I spend a lot of time at zoos and aquariums, sometimes as a volunteer and mostly as an observant visitor (I am currently studying to work in a zoo or rescue facility, as well). As a photographer, this means I have invested a lot of time learning to photograph the animal ambassadors that call these facilities home, and thought I would share some of the techniques I have learned with all of you!
KNOW THE SHOW
Whether it be where to sit or where to aim your camera, studying YouTube videos goes a long way – the animals are often trained to perform certain behaviours in specific locations, and there is usually a general format to the show itself. That said, no show is ever the same twice as the trainers change things up to keep the animals stimulated, so stay alert!
KNOW THE ANIMALS
Some animals have signature moves, and others are more likely to be teamed up together (such as Kasatka and Orkid below), so knowing who is performing might increase the likelihood of getting that “wow”-shot.
WATCH THE TRAINERS
I know, it can be difficult to take your eyes off those gorgeous cetaceans, but at some facilities, trainers indicate where to look after a behaviour has been requested. And becoming familiar with those hand signals used to communicate with the animals can take time, but pays off as you will know what to expect and (possibly) where to watch for it. A few seconds warning can go a long way in snapping the perfect shot!
These animals are FAST (Hana, below, could swim faster than the speed limit of Stanley Park where she lived), so use a lens with fast and reliable autofocus. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO (within reason for your camera) in favour of a faster shutter speed — it pays off in the end. I personally find having the camera set to continual autofocus helps ensure the animal stays clear throughout all stages of the behaviour, but it is far from foolproof. But hey, isn’t the challenge half the fun?
Tweak your aperture to your personal tastes, being mindful of the points above. My preferred setting is around F7 or F8 (give or take) to help compensate for those moments autofocus zeroes in on splashing water rather than the animal. It helps if you end up with more than one animal in your shot, too!
LOOK BEYOND THE FLASHY STUFF
Watch for these special moments that highlight the human-animal bond. These are social, curious creatures who forge very close bonds with their trainers. They often enjoy interacting with guests as well, so be sure to check out those underwater observation windows!
Training and enrichment sessions can also be rewarding. Below is a very young beluga whale at Marineland Canada who was watching the adults participate in a training session and decided it wanted to play too, so the trainer held the target out for it. The young whale looked most pleased with itself afterwards!
At your own risk! Make sure you have fast reflexes and never let your attention waver! I carry a towel and water-resistent jacket, having them ready on my lap case I need to suddenly cover my gear. Early on I sat where it was theoretically safe, but after noticing patterns, I began to take bigger risks. Although this has paid off, I was putting several thousands of dollars worth of gear at risk that I couldn’t afford to replace.
The most important thing to remember, of course, is to have fun! Humans learn best when having a good time, and zoological facilities are a great resource for being inspired to care for the natural world, whether you are a child or an adult.