A Day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (aka Wild Animal Park)

Silver Back Gorilla

I am not sure why they changed the name, either way, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (Wild Animal Park) is the closest many of us may ever come to the wilds of Africa and Asia.  Mary and I have been to the Park several times in the last few years to photograph the animals.  Recently, we paid for a photography caravan that enabled us to get up close and personal with the animals in the large “Africa” enclosure.  It was more than $150 each, but I think worth the price if you want to get close.  Here is how to get the most out of your time there.

Mary and her new friend
Portrait from the Caravan

Our usual set-up for the Park is our Canon 5D Mark IIs, 70-200 mm lenses, 1.5x and 2x extenders, and mono-pods.  There is not really a need for any kind of wide-angle lens here.  The extenders are pricey, but less than another lens and nearly doubles my 200mm to 400 mm.  The cameras get heavy with these lenses, so the mono-pods come in handy and with image stabilization, a monpod, and a high ISO, shutter speed is not a problem.  To get a bright image and a blurred background, we like to shoot in a big aperture, at least f5.6 or lower.

Peter's camera set up for the Wild Animal Park

Even if you do not pay for a caravan, the African Tram ride is a must.  It is your best chance to get closer to the animals than you can at one of the many lookouts.  Even with a telephoto lens, the animals appear pretty far away.  Think about cropping the image after you download in order to get closer.  A point and shoot with at least 10 megapixels should yield a decent image even with a close crop.

From the large African enclosure

Another hint, look at the show times and exhibitions.  They bring out a cheetah almost every day to do a small exhibition so you can get close – about ten to twenty feet, or so.  We also love the cheetah exhibit.  They spend most of their time lying in the tall grass, so they are hard to see.  Ask when feeding time is.  You will love seeing the two cheetahs get hand-fed chunks of meat and lick the bowl afterward!

You lookin' at me?!
Cats being cats

We also saw quite a few baby elephants.  Again, there is a nice look out.  The back ground can be tough, so be patient and wait.  There is always a lot of action.

Another favorite is the Gorilla exhibit.  They can be quite amusing and there is no fence to get in the way of a good image.


I have to say my favorite spot is the lion den.  There a few viewing areas and you can get a pretty good image if they are out and about.

A bone to pick
Close-up crop from the the tram

Mary likes the birds at the large lake.  We have found that there is better viewing and less crowds on the “backside” of the lake.

Playing or fighting or both?

In the summer time especially, it gets really hot in Escondido.  Try to get there right when it opens to avoid the crowds and see the animals while it is a bit cooler.  As soon as it gets hot, they “hide” in their pens or just lay about to stay cool.  Photographing animals takes a bit of practice and a lot of patience.  The Safari Park is a good place to start – lots of animals, plenty of food and water for you, and many different places and attractions for all interests.  We highly recommend it.  To see more of our photographs, please go to www.pamphotography.com

Rhinos from the photo caravan
A close encounter from the photo caravan - He was quite patient and photogenic


    1. pamphotography

      A tripod is too much work to set up and bulking for fast shots of animals. I think everyone should have a mono-pod as an option for steadying the camera. I have found it easier to carry my camera with a mono-pod than without.

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