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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - September 13th, 2015

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

Though it's called wildlife photography, really…the skills we learn in our SF Zoo class are transferrable to many other kinds of photography, including sports, kids, and anything with action in it.

For our 7 workshop participants meeting Phil and I at the Zoo on Sunday, it was all about shutter speed…and how best to get the fastest possible. The general rule of thumb for wildlife or action is 2x your focal length past 100mm. That means if you're shooting at 400mm you'd like to be somewhere around 1/800 of a second for shooting. The bigger (and heavier) the lens and the quicker moving your subject, the faster you want that shutter speed. Because shutter speed is of the upmost importance that means we're constantly upping our ISO to a point where we get those faster shutter speeds, and also keep the digital noise to a minimum.

Photography always has some degree of compromise and limitation…and it's up to the photographer to make those decisions based on their comfort level with shooting and the limits of their gear. It all takes practice, and lucky for us the SF Zoo has plenty of willing subjects to practice on.

We began at the big cats watching the tigers…and Phil and I started to help the classes get those apertures dialed, in and then work to make sure they used ISO to get an appropriate shutter speed. Practice here was short lived as it was qucikly approaching time for the grizzly bear sisters to get their morning meal…and there's no better way to see animals behaving in awesome ways than to watch the chaos of bear feeding. While the trainers set up their feeding pen for breakfast the bears waited in anticipation often setting up for some nice photos along the way. Once everyone had their cameras set up correctly it gave us some time to really talk about composition and how to story tell with photography.

Once the bears were ready to feed it was time to get everyone in their spots so they could capture the bears as they frantically chased fish, and made the most of their morning meal. Everyone got some great shots, and it also gave us some chances to work through some of the issues people commonly go through while shooting wildlife…like changes in shutter speed, focal point issues, and more. We know it's frustrating to make mistakes, but often these mistakes are the best way to learn how to correct them. It's better to make all the mistakes possible during the class, so that when you're out in the field, you know how to remedy the situation.

From the bears we moved into the newly redesigned rainforest exhibit. Here the brightly colored birds, and more dimly lit environment give us a really great learning environment for the importance of decision making and trade off in shooting wildlife. Here in the darker light, everyone is forced to move their ISO up to points where they may encounter a great deal of the digital noise. It's up to them to decide whether they feel comfortable with shooting at 1600 or 3200 ISO, or if they would rather risk it with a less than ideal shutter speed. They also have the option of speeding up their shutter speed, underexposing the background and approaching the subject with a little more creativity. There's often 3 or 4 ways to combat a situation depending on the photographer, the gear, and the amount of practice one has put into the craft…we try to get people started learning that there ARE multiple ways usually to deal with a situation, and that everyone makes mistakes…but hopefully we improve and learn where the limits of ourselves and our gear are.

After a brief period of rest for lunch we were back out at the Tiger cages again photographing these lovely cats as they paced their enclosures and showed off their leaping skills jumping up nearly 12 feet tall hillsides in 1 bound. The tigers were awesome, and we took the chances to go over some of the way pre-thinking compositions can help a photographer to find where it is they want to set up and shoot. If you know the photographs you're trying to make, then it's easy to find out where you need to be, and what kind of settings you're going to try and work with.

It's always better to think things through before the action happens, so that when something does occur, you're ready to go!

While the tigers decided to stop entertaining our group and get some sleep, the hippo was being quite nice and giving us some good slightly submerged face shots to work with. The detail and reflection create almost an abstraction…quite cool looking images on those screens!

Our last stop of the day was the gorilla pen, and the whole gang was out posing and hamming it up in the overcast skies. This kind of light was amazing for these creatures…their skin and fur is so dark, that in harsher light it's hard to get any detail…and here with overcast skies, we're able to really pull out a lot of the details in their expressions…and not blow out the background to do so. This also gives us a little chance to readdress exposure compensation for those students shooting in aperture priority. This is set up to allow people to tell the camera to underexpose or overexpose what it would normally set as correct…this is done to help get detail in darker subjects, and prevent brighter ones (like a polar bear) from overexposing.

There's so much to learn when it comes to a camera…and that's just sticking to the basic three things of f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO… Everyone was awesome, and though Phil and I hit on a lot of topics and different parts of shooting, everyone got up to speed and was really starting to make a dent in their understanding by the end of the day…now it's just time to practice!

Until Next Time,

Brian, Phil and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team

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