Zoos and Captive Wildlife Photography – Discussion & Tips

November 10, 2014  •  1 Comment

As well as spending time with nature in the wild, I also take a lot of photos of animals in zoos and wildlife parks, trying some captive wildlife photography. It’s an enjoyable day out, and it enables me to maximise my shooting opportunities, and to get close to species I could never see up close in the wild.

Brown BearBrown BearThis is as close as I've ever been to a bear, and I wouldn't want to be any closer. But it was important to get as close as possible in order to catch the feeling of intimacy between subject and viewer.

Nature Photography. Taken in captivity.



Captivity can be a controversial subject, in terms of both the ethics of animal welfare, and the perceived ease of photography.

Regarding animal welfare, there will always be better and worse zoos around. I’d like to see them more tightly controlled by legislation to keep standards high, but we’re fortunate here in the UK to have a generally high standards of care across the board. On the concept in general, I defer to the wisdom of Sir David Attenborough, who said that zoos are justified on the basis of three key reasons:

  • For people to experience animals.
  • For research.
  • And for conservation.

I agree with those points, and I see a captive animal is an ambassador of its species, accessible to the public, which is cared for by people in order to benefit its kind in the wild. I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of seeing and interacting with animals, and the accessibility such places provide for young and old to interact with all kinds of animals they’d never otherwise meet face-to-face. There are also many zoos and wildlife centres which take in injured animals from the local area, and many which also release animals back into the wild as part of breeding programs. This kind of behind-the-scenes work is only funded by the income from the visitors to the institution.

In the photography community, captive animal photography is sometimes looked down upon for two reasons:

  • “It’s too easy” – No hard work and research required.
  • It’s “cheating” to take pictures of captive animals, and pass them off as wild.

Well let’s take the second issue first; Just don’t do it. I don’t want any evidence of captivity to be noticeable in my photos, but I always state in the accompanying text if the photo was taken in captivity.
The perceived lack of difficulty is more of a grey area as it’s much more a matter of opinion. Photographing animals in captivity will never provide the joy of sharing space with an animal in the wild, and can’t ever compete with the achievement of getting close to a wild animal. But in my opinion, this achievement is often over-rated in wildlife photography. It’s increasingly the case that anyone with the time and money can do it. But those without the time and money shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re taking a sneaky short-cut. It’s simply a case of picking your battles. And what I like about photography of captive animals is that it takes the emphasis off finding the animal in the first place, and puts the emphasis on composition and photography technique – which is really what it’s all about for me. It’s also a great way of gaining experience, and learning & practicing techniques which will benefit your photography of animals in the wild. I also think that, as far as photography is concerned, shooting animals in captivity is no less difficult or ethical than shooting from a baited hide site. Yes, the animals there are technically wild, which is preferable for them, but on a purely photographic basis it’s neither here nor there really.



I don’t see myself as an expert, but here’s my advice for how to get better photos in zoos and wildlife parks…

Frame filling zebra portraitZebra - Frame FillerThis is the classic zebra abstract. It's a style I like, and I'm really pleased to have managed to get one myself. There's something about the lines and shapes in this composition that works really well in print.

Abstract nature photography. Taken in captivity.
Take as long a (focal length) lens as you can
. There really isn’t such thing as getting too close. Clearly a 600mm lens is going to be impractical, but you can generally use anything up to around 300mm without being too conspicuous. If you have a bridge camera, this is also a good way of getting focal length without size and weight of the large SLR lenses.

Portrait of a Barbary Macaque in Black and white.Barbary Macaque PortraitI like all my portraits to emphasise the subject's human characteristics, so photographing primates is particularly rewarding. Macaques share around 93% of their DNA sequence with humans, and we share a common ancestor from 25 million years ago.
Fine Art Nature Photography, Monkey Forest, Staffordshire.
Leave the tripod at home. I’ve seen people with monopods at zoos, but even that is too much for me. I like to travel light and avoid attention, so I always shoot hand-held. You can often find a fence or something to steady the camera if you’re struggling in this regard, which I often do with my weak little arms. If you have a lens with vibration reduction (or similar), then that’s even better.

An otter swimming head-on at the camera.Otter ApproachingA river otter, swimming head-on at the camera.

This was a shot I really wanted to have in my portfolio, and I'm very pleased with it. The dark background gives a very atmospheric mood to the shot, and the simplicity of the composition leads the eye straight to the subject.

Nature photography, in captive setting, UK.
Use the widest aperture possible
 – this gives you the fastest shutter speed, and the most blurred background possible. Particularly important to mask any distracting backgrounds.

Cheetah - Lowlight PortraitCheetah - Lowlight PortraitAnother in a series of "low-key" wildlife portraits, of nature in low light. See more about this personal project in my blog post here.
This cheetah was sitting in front of a shady nook, licking her lips after feeding.

I took the photo in captivity, here in the UK.
Try taking a rubber lens hood
, which is great for shooting through glass as it enables you to put the lens right against the glass, and use the rubber to form a seal around it. This cuts out any reflections from the photo.

