For wildlife, not everyone can afford a safari to Africa and not everyone can take enough time off of work to track down more-locally-occurring wildlife such as a wild mountain lion. Zoos make these great animals readily available for observation and enjoyment. Photographing the animals in zoos, however, remains a challenge and the biggest challenge is usually the fence.
A key to a great zoo animal photo is avoiding any signs of the fence, including a patterned background blur, in the photo. To that goal, here is a list of photography tips relevant to fences.
- The most important tip: move the lens as close to the fence as possible. Doing so aids immensely in the foreground fence becoming blurred out recognition. Getting against a fence, at least at some exhibits, may require attendance at a special program designed for this access (ZooAmerica’s Photography Tour in this case), but others are readily approachable. Removing the lens hood permits a closer-to-the-fence position, but caution is required to avoid scratching the lens. A UV/Clear Protective Filter can help minimize the risk of damage to your lens’ front element.
- The second most important tip: use a wide aperture, allowing the shallow depth of field to obscure the obstruction, including both the foreground and background fence.
- Similarly, use a long focal length to enlarge the blurred obstruction, making it less obvious. Though an ultra-wide angle lens may cause a background fence to be so small that it is barely visible in the frame, wide angles are more likely to leave even a practically-against-the-front-element fence very recognizable. So, use a long telephoto lens to blur both the foreground and background fences away.
- Dark-colored fences (dark colors absorb more light than bright ones), remain more obscured in an image than bright silver fences (very common). If you have a choice, go for dark.
- Avoid brightly-lit fences. For the same reason I prefer dark fences, I prefer shaded ones. If you have a choice, opt for fences in the shade (including in the background). If the sun is behind you, the opportunity to create your own shade exists and the lens with your hand around it may be all that is needed to accomplish this.
- Attempt to align your subject inside the fence so that there is a natural background, avoiding the background fence that most fenced enclosures have. This may mean shooting from a low position to look over the background fence or aligning the subject with flora (as seen here). Using a long focal length lens provides a narrow angle of view that makes smaller background scenes easier to work with.
- Shoot from over the fence. While the looking-down angle is not often my favorite for wildlife, it may be the best available option.
- Find the widest opening available in the fence and center the lens in it. Finding a hole to shoot through (do not create one unless you own the fence) can be a great find. Take advantage of existing fence damage to gain a larger portal for photography purposes. Quality fencing likely has all-identical-sized openings and this tip will not be helpful in that scenario.
- Use the fence as a steadying aid. While the fence may detract from your image quality by some amount, if the subject is stationary enough, you might be able to shoot braced against the fence with longer shutter speeds than otherwise possible, enabling lower ISO settings that improve image quality through lower noise levels.
- Avoid fence shadows falling on your subject and in your backgrounds. This may require shooting at a specific time of the day or even a certain time of the year. Cloudy skies are often optimal for this reason.
- Lighting, subject pose, the background and all of the other important requirements for a good image are still in place. Don’t lose sight of what makes a good image just because a fence is obscuring your view and/or the subject is unusual for you.
- Low contrast and low saturation are likely image quality issues with photos captured through a fence. Consider adding these adjustments during post processing.
- A last resort for removing fencing in the frame is via photo editing software with Photoshop‘s healing brush tool being especially helpful if individual fence wires remain visible.
If you can’t obscure the fence, your option may only be to capture a memory photo. Memories are very important too, so capture the memory and move on.
Have any photography-through-a-fence tips? Please share them with us!
A larger version of this image is available on Flickr.