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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - April 13th, 2014

Wildlife Photography Workshop Students with Aperture Academy at the San Francisco Zoo

A warm, breezy, sunny day on the coast; a small, friendly and fun group of budding wildlife photographers; the beautiful San Francisco Zoo. This is how Matt Granz and I spent this past Sunday, introducing our eager student's to beginning wildlife photography. We all met a the zoo entrance and took some time for general introductions so Matt and I could get an idea of our student's skill levels and gear of choice. All just happened to be Nikon shooters, except for myself and one other Pentaxian, but we didn't hold it against them. ;)

After some instruction on basic camera settings best used for wildlife photography, we headed into the zoo and a first stop to warm up our trigger fingers with the giraffes and zebras. The use of a higher ISO, faster shutter speeds, as well as using burst mode for successive shots was discussed to capture any fast movement from wildlife or a fleeting moment of cuddly cuteness. Students learned of spot metering as Matt and I emphasized that wildlife would be the star of the show and of our student's images. Both the giraffe and zebra were quite active on this day and provided lots of opportunity for some nice close up shots.

Next we headed over to Bear Country for one of the most popular events at the zoo-the feeding of the grizzly sisters. This is always a treat for young and old and a great chance for our students to learn to photograph the fast action of these wonderful creatures as they come charging out into their private play yard complete with a pool stocked with live salmon for them to capture. Fruits and vegetables are also scattered around the area and along a mountainous waterfall just for the bears to forage like their cousins in the wild. The most difficult part of photography here is the large viewing glass one has to shoot through. It's a great way to watch the grizzlies up close and personal, but can cause issues with glare and odd color casts. No worries as Matt and I helped our students in understanding white balance and a few post processing techniques which would help with sharpness, color, and contrast. Today, one of the grizzlies actually caught her fish right next to the window and proceed to tear it apart with tooth and nail to the delight of our photographers and some lucky children watching at eye level!

Having achieved some great shots as evidenced by our student's smiling faces and images on their cameras, it was time to go for a walkabout and visit the kangaroos and wallabies. Along the way we stopped to see one of the polar bears lounging on its back in the sun and gently scratching its belly. We were able to instruct our group to get shots through a chain link fence using the widest aperture and manual focus, but some took their chances holding their cameras over their heads and managed to get a few really nice shots using this "blind" technique. The kangaroos were very much enjoying laying out in the sun napping, but we also got to see a wallaby and its baby, and a very "punk rock" looking emu as it foraged for some new leafy greens. Everyone then enjoyed a stop for lunch at the Leaping Lemur Cafe. Having lunch with our students allowed Matt and I some time to discuss what they had learned so far and check that they were on track in understanding their cameras and increasing their abilities for great wildlife photography. It was also nice just getting to know each other a little better and talk about our mutual love of photography.

The Chilean flamingos had become quite active with many of them bathing and flapping their wings as they relished the sunshine. Matt and I worked with students in balancing out exposures for the lighter plumage and getting abstract close ups of the pink and orange feathers. We then made our way to the gorilla preserve to see if we could get some photos of the newest arrival…a male baby gorilla named Kabibe. He was introduced almost immediately after we arrived as mom carried him out of the enclosure on her back. Though they kept a distance, all of our photographers managed to get close enough with some longer focal length shots as the baby foraged and played on top of a rock with mom. While getting shots of the baby and other members of the family, Oscar, the large male silverback came charging out of the enclosure to assert his dominance and remind us humans not to get too close to his family. He made a further point of this by going to the large viewing area where people lined the heavy plexiglass and suddenly began hitting the glass with his hands which scattered the onlookers of both children and adults. His power and ability to protect his family was indisputable.

As much as we wanted to linger hoping for more chances to capture this type of excitement, it was time to venture off to the Cat Kingdom and pay a visit to the tiger cub, Jillian, now about a year old and nearly as large as her mother. We had two vantage points at which to get these glimpses into the life of a tiger family, and again had to do so through large glass panes or a couple of holes in the fencing just large enough for a good size lens. This warm afternoon had both mom and daughter relaxing in the sun, but some occasional movement was enough to get cameras clicking as our students became more comfortable and confident in getting the shots they wanted. Our last stop was in the children's area to photograph the adorable prairie dogs as they popped in and out of their burrows, and then to Hawk Hill where high school volunteers showed off a wonderful collection of animals. Our students got their final shots of a very large iguana, desert tortoise, snake, ferrets, and a very busy little hedgehog on the green grass sprinkled with spring dandelions. Fielding a few final questions and offering some final tips and information, Matt and I said our good-byes to this very enjoyable group of photographers and a successful day of wildlife photography at the San Francisco Zoo.

Until Next Time,

Jean, Matt and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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