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How to take great photos of animals

Updated on February 28, 2013

If you want to know how to take great photos of animals you have come to the right place. Animals are unpredictable and when they are in their own natural environment it is often necessary to spend many hours lying in the mud and hidden from view in order to get that "magical" shot. This is fine if you have the time, and motivation, to do this but what about those photographers who simply don't have the time? What can these people do? Another thing to consider is the location of the animals you want to photograph. People living in large towns and cities are going to have to travel out to the countryside to get their images.

The best place to hone your photography skills and capture images of animals is to go to a zoo. In a zoo you are guaranteed to find the species of animals you want to take photos of, locate the species of animals you want to take photos of and actually have the opportunity to take images of the desired species.

Don't be fooled in to thinking that captive animals result in stunning images without any work on your part. There are many things you need to consider and many things you have to do in order to get some stunning shots. If you want to some tips and advice and know how to take great photos of animals this lens may be of some use.

Tips on how to take great photos of animals............

In order to get a good photograph of an animal you need to engage with it and the best way to do this is to focus on the eyes. When you focus on the eyes everything else will fall in to place, so ensure you have your focus points as close to the eyes as possible. In order to focus on the eyes you may have to get down low, which will mean getting on your hands and knees or lying down in the dirt but if that is what it takes to get an exceptional image so be it. Alternatively, you may have to find something to stand on to engage with the animal.

Animals are unpredictable and will not "pose" on command therefore you need to be patient and wait. Take your time, watch the animal and always have your camera to hand so you can snap when it does something that is going to make a great photograph. Inevitably, you will miss several photograph opportunities but if you learn to hang around and wait you will bag that exceptional photograph eventually.

It is almost impossible to control the lighting conditions when photographing animals at zoos therefore you need to be versatile. Consider taking an external flash gun to provide a bit of fill in light however you have to check the rules regarding flash photography before you use a flash. If you can't use a flash or the flash distresses some of the animals consider bumping up the ISO or ASA so you can take hand held shots without the need for a tripod.

Tripods are not suitable in a busy zoo environment so leave the tripod at home. If you have to use a support use a monopod, however make sure you always put other guests first when using a monopod. The best thing is to use a fast lens or adjust the ISO or ASA wherever possible.

When the animals are behind bars or in a cage it is possible to blur the bars out of the image by using a wide aperture and decreasing the depth of field. In order for this to be successful you need to ensure the animal is a fair distance from the bars. If the animal is right up against the bars or too close to the bars the effect won't work. In order to blur the bars out you need a camera that allows you to alter the lens aperture, so a simple point and shoot digital camera won't work.

"Boredom or deep in thought?" - A chimpanzee takes time out to stop and stare

At the chimpanzee pen this particualr animal caught my attention. Whilst the others were running around and playing this animal sat high on the frame starring out across the zoo. This image was taken through a perspex screen, which had to be cleaned in the first instance. In order to prevent unsightly and sitracting reflections a rubber lens hood was used, which was pressed hard against the perspex. To get a nice blurred out background an aperture of f5.6 was used.

This image was taken using a Canon eos 7d and the awesome EF70mm - 200mm f4 L IS USM zoom lens.

On with the tips on how to take great photos of animals.....

Many animals are kept behind Perspex screens or glass, which can cause unsightly reflections. In order to overcome this you need to get the lens as close to the Perspex or glass as possible and make sure you shoot perpendicular to the Perspex or glass, i.e. head on. Shooting in this way will keep the reflections to an absolute minimum. In really bright conditions you may need to shield the lens and you can do this by using a rubber lens hood, which can be pressed right up against the glass or Perspex screen, or wrap a jumper or coat around the lens.

Perspex screens or glass panels are likely to have finger prints, smears, dirt and debris over them, all of which are likely to ruin your photograph. In order to overcome this you should clean a small area of the Perspex screen with a microfiber cloth.

