picture, spend some time experiencing their educational programs, learn about their animals, and see what you can do to help support their conservation efforts.