zoo photography tips

Zoo photography – shooting through the bars

Zoo photography is accessible and enjoyable but for many of the animals they do tend to put bars and or a lot of distance between the public and the animals. There are several zoos that take the wide open safari park concept to give big open spaces to the animals and these can produce better photos more readily. Just recently I visited the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade Zoo in the Bedfordshire countryside.

My choice of lens for zoo photography

I have photographed at several zoos with lenses right up to 800mm, but most typically I take a 70-200mm lens and the 1.4x extender as that is what I have to hand. Looking at the data from my visit recently I used 200mm most of the time on both a full-frame and APS-C crop camera. Below you will find some suggested lenses for zoo photography with a range of price points;

If you select one of the 70-200mm lenses then an Extender is also worth considering. I also suggest that you choose a lens with Image Stabilizer too since zoo photos tend to be taken handheld or on a monopod at best.

Zoo photography – shooting through the bars

European Brown Bear

Sometimes the  bears and bars are hard to separate!

Zoo photography - cheetah through the bars

Since many of the bigger more dangerous animals tend to be behind bars or very thick glass then you don’t have much option but to shoot through the bars. The key tip is to get as close as possible to the bars, or glass and ideally the animal as far back from the bars as possible.

If it’s glass then a lens hood is helpful to cut down reflections on the glass. It’s you shoot through bars then again the lens hood is a good measure of being close enough. You will be using the depth of field to throw the bars so out of focus that they don’t register. The cheetah picture above was taken with the lens hood up against the metal bars -the same kind of bars as the ones next to the cheetah.

The shallow depth of field shows itself in the picture too, the bars to the left hand edge of the cheetah – in front of the animal – are blurred, and the ones behind it also blurred.

Make sure to shoot in a mode where you – or the camera – will choose a wide aperture for best results. If you use the scene modes then portrait mode works well, if you use aperture priority open the lens up selecting the smallest f-stop number like f/2.8 or f/4 depending on your lens.

Amur Tiger

Big cats and bars… same technique with the amur tiger below, get the lens close to the bars and ideally move the lens so that animals eye is in a clear section of the frame. This is often easier to tell from the viewfinder than the pictures.


close up to the meerkats


Watch out that if the animal is small and you are close to it. Your depth of field will be very shallow. The meerkat above is only sharp on his eyes and parts of his head. Focus accuracy is critical. Though with the layout of his enclosure I could shoot with no glass or bars between me and the meerkat!

 Make the megapixels work for you

With the 70-200mm on my camera last week I could not get close enough to fill the frame, however cropping the image later still produced an image that is more than usable – just not so big for prints.

European lynx cub eyes up the nettles in it's enclosure


further reading…

If you are concerned about the quality loss of having the bars of a cage in front of your lens, you really should have a look at this article on the LensRentals.com blog.




About the author

Full-time photo tutor and photographer. I love to share my knowledge and skills to make photos, videos and teach others. I write books and articles for photo magazines and I always have at least one Speedlite flash in my camera bag