Tips on Photographing Animals at the Zoo from Richard Brodzeller

Text by Paula Brookmire

Richard “Rick” Brodzeller, a free-lance photographer from Mequon, Wis., has been taking photos at the Milwaukee County Zoo for 35 years. You’ll see his name in all the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM) publications and on our Web site and among our Platypus Circle donors. He’s been shooting ZSM photos for two decades, with about 16,000 images in our database. Before that as a staff photographer for The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel (now combined), he often photographed Zoo animals. His striking pictures also hang in the indoor entryway to the Zoo: the U.S. Bank Gathering Place.

A story on Brodzeller appeared in the April 2008 Alive magazine, which readers can access in our Publication archive. Meanwhile, you can enjoy some of his favorite photos by clicking on the images on this page. Also, below we list more detailed photography advice than we ran in Alive. If you like taking pictures of animals at the Zoo, you should find some good tips here:

Tip 1: Be patient

Plan your trip if you hope to photograph a particular animal. Try to anticipate what the light will be like at that time of day. Be flexible and be prepared for disappointment if the animal you came to photograph is napping. Have a plan B or just keep walking through the Zoo. To come away with a winning photo probably takes more luck than planning, although famed photographer Ansel Adams said that a “prepared mind” was more likely to capture a high-quality but spur-of-the-moment photo. That means it helps to know something about how to light a scene, especially in fast-changing light at the end of the day.

Tip 2: Come early or late

Midday light is not attractive. In the morning, the light’s good and many animals are more active. In summer, Zoo events held between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. can provide some backlit or side-lit scenes that add dimension and warmth to photos. The long shadows of the late-in-the-day sun can make for a dramatic photo. Unfortunately, in the evening some animals may be hanging around the door to their indoor enclosures, waiting to be let back in for the evening. These are not the best backdrops for a photo. It’s preferable to have trees, foliage or a pool in the photo.

Tip 3: Location and angle

The best places outdoors to get animals in the background are the bigger animal exhibits such as elephants, giraffes, hippos, camels, elk and moose. Stay at the same level as the animal – don’t shoot down. Wait for the animal to walk back up a hill or rock. Personally, I try to avoid getting the rock walls (gunite) in the background. I also like to use a telephoto lens.

Tip 4: People should not look posed

When you’re shooting a picture of people in front of an animal exhibit, the people usually are looking toward the animal with their backs to the camera. If you really want to see their faces, you often have to stage the picture. Ask the people to turn with their backs to the exhibit and to look off into the distance—but not at you. (If they look directly at the camera, they look as if they’re posing). Or you can have them turn sideways so you see part of their faces but they seem to be observing a nearby exhibit.

Tip 5: Shooting indoor exhibits through glass WITH flash

If you're using a flash, shoot at an angle to the glass to avoid reflection of your light in your photo.  The rule of physics applies: The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. Also, try to use your flash as a fill light so that you don’t overwhelm the scene with your strobe light.

Tip 6: Shooting indoor exhibits through glass WITHOUT flash

If your digital camera can be set manually, raise the ISO setting to 800, 1200 or 1600; that way you should be able to avoid flash. If you're shooting film, try pushing the film one stop or switching to faster film. Try using your lens wide open and a technique described as "dragging the shutter," which is shooting at longer shutter speeds. This works only if you’re using a tripod and only if the animal you're photographing isn't moving around too much. If you don't want to carry a tripod, try a monopod (just one leg); monopods are inexpensive and help avoid camera movement when shooting at slow shutter speeds.

Tip 7:  Don't skimp on your choice of lenses

Zoom lenses are okay, but fixed-focal-length lenses are generally sharper than a zoom. Fast lenses with apertures of f2.8 or greater (f2, f1.8 or f1.4) often can give you that extra stop in really dark environments and can greatly improve your ability to control the depth of field in the photo.  You can eliminate a busy background by throwing it out of focus through the choice of the lens and lens aperture.  If the light looks really dramatic, don't ruin it by overpowering the existing light with a flash. Using on-camera flash on an animal often can result in something similar to "red eye," with some very bizarre catch lights in the animal’s eyes. This usually happens when the animal is looking directly at the camera. I would recommend you try the photo both with flash and without. Another option, if you have the right equipment, is to have a friend hold the light away from the camera without it being tethered to the camera via a cord. You would use a wireless triggering device to fire the light. This is a professional technique that even those zoogoers with serious camera gear don’t often think to do. And it’s often what makes the difference between a professional-quality shot and a snapshot. 

Tip 8:  Come back often and keep trying

Once you get to know your subjects and how the light falls into the exhibits at various times of day, you’ll have a better chance of capturing the right moment.

Photo Gallery

Click on any of the 20 photo icons on this page to see larger versions. These are some of Richard Brodzeller’s best photos from past issues of Alive magazine. You can access the stories that go with these pictures by going to our Publication Archive.

  • Stella the jaguar
  • MJ the orangutan
  • Rachel the camel
  • Ricky
  • Bahatika
  • Nemat
  • Spirit
  • Wendell
  • Jane the Alaskan brown bear
  • Octopus
  • Cuxtal
  • Kalahari
  • Apollo
  • Demoiselle crane
  • Sea lion
  • Nero the bongo
  • Meerkat
  • Caracal kittens & mom
  • Golden tree snake
  • Moon jelly