San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - May 15th, 2016

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

Photographing wildlife can be crazy. So much happening, and it's all happening while trying to make heads or tails of the camera settings needed to capture images you will remember. Depending on the animal being photographed, this process of figuring out the camera settings on the spot can be even more maddening.

Joe and I were with a group of eight photographers all looking to get a better grasp of how to use their cameras to capture wildlife. What better place to practice than a zoo filled with animals and reptiles from all over the world?

Zoo mammals, these days, are usually in a zoo because they’ve sustained an injury that will prevent them from living a normal life in the wild, or they were problem animals that were depending on humans for food rather than using their natural abilities to find their own. In a few cases, the animals were born in captivity and are usually raised and eventually put back into the wild.

On today's workshop, as it usually happens on our zoo workshops, our first stop was the lemur forest. And we were happy to see the lemurs were out in force, sunbathing, eating berries off bushes, and just generally being awesome models. Joe and I helped the students to view their histograms, check settings and make sure they were shooting with shutter speeds that were fast enough for these animals. We also were able to cover a little bit of exposure compensation and how it’s helpful when shooting on Aperture Priority mode. The lemurs were great, and everyone got a few really nice images of these crazy-looking residents from Madagascar.

The next stop was the tiger that was out enjoying his morning breakfast. Watching his huge paws throw his dish all around was crazy… it’s easy to see how these powerful cats are able to take down their prey so effortlessly!

It's important for good wildlife shots, to solidify the settings needed to capture them properly. The main thing with wildlife is shutter speed. FAST, FAST, FAST. Rule of thumb is that you want the fastest shutter speed possible. Often this means opening up the aperture to a wider number like f2.8-f5.6 (it depends on your lens). The more open you can make the aperture, the more light that will reach the sensor, and the faster you can get the shutter speed. If you’re aperture is at its widest and the shutter speed isn’t as fast as you’d like (roughly 2-3x your focal length), then the only way you can get the shutter speed faster is to increase your ISO.

Every camera has an ISO that their camera starts to lose quality... the trick is knowing the limits of one's gear and then making the trade offs to allow the highest quality and fastest shutter speed.

Our next stop after the tiger was the Grizzly bears. Here we got the best example of how to shoot real wildlife outside of a zoo. The bears are turned loose into their pen, where the keepers have placed live fish into a pond for them to catch. Having photographed numerous wild grizzly bears doing the same thing, I can attest that the behaviors are identical, and the photography is the same here as in Alaska. The bears frolic in the pond looking for fish, walking on their hind legs, and thrashing about trying to catch one of the fish. This gave the class a chance to really go after a nice action shot.

From the bears, we moved into the Rainforest enclosure. Awesome frogs, lizards, and birds are all residents of this location. I love this place, because it’s darker inside this building and it forces the class to really push the limits of their cameras, and see how high they can bump the ISO to get shots they need... many tried to keep their ISO lower around 800-1600, and they couldn’t get shutter speeds much past 1/100, which isn’t ideal for wildlife. They found they really needed to push their gear and come face to face with that trade off that is such a huge part of wildlife photography: How high can I push this ISO on my camera? How fast of a shutter speed do I really need? Can I get away with a slightly less-than-ideal shutter speed to save pushing the ISO?

These questions all got answered in the rainforest.A great learning experience, for sure! And as a result, there were some nice images made there, despite the technical challenges.

After a lunch break, we moved around to photograph the gorillas, giraffe, flamingos, and the red panda. All of these critters offer up some different challenges. Whether it’s adjusting the exposure compensation to help control the brightness of a subject like a flamingo, or utilizing the same feature to help bring details to darker subjects like a gorilla, there’s so much to learn... but the students at that point were paying closer attention to their shutter speeds, and were really understanding that opening up the aperture and bumping up the ISO are the ways to help get those fast speeds. We could tell that they were aware that there are limits and trade-offs with photographing wildlife because of these technical limitations, and they were also starting to realize that exposure compensation is a great way to help the camera control situations where there are very bright spots and very dark areas. They also know from experience now, that with bigger lenses they are able to focus past a screen or cage to get the shots they want.

We saw their screens and they were all getting nice images…and that’s the best part! There’s a lot to learn and the only thing left for them now is to go practice!

Until next time,

Brian, Joe, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team!

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

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