Wildlife photography is some of the most exciting and surprise-filled kinds a photographer can attempt. The subjects are unpredictable, cautious, and you’ll often have just a couple of seconds before they zip along and do their own thing. But it’s often hard to find time to travel to a nature preserve, or even go camping, for an extended period. And there’s no guarantee you’ll see much of anything on a safari trek. So how can the animal lover hone their skills in somewhat easier settings?
Try your local zoo
Sometimes people don’t give zoos much of a chance when it comes to photography. They assume that because the animals are in displays, the photos will come across as fake. While bars and screens are unattractive, with some creative composition, it’s relatively easy for a viewer to not realize the photos were taken at a zoo.
Ethical concerns first: modern zoos are a necessity in today’s world. People give zoos a hard time because they don’t want to see animals imprisoned. But many don’t realize that zoos also work with naturalists and biologists to ensure wild populations don’t go extinct. Captive breeding programs ensure genetic diversity isn’t lost as habitats are lost and species flirt with extinction. And supporting these efforts should be something any nature lover can get behind. Zoos are also an important source of education for people on these very issues. Few people would bother to learn how palm oil plantations (palm oil is in EVERYTHING) affect the habitats of orangutans if there weren’t orangutan displays sharing that message.
Back to photography. Most modern zoos work hard to duplicate settings that the animals would find in nature. They hide feeding areas, access doors, and other areas that spoil the atmosphere for both animal and human. Zoos have the immense advantage in that you’re set up for close-ups that would be difficult or impossible in the wild. The animals are often just feet from the camera. You can capture stunning images even if you don’t have a $2000 telephoto zoom lens. And the variety provided is the best part. How often will you be taking trips to the Himalayan foothills if you want a picture of a red panda?
Photo by ________
But the screens and bars keeping them in can often be an issue for photo composition. When this occurs, practice using manual focus. Autofocus modes tend to detect cage screens and bars, which keeps you from focusing on the occupants. With manual focus, you can slip past the bars and nearly all of the light coming off the bars is ignored in favor of the light coming from the subjects. As long as you use a good amount of zoom and have a shallow enough depth of field, the bars will disappear, leaving you with a clear view of your subject. Depth of field, by the way, is the amount of a scene that is in sharp focus. If the depth of field is too large, then the bars and/or background will be in focus more. The below photo was taken using manual focus and a shallow depth of field. The owl was behind a moderately fine mesh screen, yet still shows up clearly as if we were in the woods together. This is because the depth of field is mostly excluding both the mesh and the background. If you look extra-close, you’ll see the remnants of the mesh pattern in the background blur. With a shallower depth of field and the right distance from the mesh, this can be excluded entirely.
Photo by ____
If your camera has Lock-on or sports tracking modes, you might find the camera can intelligently pick out moving subjects. And if your depth of field is shallow, then you may be able to get fine images that way. But manual focus is usually the best choice when shooting through bars or screens.
Photo by ___
When there’s glass between you and your subject, things can get challenging. The glass at a zoo does not always get wiped down quickly. Animal leavings, scratches, dust, or fingerprints can easily smudge the view. Photographs where you’re obviously shooting through glass lose a lot of their appeal, because even though it’s a zoo, we want the clearest possible pictures. Notice how the above photo has a slight haze due to the glass catching sunlight. The details of this cassowary are muted and the smudging of colors makes an otherwise interesting closeup worthless. The best tool for shooting through clean glass is a polarizing filter. Glass has glare because light can be scattered from outside sources, odd light angles, chemical coatings, etc. Polarizing filters are opaque to scattered light, but allow straight wavelengths through. While it’s no guarantee, you’ll often be able to reduce or even eliminate glare outright if it’s not too bright. Clever positioning will also help; note where the source of glare is coming from, and shoot accordingly, like in the below photograph.
Photo by ______
Botanical Gardens and other Parks
For lovers of animals in action without pens, local parks are a great way to practice your art. Insects such as butterflies and bees are great subjects for macro photography lovers. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals can all be easily found as well. While squirrels and koi fish might be boring, the snakes and hawks stalking them are more interesting. And because they are more accustomed to human presence, photography is much easier.
Botanical gardens in particular usually have educational displays tied to local wildlife. Migrating butterfly displays will showcase the miracle of chrysalises opening into mature butterflies. And hummingbird feeders are a prime place to catch these birds in action. Hummingbirds are a lot easier to catch pictures of as they hover during a drink. You want to use a relatively fast shutter speed, however, as they only pause for seconds at a time. 1/1000ths of a second is a great place to start if it’s a bright and sunny day. You can use less if you’re set up with a tripod near a feeder and want to capture some of the blur in the wings. More shutter speed will allow you to freeze the wings entirely. But make sure you compensate with your ISO value (light sensitivity) or aperture setting (f/stop) to allow enough light in for proper image exposure.
Sometimes you want a precise aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in order to preserve the composition of a photo. Yet you still want to adjust the lighting values. In these situations you can use the exposure compensation setting. Exposure compensation allows you to instantly adjust the brightness value your camera gives a scene while keeping aperture, ISO, and shutter speed the same. That way, on a cloudy day, you can freeze the wings of a hummingbird and keep the background of a scene sharp with a moderate to high aperture without the potential for image noise a higher ISO value would create.
Zoos may stretch the definition of wildlife but local animals in parks definitely count! Animals lovers really should give both venues a chance with their camera. Wildlife photography can sometimes be frustrating as well. Animals always have their own agenda, and the perfect pose may be missed with a simple twitch in the other direction. Using manual focus is also a challenge on moving subjects like birds and mammals. But the rewards are absolutely worth the effort! Good luck!