Depending on your zoo/nature preserve, you’ll be shooting through fence, bars, or a window of some sort. (probably thick plexiglass type stuff) If you are lucky you will have a clear shot over whatever is keeping the animal contained and can ignore most of this, but that probably won’t be the case most of the time. Check though the gallery at the end for example photos with explanatory captions.
First off, this is basically for cameras with a 200mm lens or better and preferably fairly fast one at that. (f/4 or faster) If you’re shooting with your phone you’re out of luck unless you can actually get up to the fence and shoot through, which in most cases you can’t unless it’s a window and not a fence. If it IS a window, lucky you! The same tips below apply. Now on to the tips!
1. Shoot with a long focal length.
Probably 200mm or better if shooting through a fence/wire/scratched up plexi/etc. This combined with the next couple items will help make fence and scratches disappear. Sometimes you won’t be able to shoot with a long lens if the animal is close to you. In that case, hopefully the enclosure is glass and not fence. (see tips #5 & #3)
2. Shoot with a low f-stop (ie wide open aperture).
Shoot with the smallest f-stop on your lens. The “faster” your lens (wider the aperture opens) the less in focus the fence/glass will be when focusing at a distance and it will make the fence disappear more from the shot, even to the point of not being noticeable at all. (if numerous things are just right)
Example: See this experiment with a PENCIL in front of a lens!
3. Get as close to the fence/glass as possible.
On fence, there is just less fence in the frame the closer you get, but also, the closer you get the less in focus the fence gets until totally disappearing if you are luck. If it’s glass, this helps get rid of scratches in it and reflections. Try to get your lens/lens hood right up against it flat and if you can’t get it flat because of the direction of the subject, cup your hand to try and cast a shadow on that spot that you are shooting though, to get rid of reflections.
4. Shoot though dark colored fencing if there’s an option and if it doesn’t have direct sun on it, even better!
Dark chain link fence (like with a black, brown, or dark green coating on it) doesn’t reflect as much light, thus, disappears better. If you have a silver chain link fence to shoot through, that may be trouble and if it’s got sun on it, it’s going to be nearly impossible to make it disappear unless you are touching your lens to it.
Example: The Knoxville Zoo has a nice new lion exhibit where they have dark chain link (looks like cabling in a chain link pattern) at the viewing area, but the rest of the enclosure has normal silver color fencing.
5. Try and shoot at a subject farther away from the fence.
If the animal is too close to the fence, you won’t be able to get the fence out of focus and the animal in focus. They’ll probably need to be at least 4-6 feet away from the fence before the fence will be out of focus enough. (the faster the lens the less this distance will be as well) Of course the farther away the subject is the less fence, but the smaller the subject. There will always be an optimal lens length to subject distance from the fence ratio for that lens.
Example: At the Bays Mountain wolf pen there are 2 fences! (and a 3rd wood slat fence you have to stand behind) You have to shoot about 4 feet behind fence #1 (due to the slat fence, unless you really lean over it). Then fence #1 is about 4 feet from fence #2. I’m generally shooting a 200mm lens at f/4. (320mm equivalent with my 1.6x crop factor camera) I can shoot about 6+ feet into the pen and not get much fence pattern, but a bit farther is better. The other option is my 70-300mm lens which is an f/5.6 at 300mm. Because you gain length but loose aperture, it is about the same as the 70-200 f/4 distance wise to loose the fence.
Extra note on thick “glass” (around 1/2″+ thick). Depending on what it is and how it’s made, it will probably warp and distort your photos if you shoot through it at too much of an angle, so try and shoot straight through it as much as possible.