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On a very cool and cloudy Sunday morning, a group of eleven hearty photographers converged at the San Francisco Zoo for a day of wildlife photography. Although possible showers were in the forecast, Aperture Academy instructors, Ellie Stone and Jean Day, were more concerned about the change to daylight savings and thoughts of students coming an hour late or with sleep still clouding their eyes. But no worries after all, this happy group was on time and more than eager to begin the day!
The San Francisco Zoo is a great way to introduce students to wildlife photography, with a wide variety of beautiful creatures in settings which provide access to animals not easily encountered in the wild.
To insure getting the most out of their workshop experience, Ellie and Jean began with introductions all around and questions to learn of their student's abilities and individual needs. It was also a pleasure to see returning students in attendance, including two who wanted to sharpen their wildlife photography skills in preparation for their trip to Africa (one of our Sojourn Series workshops) with the Aperture Academy!
This group came with a range of gear, including Canon, Nikon, and Pentax cameras, and lenses of different focal lengths. Students received a lot of individual instruction, not only suited to increase their skill levels, but also to get them comfortable using the many functions available on their particular equipment.
Aperture priority was used for most situations, however, the importance of using the histogram as a guide to check exposures, especially outside where displays are not easily seen or accurate, was stressed throughout.
Our first stop was at the African savanna area to photograph graceful giraffes, high-contrast zebras and unique Marabou storks. Students learned how to zoom in and isolate the head of the giraffe against a cloudy, but bright, sky background to get the proper exposure by changing ISO or shutter speed without sacrificing depth of field. These tall animals spent little time in one place, making for a quick lesson in panning as well as moving to other locations to place the animal in more optimal conditions.
The next stop was over to Grizzly Gulch in time for the feeding of the bears, which is always of great interest to visitors, young and old. Two large and beautiful female grizzlies were given time in a separate playground to hunt for fish in a large pond and discover apples and other vegetables around a rocky waterfall.
A viewing area with large windows bordering the pond gave us an up close and personal experience of the almost comedic activity of the bears happily romping and splashing while they sought out their lunch. Once the public moved on, ApCad students had time to continue shooting the bears' activities through the glass; they learned to make adjustments in exposure with higher shutter speed and ISO in order to capture the action, and at angles to reduce the glare.
The weather turned to a heavy mist that dampened clothing, but did not dampen the spirits of this group of enthusiastic photographers. Protecting their cameras appropriately, they spent time photographing a bald eagle perched by a small lake, again learning to capture the character and beauty of an animal with depth of field to allow isolation of the subject, while reducing background distractions.
From outdoors to indoors, the warmth of the tropical rainforest building gave people a chance to dry out, but more importantly, the chance to find and photograph birds and amphibians surrounded by lush foliage in more subdued light.
Following a lunch break at the Lemur Cafe, the clouds parted and Chilean flamingos relaxed under the warmth of the sun. Students were given ideas for creative compositions, focusing in on their graceful necks curving around bodies of colorful plumes.
Next we moved on to the primates. Feeding time for the Mandrill baboon allowed students the opportunity to track and capture the amazing and colorful facial features of this unique mammal. A special highlight was the large male Silverback gorilla that graced students with his regal presence. Lessons were learned in focusing in on the eyes and waiting for him to look to the side, showing the whites and adding definition to his facial features. Adjusting exposures to capture his dark figure in the shade while controlling high-contrast backgrounds was also necessary to bring out his muscular form.
Active black-tailed prairie dogs and lounging meerkats provided comic relief before a final stop at Hawk Hill, where students photographed the nearly ten pound Eurasian Eagle Owl and the infinitely smaller Barn Owl. Both unique in their coloring.
Because of being in separate areas, it required constant adjustments for available light and separation of subject to background. For instance, the white-faced barn owl sat in the doorway of his darker cubby, allowing students to single out his form. More creativity was needed to separate the eagle owl from a busy background of fence posts and people. It was a great learning opportunity!
It was a fun and eventful day with a fantastic group of students ready to learn, and take their skills to the next level while discovering more about their cameras, their own capabilities, various lighting conditions, and changing environments. While focusing in on the form and characteristics of uniquely different wildlife was challenging, a lot of great shots were achieved by all. We are very pleased to have been your guides and instructors for this introduction to wildlife photography!
Until next time,
Ellie, Jean, and the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.