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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - Dec. 9, 2012

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

Posted by Instructor Brian Rueb

I love going to the zoo. I think I get just as excited now as I did when I was a kid. The best part now is that I'm helping people to come away with good shots, and some better understanding of how to photograph wildlife.

Jean and I met our group outside the zoo, and everyone was on time. Great to see that! Once we'd gone over the basics in orientation, it was time to see some critters. I wish wildlife was like the zoo sometimes, where you knew you'd see a good variety of animals at decent, photographable range. Every time I'm in the wild, sitting on my butt, waiting for SOMETHING...I always say, "Man, I should just go to the zoo."

The first stop had Marabou storks. I love these creepy birds. To me, they just FEEL like Africa, so foreign and intense. They look like someone took a vulture's head, fed it steroids, and then put it on a stork's body. (These storks bring zombies, not babies, to people's doorstep. I'm convinced of this.)











The class got some nice shots of these birds, as well as some more dainty cranes that had some very cool plumage that was backlit by the morning sun. Really some nice photo ops here.

We started walking towards the bear exhibit to watch the grizzlies get fed, but as with any real wildlife safari, we got sidetracked looking for one animal by other animals.

We made a brief stop to photograph the crazy looking mandrill, and the tiger was RIGHT BY THE GLASS, and looking around, so of course we HAD to stop and shoot her.

I've never been lucky enough to see the tiger in that spot, and I know that if we didn't stop, she'd be hidden in the grass when we returned. The class crowded around the glass and got some nice shots of this beautiful cat.

I showed them a shot on my phone of a lion I took in the SAME spot, to show that it's possible to correct and remove the glare of the window. A lot of students are concerned about the color cast of the glass, and it's reassuring to show them an example where it has been corrected.

Though we had stopped on our way, we still made it to the bears in time to watch them eat. THAT is an experience, it's really like shooting them in the wild. They run amok looking for the fish their keepers have released into the pond (LIVE!!). The bears splash and thrash trying to catch the fish, and then they eat it right there for the masses to watch and click away. The same bear got both fish this time.

The other bear was preoccupied with bobbing for apples. A few of the students and I wondered why they left the stickers on the apples? I mean, I know they're hard to peel off if you don't have long finger nails, but c'mon! I think the bear was trying to get them off as well, but got frustrated and just ate them whole instead.

When the bears were done, it was off to shoot some polar bear (grass-stained ones HA!) and then time for a small lunch break.

When lunch was over, it was gorilla time. The gorillas are always fun, and they seem to have a knack for posing like a good portrait session...especially the big silverback, he's very good with his "blue steel" look, and gives just the right head tilts. WORK IT! WORK IT!

One thing I try to work on with the gorillas and other animals is how to adjust settings. Some people like to keep it on aperture priority when they shoot wildlife, to make sure they get a good depth of field to keep the critter all nice and sharp, but sometimes the camera will pick a shutter speed that either blows out some highlights, or is too slow, given the size of the lens.

I showed people how to use exposure compensation to adjust for highlights, as well as how to switch to manual, and then make the necessary shutter and ISO adjustments to help compensate for the light. Both methods do the same thing, it just becomes a matter of personal preference.

The gorillas were quite lazy today, and spent most of their time sitting in one spot picking grass. The little guy, Hasani, wasn't particularly active either, although he finally walked around near our group towards the end, so hopefully people got a few nice images of this cute little fella.

One of the female gorillas kept wagging her tongue at us, which was quite funny. When we made some snarky remarks about it...she up and left. Wonder if she heard us!?

The final spot we hit was the kid zoo and the meerkats. We took our group shot here, and the idea was that we would all pose like the meerkat behind us...I don't know, but I felt like I was the only one who sold it. HA! Maybe it was the plan, "Let's all smile and let Brian pose like a meerkat. That'd be funny."

From the meerkat, it was off to the owls nearby. The Eurasian eagle owl there is so pretty. The class got some great close ups of her, and towards the end the trainer even picked her up so people could see her better, and hopefully get a good close up. Jean and I talked here a lot about moving to find a good background with the animals. Better to have trees in the back rather than someone's jeans.

Next thing I knew it was 3pm! Time flies. I know the class took a lot of shots throughout the day, and it was especially good learning and practicing for a few people who were heading off to Africa and New Zealand to shoot a variety of wild animals. I'm hoping they'll send me some shots when they get back!

On behalf of myself (Brian), Jean, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team, thank you for another great workshop at the zoo!

If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.

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