To decide what the best camera and lens to carry for Zoo photography think about what makes the highest impact image in a Zoo setting. The answer is … get close! There are two main reasons this is the best strategy. Zooming in on your subject removes the unnatural elements of the exhibit, and with good positioning it maybe difficult to tell it was a captive animal. Secondly, we are closer to the animals on exhibit then would be possible in the wild, which allows for a very detailed views of an animal with a modest telephoto zoom.
Look at the two photos below of a Timber Wolf taken at the Teton Trek exhibit in the Memphis Zoo. The first photo is an intimate shot of the wolf sleeping on a stump in the woods, or so it appears. Pull back just a little bit and you see the impact you lose when the exhibit reveals itself.
Before we discuss what would be a good telephoto lens to purchase we need to discuss how the camera body will affect your lens purchase. I’m assuming you have a digital SLR or one of the new micro four thirds cameras that allow interchangeable lenses and the ability to use non-automatic modes. In later posts we will explore the use of camera modes to improve your Zoo photography. The next bit of information you will need to know is the digital sensor size in your camera, is it “full frame” or “crop”? If it is “crop” then you will need to know the “crop factor”.
Only the most expensive camera bodies are “full frame”, which means it is the same size as 35mm film. If your camera body cost less than $2,000 it is most likely a “crop” sensor, in other words a smaller size than full frame. The “crop factor” for Canon dSLR cameras is 1.6, and for Nikon it is 1.5. The crop factor will be important when we discuss how close you can get with a telephoto lens, which will be my next post.