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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - June 3rd, 2012

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

Who wouldn't want to spend a beautiful June day at the San Francisco Zoo? The famous zoo houses more than 250 species of animals, including gorillas, tigers and bears. It's also the largest zoo in northern California and has been in existence since the 1930s.

On this absolutely gorgeous Sunday in June, Aperture Academy (ApCad) instructors Ellie Stone and Scott Davis met up with 13 excited students outside the zoo's main entrance. At ApCad, we always like to start the day with introductions. Ellie and Scott gave some background information on themselves, but more importantly, they were eager to hear from each student. Learning their expectations for the day of shooting, as well as each person's comfort level with their equipment, is vital information for the ApCad instructors. After all introductions were complete, the eager group headed out for its first of many shooting locations for the day.

As our ApCad group made its way to Hearst Grizzly Gulch, the instructors floated through the collection of students, to ensure that everyone knew how to get set up for this first, and very exciting, shoot. Scott and Ellie went over the settings required to capture the intense action of the grizzly bears devouring their morning meal. It was important to be sure that all students understood the required ISO, aperture, and shutter speed before the fast action began.

The instructors emphasized getting cameras out of "P" (Program) setting and taking control of things in AV or A (Aperture Priority) mode. Starting out in aperture priority is a good way to take control of the settings, without feeling overwhelmed.

Close to the grizzly area, there were a few polar bears. One bear in particular was in a nicely shaded spot. Everyone set up and took advantage of this fantastic lighting situation. The workshop was underway and students captured some great shots as the polar bear began sniffing the air, picking up the upwind human scent. The polar bear began to walk around, in and out of the sun. Scott and Ellie helped with settings, explaining how to deal with the rapidly changing light. Once everyone had their fill of the beautiful white bear, it was the perfect time to capture the two female grizzly sisters as they eagerly anticipated their daily feeding time.

The sisters are fed at the same time everyday, so they are conditioned to know when that time is approaching. They pace around and even get into a little dispute over who is going to be first through the gate. This is a fantastic opportunity to grab some action shots of the bears. Their feeding takes place in an adjacent enclosure, which contains a shallow little pond. The zookeepers actually place live fish into this pond.

What a treat it is to see these grizzlies up close (through glass, of course), and observe them chasing and devouring their meals. The instructors assisted with some techniques on shooting through the glass to capture the amazing action and beauty of these bears. Then, once the action tapered off, the group made their way towards the Lemur Café, but first checked to see if the chimpanzees where hanging out.

The chimps were laying low, but Scott made up for it with an amazing story from his animal research days. Scott was at a job interview, and was introduced to a chimp named Kanzi. It turns out that Kanzi was world famous for his ability to communicate with humans via a Lexicon type computer keyboard. Upon Scott being introduced to the chimp, Kanzi typed a crude message saying, "Kanzi like boy hair sun," meaning he essentially liked blondes (Scott has very light blonde hair). As their eyes locked, he was blown away by this cross species communication. Scott always knew that chimps were special, but this interaction confirmed it, and he has never thought of animals in the same way since that very special day.

During the lunch break at the Lemur Café, everyone got further acquainted and talk inevitably revolved around photography. Scott and Ellie shared tips, personal stories and great advice. Also, because the café is located directly across from the Chilean flamingo exhibit, some students took advantage of the convenient locale and enjoyed the opportunity for more photography practice during the brief respite. Once everyone was fueled up and re-energized, it was time for one of the most anticipated stops of the day...

The highly anticipated gorilla preserve was next on the list. The preserve is home to the Western Lowland Gorillas; one male adult silverback, four females and one infant male. The infant, named Hasani, is full of playfulness and mischief. The preserve has many viewing platforms, making it easier to follow all the unfolding action. The large male watched over the group with a very regal stature. At times he sat at different vantage points creating some fantastic portrait opportunities. Ellie pointed this out to a group who were poised to capture the moment, as they concurrently absorbed some compositional basics and the key to capturing catch light in the eyes.

It would be easy to spend an entire day at the gorilla preserve, but there were a couple more exhibits that were a "must see." Scott and Ellie led the ApCad group to the Children's zoo area. This section is home to some very adorable and photogenic animals, including prairie dogs and meerkats.

These burrowing animals are delightful to watch and even more fun to photograph. The warm tones of environment, coupled by the animal's equally warm-toned coat, was the perfect opportunity for experimenting with the camera's white balance feature.

As time was running out, the group was only a few steps from Hawk Hill and the Birds of Prey exhibit. You could say that time had "flown" by and the birds were a fitting way to wrap up a sensational day of photography. Smiling faces were abound as the students expressed appreciation to the instructors and all said their final farewells.

Until next time,

Ellie, Scott, 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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