Zoos and Captive Wildlife Photography – Discussion & Tips

Updated: Feb 27

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 Bear close-up
Brown Bear Close-Up

THE ETHICS OF 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 & practising 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.

CAPTIVE WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

Here’s my advice for how to get better photos in zoos and wildlife parks…


Frame Filling photo of a zebra

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.

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 swims towards the camera

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.






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.




Close-up of a bald eagle

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.




Giraffe Portrait on a white background

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 Eagle

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 Woodland

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.





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.




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.


reindeer on a white background

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…



Overall Winner of the 2013 British Wildlife Centre Photography Competition.

close-up of a water vole
“Water Vole Portrait”

Winner of the 2014 Marwell Wildlife Photographer Of The Year

leopard cub, photographed in captivity, at Marwell Wildlife Park
“Leopard Cub In The Light”

George

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Red Deer Roaring, photographed in black and white

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