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It's a hard choice for some: vanilla or chocolate ice cream. In this case, vanilla-colored polar bears or milk chocolate-toned grizzly bears seemed to be the choice for the first shoot of the morning. Normally, I like to take the group to the grizzly enclosure just before feeding time, as the grizz's get excited, which makes for good action shots. En route to the Grizz enclosures, we normally pass by the polar bear pen and 90% of the time, they are in sleepy time mode, which doesn't make for the most exciting wildlife portraits.
Today however, was a different story. The polar bear was very active, wandering around his enclosure, coming to the edge of the moat, giving us full frontal head shots and beautiful profiles. Knowing this was a rare moment, we decided to forego the grizzly shoot for just a bit to take advantage of the opportunity. That's one of the things I love about wildlife photography, the unpredictability of it, and then being there at the right moment when the action is happening.
Photographing the polar bear was also an excellent opportunity to introduce many in the workshop to the joys and benefits of working in manual mode and using histograms as a tool to determine proper exposures. The extreme white fur of the polar bear, coupled with the darker tones of the enclosure, can often give a camera's metering system fits when it comes to determining a good exposure. If left in auto-mode for everything, there's a good chance that many of the shots would be improperly exposed.
One of our participants was using the day to hone up her skills in preparation for an upcoming wedding shoot. Experimenting with exposures with an energetic snow white bear was perfect practice for photographing an active bride wearing a snow white dress. After a few moments of explaining some of these principles, I could see a major difference in the number of consistently good exposures being taken by our group.
After about five minutes, the polar bear went back to what seemed to be his typical behavior for the time of day, laying flat on his belly, rump to the crowd, in preparation for his pre-noon nap. It was perfect timing as this still allowed us some time to rush on over to the adjacent grizzly enclosure just before feeding and grab some action shots.
As expected, the grizz were pacing about in their pen, getting geared up for their breakfast/lunch feeding. I saw some more great frame-filling portraits captured, this time utilizing some of the tools we had just practiced with the polar bear. We were able to capture some great shots before moving on to the African savanna.
Walking between the different locations within the zoo gives us ample time to discuss some of the finer nuances of wildlife photography, and to mention what to do with all the images once you get back home. The walks from one exhibit to the next one allows multiple photographic scenarios to be discussed and techniques to be directly applied.
To ensure plenty of individualized attention, fellow instructor and Aperture Academy's Adobe Lightroom guru, Scott Donschikowski, was on hand for this workshop. During our walks between exhibits, he offered a lot of insight into optimal post processing techniques for all the great new images.
By the time we reached the gorilla habitat, everyone seemed to be in the groove. Like alpine white polar bears or bright snowy scenes, extremely dark toned subject matter (i.e., black or charcoal-colored lowland gorillas) can easily throw off a camera's meter. Armed with new knowledge and in full manual mode, our group clicked off great shot after great shot. With some core principles under control, this allowed us to concentrate on other components like compositional and natural lighting techniques to further enhance our images. And it sure doesn't hurt to have subject matter that presents us with pose after pose....
Five hours flies by fast when presented with a plethora of great subject matter. The zoo certainly abounds in that category. Many were surprised at how quickly the afternoon seemed to go by, which I suppose is a good thing. Coupled with a fun, enthusiastic group, all with a common interest in photography, it's a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
On behalf of Scott, Scott, and the rest of the Aperture Academy staff, thanks so much for another great workshop experience! We look forward to seeing you again in the future.