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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - July 8th, 2012

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

"You have to wait for it. It might only be for a split second, but be ready.... Now!" (Click, click, click) "Got it."

The moment when an animal makes direct eye contact with the camera, and acknowledges your presence, even if only for an instant, can help create a powerful portrait. For a split second, there's a connection, albeit a fleeting or imagined one, between human and animal, that can create an incredibly compelling image. In this case, our photo subject was one of the majestic looking lowland gorillas who humored us with regal poses resembling Rodin's "The Thinker," then would run around with a plastic water tub on his head while beating his chest.

On this Saturday morning, Aperture Academy instructor Scott Davis, our newest, fresh-faced instructor Jean Day, and our intrepid workshop group were convening for a fun, informative and productive day at the San Francisco zoo. Morning conditions were typical summer in the city by the bay &emdash; a bit overcast, which 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. A few lucky students were heading off to Africa in a few weeks for a photo safari, and were taking this class to put some final touches on their wildlife photo skills. Two other students were soon heading to Alaska and Denali Park in search of glorious landscapes and big critters. Yet another was off to some other remote location in the world. Can one say, green with envy?

Normally, we begin the zoo circuit with time spent in the African savannah section, honing skills with the giraffe, zebra and other grazers, but this day there was an early grizzly feeding. So with this in mind, we headed off in that direction before being slightly distracted by the polar bears who were up and about. Taking advantage of the action, we briefly warmed up our trigger fingers and camera setting skills on the polar bears before high-tailing it over to the grizzly habitat.

To get a view of the actual feeding spot for the grizzlies, you have to crowd behind big smudge-covered windows with other interested humans. However, we knew from experience that the best time to 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 impatient 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. The chimpanzees were in rare form, providing outstanding photo opportunities, even at one point breaking into a brief scuffle with each other over territory. Of course, meerkats with their big eyes and curious nature are always a favorite.

However, it's the gorillas, with their close resemblance to everyone's Uncle Harry and Aunt Florence, that 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, and 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, everyone had moved out of the "P" mode on their cameras and were taking back control of their settings. 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. In the words of a popular 60s music duo, "It's all happening at the zoo," and we agree.

Until next time,

Scott, Jean and the rest of the Aperture Academy crew!

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

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