San Diego Zoo Photography Ideas Guide

I’m not a zoo photographer. It’s not that I’m against photographing captive wildlife – I go to game farms and animal parks, and sometimes that’s the only way to get an image of certain animals, but I’m often discouraged by the sheer press of people and the great difficulty in photographing subjects without showing all the concrete and steel.

Yet, if you don’ t photograph at zoos, you’ll miss the opportunity to get images of wildlife that you’ll never get in the wild. And, for some people, a zoo may be their only chance to photograph animals that normally are found halfway across the world

San Diego Zoo Photography

Although the San Diego Zoo is an old zoo, and many species are confined behind bars for display only, the zoo is converting it to more natural settings. It is one of the nation’s top-rated zoos. My purpose in this column is to tell you what’s possible there photographically, and there are many golden opportunities.

As always, get to the zoo early so that you are there when it opens at 9:00 a.m. There are less crowds and less heat, and it does get warm, even in winter. That’s the best times for  San Diego zoo photography.

san diego zoo photography

In most instances, you’ll need lenses in the 400mm to 600mm range. With the longer lenses, the inherent shallower depth of field will often help eliminate distracting backgrounds. There will be many opportunities where the long lenses will allow you to go tight on a subject, cropping out backgrounds and allowing you to do portraits.

After entering the park, turn left and head for the Tiger River Walkway. The zoo has a rare, white Bengal tiger, and it’s on display from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. Go past the first tiger viewing area to the second. The last time I was there, the tiger strolled to the front of the compound, looked right at me and roared.

The thunder of its roar reverberated off the canyon wall and to say that I was duly impressed would put it mildly. The entire zoo is on very hilly terrain, and one of the hillsides forms the back of the tiger pen. You shoot across a moat so you have no bars with which to contend in your San Diego zoo photography.

A little past the tiger area is the hippo park, which has a glass-front tank, affording you the opportunity to take above and below water pictures at the same time. By going to the top of the bleachers, you can shoot over the retaining wall when the hippos come up to breathe or when they rest on the far bank.

Going back uphill, you’ll pass the pens of the whale-headed stork and Saurus crane. Using a big lens, you easily take head shots of the birds against a natural background. You can even get full-length shots of these birds, but they are leg-banded.

At the very top of the hill, you’ll find one of the few opportunities to photograph a gorilla without man-made structures. The pen is built around a massive outcrop of rocks, and the big male usually sits on the apex to survey his domain. According to your lens, you can get either body shots or close-up head portraits.

Other zoos have gorilla enclosures, but few of them allow you to skyline your subject. For those of you who will never go to a Africa, it’s worth a trip to this zoo just to see and photograph the gorillas.

As this is one of the zoo’s most popular attractions, it may take some time for the crowd to thin out so that you can get close to the enclosure for unobstructed viewing. You’ll find the same press of the crowds at the orangutan enclosure.

The ring-tailed lemurs are also photogenic and, as a good part of their enclosure is natural rock, you can’t tell where the photos were taken unless you’ re a geologist. (I realize that many magazines require a disclosure statement to accompany images of captive animals; I have no trouble with that. I just don’t want my photos to look like they have to have a disclosure statement.)

I could get only head shots of the standing giraffes. Many of the hoofed creatures, such as the gazelles and antelopes, couldn’t be separated from their background or foreground.

In my seven summers in Africa, I’ve seen the little antelopes called klipspringers, but my first and only photos of them were taken here at the ZOO. They, too, stood on a high rock outcropping and could be skylined. They were all ear-tagged, which meant that I often had to wait until they turned their heads, wagged their ears or turned completely around. It was well worth the wait.

I’ve never seen nor photographed meerkats in Africa but, if I get a request for photos of them again, I’ve got them. However, I didn’t get to their area until the afternoon and had to shoot them backlit. You can get to within six to eight feet of them without foreground or background distractions.

The African bird aviary is very good. The structure is high enough and the wire mesh fine enough so that no distracting shadows fall on your subject, nor is it reflected in their eyes. It is well worth a couple of hours of your time to get the birds you want to photograph in the position you want them to be in.

While some of the bird species have staked out their own particular territory and don’t leave it, most of the species fly back and forth, landing on any one of the many projecting branches of the vegetation. Most of the birds are banded but, after a bird alights on a stick, give it time to sit down and relax and the bands will be hidden in the bird’s feathers.

Make sure you take photographs of all the identification nameplates so you can properly identify the species you don’t know, when you get home.

The zoo also has a large open lake. Hundreds of egrets and herons perch in the trees near the flamingo pen. These are wild birds without leg bands. You can get closer to these birds here than any other place I’ve been. They’re so accustomed to crowds of people that you can get frame-filling head shots with your 80-200mm lens.

The zoo also has a great variety of waterfowl that are pinioned and banded. Be very careful if you photograph any of the pinioned birds. On the “puddle” or “dipper” ducks, such as woodies, mallards, blacks, teal, etc., the tips of both wings, cross over the back in front of the tail.

These crossed wings are easily seen. If the bird has been pinioned, one wing tip has been cut off so the bird can’t fly and it shows noticeably in photographs. With the “diving” ducks, the wing tips don’t cross and, if one is pinioned, it won’t be seen if the bird is photographed from the opposite side.

In addition to the captive birds, there are thousands of wild ducks of all species. You’ll need a long lens to do a good job on them, but you’ll still be able to get closer to them, without the benefit of a blind, than you will in most other spots.

The zoo is rated one of the top zoos in the nation and it certainly offers fantastic San Diego zoo photography opportunities.

As an aside, if you don’t belong to the North American Nature Photographer’s Association (NANPA), you should join. There’s strength in numbers, and this organization is concerned with the many problems besetting wildlife photographers and has the strength and voice to stand up for our rights. You can get membership Information by contacting:


10200W 44th AVE, Suite 304

Wheat Ridge, CO 80033

Phone: (303) 422-8527


Remember, this an organization for all photographers, not just professionals.

By Dr. Leonard Lee Rue, III

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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