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The San Francisco zoo is one of the best places for a photographer to practice wildlife. The settings can be quite crazy, and when you're trying to get the most out of your real wilderness adventures, having somewhere to practice and someone to help answer all those questions is essential. That's where Matt Granz and I [Brian Rueb] step in. Our goal as Aperture Academy instructors is to help take the mystery out of shooting, and provide learning photographers some of the tips and tricks we use in the field as professionals.
We met an eager and excited group of photographers early Sunday morning for a day through the zoo viewing some of their wonderful animals. The zoo provides a lot of really exciting opportunities for our groups to photograph a variety of animals. I always like to start with the big cats. Not only are they gorgeous creatures, but typically they are more active in the morning hours. No sooner had I told the class this little observation of mine than we arrived to the cat enclosures to find NO big cats, with the exception of one very sleepy tiger in the back corner. No lions, no other cats…DOH!. We made the best of the sleeping tiger, and whether the cat was cooperating or not, it was a good opportunity for Matt and I to get the class started with the settings.
There's several philosophies to shooting wildlife and how to do it. The main goal is always to get that faster shutter speed to capture all the action, and reduce the possibility of shake from those larger heavier lenses. Some photographers prefer Aperture Priority so they can get that bokeh effect in the background, and not have to worry too much about changing anything else while they shoot.
I've found however, that many newer photographers forget to check the shutter speed when they shoot on aperture priority, so they end up with shots at 1/40 of a second, or lower sometimes, yielding poor quality images. I prefer to teach in all manual mode as it helps them to understand the WHY of what they are doing, and get those settings right in their mind, so if they do decide to use a different mode at some point they are more apt to check all the other settings as well and understand what to look for.
Thankfully the cats didn't prove me completely wrong, and on our way to the otters and penguins, we found the mother tiger and her baby. The baby tiger is growing, but still very much a kitten. It was so fun to watch this little feline romp all over the enclosure and play…gave the class a little taste of real world action too. She was FAST! The little cat really put on a show, and it was nice to see the mother getting in on the action too, as normally they're sleeping all the time…but as a new mother this tiger is really doing a great job of teaching her little one all the jumps and rolls of a big tiger. It was cute to watch…and the class got some really nice shots to boot!
From the Tigers it was otters, also very fast and hard to move…just like their neighbors the penguins. Cameras were darting fast and furious back and forth, to and fro trying to find a piece of the action. I always try to tell people that watching the animals for a little while and seeing where they move will help you to pick a popular spot, with nicer light and then wait for the action to come to your frame.
We make our way to the Grizzly Gulch enclosure just in time for feeding. This is always a fun spot for the class. After some brief instruction on lens selection (these bears get RIGHT up to the glass…so those 400mm lenses aren't great in this spot!) We go over a little bit of the processing that will remove the green tint from the viewing glass…and then it's show time!
The bears romp through the pond searching out the apples, and live fish left behind by their trainers…the bears were REALLY active today as was evident by the hoots of delight from the viewers as they ran full speed right up to the glass in search of their morning meal!
While the class got some great images of this initial bear feeding frenzy, I think the best shots come from 15 minutes after they've eaten, when the crowds have dissipated and the bears are back in the pond looking for leftovers, and possible missed treats. This gives the class a little more space to work, and usually they get some really nice images.
From brown bears to white bears that have been dyed brown with dirt…it was Polar Bear time. They have made some changes to the polar bear den, and now it's a much bigger facility with a pool, and plenty of room for this old girl to roam. I've been coming to the zoon multiple times a year for the past 5 years, and I could see a noticeable change in her demeanor. The class got some good shots of her too.
Time flies and we were already getting ready for our feeding time! You gotta keep those photographers well fed or they get cranky…we make a small stop for lunch, and then reconnect after to photograph the flamingos. I like the flamingos as a spot to discuss shallow depth of field and composition. You can get some really nice close ups of these birds…and if they get close to their pond, the reflections can be quite nice too…lots to work on during the day! The whole duration of the class Matt and I work together to keep getting the students in the habit of checking their histograms and changing the ISO down if they can to keep the light under control.
The final portion of our day was gorilla and giraffe heavy. The tiger isn't the only new mother in the zoo…they baby giraffe is out and super cute as well. We had a great time photographing her as well as the other long necked herbivores in their African grasslands exhibit.
The gorillas are very fun as well…although on this day most of them were hiding out. One gorilla did some nice posing though and the class really got a few keepers from this stop. It's a good time here to talk about changing the shutter and exposure to allow more light to get on your subject. Gorillas have very dark skin, and losing detail is easy if adjustments aren't made. Sometimes we have to sacrifice detail in the highlights to get those valuable shadow details if the gorillas are sitting in the bright sun. If this is the case I often encourage the class to process in monochrome as burnt out highlights become only white in monochrome, and is far less noticeable.
Though the class only lasted 5 hours, I felt like we'd spanned the globe and been on safari. We saw multitudes of different animal and bird species, and Matt and I had a blast working with some familiar faces and new students. We saw a lot of great photos on those cameras, and the feedback was that by the end everyone was starting to feel more comfortable with their settings…and certainly more confident when they were ready for their next wildlife photography adventure.
Until next time,
Brian, Matt and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
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