Zoos are busy places and you need to remember that there are other fee paying guests as well as you, and you don't have an automatic right to get the prime spots to take your photographs. During busy times you have to be prepared to hang around and wait for other people to have a look at the animal and then move on before you can get the shot you are after. No one likes waiting, however you have to ensure you remain friendly and don't get too bothered about it. These 'waiting times' are actually useful to think about the shot you want, think about the settings, visualize the image you want and think about what you have to do to get it.

The final piece of advice in order to bag those excellent animal shots is to simply keep shooting. Digital photography is cheap and it costs nothing to delete images. You need to experiment, try different things and take different shots. If something in particular doesn't work, who cares? Simply delete it and move on to something else. Remember to have plenty of memory cards with you and always take spare batteries.

"The Watchmen" - Two prairie dogs keep an eye out whilst the rest of the pack feeds

Always put the animal first

When taking photographs of animals you need to ensure you always put the animal first. If the animal doesn’t like having a camera lens stuck in its face and you are stressing it out you should put your camera away until the animal calms down before trying again. If, when you get your camera out again the animal gets stressed out again it is time to move on. No photograph is worth stressing out an animal.

"Heads up" - Playing "peek a boo" with an African crane

This African Crane was the most playful bird I have ever come across and spent ages playing "hide and seek" with the zoo's guests so capturing a good image where the whole head was in view was quite a challenge.

This photograph was taken using a Canon eos 7d and Canon EF70mm - 200mm f4 L IS USM lens.

"The ginger primate" - A small red haired primate

This small ginger primate was kept in a wire cage, although you wouldn't think it looking at this photography. Using an aperture of f3.5 I was able to blur the bars out and by filling the frame with its face I was able to produce a photograph of a primate that may have well been in the wild.

This image was taken using a Canon eos 7d combined with a EF70mm - 200mm f4 L IS USM zoom lens.

"Leave me to my slumber" - An African crane takes no notice of the people or the camera

This african crane refused to engage with anyone and simply refused to look at me or the camera, yet despite this I thought the photograph was still worth taking if not to show the detail in the feathers if nothing else. An aperture of f5.6 was used to blur out the foilage behind the crane.

This image was taken using a Canon eos 7d and the EF70mm - 200mm f4 L IS USM zoom lens.

My zoo photography gear

When you are taking photographs in zoos you need to travel light. You have to remember you will be carrying your gear around with you all day, which can be physically demanding, and there are going to be a lot of people at the zoo, so it isn't practical to take all your photography equipment with you.

When I go and take phootgraphs of animals in zoos I travel as light as I possibly can and only take the bare essentials.

Canon eos 7d

Animals are unpredictable and can move fast, therefore you need a camera with a high burst rate (i.e. one that can capture a lot of frames per second) and one that has a fast autofocus. There are a few digital LSR cameras that have these features and the best one will depend on your favourite manufacturer.

Being a Canon fan I have found the best digital SLR camera for zoo phootgraphy is the eos 7d.

Canon EOS 7D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera Body Only (discontinued by manufacturer)
Canon EOS 7D 18 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera Body Only (discontinued by manufacturer)

The Canon eos 7d is an awesome camera that is perfect for wildlife and zoo photography. With an 18 megapixel sensor, 8 frame per second burst rate and super quick auto focus the eos 7d is great at capturing moving subjects. The eos 7d is tough, durable and built to last. It is also weather proof, which means you can use it in all weathers.


Canon EF70 - 200 f4 L IS USM

In zoos it is going to be difficult to move closer or further away from the animals therefore you need a tele or a zoom lens. There are many different zoom lenses available but I have found the best ones are those that are 70mm - 200mm. You don't really need anything longer than 200mm but the 70mm short end is a bit of a compromise.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

If you shoot a Canon digital SLR camera the best value 70mm – 200mm zoom lens is the EF 70mm – 200mm f4 L IS USM lens. This lens has a maximum aperture of f4 throughout the entire focal length and has image stabilisation technology that will give you up to four stops. It may not be as wide as the f2.8 but then it is much cheaper.

