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Taking Pictures in Aquariums and Zoos Using Your Digital SLR

To photograph animals kept safely behind glass or metal, you and your digital SLR are a fine team. And, with a bit of work and creativity, you can get great shots of animals that look like you took them in the wild.

Your camera may have a hard time focusing through thick aquarium glass or be unable to focus beyond the wire of a zoo cage. Just switch to manual exposure and focus on the animal yourself.

Photographing fishes

Shooting in Shutter Priority mode with a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second or faster freezes the motion of the fish. Choosing an ISO that allows you to shoot with a larger aperture blurs out the background and camouflages any traces of mechanical devices, such as pipes or underwater pumps, which makes it look like you actually photographed the fish underwater instead of in an aquarium. Choose an ISO of 100 or the lowest ISO that gives you an aperture of f/5.6 or larger. Continuous Auto-Focus mode enables the camera to continuously track the fish while it moves through the frame, which means your subject is in focus when you take the picture.

Use Continuous Shooting mode to capture a series of photos while the fish swims past your vantage point. When you use this mode, the camera continues taking pictures as long as you keep your finger on the shutter button.

The focal length you choose depends on how close you can get to the fish, the size of the fish, and whether you’re taking a picture of the fish from snout to tailfin or want a toothy-head-and-gill-plates portrait of a smiling barracuda or shark. Don’t use a focal length less than the 35mm equivalent of 30mm or wider if the fish is swimming close to the glass. If you use a short focal length, the fish looks more like a cartoon character than a fish in your photos.

When it comes to taking the pictures:

  1. Choose a vantage point where you don’t have a lot of distracting elements in the background, especially if you’re photographing big fish in a big tank.

  2. Press the camera lens against the tank.

    If you don’t press the lens against the tank, your photo includes a reflection from the ambient light shining on the glass, which distorts the image.

  3. Zoom in to compose the picture.

    When you try to zoom in on moving fish, you have to make a best guess. You can zoom in to capture part of the fish, or you can zoom to a focal length that can capture the entire fish and a bit of his surroundings.

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  4. When the fish you want to photograph comes into view, press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus, and then take the picture.

Taking pictures at the zoo

Animals in a zoo are fairly sedentary, which makes Aperture Priority the ideal shooting mode because you don’t need to stop action. An aperture range of f/4.0 to f/7.1 does a nice job of blurring the foreground and the background, which draws the viewer’s attention to your subject. If you choose a smaller aperture (a larger f/stop number), more of the background and foreground will be in apparent focus. An ISO setting range between 100 to 400 works well in direct sunlight, shade, or an overcast day. However, if it’s very dark, use a higher ISO setting of 800.

Many zoo animals are fairly close to the spectators, but if you want to photograph an animal that’s in a habitat designed to look like his native terrain, you may have to use a long lens to get the animal in the image without a huge amount of the background. Image stabilization is useful if your camera or lens has this feature, because even the slightest operator movement when using a long focal length will yield an image that is not tack sharp.

If you’re close to the animal, position the auto-focus point over the eye closest to the camera. If possible, photograph the animal from below or at the animal’s eye level. You can also zoom in tight to minimize evidence of any objects in the background.

[Credit: Big Cat Rescue www.bigcatrescue.org]
Credit: Big Cat Rescue www.bigcatrescue.org
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