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Wildlife Photography is a tough road. It requires patience, equipment, and a lot of luck. It's not the avenue of photography that one wants to show up for and hope goes well. You need to practice, and know ahead of time what to expect so that when that big trip to Africa comes up, you're not fumbling with your gear and hoping you come away with some memorable images.
A group of 9 eager photographers met professional photographers Brian Rueb and Alicia Telfir at the San Francisco Zoo on an overcast morning to learn the basics of wildlife photography and improve their skills in hopes of being able to use them in the wild. The class began with an orientation to get the students acquainted with one another and their instructors. It was also a good opportunity to go over the basic settings they would be using for the day and get them started on the right foot.
Once the formalities were over it was time to head inside and begin the photography. The class started off with a primate called the mandrill. To say he put the "man" in mandrill is an understatement. This guy was all MAN and wanted the world to see. This provided a useful lesson re-positioning oneself in order to hide to "parts" with some foliage, or an arm or leg. The colors and expressions of this monkey were what really made the images noteworthy. He paced, and showed off his enormous teeth several times to show the world he was boss of his troupe, and wasn't going to be intimidated by a bunch of people with cameras….no matter how big their lenses were.
The next stop was Grizzly Gulch. Two large North American brown bears live here and at 11:30am every day they get fed. While the class waited for the feeding to began we photographed a bald eagle that was perched nearby, as well as the brown bears as they paced frantically waiting for their trainers to open the door to their pen so they could go eat. The zoo staff does a great job putting food for these two bears in very natural settings so that they actually have to work for their meals. They release several live fish into a pond, and the crowd, including our photographers are treated to quite the spectacle as the bears splash in the pond chasing their meal down and then devouring it right in front of our lenses!
The class left the bears with some terrific shots, and we spent a bit of time on our way towards our own lunch stopping to photograph a polar bear, a few birds, and some very active kangaroos along the way. Every stop is a potential to get a memorable moment of one of these magnificent creatures. In the wild it would take thousands of miles of travel and an endless expense budget to capture the animals we photographed all before lunch!
When lunch was over we photographed a few of the flamingos that were engaged in some very boisterous activities trying to establish the pecking order in their pond. We worked a lot on simplifying compositions here to really use the curves of the birds neck to lead the viewers eye through the images. We also used the way the birds were positioned in the pond to allow the images to create different layers of pink to help the birds stand out from the really dark background pond.
The main stop after lunch was the gorilla enclosure. The highlight of the afternoon for many, this spot allows us to photograph these primates as they pose and model for us almost like they were humans at their local portrait studio getting some head shots done. The giant male silverback glanced sternly over his shoulder to give the cameras some nice 'blue steel' expressions that showed off the power and seriousness this leader of the clan possessed. The other main focus of the photography centered around Hasani the baby gorilla. Just like a little boy he was all over the place messing with makeshift toys, playing with pee, and pouting when things didn't go his way. He was extremely photogenic and everyone came away with some nice images of this youngster. Towards the end he came very close to the cameras and posed beautifully for the class so they could get some wonderful close ups of his cute little face.
The final stop of the day was the children's zoo. This is a great place to watch the meerkats as they take turns standing guard over their group, watching the sky for predators as the rest of the meerkats lounge around like lazy college students on a couch enjoying the nice weather. Many of these photogenic little creatures would nod off periodically, before a noise would jolt them awake again so they could repeat the process.
The other attraction in this portion of the zoo is the birds of prey. The overcast conditions allowed the owls that normally keep their very sensitive eyes closed during the day, to have them open. This created some great portrait shots of these creatures that showed off their intense yellow eyes. Even though the owls weren't always cooperative in looking right at our lenses, they helped demonstrate a bit of the patience involved with wildlife photography. Eventually most students got a few good shots of these owls to go with the others they had gathered over the course of their mini-safari with the Aperture Academy. The only thing left was for students to take some of the skills they worked on and put them to use on animals in the wild!
Until next time,
Brian, Alicia and the rest of the team at Aperture Academy!