Photography 101: Zoos Can Be a Great Place to Practice

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Shooting animals at your local zoo can be great practice. I prefer shooting my critters in the field, in the jungles and on the savannahs of the world but that’s not always possible. I was born and raised in San Diego, CA which boasts one of the best zoos in the world and it lives up to its reputation. Unfortunately, entrance fees have gone through the roof in recent years: now $52 USD pp at the gate.

Many zoos, and especially the San Diego Zoo, have changed drastically (for the better) over my seventy years of going to them. Lots of folks have moral and ethical concerns about zoos and I get that but you might consider that zoos now help us to preserve and propagate endangered species. Two cases in point: The San Diego Zoo almost singlehandedly brought the majestic California Condor back from near extinction with its captive breeding program and now the Condor is off the endangered list.

Toco Toucan – San Diego Zoo, CA (Photo: 1/250s @ f/5.6 ISO 4000 @ 400mm)

Another comeback story is the Southern White Rhinoceros bred almost exclusively at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. These successful breeding programs allow endangered species to be reintroduced back into the wild in an effort to increase numbers to sustainable levels—and it’s working. Zoos around the world have also collected and preserved DNA material to share with one another in an ongoing effort to keep genetic gene pools diverse, thus helping to sustain healthy animal populations. Zoo enclosures are much more humane and there are ongoing studies to create enrichment programs for the various species—they no longer limit themselves to purely physical constraint. It’s now a holistic approach.

Great Blue Turaco – San Diego Zoo, CA (Photo: 1/125s @ f/5.6 ISO 4000 @ 400mm)

Finally, the majority of animals in zoos today are bred in captivity and not collected from the wild. Whenever possible breeding zoos like the San Diego Zoo strive to return animals back to the wild. I cited the California Condor and Southern White Rhinoceros as two good examples but there are many others besides. In my travels I hear a lot of people say: I will NEVER go to or support a zoo. Like I said earlier, I get it—but many zoos do wonderful things for our critters so maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our thinking in that regard. I am a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist and take conservation seriously.

Dromedary (1-hump) Camel – San Diego Zoo, CA (Photo: 1/800s @ f/5.6 ISO 250 @ 400mm)

Over the years I’ve been involved with (and financially supported) many great organisations: the WWF (World Wildlife Federation), National Geographic, the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve, Puuc Jaguar Conservation, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the California Wolf Center and of course the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park. I will get off my soapbox now. But to my original point, zoos can be a terrific place to practice your wildlife photography (and support a good organisation at the same time). Shooting conditions at zoos often mimic conditions in the wild, for instance shooting in large outdoor aviaries is like shooting in the jungle: low light (requiring a high ISO), high humidity and branches and twigs to confuse your camera’s autofocus. And just because our fine feathered friends are confined doesn’t mean they’re domesticated (they might be somewhat habituated but you couldn’t prove it by me). To get a good photograph at the zoo is challenging but it can be done.

Photographer’s Note: All photos were taken this morning at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, CA. I was shooting with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV full-frame camera body and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto zoom lens. All images were captured handheld using natural light (or lack thereof). A mono-pod might prove useful in a zoo setting but a tripod is generally a pain-in-the-ass and just gets in everyone’s way. An external flash is also helpful on occasion but I’m not a huge fan of flash—I’ve used it periodically in the jungle when I had no choice but prefer not to. I am primarily a wildlife, landscape and travel photographer and travel the world 365-days a year but I still enjoy shooting in zoos, rescue centres and other venues with captive (wild) animals—it’s a great way to practice. SFD



5 responses to “Photography 101: Zoos Can Be a Great Place to Practice

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. I have a good friend on YouTube, Scott Dumas, who is a photographer and married to a Japanese national. They have a couple of little kids and he loves living in Japan full-time. He’s also a really good photographer. His videos are interesting and fun to watch, you might check him out. I spent about a month in Iwakuni, Japan in 1967 during the Vietnam War. I was a young U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant and we came out of Vietnam for a month of rest and resupply (then back to the war). I would love to visit Japan again. Here’s the link to Scott’s YouTube channel if you’re interested.

      • No problem. I’ve been to the San Diego Zoo once a few years ago, and I remember it being the nicest zoo I had been to. There’s a zoo here in Nagoya that I had been avoiding because I was afraid that the animals would be in mediocre conditions. But I finally went a few months ago, and I don’t think it was too terrible. I hope you get a chance to visit Japan again. Thanks for the link, I’ll be sure to check out your friend.

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