• John Scalera

Being a Wildlife Photographer

Zoo Photography is harder than it looks.

I never realized how hard photographing animals that are living in exclosures can be. There are numerous challenges that face us as photographers when trying to create captivating images of these animals.

I have come to the realization that there are several tips and tricks to creating interesting photos under less than ideal conditions.

Right Gear

First and foremost, be prepared with the "right" gear. When I'm shooting in the zoo, I will use the Nikon 200-500mm lens that is paired with the Nikon D500 body. The reason that I use such a long telephoto lens is because many times, the animals will be deep in their enclosure. You will need that long lens to get close to your subject. Another great lens choice is a 70mm-200mm. The lens can shoot

Shutter Speed

Shooting at the correct shutter speed is essential to get tack sharp images. Since I'm shooting with the 200mm-500mm lens, the absolute minimum shutter speed I use is 1/500th of a second. The general rule of thumb is to use the focal length to determine the shutter speed to eliminate camera shake or motion blur. The other issue that comes into play is that your subject matter (animals) are moving so you want to shoot fast enough to freeze the action.

Arrive Early and Stay Late

One tip I figured out was that the animals are a lot more active when they are first allowed into their enclosures. They will spend time exploring, marking and being engaged in their environment. This is a perfect time to photograph them which creates interesting shots. As the day gets hotter (especially in the summer) the animals will find relief in the shade and often nap for hours. On the other hand, the animals will become very active just before closing, here's the reason: feeding time. Most animals are brought in from their enclosures about a half hour before the zoo will close and they realize that they will be fed soon. Their activity level will increase dramatically when this occurs. Be ready.

Weather and Lighting The best times to shoot animals is when it's overcast out. The reason for this is that the clouds act like a giant diffuser which in tuen creates beautiful, soft lighting. I have also discovered that the animals are more active when the weather is a bit cooler out. When it's too hot, most animals which just nap and wait for the sun to set. Not every animal, but most.

Glass and Cages

One of the biggest challenges when photographing animals in a zoo in the enclosures that they live in. All of the enclosures either have fences, cages or glass between the visitors and the animals. I have found that they closer you place your lens up to the glass or obstruction, most times to can focus past the elements in the foreground and get the shot your looking for. I always shoot with the lens hood on the lens for the protection of the lens.

Focus on the eyes

When photographing animals, really try and focus on the eyes of the animal. I find that my favorite shots are the ones where the subject is looking right back at me. It's that moment of engagement and interest that creates a compelling image.


Processing is absolutely essential. I use Lightroom 2019 and honestly, I couldn't live without it. It doesn't matter what needs adjusting, Lightroom has you covered. 99.99% of my editing workflow is completed in Lightroom versus Photoshop. The reason being that I really don't do MAJOR edits in my workflow.