San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - May 17th, 2015

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

Oh the joy of a day at the zoo. I think every kid can recall a zoo visit and how much fun it was to see the animals, watch their behavior, and witness a lot of things that they might not ever get to see in the wild. How else would someone know what a howler monkey sounds like unless they went to Central America to see one? Zoos serve a valuable purpose in our society, and if people stop to think that 90% of the animals in them are either born into captivity and can’t be released to the wild, injured to the point of not being able to survive the wild, or the offspring of animals who died in the wild, or were problems to the point they could no longer function in the wild for their safety and the safety of the neighboring communities. Such is the case with the animals at the SF Zoo. One of the added bonuses that these magnificent creatures provide is the chance for budding photographers to practice, learn skills, and get what it takes to photograph animals in the wild when the opportunity presents.

I was lucky to meet a group of 5 really awesome photographers for a fun day at the zoo. My first order of business was to go over the different settings, and why we choose them the way we do. Shutter Speed is paramount for this type of photography, long lenses and touchy subjects make the faster shutter speed a necessity…because of this ISO is a big part of wildlife photography. I make sure I cover all of these topics before we begin, and throughout the day.

Talking about settings is fun, but the best way to learn them is to put them in practice with real animals! We set off first to the big cats. The lions were up and about (mostly) and we got some real treats listening to the beautiful big male let out his morning roar. We also got a few glimpses of the tigers as well as they sat in their enclosure. I take the chance to go over settings once more, help everyone check their shutter speeds, and go over their histograms so they understand what is being captured in their camera.

The morning goes quick and before we know it we’re set up in front of the Snow Leopard who is preforming admirably for the cameras, posing, rolling over, and generally hamming it up for the cameras. I saw some tremendous work on the cameras. With wildlife photography aesthetics is as important to the overall settings…making those images nice to look at, and this group did awesome!

Our first real action of the day was the Grizzly Bear area. The keepers hide food throughout their area and it’s up to the bears to find it! Boy do they put on a show looking too! Splashing in the water, thrashing about trying to capture some of the live fish the zoo has placed for them to find, and eat…mimicking the behavior they practice in the wild.

Everyone got a first hand shot at capturing some real movement…and again I was impressed with the camera settings they had going as well as the images they produced!

Polar Bears, Chimps, Kangaroos, and all before lunch! Where else can you say you saw such a variety of animals all before lunch!

After lunch we covered a little bit of exposure compensation and how creatively underexposing brighter subjects can lend to some very nice images. We also continued to talk about depth of field, shutter speed, and ISO…all those important elements. It was nice seeing the group pick it up so easily and really settle into getting the compositions dialed in.

We moved towards the gorillas, and though they played a little hard to get, some folks still got some outstanding shots of the giant silver back when he came out to survey his territory. They pose almost as well as high school seniors!

From the gorillas to the aviary…we spent some time photographing some great and colorful birdlife at relatively close range…really a great spot to work on composition and capturing some nice detail in the images.

With only a few short minutes left together we managed to see giraffes, ostrich, herons (not a zoo animal, just a layover guest) and a red panda, as well as a couple Meer Kats who were well on their way to retirement; each provided a nice opportunity to capture some really great wildlife imagery.

By the time we were done I think everyone had nearly shot through their entire memory card, and many batteries were nearing the end of their power! Great!

A good day at the zoo is hard to beat. A good day at the zoo with great people is even better!

Until Next Time,

Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!

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