Tuesday, June 11, 2019


As a professional photographer, I’ve never been anything but disappointed and frustrated with my results when doing animal photography at a zoo. My goal has always been to create animal images that could pass for photos taken in the wild. I had heard great praise about the San Diego Zoo and its enclosures, but when I visited their zoo back in 1995 I found that I could not get images of the animals with clean or natural looking back grounds.  It wasn’t until we moved to Idaho in 2009 and got involved with Zoo Boise, by donating to their silent auction fundraising event called Zoobilee, that I again entertained the idea of animal photography at a zoo. Still it wasn’t until 2017 that, wanting to try out a new camera for action photography, I attended the free vendor appreciation day at Zoo Boise to try to achieve my goal of natural looking wild animal photography in a serious way. 

I already knew that I wasn’t going to be doing any images of animals showing any landscapes, so I went with my 70-200mm zoom as my main mounted lens. 

Isolation of my subjects was paramount….
f6.3 @ 1/1250 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 200mm
What further isolated the giraffes was the very directional light of the setting sun (it was about an hour before sunset). So, with the direct sun on them and not on the background my exposure on them made the background go very dark, which pretty much eliminated their enclosure as a background. The biggest challenge here was capturing them as they ran, at top speed, back and forth the length of their enclosure and then paused briefly to frolic, like necking teenagers, then separated again and ran off! I had to go to 800 ISO to get to a shutter speed (1/1250 sec.) that could stop their exploits as I hand held my camera and panned with the action.

When they calmed down….
f6.3 @ 1/2000 sec., ISO 800; Lens @ 200mm
I did get a nice portrait of one of them against a colorful background in lieu of the enclosure.

Then onto the lions den….
f5.0 @ 1/160 sec., ISO 1600; Lens @ 200mm
This was taken THROUGH the large window overlooking the lion’s enclosure. Usually, a polarizing filter would be needed here, but since the window here was fully covered (top and sides) with a structure that shaded the glass there were few reflections for me to worry about. With a much lower level of light here I went to 1600 ISO and still got great results from my new camera.  This was an easy capture; the only thing I had to watch for was the lion’s OPEN eyes, so I could get that nice catch light in the eye.

Late light and the zebras….
f5.0 @ 1/160 sec., ISO 3200; Lens @ 200mm
Now it’s only a half-hour before sunset and these zebras are in full shade and I’m composing through the leaves of some trees next to the fence that separates us.  I’m now at 3200 ISO and their images still looked really good. I just converted these to B&W because my subjects were….Black & White!

I’m really happy with my results at the Boise Zoo. It’s a nice little zoo with decent looking open enclosures in the giraffe area and the animals looked good.

Looking back on my early attempts at zoo photography I must say that the problem was not that those other zoos were so bad in 1995, I just wasn’t ready. This photographer has learned a lot about how to photograph difficult subjects in challenging situations over these past 24 years, which make it possible to photograph my vision!

Challenge yourself….try photographing in your local zoo and have some fun.  ’Til next week…

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman

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