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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - June 29th, 2014

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

San Francisco Bay Area natives know how unpredictable summers can be, so we were very happy to have a warm sunny day by the Pacific Ocean for our June 2014 San Francisco Zoo Workshop and an intro to wildlife photography.

Known as the birthplace of Koko, the famous lowland gorilla who lovingly cared for several pet kittens, the San Francisco Zoo is home to over 250 species surrounded by lovely gardens of foreign and native plants. Some of the enclosures are rich natural environments bursting with opportunities to learn how to shoot wildlife in an easily accessible setting.

Beginning at the zoo entrance, Jean and Paul kicked off the day with our customary introductions, where everyone shared their names, photographic skill levels & experience, types of gear used and anything in particular each student wanted to work on. In preparation for shooting in this ideal environment for learning and reinforcing the basics of photography, Jean and Paul worked individually with each student to help them take control of their cameras and dial them in for the day's shooting. We emphasized making the animals the focal point of their images utilizing higher ISO, faster shutter speeds, burst mode shooting and focus locking to track sometimes quickly moving wildlife. We were excited to hear some of our students would be traveling to Kenya and South Africa to shoot many of the animals they would see today in the wild; exactly what this workshop would prepare them for.

Led by the skillful and talented Jean Day, we were on our way to our first shoot of the day at the grizzly bear enclosure and stopped to see what polar bears Pike (pronounced PEE-ka) and Uulu were up to. While one was juggling with a tubular puzzle to extract some yummy morsels, the other one was unknowingly amusing the group while relieving an itchy butt on the rocks. Students started becoming more familiar with ideal camera settings to capture these gorgeous, perfectly evolved mammals, but we had to tear ourselves away in time for grizzly bear feeding time.

Residents in one of the zoo's unique natural enclosures, grizzly sisters Kachina and Kiona anxiously awaited their daily 11:30 AM feeding. One of the more delightful occasions to witness at the zoo, these beautiful Montana natives, enjoy fish, fruit and vegetables stocked by their caretakers. Most assuredly knowing what awaits, they rush into the enclosure, diving into the pond, darting back and forth, splashing through the pond and occasionally walking upright in an amusing and seemingly uncharacteristic stroll through the water. To capture these beautiful creatures in action, photographers must be prepared for fast action. We worked with each student to fine-tune camera settings with aperture priority at a high ISO to enable fast shutter speeds with focus locking and burst mode to capture rapid fire exposures as the sisters randomly rushed through their enclosure.

Kachina and Kiona are captivating, but there's so much to see and shoot, so we gathered our budding wildlife photographers to go photograph south of the border marsupials in their mixed species enclosure. On the way, we stopped by to see a very relaxed bald eagle hanging out with his giant pelican buddies at the Zoo's Eagle Island. Arriving at the Australian enclosure, we noticed the grey and red kangaroos looking pretty relaxed along with a few wallaroos as the day was warming up. We were hoping for a young joey hanging out in it mother's pouch, but this must have been their day off, with the most action being one the reds popping up, digging into the dirt and plopping back into his new excavated napping spot.

As lunchtime approached we made our way to the Lemur Cafe for some much needed fuel and refreshment. Seated in a few groups of tables, Jean and I had fun getting to know some of our students a little more. We always have the most friendly groups at our zoo workshops. Ready for more animals we met our eager students just outside the cafe at the pat of Chilean flamingos. Engaged in an endless cycle of eating and preening, these elongated, sinuously necked beauties display a range of plumage from near white to pale pink, rose and salmon. Then when they seem to be finished doing all those other things they do, they neatly twist those long necks around and tuck their long black beaks into a little crook between their wings, sometimes while standing on one leg. So bright in the midday sun, we helped our students adjust for faster shutter speeds so their cameras would capture the fine details of their gorgeous plumage.

Setting out to shoot the big cats, our group split up in two as everyone was finding fun things to shoot along the way. When we met up again all the big cats were sleeping the day away, just like our little domestic friends do at home. We hung out for a little while, but they weren't budging for anyone. Everyone got a few easy captures of the napping lions and tigers, but it was time to beat a path to the gorilla enclosure.

While not as spread out as in their natural environment, the silverback and lowland gorillas have a fairly large naturalistic enclosure. They appear to know about photographers, seemingly timing funny poses with those camera bodies in front of our faces. Being a super high contrast situation in the afternoon sun, we helped our students with balancing their exposures to minimize the deep shadows and highlights typical for these light conditions. While most of the gorillas seems indifferent to our presence, one adult sat down and made funny faces while chewing on some grass.

With only a hour or so to go, it was fun to review how our students were doing with their images and camera handling. Some were making faster progress, but everyone was delighted with many of their images. As we headed over to the 3 acre natural African enclosure, we were delighted to discover one of our students had been married there. What a wonderful timeless treasure of a memory. Cleverly designed to place visitors in the middle of the savannah, there's no bars to obstruct viewing and shooting a fully natural environment shared by giraffes, zebras, kudus and oryx along with many distinctly African birds, including crowned cranes, ostrich, spur-winged geese and Marabou storks. This was truly a crowning reward in the last hour of the workshop as there's so many animals in such a large natural environment. With the sun continuing to be so bright, we worked with the group to help them optimize their exposures as we captured image after image of so many of these beautiful African animals.

As we were about to head over to the flamingos for our group shot, one of the elder giraffes approached the edge of the moat for a drink, spreading legs wide, dipping his head so close to us, seeming to enjoy our company as much as we did him. Apologies to the giraffe if it was a female. Our students shutters were cracking away so they could capture stunning close up images of this wondrously graceful animal.

Back at the flamingos for a perfect backdrop, Jean set us up for a fun group shot to capture an absolutely wonderful engaged pack of students. There were still more animals to shoot as we headed over to the Children's Zoo section to photograph the cutest animals on the planet. We first found the intensely social black tailed prairie dogs, so cute it hurts. Remaining on medium high ISO to enable fast shutters, everyone captured image after image as we joyfully watched them in their frantic antics, popping in and out of their burrows or calmly standing while fastidiously gnawing on dried grass. But the cutest of them all, the red panda, captured everyone's heart as he and his bushy red tail rummaged through enclosure, feeding on moist, sweet blades of grass. We couldn't help but take image after image, hoping he would strike a darling pose for us all.

Checking in with our students about their days shooting and learning, and answering any remaking questions, we bid everyone farewell after a delightful day of shooting animals in the zoo. With 2 more hours until closing we encouraged everyone continue to practice their new skills as budding wildlife photographers.

Until Next Time,

Paul, Jean and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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