Side-on portrait on a bald eagle in studio-lit conditions.Bald Eagle - Black, White, and YellowI think Bald Eagle's are such fantastic birds. They're so huge, you can really read a lot into their faces. They're particularly effective for this kind of abstract photography, and simplifying the colours here, help really emphasise the key features of the head.

Fine Art Nature Photography, captive, UK.
Be patient, but flexible
. Don’t just snap and move on. Take a little time to watch, and see if the animal shows any sign of moving to a better position for you. If the animal is not in the mood to ‘pose’ for you, leave them to it and try something else.

A giraffe photographed close-up in high-key style.Giraffe PortraitA giraffe, posing for a portrait, in bright lighting. A favourite style of mine.

Nature photography, captive subject.
Visit each enclosure multiple times
. Different animals are active at different times of the day, so by visiting each animal more than once, you increase your chance of success.

White-Tailed Sea EagleWhite-Tailed Sea EagleA focussed white-tailed sea eagle, spreads it's wings and surveys the scene.
Photographed in low-key portrait style for maximum impact.
Fine Art Nature Photography, captive subject, UK.
Stay until closing time
. More often that not, animals become more active shortly before closing time, when many visitors have left, and you have the place to yourself. It’s also worth getting there for opening time, for the same reason.

Long eared owl in bluebell wood.Long Eared Owl - In Bluebell WoodlandI was fortunate to have the opportunity to photograph the owls from the British Wildlife Centre, in a natural bluebell woodland setting, and this long eared owl was my favourite owl photo of the day. The dappled sunlight shone through the trees, and lit the owl, while the woods kept the carpet of bluebells in shade behind. A highlight for me, from a hugely enjoyable day.
Nature photography, captive, Surrey, UK.
Be aware of schedules for keeper talks and feeding times
. Not only are these great opportunities to learn more about a species, but you’ll most likely see activity from them at these times.

A flamingo looks over it's shoulder and stares right down the camera for a portrait.Flamingo StareThe dramatic stare down of a charismatic flamingo, appearing to pose for a portrait.
I'm really proud of this shot. It really represents the direction I want my photography to take.

Fine Art Nature Photography, Captive Subject, UK.
This is basic, but focus on the eyes. If all else is out of focus, you can still get a nice shot, as long as the eyes are sharp. They’re always the focus of attention, where we look first, and should be the most important aspect of the shot.

Red Squirrel looks up from drinkingRed Squirrel - The LookA red squirrel, pausing mid-drink, to look up at the camera. I couldn't really have asked for more.
I used a low-key portrait style here, to simplify the image, and keep the focus on the subject.
Nature Photography, UK.
Never stand higher than the subject and shoot down on them
. I cringe when I see people doing this. Even if you’re just snapping with a camera phone, you’ll get way better photos if you just bend down to get to eye level with your subject. Below eye level is fine. Just don’t shoot down on them. It’s a dull and uninspiring perspective, and will never create that connection between subject and viewer.

Grizzly bear, back-lit by the sun.Rim-lit Bear PortraitThis is a favourite style of mine. I really like to capture nature lit this way. It takes some planning, and some fortune to get right, but when it comes off, it creates some really striking images.
I wasn't able to get any photos this close-up of the wild grizzly bears I saw in BC, but seeing some rescued bears in captivity gave me the opportunity to get more creative with this low-key, back-lit style.

Nature Photography, Captive Subject, British Columbia, Canada.
Visit during winter
. Lots of people think of the zoo as a summer activity. I guess because the weather is more reliable (OK, this is Britain, but you get the idea). But the light during the summer is very harsh, and many species are less active on a hot day. On a sunny winter day, you get much better light – less harsh shadows, and the sun is lower in the sky. Often at the end of the day, you can get almost sunset light. A lot of places do cheaper tickets during the winter too, so you’ll save a little money too.


This year, I’ve won two high-profile photography competitions, with the photos below – both of which were taken in UK wildlife centres…

Water Vole CloseupWater Vole Closeupwww.GeorgeWheelhouse.com

“Water Vole Portrait” – Overall Winner of the 2013 British Wildlife Centre Photography Competition.


Leopard Cub In The LightLeopard Cub In The Lightwww.GeorgeWheelhouse.com

“Leopard Cub In The Light” – Winner of the 2014 Marwell Wildlife Photographer Of The Year



I’m going to follow this post up with a series of short reviews of some of the specific zoos and wildlife parks I’ve been to, and how well they lend themselves to captive wildlife photography. This is something I’ve looked for in the past, and no one really seems to have done it, so I think I’ll put my thoughts out there over the coming months. Places I’ve visited in the past include Whipsnade Zoo (my local), The British Wildlife Centre, Marwell Wildlife, Shepreth Wildlife Park, Hamerton Zoo, Paradise Wildlife Park, & Colchester Zoo.

Post by George Wheelhouse, 2014.


Charli Smith(non-registered)
You would have to get a degree in animal care or biology, that way you could get a job as an exotic animal veterinarian. until then you could always work at an animal shelter.
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