I visited our local zoo (NEW - Dartmoor Zoo page) the other day, so I thought I would share some tips with you for zoo photography.
Any camera with some degree of user control will do provided it has a reasonably medium to long telephoto lens. I use a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera which gives full control over what I am trying to achieve. With this type of camera, I can also change lenses easily for specific purposes.
In zoos, the animals tend to be reasonably close except for large paddocks for deer, zebras, etc. A zoom lens is ideal to cope with the variation in distance between yourself and the animal(s). A moderate telephoto lens of 70-200mm is adequate for most purposes. I used a single lens (28-200mm) the other day. A lens with a maximum of 300mm or even 400mm may be better depending upon distance.
I nearly always use Aperture Priority Mode (A - Mode) because zoo animals tend to be quite static. With an aperture of f7.1 I can isolate the animal from any surrounding background, to get a more "natural" looking photo. With caged birds I may increase the aperture to f5.6.
If the animal is fast moving, like a flying bird, i will switch to Shutter Priority (S-Mode or Tv-Mode) and set the shutter speed to at least 1/500sec to capture movement with minimum blur.
WIRE & GLASS
The major problem with zoos is the use of wire and glass, but you can eliminate this to a large extent by using a simple technique.
For wire, you need to use a focal length of at least 100mm or even longer. These lenses do not focus at close distances and so wire will appear blurred. Get as close to the wire as you can safely without endangering yourself or disturbing the animal. (Remember some fences are electrified!). Use a wide aperture such as f5.6 - f7.1 for a shallow depth of field. Focus upon the nearest eye. Take your shot and the wire should be totally blurred to be almost invisible. Post processing of shadow and contrast should improve the result. NOTE that the animal needs to be some distance away from the wire. You cannot blur the wire if the animal is close to it.
Sometimes the wire is too bright in strong sunlight and either confuses the autofocus or shows up clearly in the photo. In this case, try to find a piece of the wire in shadow or try switching to Manual Focus.
For glass, the main problems are reflections and confused autofocus. Put the lens tight against the glass to prevent reflections (clean the glass in that spot). Removing the lens hood will probably help, but be careful with the front element of your lens. If autofocus is confused by the glass, switch to manual focus.
LOW LIGHT & INDOORS
Some animals, like reptiles are kept in low light and also is heated rooms. DO NOT USE FLASH as it will reflect off the glass and will also disturb the animal. Instead press the lens gently against the glass,switch to Manual Focus and change the ISO (sensitivity to light) up from the standard 100 or 200 up to something like 2400 or even higher. A high ISO will allow you to take a fast shutter speed even in low light without having to use flash. REMEMBER to re-set the ISO when you go outside again. If you get noise (a speckled image) in you photos it can be reduced using noise reduction facilities or specialist software post processing.
When you enter a heated room, you lens will fog due to condensation (the difference in temperature causes water vapour to condense into water). Unfortunately, this will also happen on the camera sensor inside your camera that you cannot see. The solution is to patiently wait for a couple of minutes until the temperate of the camera raises to match room temperature. Repeat the wait when you go outside again.
GETTING BETTER PHOTOS
Zoo animals do two main things, eat and sleep. A sleeping animal doesn't make for a great photo, so you need to know when animals are generally active. Ask a keeper for advice if you can, but generally animals are active just before and during feeding times. Big cats are generally only fed once every two days. Find out the feeding times from zoo notice boards and turn up about 10 minutes prior to feeding. Animals are creatures of habit and know to the minute when they are supposed to be fed. They get restless and prowl up and down their compounds in anticipation, giving you good opportunities for a photo. Feeding time can also lead to fights over food, so be prepared.
I generally try to avoid zoos on holiday periods and busy summer weekends to avoid the crowds. It is often difficult to get a decent shot then you are tightly packed together at feeding time, so I go off-season, in dull weather and during the week. At these times, the keepers are generally more willing to spend time talking to you and giving you useful information about the animals.
Many zoos now have "toys" for the animals, usually brightly coloured that distract from a photo. Try to avoid having these in the photo and get some foliage in the photo to make the shot more "natural" Remember, you don't have to photograph all of an animal, sometimes a part of an animal like a face, an eye or paws and hoofs are just as effective.
Most zoos undertake a lot of wildlife conservation work behind the scenes and you can help in various ways by taking out an annual membership (the cost is easily covered by four or five visits) or even sponsoring an animal.
If your zoo is a good zoo, tell as many people as you can about it. If your zoo is poor, complain about it to the zoo director and you local government.
I hope these tips help you get the best out of your next zoo visit. Good luck!