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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - October 12th, 2014

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

Wildlife photography is arguably the most challenging, but also most rewarding types of photography. It has ups and downs, the unexpected, and then sometimes a HUGE payoff when you see something truly eye-opening, that no others were able to see and you captured it with your camera! Wildlife always yields original images…each moment is only there once to capture, and it’s up to the photographer to do just that…but it’s tricky. Which is why I was happy to meet 5 very eager photographers at the zoo on Sunday to help them work out some of the kinks in the system so that they were able to hopefully make the most of those opportunities when they arise in the wild.

Wildlife photography is all about faster shutter speeds…it’s very necessary in order to make sure we capture sharp action with wildlife. Luckily for us with wildlife we’re normally shooting at wider open apertures like 5.6-7.1 where we still get a shallow depth of field to showcase some background blur, but also allow more light into the camera to help us get those fast shutter speeds. The other way we get those fast shutter speeds is by raising the ISO to make the camera work harder to use the available light and get those shutter speeds higher. IF we’re using aperture priority we can set the aperture and then just work with raising the ISO and then making sure the camera is selecting a faster shutter speed, roughly 2x the focal length of your lens. Keep in mind the camera always tries to pick the fastest shutter speed possible to give you a balanced light meter reading. If you have a higher ISO it allows the camera to pick much faster shutter speeds than a lower ISO will.

Once we went over the basics of shooting in manual vs. aperture priority it was time to head in to see the animals. The tiger was right by the glass and we were able to get in a few shots of her while we waited for the bears to get ready to feed. The grizzly bears are always a joy, because they eat an action packed meal at the SAME time every day in the same location…something that isn’t always afforded to the wildlife photographer in Alaska. There is much more uncertainty in the wild.

The bears were great, and everyone got some nice nice NICE shots here. I like to go over the importance of a test shot here with people so they get their exposures dialed in right before the bears are released…then they can happily snap away when they do come out…we also cover how processing and shooting in RAW is important here because of the color cast the glass has…and being able to adjust the colors in RAW convertors will help make it look more natural, and less like a fish tank.

The Polar Bear and Pelicans were out in full effect this morning…giving the lenses a few different critters to shoot…one polar bear had taken a dirt nap and was FILTHY…I think she was trying to get in on the Grizzly feeding and dressed up….she made for some nice textural shots though…so for that we thank her.

The Koala Pit was GREAT for the second straight month and both bears were alert and facing our lenses…such a rare opportunity to have, and one that always makes a great shot as the bears are both close to the edge so we can really fill up those frames with Koala cuteness. I tried to lose my hat in the pit, but the bears weren’t having it and the zoo people made me take it back.

After a nice lunch break where we discussed more about photography we set loose on the flamingo pen. A new 3-day old baby was born and really put on a nice display for the student lenses…SO cute, and the interaction with mom was priceless. There were 3 other fuzzy grey babies toddling about the enclosure getting accustomed to their new funky big legs. That was the best part for me…watching these grey puffs of clutz zig zag around trying not to fall…I think the class got a few nice images of this process as well. One thing I like about this creature is that their bright feathers often over expose, even with aperture priorities best efforts being put forth…the contrast is too much for it to handle, and the birds are often over exposed…so we can really utilize exposure compensation here to help combat that…as well as push it a little farther and even use it as a creative technique to help give more depth and a simpler feel to the image by under-exposing by 3 stops instead of the necessary -1 correction that works.

After Flamingos its gorillas, and they were all out for nap time…lazing it up. A few of them posed for us a little, and the mother was doting over her baby, as she slept on a rock…that was a cute interaction that yielded some very nice images.

The final stop for the afternoon was the plains area where the giraffe, zebra, and ostrich ran free. I noticed some particularly nice light in the background lighting the foliage, and showed the class how warming up the white balance some can really accentuate those tones, and make an almost ethereal image…and I think they really dug that. Wildlife isn’t easy and sometimes using any little trick to help set an image apart can make things more aesthetically pleasing to look at…

The key to wildlife shooting is knowing the camera, and its limitations so you can make the necessary tradeoffs in the field to capture those once in a lifetime moments as they unfold….because that’s where the magic happens. I saw 5 great students who all moved a little closer to getting out and making that happen.

Until Next Time,

Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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