Photographing wildlife at the zoo

Earlier this winter I took a photo class at the Minnesota Zoo.

Zoos are both easy and difficult places to practice “wildlife” photography. On one hand, the animals are always nearby and have limited options for completely escaping your view indefinitely (if you are willing to wait long enough, you WILL see them, unlike on safari, where you may spend days trying to glimpse a lion that may or may not still be in the area). On the other hand it is much harder to get a natural looking shot without walls, fences, or structures in the picture.

But why aim for a “natural” looking shot when you are shooting in an unnatural place like a zoo? Why not use your photography to tell a story that acknowledges that the animal you are photographing is in a zoo?

Amur leopards at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netSometimes incorporating context into your photograph makes that image more interesting, as with this young moose.

Young moose at the Minnesota Zoo - Young moose at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netAcknowledging the context doesn’t really make shooting any easier – you will still have to address difficult light, ugly walls, heat lamps, fences, dirty glass walls, uncooperative animals, and people blocking your view – but it gives you a broader range of challenges and more options to meet them.

For example, how subtly do you want to incorporate fencing into your story?

Tropical birds at the Minnesota Zoo - Amur leopards at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netwild boar at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netHow long are you willing to wait for your shot?

Spoonbill at the Minnesota Zoo - think this guy eventually got up the nerve to take flight, but I had to head back to class before it happened.)

Then there was this young lady who seemed unlikely to ever quit pacing the fence line at far end of her enclosure.  I couldn’t figure out how to turn her obsession with the fence into an interesting photograph.

Tigers at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netOn the other hand, this guy was easy enough to see, but had no interest in turning even a bit toward us to allow for a more interesting photograph.

Tigers at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netNot every animal is going to move slowly. How are you going to handle fast moving animals in dim light?

Leopard at the Minnesota Zoo - was ready for her to leap, but knew the light was too dim to stop the action so tried – unsuccessfully – to pan.)

I did a little better with the otters. Although they move fast and almost never stop, they do almost stop (for an instant) before changing directions or diving. Once you know that, you have a chance of getting a successful photograph even through thick glass in dim light.

Rocky the sea otter at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netThese shots also point to the importance of taking time to just observe animals to understand how they move and to anticipate their next movement. Doing so greatly improves your chance of getting an interesting shot. The zoo provides photographers with endless time to practice this skill, something that is rare if not impossible in the wild, but will prove useful when shooting in the wild.

It was a dark morning when I visited the zoo, and none of my bird pictures turned out very well because I couldn’t figure out how to get interesting shots of the fast-moving birds flitting around by the lights high above my head. I’ll go back to try again, because dark mornings are not unusual when photographing birds in the wild. If I can get good photographs of birds in the zoo’s aviary, I should be able to get good pictures of them in the wild too.

Tropical birds at the Minnesota Zoo - of the birds were fearless and posed for us at close range. While it allowed me to get some nice pictures, it wasn’t what I would find if I were photographing them in the wild.)

Another similarity between photographing wildlife in their native habitat and photographing them at the zoo is the inability to go out and move objects out of the way. While it was fun to watch this young grizzly poking at a chunk of wood, it was less charming to have him leave it blocking my view of his face.   Grizzly at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netFinally, I think the most challenging part of photographing animals at the zoo is that many modern enclosures lull you into thinking you have a great shot of an animal, only to discover later that the glass walls are covered with fingerprints or are throwing weird reflections across an animal’s face.

Leopard at the Minnesota Zoo - ExplorationVacation.netYeah, he looked right at me (I even caught the catch lights in his eyes), but look at those horrid reflections and smudges on the glass. 🙁

As you can see, it is challenging to take great photographs at the zoo even if you aren’t trying to pretend you are photographing animals in their natural habitat. There are, however, lots of opportunities to improve your skills as both a wildlife photographer and a storyteller.

The Minnesota Zoo, located south of Minneapolis, is open year round. Photo classes are offered periodically throughout the year.

For more images from my visit to the zoo, check ExplorationVacation for A tropical escape at the Minnesota Zoo and The Northern Trail at the Minnesota Zoo