The image quality of this lens is simply stunning and images have bright and vivid colours, are punch but are still realistic. The contrast is spot on too. This lens is tough, durable and built to last and can only be described as bullet proof. If you want a lens that is going to give you the most bang for your buck this is the lens to buy.

Check out my sample photographs above, all of which were taken with the Canon EF70mm – 200mm f4 L IS USM lens.


Cotton carrier harness

Cotton Carrier 122 CPF-5940 Camera Vest System Pro-Pac
Cotton Carrier 122 CPF-5940 Camera Vest System Pro-Pac

All photographers need a decent camera carrying system, even when capturing images in a zoo. There are numerous camera straps available but none of them are as good as the Cotton Carrier. In fact, no other system comes close.

The Cotton carrier harness is the best system currently available and it is a top quality bit of kit. When using the Cotton Carrier harness you attach your camera to your chest, out of harms way, leaving your hands totally free. The Cotton Carrier harness is very secure and you can get your camera out in a matter of seconds so you will never miss another shot again.


Rubber lens hood

Zeikos 55mm Deluxe Reversible Tulip Flower w/ 3 Stages Collapsible Rubber Lens Hood For Nikon D3200, D3300, D3400, D5100,D5200, D5300, D5500, D5600, D7100, D7200 With Nikon AF-P 18-55mm Lens
Zeikos 55mm Deluxe Reversible Tulip Flower w/ 3 Stages Collapsible Rubber Lens Hood For Nikon D3200, D3300, D3400, D5100,D5200, D5300, D5500, D5600, D7100, D7200 With Nikon AF-P 18-55mm Lens

In order to prevent nasty reflections, glare and ghosting when shooting through glass and perspex you need to get the camera lens as close to the front of the cage as possible. In order to get right up close and stop the front of the lens hitting the glass or perspex, which could potentially damage it, you need a rubber lens hood.

Rubber lens hoods are very cheap but they are effective and could end up saving you a lot of money in the long run.


Lens cleaning equipment

A dirty lens will ruin a photograph and dirty smudges and finger prints cannot be removed when editing digital photographs. Because of this you need to make sure you keep your lens and filter spotlessly clean at all times.

Canon Optical Lens and Digital SLR Camera Cleaning Kit with Brush, Microfiber Cloth, Fluid, Tissue, LensPen and Hurricane Blower for EOS
Canon Optical Lens and Digital SLR Camera Cleaning Kit with Brush, Microfiber Cloth, Fluid, Tissue, LensPen and Hurricane Blower for EOS

In order to keep your lens clean you are going to need a blower (to blow off all the lose dust and debris), a lens pen to brush away the remaining dust and debris, some lens fluid to get rid of the stubborn finger prints and smears and a microfiber cloth to buff the lens. This kit contains everything you need to clean your lens and what's more is it is affordable too. This is a top quality product.


Cleaning cloths

Zwipes 1015303 Microfiber Cleaning Cloths | All-Purpose | Assorted Colors | 36 Pack
Zwipes 1015303 Microfiber Cleaning Cloths | All-Purpose | Assorted Colors | 36 Pack

In order to shoot through glass and perspex screens you need to have some cloths with you, and the best ones are made out fo microfiber. The microfiber cloths don't leave any lint or fluff on the glass or perspex, both of which can ruin a photo. You're likely to find cloths will get dirty very quickly, therefore it is best to have several cleaning cloths with you at all times.


The above is all I ever take to any zoo with me. With its super quick auto focus and high burst rate the Canon eos 7d is the perfect camera, and when paired up with the 70mm - 200mm f4L IS USM lens it is possible to capture some very high quality images.

If you have any comments, queries, thoughts, suggestions or anything you want to get off your chest please feel free to note them in my guestbook.

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