10 Tips for Taking Better Zoo Photos

February 1, 2024

To remember your trip to the zoo, you’re going to want to take lots of pictures. However, since the animals here have control over their environments and can always choose to stay in sight of guests or not, getting the best ones can be a challenge. Plus, there might be visual barriers designed for safety, like glass.

Along with animal experts, Lincoln Park Zoo also has staff members who are very good at capturing gorgeous photos of the animals that live here. It helps that they’re on grounds and able to see the animals often — but they’ve also developed tried and true methods that result in those professional images you see on zoo social media, on the website, or even in the gift shop for purchase.

Here are a few tips from our experts here at the zoo, including a zoo photographer, the zoo’s star social media team, Videographer Sean Raju, and Curator of Large Mammals and Carnivores Cassy Kutilek, whose photo of Cleo and Pilipili on a heated rock was highlighted in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ 2023 photo contest. Although not a professional photographer, she’s able to catch some truly special moments when she does daily checks on the animals.

image of giraffe with dark background

Image courtesy of Cassy Kutilek

1. Get as close as you can to the mesh or glass of the habitat.

If you’re trying to get smartphone images of an animal that’s behind mesh or glass (which may be patterned with dots to keep birds away—think Pepper Family Wildlife Center), don’t zoom in from where you are. Instead, put your phone right up next to the barrier.

Getting your phone close enough to position the lens between the mesh lines or dots helps get rid of those unwanted elements. Just make sure you stay safely behind the barriers and don’t go into restricted areas!

2. Find new perspectives.

Everyone will be taking pictures from the same spots. But the zoo has plenty of less-traveled areas that yield awesome pictures of certain animals. Go to the second floor of Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House and shoot images from above. Or, as Social Media Coordinator Caitlin Mobley suggests, go to areas you might not normally visit. For example, instead of staying outside to see the lions, enter the building and walk through the Lion Loop at Pepper Family Wildlife Center to get images of the lions from various different angles—including from below.

Another suggestion comes from Sarah Anderson, the zoo’s social media manager: “It can be tough to shoot through glass, so I like visiting Regenstein African Journey since there are many habitats that separate the animals from guests in different ways. The mesh at the klipspringer and crested guineafowl shared habitat is a close to the viewing area, so you can angle your phone’s camera to focus through it.”

photo of Jabari the lion with blue sky

Image by Christopher Bijalba

4. Don’t wait for perfect-weather days—but pick your times strategically.

It might be more pleasant for you and your family to visit the zoo when the sun is shining and it’s warm out, but that isn’t the only time animals are up and about, and you also have to contend with other guests all trying to get similar pictures.

Instead, Kutilek says, come on less nice days. “It might be rainy or cold out, but most animals thrive outside in those conditions—especially snow leopards and harbor seals. You could see leaping from the leopards or wallowing from the rhinos.”

And get to the zoo early, or stay as late as you can. That’s when you’ll find the animals most active. Many species like to sleep in the afternoons. Raju says, “As you get to know the animals, you’ll know when they like to be the most active. For example, the polar bears love early mornings.”

He adds that if you can come when keepers are administering enrichment, the animals tend to be quite active then.

4. Be patient.

If you have a little extra time to spend at an animal habitat, stick around awhile and see what happens. “It’s a great way to watch behavior and also get a great shot,” Kutilek says.

Take a little time to frame the image! You might be able to get more natural-looking pictures with greenery in the background, or you might be able to zoom in to view the animal’s eyes. Spending more time at a habitat may also allow you to catch an unusual expression or view individuals interacting, which always makes for a great photo.

Along with that, watching the animals helps you get a sense of animal behaviors and patterns, so you can anticipate, plan and be more proactive about your photography, rather than just reacting to what you see. In this way, you’re not just simply taking a picture, you’re using gained knowledge to make sure you’re ready when conditions are right.

rhino with infant rhino

Image courtesy of Cassy Kutilek

5. Pay attention to your lighting and don’t use a flash.

The best times of day to take pictures of animals at the zoo tend to be as the sun is coming up or down, or during a cloudy day. “Diffused light is usually more flattering than direct sunlight,” Raju says.

Flash photography can bother animals and is not encouraged in many zoos, especially in buildings like Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House that house nocturnal animals. But more than that, flash photographs simply aren’t necessarily better quality. And they tend to highlight reflections while removing shadows, which can make your image look flat.

6. Use a long or telephoto lens on your DSLR camera.

Use a long lens with a wide aperture to defocus the wires of the mesh. This will make them less obvious or even remove them entirely from the frame. “Wide angle lenses will show all the mesh but with a longer lens you can get through the mesh and focus on the animals instead,” Raju says.

7. Break out the polarizing filter for your high-tech equipment.

“If you’re dealing with reflections on glass, attach a polarizer to your lens to minimize any distracting glare,” Raju says. Polarizers can also help make images sharper, reducing haze in backgrounds and helping to capture distant backgrounds.

chimpanzee holding fruit

Image by Christopher Bijalba

8. Don’t forget the plants, even in winter!

The zoo features beautiful gardens throughout spring and summer and even fall that are so colorful and vibrant. After all, Lincoln Park Zoo is an accredited arboretum with 850 species of plants and trees—including a nationally accredited hardy hibiscus collection that provides on-site drama during the late summer months. But the rich textures and muted colors of winter are just as beautiful and can provide so much complexity to your photos, especially when contrasted against the atmospheric urban environment of Chicago.

9. Follow zoo rules!

One note of caution: As you try to get the perfect picture at the zoo, stay on public paths and follow the zoo’s photography guidelines. For the safety of both guests and animals, pay attention to signs and stay out of areas where you’re not supposed to be. We thank you for keeping Lincoln Park Zoo a fun and positive place to be!

10. Enjoy yourself.

The zoo features so many amazing sites for great photos, you’re bound to get a few great ones while you’re here. Kutilek points out, “As zoo employees, we work with some of the world’s most incredible animals, from cows to hissing cockroaches and everything in between.”

And they’re all so photogenic! Have fun trying to catch them on film (metaphorically, that is). Don’t hesitate to take a lot of pictures! Hopefully, one will be exactly what you’re looking for.


Empty Playlist