Shooting for Success: Zoos & Aquariums

Tiger Cub Calgary Zoo
Tiger Cub Calgary Zoo. Image Copyright Timothy Reynolds.

I love zoos & aquariums. I’m not a supporter of keeping wild animals caged for any reason, but as a photographer and an artist, I love them for the easy access to species I would never see in the wild, let alone get close enough to take great photos.

One of my other hobbies is painting and I only work from my own original photos when I paint (acrylics). Because of this, I need to get multiple angles, focal lengths and zoom distances in order to bring the animal to life on the canvas.

This shot was taken through a fence of a young tiger cub at the Calgary Zoo a few years ago. The shot was made on a tripod (of course), it was made with a 100-300 zoom lens at about 125, and it was shot at a high shutter speed so as to increase the aperture and thereby decreasing the depth of field.

Why decrease the depth of field? Well, the fence I shot through was a black grid fence (as opposed to a silver chain-link) with openings of about 4″x8″. I couldn’t get up to the fence to shoot through one opening so the tight depth of field allowed me to put the tiger into tight focus but throw the fence so far out of focus that it’s almost invisible. If you take a close look at the image you might be able to see what looks like distortion of the light, but you have to look closely.

It’s just that simple. There’s a fence between me and the tiger but it’s so out of focus that the light practically bends around it. Cool, eh? It also helps if you can get the fence in the first 25% of the distance to the primary subject. Actually, get as close as you can to the fence without letting it overwhelm the image. Also try different light (different times of the day) and make sure you don’t use a flash or the fence will light up rather than disappear.

Vancouver Aquarium
Beluga Aurora and baby at Vancouver Aquarium

Aquariums aren’t all that different from zoos except that you don’t have fences you have glass and the light is much poorer. This image of a beluga whale and her baby was taken in the underground observation area at the Vancouver Aquarium. I took dozens of shots to get just this one where the light was coming down from the surface just right, the belugas were stretched out for me and there were no other tourists in the shot.

Needless to say, bright sunlight up top is vital for the shot, as is the standard tripod. Here a wide angle lens was used (Canon EF 28-80 set at 28mm), a medium shutter speed so as to provide with a flexible depth of field, and a film with an ISO of 200. Filter=Skylight 1A.

With aquariums you can’t use your flash or the light will bounce right back off the glass at you unless you shoot on an angle (or put your lens within a centimetre of the glass so that the flash bounce isn’t captured), which isn’t usually possible. You also have to watch out for info displays behind you being reflected in the glass. Photoshop can remove one or two little reflections, but it’s so much nicer to have a great, clean original rather than a doctored mediocre shot.

What I love most about this shot is that the refracted light from the surface of the outdoor tank adds to the magic of the moment, taking the viewer into that cold blue world where we could only travel assisted by technology. I wish I lived in Vancouver because I would spend a couple days a month in this observation area trying to capture the whales and the light at play.

Sometimes, though, you can’t avoid the fence and so you make it an integral part of the image.

The Sled Dog Stare
The Sled Dog Stare. Copyright Timothy Reynolds.

Questions? Simply leave a comment here and I’ll get it & get back to you.

Ciao for now,


(Next Week: Getting in Close)


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