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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - March 15th, 2014

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

Nothing beats the SF Zoo on a warm spring-like day. Fellow Aperture Academy instructor Matt Granz and I met a group of a dozen eager learners for a day of zoo-time fun and photography this past Saturday. Wildlife photography is always a challenge, and it helps to have a class designed to help people with their questions, as well as put them in front of as many subjects as possible.

Matt and I went over some of the basic settings with the group after a brief orientation…items like aperture settings, shutter speed, the importance of boosting the ISO in wildlife photography to make sure you get faster shutter speeds, and we covered using aperture priority and the pros and cons of that setting.

Talking can only do so much so we quickly made our way into the zoo to find some critters and get to shooting!

We always make a first stop in the big-cats area of the park as many cats do; these tend to come out only for a short while in the morning before retiring to nap for the remainder of the day. Lucky for us the tigers were right by the viewing glass and some of the students were able to get some nice images of these beautiful creatures.

While the class is shooting, Matt and I begin to work with them on proper exposures, and making sure they know how to read a histogram, as those often reveal the true data a picture possess much more than what you see on the view screen.

While the tigers were being shot, a few people noticed the otters were beginning to become quite photogenic, and everyone quickly switched to start shooting these little guys…the lighting changed here from shade to brighter sun, so Matt and I helped students readjust their shutter speeds to make sure they exposed properly, and weren’t blowing out the highlights.

From the sea otters we stayed in the state of Alaska, and moved to the grizzly bear enclosure. The feeding time is always one of the better shooting experiences in the zoo. It gives the participants a chance to see predators in action, and is much more indicative of a real shoot in the wild. We have everyone position themselves along the viewing glass, and then encourage them to take a test shot or two to get their settings finalized while the animals aren’t out. A lot of wildlife photography is about using that ‘down’ time to check settings and prepare so that when the action goes down, you’re not scrambling in a panic.

The bears came out on schedule and put on a great show catching fish, and running about in the pond. The camera backs I saw had some really nice images on them…and people seemed to be starting to familiarize themselves with the settings more and more.

After the grizzly encounter we moved to the sleepy polar bear, and off towards our lunch break.

Once lunch was over we started by photographing the nearby flamingo pool. These birds are so nice for getting really great intimate details shots. Their bright eyes, and pink feathers make for some really striking imagery. Matt and I encourage students to shoot shallow depth of field, and try to really zoom in and get as much bird as possible, avoiding as much of the dirt background as they can…really bringing the main subject into the frame as much as possible.

Once the group had taken some flamingo images to the next level, we moved on to one of the other stars of the park…the gorillas! On our way we stopped to shoot the new giraffe baby…who was quite adorable. This location allows us to make mention of the fact most large zoom lenses are capable of zooming in past fencing to get a shot of the animal behind. I try to use this spot in particular to also point out to students that sometimes moving a few feet can put your subject in front of a better backdrop than a fence or building…creating a much more aesthetic and natural look.

The gorilla troop was out as we’d hoped…and the newest member of the family was out on display as well. In the past few months the new baby gorilla has spent most of her time in the back area with her mother…but today she was out and playing a little. She is still very tiny, and mother is quite protective of her…but it was great to see her out and everyone having a chance to make some images of this little gem as she rode around on her mothers back, and forearm.

One of the things I talk a lot about here is making sacrifices with shooting…there almost always is some trade off when shooting any subject. Here we had very dark subject matter in our gorilla models, but often very bright backgrounds. Getting an even exposure to incorporate both highlights and shadows would be impossible…in cases like this I always try to get people to expose for the gorilla, and let the background blow out if needed…then by converting the image to monochrome in post-processing the blown out areas become just a shade of white, rather than a blown out color…. its a good skill for getting usable images in tricky lighting.

One of my favorite moments in the monkey shoot was when Hasani, the gorilla who ‘used to be the cute baby’ a couple years ago, started riding around on his mothers back…as if to show the spectators he was still cute and little too. Jealous big brothers are the WORST.

We spent a little time after the gorillas in a small enclosure with some interesting birds. This was a great location to work on shallow depths of field, and again, moving around to put your subject in front of a natural backdrop.

Our final spot of the day was the ‘kids’ zoo where we photographed prairie dogs, meerkats, and an adorable hedgehog. I think the hedgehog was the star of this area and everyone had a great time trying to capture pictures of her when she would run off or poke her head out above the blanket she was hiding under.

This part of the zoo is great because it allows the photographers to get closer to the animals, and really work on filling a frame with the subject, unfortunately it’s the last spot on the days itinerary….and we have to say good-bye. Matt and I were really pleased with all the great questions, and the enthusiasm of the group. We saw a lot of great shots on the backs of the cameras, and I think everyone was well on their way to improving their wildlife shooting…we can’t wait for them to send us some more shots of what they do!

Until Next Time,

Brian, Matt and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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