What to do in the heat? A day at the zoo.

Author:  Amy Novotny

As summer kicks in full swing, light becomes harsher and opportunities to shoot in softer light become earlier or later in the day. In some regions and cities, such as the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, shooting sunrise and sunset can even be daunting with 90-105 degree weather at those times of the day. However, the zoo is still a great place to practice photography. The different environments allow a photographer to capture a variety of wildlife shots while experimenting with different camera settings. Here are some considerations for shooting at the zoo:

  • Photographers can make the most of their time by planning the trip around the time of day. Early morning and late afternoon/early evening make great times for shooting in outdoor exhibits when animals are most active. A higher f-stop (f/8 in the image below) will allow you to get multiple animals in focus.


  • If the zoo offers a safari ride, this can provide a great chance to capture images of animals up close without having to worry about metal fencing interfering in the shot (especially if the animal is too close to the fence). At the Wildlife World Zoo in Glendale, AZ, for example, visitors can photograph ostriches, various oxen and deer as well as larger birds and warthogs on the safari train. The open-air carts make photography easier with the ability to change directions of shooting quite easily.


  • Researching the zoo ahead of time can also provide opportunities for personal or close encounters with animals, often around feeding time when activity level is higher. It is a good idea to keep the shutter speed higher than 1/500 sec for sharper focus (1/2000 sec in the image below).


  • When the weather becomes warmer in the afternoon and the animals settle down for lazy summer naps, photographers can head indoors to the animal exhibits to get some action shots. This setting allows for some practice of flash photography through thick glass. For those without external flash and bounce plates, a tissue held in place with a rubber band over the in-camera flash can suffice to lessen the glare and allow for nice images. It is important to place the lens on the glass and shoot in Manual Exposure Mode so that you can adjust the shutter speed to synchronize with your flash speed and choose the ideal aperture for depth of field (f/8 and 1/200 sec in the image below).


  • Some zoos also have aquariums that provide yet a different opportunity to capture animals during the midday heat. Tropical fish give off beautiful colors and shapes that make for appealing images and an opportunity to work on composition. Some considerations in this setting are to avoid flash, use Manual Exposure Mode, start with a lower f-stop of f/5 and a shutter speed around 1/125 sec, and adjust settings according to the histogram (f/10 and 1/125 sec in the image below).


  • The big cat enclosures provide a great opportunity to practice making the wire fences disappear in the images. Patience is a virtue in this situation, as it can take some time before felines lift their heads, yawn or move from their napping positions. When trying to make the fences disappear, it is best to use your longest focal length lens and get as close to the fence as possible with the smallest f-stop/maximum aperture (200mm focal length at f/5.6 and 1/500 sec in the image below). The animal must be far from the fence as well so that you can focus on the animal instead of the fencing.


  • Many of the larger animals evoke emotions that draw us in and allow us to relate to them. Because of this, the zoo can serve as a great setting for photographing emotions: sadness, curiosity, caution, etc.


  • As the afternoon turns into evening, the water fowl in a pond or lake provide great action images with a softer light. After the water fowl finish their evening meal, they often dunk under water and rise up to flap their wings. These behaviors along with the colorful reflections of light on the water surface can create some beautiful compositions. As the light dims in the evening, it is important to adjust the ISO to a higher number of around 800 to allow for correct exposure (f/5.6 at 1/1000 sec with ISO 800).

A full day of photography can be had in the heat of the summer and at the zoo. The opportunities are endless for those wanting to practice various forms of photography and enhance their skills.

Amy Novotny is a Volunteer Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.
Twitter: @amynovotnyaz
Instagram: anovotn