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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - April 17th, 2010

What better way to learn wildlife photography than up close and personal, photographing lions, bears, tigers, and silverback gorillas? Each one can destroy you in seconds. Do you have what it takes? The only thing necessary is complete knowledge of your gear, a quick mind for artistic composition, and an unflappable attitude under the pressure of immediate destruction.

Alright...there ain't many who could photograph all those subjects at close range and live to tell the tale...which is why we went to the zoo.

What could be better than spending a beautiful day at the zoo learning to photograph a wide variety of animals and birds?

Our instructor, Brian Rueb, and assistant Kelly Baldwin, met the group at the zoo in the morning for introductions and orientation. Among them, there was a variety of backgrounds, and everyone wanted to come away with something a little different. However, this group did all have one goal in common - learn how to take better wildlife images.

While the animals at the zoo are not technically "wild," they demonstrate many of the same behaviors in captivity that they would in the wild, and the smaller areas they're kept in allow the photographer to position him/herself in the right areas to capture the images, as well as learn a bit about how the animals behave. This way, when they are in the environment capturing the "real" thing, they know just what to do.

We began our class at the giraffes. It was a great spot to work on some tricky lighting, as well as have the instructors get to know each student and their equipment a bit more.

Following that, we came up to the first real challenge of the day, which was to photograph the grizzly bears at feeding time. The zoo does a great job of food placement to simulate the bears' natural feeding behaviors. They place live fish in the pond, and hide their other food in locations that require them to search for it. Photographing the bears is a challenge, not only are they moving about their enclosure, but they're the main attraction and people are everywhere. This is where we really learned one of the big keys to wildlife photography: patience.

Much of wildlife photography is waiting. Waiting for the animals to be near to you, or do something impressive and amazing, or in this case, waiting for the hordes of people to leave.

We stuck it out and eventually everyone had a chance to get in close to the glass to photograph the bears.

Most of the rest of the morning was spent photographing the lion. It's very typical for lions to spend most of the day sleeping, and on most occasions when we visit they are sleeping. But, today we were treated to the big male posing for us just feet away from the glass. This was one of the highlights of the day. It was tricky to find a clear spot in the glass to shoot through, and the glare, at times was difficult to work with, but nobody was volunteering to go inside the cage to shoot, so we made the best of it. Our instructors were really impressed with some of the images they saw the students get of the lion.

Bears, otters, penguins, rhinos and an anteater... we had quite the array of morning wildlife to choose from. Seeing that much in the wild would set you back a few thousand dollars in airfare, for sure!

We walked a lot that morning, and it was good for everyone to take a break and get some food at one of the cafés. When lunch was over, the light improved even more, and we were treated to another of the San Francisco Zoo's big draws...

The Baby Gorilla.

If you've seen this little one, you know how cute he is. He's very difficult to photograph, because like most little boys, he's ALL over the place getting into trouble. However, when we returned in the afternoon we had front row seats as he played and tumbled for a good 20 minutes right by us.

This was also a perfect spot for putting to use those skills we spent the day working on, like high shutter speeds and low apertures. The group also saw that it helps to have a big memory card and high fps on their camera, because when the gorilla was hamming it up like that, the shots came fast and furious.

This is the second big key with wildlife photography; take as many shots as you can and hope for a couple you like. I think every student got at least one shot of the gorilla that they were proud of. While I definitely think he was the highlight for most of us in the afternoon, we spent a lot of time photographing other animals as well....

The Mandrills were entertaining to watch, and a great example of the vibrant colors and textures found in animals. The Snow Leopard was a favorite for a couple photographers as she was awake (for a bit) and able to be photographed.

We spent the remaining hour of our day in the children's zoo. While this part of the zoo is set up for little people, there are plenty of big person photography options to be found there. The prairie dogs and meerkats were great sports and many came out and posed for us to photograph. This section of the zoo also has a great selection of raptors and owls. They are located super close and this allows photographers a great opportunity to get very close shots of these powerful birds.

What a full day! In the span of five hours we saw what would take months in the wild. The class learned which settings are best for wildlife photography, and got great practice tracking animals and shooting them as they exhibited many of the behaviors they would in the wild. Practice is what matters most with this type of photography. Knowing what to do so that when the opportunities present themselves in the wild,that information should be rote, so you're able to quickly adjust and adapt to situations as they change. Many, if not all, professional wildlife photographers spend hours a year in zoos and other controlled environments practicing and observing to help them fine tune the skill set necessary to make incredible images in the wild.

It was a great day, and hopefully we'll see everyone back for one of our workshops in Tetons or Yellowstone as we go after the real thing!

Until next time,

Brian, Kelly, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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