What you need to bring with you to the zoo, along with your camera gear is your creativity/flexibility, your eye for detail, and your patience and flexibility.
My experiences with a day at the Zoo can be both extremely rewarding and frustrating due to the many obstacles that a photographer will encounter and the #1 for me - People. I know, of course there are going to be people and they are not opening the zoo just for me, but on occasions you will need to spend more time waiting for the opportunity than the time related to actually shooting. It is imperative to bring along an ample supply of patience and flexibility. For the most part, I have found many people polite and courteous when they see the tripod and other days you are saying to yourself, “Why did I come to the zoo today?” One suggestion that will help avoid a busy day at the zoo is to plan your zoo trip on a rainy/cloudy day. Not only does this help with the crowds, but will also make your photographs more vivid due to the weather conditions. Also, on the high temperature days you will find the animals lazing about in the shade.
A good day at the zoo will have you probably coming home with no less than 1000 pictures. Out of those 1000, you should count yourself lucky if you have a dozen that are significantly worthy of sharing. First reason for the high number of shots taken is due to continuous shooting. When shooting a bird or any sort of animal there is most always going to be movement. Movement will cause that unsightly out of focus spot and it will either make the capture, but in most cases it will not. Continuous shooting hopefully will give you the odds of getting one or two that are usable.
Camera gear you should bring along to the zoo should include a tripod, a fast lens, and a long lens. I know some of you do not like the tripod, but it is really a must when shooting at the zoo. I always say, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." The zoo is not a photographer friendly environment with many indoor exhibits with poor lighting situations. If you are going for the captures bring the tripod. Depending on which zoo/exhibit you visit you may not need a long lens, but I would definitely suggest bringing one along. Recently while at Turtle Back Zoo my Tamron 150mm-600mm lens was on my camera for the majority of the day. I also use a prime lens with either a 1.8 or 2.8 f/stop to use in the indoor exhibits. Please note that if you are using a color polarizer filter on the lens it will add 2 stops. So either you remove the filter when you go indoors or you will need to use the tripod for the longer exposure time that will be needed to capture the scene.
Now is the time for your Creativity and Imagination to ramp up into gear with your captures and compositions. Try to avoid the typical “snapshot.” A few steps to keep in mind - Prepare yourself before you go by mapping out which exhibits you want to include on your day trip. To fully get the most out of the day with quality shots, do not plan to do the whole zoo. Fewer exhibits equals less frustration and anxiety allowing you to stay longer at the predetermined exhibits. Remember the animals are not professional performers and do not act on queue. It also allows you to study the animal behavior and the pure enjoyment of just watching these wondrous creatures. Also, research other photographer’s animal photographs to aid with your own creativity. A few years back I was fortunate to attend a presentation by a Nikon ambassador, Kristi Odom. One of the key points she emphasized is to say to yourself while composing is “What can I remove?” Often photographers try to shoot the scene, but in doing so over-stimulate the shot for the viewer. You as the photographer should say to yourself, what do I want the viewer to feel? By eliminating, you are actually refining the capture. Let me indulge with two quotes that may help with what I am trying to relate by Ansel Adam. He said “ There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer” and “ A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.”
Yes sadly the birds, lions and bears are in cages, but this does not mean you need to capture them as caged animals. Shoot wide open depth of field. This will help in many occasions to avoid the caging. Sun hitting the wire may cause you some problems, so try a different angle or time of day to avoid the harshness of the sun. Shot close-ups. Depth of field is essential when shooting the animals, but by using a longer lens you may be able to shoot at a higher f/stop and the compression caused by the longer lens will be of some assistance. Try as much as possible to create a natural environment in your photo. This is where your creative and imagination may be needed so take a different perspective, shoot close, shoot at a different angle, do what needs to be done to remove the "zoo" feeling of the photo.
I have found that the photographs I have taken that are more rewarding to me are the ones capturing emotion. You may need to spend more time with the lions or the gorillas watching and waiting but you are there with your camera to capture them and you may not get that 1000 shots per day at the zoo, but that is okay if you get that “One.”
Get to know your zoo. Repeat your visits and try to get the seasons to assist with your captures. Fall creates a colorful depth of field with the exhibits at the zoo. Visits in the Winter may have less exhibits available but the colder climate animals are at their peak with more active movements. The Brown Bears at the Bronx Zoo in winter was a wonderful experience and the Giraffes at the Turtle Back Zoo in the fall created such a colorful background. If your planned Zoo day is cold and rainy then head inside and plan on the indoor exhibits. Basically, there is no bad day to plan your visits, but keep in mind the crowds. Go weekdays versus weekends.
I hope I have been of some assistance. If you have any questions regarding any specific photo, please feel free to contact me. Also, I have included the site information for Kristi Odom here. Please take a moment to check her phenomenal portfolio PORTFOLIO | Kristi Odom Photo (kristiodomfineart.com)
In conclusion let us all remember “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera” ~ Dorothea Lange