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Wildlife photography is a tough task; you are responsible for knowing how to set your camera to capture the images well, but you also are at the mercy of the animal to behave properly so you can get some nice photographs. It's usually difficult - and very common - for photographers to spend too much time and money only to head out into the wilderness and wait endless hours in the hope that when they see that critter they've been looking for, they are able to capture the right image. Often this ends with you heading home wishing you knew more about wildlife photography, and had the opportunity to practice more before setting out in the wild... but there is a solution. The zoo is the perfect place to practice!
And we were able to prove this practice with an eager group of 12 photographers. They met instructors and professional photographers Alicia Telfer and Brian Rueb at the San Francisco Zoo for a sunny day of education and fun, ready to learn the basics about wildlife photography.
The class began with a brief orientation to introduce the class to one another and to the instructors. This allowed Brian and Alicia to get to know a bit about the students' experiences, and the type of gear they were using. Once the formalities were over, Brian spent a few moments going over some of the basic settings they would be using throughout the day. Everyone had their cameras at the ready and it was time to go see some animals!
The zoo is great in that it not only provides a wide array of different types of animals to photograph, but it also keeps the level of uncertainty that animals possess in the wild in tact. Just as with wildlife photography on the outside, we never know exactly what the animals here at the zoo will be up to when we arrive to photograph them.
The first stop of the day saw us spending some time photographing the pair of Maribou storks. They were a perfect first subject as they didn't move much, and it allowed Alicia and Brian time to work with the students on readjusting their settings, and looking at the histograms afterwards to ensure they had nice images.
While the storks were mostly stationary, the bears were quite active. They get fed at roughly the same time each morning. The bears know it, and about thirty minutes prior to feeding time they begin to play and frolic in their pen in anticipation of the coming meal. They play wrestling and chasing games, and because of the warmer weather, they even jumped in their swimming hole for a brief period. They gave the class a good lesson in why it's important to put the camera on multi-frame shooting. The bears move so fast that firing bursts of 5-7 shots in rapid secession will often give the photographer a better opportunity to get a nice image.
When it came time to let the bears into their main enclosure to eat, the class moved to positions closer to the viewing glass where we could photograph them as they caught fish in the pond, and searched their enclosure for the treats zoo staff had hidden throughout. The glass provided some color cast and glare, so Brian and Alicia helped the class to position themselves in the right spots to capture the best images, and shared great tips on how to correct the images in post-processing.
The rest of the morning was spent photographing arctic critters. We photographed a polar bear chewing on a bone, and then spent some time with the penguins that, in addition to being quite smelly, were also fun to photograph. Both creatures were quite white in color and provided the instructors a chance to help with exposure adjustments on brighter creatures.
We made an attempt to photograph the big cats before lunch, but as is typical of big cats, even in the wild...they were all taking a "cat nap" rather than giving us photogenic poses. Then, during lunch, some of the class took time to hit the nearby flamingo pond to grab some nice images of these bright pink birds and as they posed for the lens, and occasionally got into a squabble or two to give the students some action!
After lunch it was off to see the gorillas. The gorillas are always great for photography. Whether they are sitting posed on the grass, or engaged in a game of some sort, they are always perfect for photography. During this session we had a great mix of action and posing. A few of the larger gorillas were scattered throughout their enclosure in stately poses. Hasani, the youngest member of the troop, was as entertaining as always. Somehow he had come across a metal water bottle, and was hauling it around like a toy. This "toy" caused some strife with the other gorillas and eventually ended with the large silverback grabbing the bottle and slinging it with great force across the enclosure at one of the other gorillas, where it ricocheted off the wall with a loud PING! When the toy wasn't being haggled over, Hasani gave everyone some laughs as he put his fingers up the other gorillas nose, and just generally behaved as the rowdy, rambunctious youngster he is.
The final stop of the day was the Children's Zoo. The close proximity to meerkats, prairie dogs and birds of prey makes this a great place for allowing the students a chance to get some nice portrait style images, and close ups of some animals.
The meerkats were out enjoying the sun, and while most were content to just sit and watch us, a few of the little weasel-like critters were on their mound perches scanning the sky for predators, just as they would in the wild. It's behaviors like this that make for some of the best and most natural looking images. Brian and Alicia helped the students to try and place themselves so that the meerkats were in positions that placed pink-flowered bushes behind them to give some interesting color and texture to the background. The owls and hawks were great for photography as well...many students got some really nice close ups of the powerful predatory birds.
It was quite the day. The class had fun maneuvering the maze of the zoo, had the opportunity to photograph a wide variety of creatures that would have taken more than a million frequent flyer miles to see in the wild. In addition to the great animals, we saw over the course of the day, the class also began to really become more comfortable with their camera settings and what was needed to capture the light at the right moments, and then adjust as conditions changed. It really was a great workshop, great experience, and great day!
Until next time,
Brian, Alicia, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.
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