On this Saturday morning, Aperture Academy instructor Scott Davis gathered together with our intrepid workshop group for a fun, informative and productive day at the San Francisco zoo. Morning conditions were typical summer in the city by the bay — ah, a lovely thick marine layer but luckily for us, this makes for great portrait taking conditions because of the soft diffused light.
We always start with introductions, so it was exciting to hear that some of our students were taking the workshop in preparation for a big trip that involved a lot of wildlife photography. Two lucky students were heading off to Africa in a few weeks for a two-week photo safari, and took this class to put some final touches on their wildlife photo skills. Can one say, green with envy however this gets Aperture staff all giddy with excitement as we put the final touches on our own no holds barred African photo safari in 2012?
From experience, we knew there was an early Grizzly feeding. So with this in mind, we briefly warmed up our trigger fingers and camera settings on a variety of animals en route to the Grizzly enclosure. The chimpanzees in particular were up and active and provided fantastic animal portraits. Due to their dark complexions coupled with a bright sky background, we were really able to see the benefits of working in manual mode. Normally, these kind of lighting conditions would wreak havoc on the metering systems of cameras in their ability to determine proper exposure. With a few test shots, histogram evaluation and highlight settings, tricky lighting was no longer a problem. Time flew watching the chimps so onward to the Grizzlies
To get a view of the actual feeding spot for the Grizzlies, you have to crowd behind big windows with the other interested humans. However, we knew from experience that a wonderful time to get into position for grizzly shots is the time just before feeding, and not behind the windows.
The bears have an internal clock, coupled with food smells and behavioral cues associated with the keepers, so they know when feeding time is imminent. At this point, the bears get anxious and start pacing and running back and forth in their enclosure. The advantage of having an experienced location instructor is that we know the best places to get the best shots, so our photographers were able to put themselves in great positions (without windows or crowds) and capture fantastic portraits of Grizzly bears running directly toward the camera. For the students with bigger telephoto lenses, by zooming in tight, one would be hard pressed figuring if the bear was on the Alaskan tundra or in a zoo in San Francisco. Good stuff!
After leaving the bears, we continued around the zoo focusing on opportune moments and animals as they presented themselves to us. Meerkats with their big eyes and curious nature are always a favorite although today there was a bit of a chill in the air so they mostly evaded us by getting all snugly in thier dens. Not to worry though, there's always something to see at the zoo.
Of course, gorillas, with their close resemblance to everyone's Uncle Harry and Aunt Florence, never fail to produce superb images. And, the birds of prey area allows our photographers to get uber-tight portraits of magnificent birds like Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, various owl species, that in the wild would be exceptionally difficult to acquire.
By the end of the workshop, with a little coaxing, instruction and encouragement, most everyone had embraced shooting in full manual mode. The mysteries of proper exposure, shutter speed, f-stop settings, ISO, white balance, and raw images were no longer a mystery. Checking their screens, I could see some amazing images being captured. Well done everybody!
It's always great fun spending a day watching and photographing animals. Add to the mix an enthusiastic and energetic group of people and you've got the makings for a good time. To quote once again Simon and Garfunkle, "It's all happening at the Zoo" and we agree.
Until next time,
Scott and the rest of the team at Aperture Academy!