Taking pictures through fences at the zoo is a challenge

Warning: This article aims to help you get rid of fences in the foreground when you takes photos.  Fences in the background are also an issue, however it is very difficult to get rid of fences in post-production (e.g. Photoshop) if they are visible in the foreground while in the background this is less of an issue.

You are excited.  You are heading to the zoo with your camera.  It is time to take great pictures of wildlife.  Is it this simple?  Well no, it’s not.  All these nice animals are behind fences and there is no easy way for you to get clean pictures.  In this article we will focus on what can be done to get rid of fences between your subject and the camera.

How to take great pictures of wildlife through the fences AND make sure the fence is invisible.

On each of these duos of pictures the picture on the left is disappointing.  It would be a challenge to get it right even using Photoshop.  A similar picture on the right is more promising.  The fence can be seen in the background on some of them but it is not interfering with the subject itself.  As you know, it is easier to get rid of fences in the background with available tools today.

At the zoo, the fence is always between the camera and the subject.  What is the trick to get pictures like the one on the right?  Just read on and find out. There is no magic, it is just plain old techniques !

Tip #1: Use the largest aperture available;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - Large aperture

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – Use of a large aperture

A small aperture increases depth of field.  An increased depth of field will make the fence more visible. On the other hand, using a large aperture decreases the depth of field.  This means that the fence in front of the lens is less visible (being out of focus).  When shooting through anything, if you want this obstacle to be less visible use a larger aperture. Depending on other variables you could even focus a little bit behind the subject if the sharp depth is not as shallow as desired.  To further enhance the picture on the right, Photoshop Content Aware Fill will help get rid of the fence in the background.

Tip #2: Keep your lens glued to the fence;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - Near the fence

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – Keep close to the fence

I leave the lens hood on and I keep it touching the fence at a 90 degrees angle.  As you can see on this picture on the left, moving the camera just inches away from the fence is causing issues.  We can see the pattern created by the fence in front of the subject. The loss in contrast is also important.  On the right the head of the vulture is clear and crisper.  Keeping the lens as close as possible to the fence made a big difference.

Tip #3: Use a longer focal length;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - long lens

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – Use of a longer lens

This picture on the right was shot through the fence at a focal length of 200mm on an APS-C camera.  This is equivalent to 300mm on a full frame body.  Aperture was f/4,8.  We clearly see the texture in the white feathers of the parrot.  When the contrast is weak, the first symptom is losing texture in white areas of the scene.  Loosing contrast would make this picture look very bad.  Going to the long end of your zoom while keeping the aperture wide open and sticking the lens to the fence is a sure way to get a photo you’ll like.  It also helps when the subject is away from the fence.  This parrot realized he would get nothing from me and headed to the next visitor when I shot the picture on the right.

Ideally I would have waited until the fence in the background was further away.  At this focal length and aperture setting only 2 feet between the subject and the fence in the back would have been enough to have it completely blurred.

Tip #4: Make sure the fence is in shadow;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - fence in the shade

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – keep fence in the shade

You can use all these tips but if the fence in front of the camera is in bright light, the picture will look like the one on the left.  We do not see the fence, however the contrast is really bad due to the light reflecting from the fence onto the sensor of the camera.  I took the same picture from a location where the fence was in the shade (on the right); it is definitely improved.
[bctt tweet=”How to get rid of fences while shooting at the zoo – 8 easy tips” username=”rawtestscom”]

It is easy enough some time to put your hand or having someone create the needed shade in order to get the most out of a picture opportunity.

Tip #5: Make sure the subject is in good light;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - Subject in good light

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – Subject properly lit

Should the subject be in a very dark spot, like the one on the left side, your camera system will increase ISO or lower the shutter speed. This means that even though the fence might be in the shade, enough light might reflect through the lens onto the sensor to ruin the shot. Try to find a subject that receives enough light like the one on the right to avoid these situations. Take the time to look at your exposure selection when in auto mode. Should the shutter speed drop or ISO rise you might get into trouble.

Tip #6: Beware of focus misses;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - check your focus

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – beware of focus errors

With the fence between you and your subject your focusing system could to tricked. This could be a real problem. At 200mm and f/4,8 on an APS-C camera the depth of field is only 0,02 feet or 6 mm. This means that you need to make sure your focus is spot on. Knowing that focusing systems are not perfect, you need to take the time to review the pictures at the greatest magnification available before moving to the next one. In my case, doing so, I realized that my focus was not spot on in the picture on the left. This way, I was able to shoot again to get this keeper on the right.

Tip #7: Play with the fences;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - playing with fences

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – playing with the fences in pictures

Do not drop creativity from being part of the game!  After taking this first shot on the left I saw the interesting patterns created by the light reflection.  Moving a little bit enabled me to frame the face of the monkey with the pattern for an interesting shot.  When you cannot get rid of fences, you can try to leverage them at your advantage.

Tip #8: Use live view or a mirrorless camera;

Zoo pictures taken through fences - Seeing through live-view

Taking pictures through fences at the zoo – Use of Live view

If you take pictures with a DSLR, enable live-view to see how the picture will look like before hitting the shutter with your finger.  In some situations, even though the fence is hard to miss, the resulting picture could be stellar.  If you are lucky enough to shoot with a mirrorless camera you will be able to see what your sensor is recording.  As such you will get a greater ratio of keepers.
Shooting pictures at the zoo might create very nice and interesting pictures when you take the time to follow these guidelines.  Some of these pictures could be enhanced further (remove the word further) with local adjustment to further blur the background.

All these picture were taken with the exact same fence between the camera and the subject.  Only global modifications (contrast, exposure, etc) were made to these pictures using Lightroom.

Please take the time to look at this great video with Gavin Hoey.  He is one of my preferred online photographer.  He explains how to get the most from your pictures shot through fences.

Do you like the pictures you took at the zoo?  Tell us about your own story?