Travel Photography vs. Zootography

Travel Photography and Zootography have a lot in common.

Scott Kelby is giving away his eBook “Scott Kelby’s 10 Tips for Making Better Travel Photos.

All you have to do is go to and put in your email address. You will receive an email with the download link.

I suggest that you read the book before continuing to read the rest of this post. It is a short book, and an easy read. Take a few minutes. I’ll wait. (This is me hearing the Jeopardy song in the background playing over and over. 😊)

OK, so now that you have read the book, here are my thoughts on each of the 10 tips as they relate to the Art of Zootography.

1. Shooting on Overcast days

You bet! Overcast days are the best for shooting through fencing and for shooting really dark animals.

Allow me to talk techie stuff for a moment.

Dynamic range of a camera is the ratio of the brightest light (“whitest white”) to the darkest shadows (“blackest black”) in a shot.


On a bright, sunny day, the human eye can deal with 20 stops between black and white, but the average DSLR can only record 13 to 14 stops. (Those numbers are different from eye to eye and camera to camera, but they are sufficiently accurate to get my point across.)

Therefore, your camera is never going to record the scene on a sunny day the way you saw it with your own eyes. Sure, you can go into Lightroom or Photoshop or any other raw converter and adjust the shadows up and the highlights down. But blown out whites and crushed blacks can’t be fully recovered. Therefore, Zootographers look for shade as do travel photographers. But we are often less successful at finding that shade.

However, on an overcast day, or in the shade, the whites are not as bright. So not as many stops from black to white. What does that mean to you? It means that the camera’s 14 stops are often enough to record the scene the way you saw it. Colors look more vibrant and everything just seems richer.

And when shooting very black animals, like Siamang, or Colobus Monkeys, their dark fur is tough to capture in the sun. But in the shade, or better yet, on an overcast day, you can expose for the dark fur and not blow out the rest of the photo.

Colobus Monkey at the Fresno Zoo

This would have been a tough shot in the sunshine.

2. Shooting from the roof of the hotel

OK, this doesn’t apply, except to remind you to look for different angles. Get up as high as you can, as low as you can, check the shot from over to your left, then to your right.

3. Get These Shots Out of the Way First

Well, maybe this means get the lions and tigers, giraffes and elephants out of the way, but remember to check out the reptiles, amphibians, the aviaries and even the animals in the petting zoo (contact yard). And don’t forget the horticulture!

Just remember, you may have family members who would love to see the bunny rabbits.

Domestic Rabbit

Everyone loves cute little bunnies, right?

4. Shoot the Food

Hmmm. This could mean that at the zoo, if you see a zookeeper with food for animals follow them. Shooting animals while they eat can be quite interesting and result in some great shots.

But it can also be taken literally. The Oakland Zoo has a “Walk in the Wild” fundraiser where restaurants and food vendors come in and provide samples of their wares. We walk around eating little bits of this and that in preparation for when they set out the desserts. I love photographing desserts. Then eating them, of course.

Maybe your zoo has something similar? Or maybe the food in the zoo’s café is really imaginative?

Elephant eating a watermelon in one bite!

Photographing animals eating can get you some great results. My zoo has used this photo many times.

One of dozens of dessert choices at Walk in the Wild

How important are Cannoli? Remember the famous quote? "Leave the gun, take the Cannoli." It was either this or the brownies. (I will try to sneak them in on another post.)

5. What Time to Shoot

Most zoos open well after the morning golden hour and close before the evening hour. But you still need to pay attention to the time of day. Certain exhibits may be in full shade at certain times yet have dappled light or full sun at others. Unless you are going for something really artsy, I prefer to avoid dappled light. Full sun can be interesting if challenging.

Also, some fencing might be in the shade of a tree or building at certain times. Use that to your advantage. The same thing with glass.

6. Check out 500px

Another great suggestion for Zootographers. How are you going to know what you might want to capture if you haven’t looked at what other people are able to get? Check out animal facial expressions and movements. When you are at the zoo, do you see anything similar happening that you want to capture?

Also, check out the zoo’s web site to see what animals you might expect to be able to photograph. It could make a difference in choosing which lens (or lenses) to bring.

7. Shoot the signs

Absolutely! When I am shooting at a zoo with animals I don’t immediately recognize, I photograph the sign so that when I get everything back into Lightroom, I know how to keyword it.

What good is a photo of an animal if you have no clue as to what it is? And even if you are pretty much an expert, the Colobus Monkeys at the Fresno Zoo are a different species than the ones at Disney or the Tampa zoo. Can you really tell the difference? If not, shoot the sign!!!

Shoot the Sign

Do as I say, not as I do. Don't get sloppy. Get the whole sign and make sure it is sharp enough to read.

8. Camera Bags

I really don’t worry about what the camera bag looks like at the zoo so I am going to say this might not apply. Particularly since everywhere you go in a zoo you will have at least one camera in your hand almost constantly.

But I do keep a carabiner on the bag to fasten it to the railing in front of me at times, just to get the weight off now and then.

9. Wait for Actors to walk on to your stage

Yes, this can apply to Zootography.

One late afternoon I noticed that the light through the tree at the lion exhibit was really quite beautiful. It streaked across the path that the elderly lion always used to walk down to his night house just prior to him being served his dinner. That time was only a few minutes away so I got set up and tested the exposure and waited. And waited. And just as the light was perfect, the lion came down the path and I got my shot. I only had that one chance and fortunately I didn’t flub it.

I have never fixed any of the light from that shot in Photoshop or Lightroom. If I were to do so to print it I would darken some of the clover at his feet. But it is more fun to show it to photographers and say that no local adjustments have been applied. It is one of my wife’s favorite shots.

The late Leonard the Lion

I miss this guy. He gave me lots of shots over the years, and I have some nice video of him roaring. RIP big guy.

10. Shoot the details

Sure I can get shots of a jaguar from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. But sometimes I want to zoom in and just get that handsome muscular face of his. I can shoot an alligator, but a closeup of his powerful face with his mouth open, showing his teeth is often more interesting.

I was told that if my photos were not good enough, I was not close enough. You can’t always get closer, but you can zoom way in at times and really make a more powerful photo. And sometimes you need to crop. Don’t be afraid to crop. Really. 

Lucha watches me closely

I am not sure why, but this big guy keeps his eyes on me quite often when I am pointing a large lens at him. He doesn't do it when I don't have a camera with me.

In conclusion, Travel Photography and Zootography have an awful lot in common. And even more so when you travel to other cities just to visit their zoos the way that I have done, and hope to do more of.

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