Photography Tips: A Day at the LA Zoo


Peter and I have lived in LA for over 10 years, and I have never gone to the LA zoo. So I got a bee in my bonnet to go, well actually I bought a new lens and wanted to play. We went over Memorial Day weekend, which was crazy and fun all at the same time.

What was unexpected was the number of animal babies. It hadn’t occurred to me that springtime might be a good time to see all the “kids”. To see the mothers caring for, and chasing around, their offspring just added to the excitement of the day.

Photo Capture

Equipment and preparation:

  • Long telephoto lens. I recently purchased an inexpensive 500mm mirror lens from ProOptic. Peter used his 70-200 with a 2x extender.
  • Monopod. Tripods are too cumbersome, especially when it’s tough to get to the front of an exhibit.
  • Image-stabilizer if you have it
  • Increase your ISO to stop movement and camera shake.
  • Set your camera on burst mode. This will allow you to take several pictures in succession and increase your chances of capturing movement and expression.

Photo note: We went right when the zoo opened. Members got in even earlier. It may not be as crowded, with lots of little ones underfoot, and the animals seemed to be more active.

Shooting on overcast days is best; bright sunny days create harsh shadows and hot spots.

Shot List

  • Expressions: Watch the animals for awhile before you start shooting. See how they behave and interact. Then try to capture expressive looks.


Close-ups: The enclosures tend to be ugly, and mostly monochromatic. I always went for a close up rather than an environmental portrait.


Portraits: I try to create portraits, similar to what I do with people. Try to capture different angles rather than just straight-on.




Gestures: There is something awe inspiring when you see animals gesture in recognizable ways. Like this father giraffe with his young offspring

1305_MFA_Animals_295 1305_MFA_Animals_273-2-Edit 1305_MFA_Animals_261-2Mealtime: Watching animals eat can be quite exciting, and they tend to stay stationary so you can get a shot. They also tend to move repetitively so you can anticipate their next move easier. This ostrich, was hard to photograph, except when they put food in his dish at eye-level on the gate facing the people. After flinging food around frantically, he finally stood still enough for me to capture this image. And there is something to be said for having someone bring you a tray of food that you can actually lay in while you are grazing.



Plants: Zoos often have great native plants that don’t tend to draw crowds…or move. To give yourself a break and rest the “wildlife” part of your brain, try photographing the interesting shapes of the plants around you.


Environmental portraits: They are not usually attractive but they tell a story…..sometimes a sad one.

1305_MFA_Animals_082Post-processing: Because you will most likely be shooting in the middle of the day, think about turning your images to black and white, or using one of the creative retro effects. This will help neutralize the bright white spots and other distracting elements.



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