Photographing wildlife is tough. Not only is it difficult to find the animals, but when you do, it's often hard to get them to do what you want. If you do find a cooperative animal, then comes the hard part of trying to get your camera to do what it's supposed to in order to capture it. No matter how you slice it, it's a process that often ends in frustration. At the Aperture Academy, we're here to take some of the frustration out of the camera settings, and help put you in a place where the animals are varied, and for the most part in position to be photographed.
Welcome to the ZOO!
A group of 14 photographers met professionals Brian Rueb and Alicia Telfer at the world famous San Francisco Zoo for an afternoon of beginning wildlife photography! The class began with an orientation to let the instructors get to know the students and their background, as well as the kind of equipment they brought. There were so many returning students! It's always great to see familiar faces and reconnect with photography enthusiasts.
Once the basics were done, Brian went over some of the basic camera settings for the class and provided a bit of the reasoning behind the settings. Many settings in wildlife photography are not constant. As light and conditions change, so do our camera settings. There are a few simple rules though. Lower aperture, faster shutter speed, and normally higher ISO to get those shutter speeds up to a point where they need to be to capture crisp wildlife images.
The first spot we stopped at once inside the zoo was the giraffe pen. The giraffe was in prime form using his gigantic tongue to eat leaves off a high hanging branch. The class began to shoot the creature and immediately had some issues with the exposure. The giraffe, when properly exposed, blew out the sky. After working to get better exposures, Brian and Alicia moved the class to a different perspective where the giraffe could be placed behind some foliage that wasn't as bright and created better photos.
The zebras came out to play, as did the Maribu storks. It was especially great because there was a lot of wildlife in the first pen for us; an opportunity that might take days and miles of driving to find in the wild!
The first spot we really work to get to is the Grizzly bear pen. The bears eat at 11:30 each day, and we try to get there a bit early to watch them pace their enclosure in anticipation. The play and scamper about like a couple of puppies while they wait for their trainers to hide their food in the larger Grizzly Gulch enclosure. The food is hidden to help simulate the natural food finding methods the bears would have in the wild.
Once the food is hidden, the bears are released and it's time to shoot some action! The bears splash in the pool searching for fish, and climb all over the waterfall structure looking for apples and carrots. The first few moments of the experience borders on chaos as photographers battle kids and other adults all trying to see and get an image of these pudgy bears getting their grub on.
After a few minutes, the majority of the crowd leaves and it's all ours for the shooting. The bears still move about and it's much easier to photograph. Brian went over some of the post-processing techniques that will be needed in order to remove the greenish tint the safety glass gives the images.
Those who finished with their bear shots got some shots of the neighboring Bald Eagle in his enclosure, then, with the brown bears out of the scene, it was time to shoot the white one! From the mountains to the arctic...our wildlife adventure really moves!
The polar bear was busy chewing on his cardboard box, and even though a box doesn't look natural, the bear was making some awfully cute faces and who doesn't like some cute polar bear portraits! For that, we worked on slightly underexposing our images so that the white fur kept the detail and we weren't blowing it out.
After watching the bears eat, we felt it was lunchtime for us, too. While nobody brought any cardboard to eat, we all enjoyed taking a small break and catching up on some photography talk. Those who finished eating early got some time photographing the flamingo pool next to the cafe.
The time after break was spent photographing a number of creatures, including a sleepy tiger that was awfully cute. Like a big house cat! There was the hungry hungry hippo that gave the whole class a little demonstration as to how big and powerful he was, and a good reminder why hippos kill more people in Africa every year than any other animal. We photographed the lions, who finally decided to grace us with their royal presence... in a 45 minute span we saw more animals than one might see in a few days of travel through the game parks of the world.
One of the main focus points for the afternoon was the gorillas, who never seem to disappoint. While he's getting bigger with each passing class, Hasani, the baby gorilla, is still very much the attention grabber in the gorilla preserve. He posed quite nicely as always for our class. The other primates, while not as cute as Hasani, are still very photogenic and provided the class with quite a few nice images and portraits of these powerful creatures.
The last portion of the day we reserved for the kiddie zoo. Not only does it satisfy the inner-child in all of us, but it also puts us up close and personal with all kinds of animals...normally.
On this day, the prairie dogs were out and about as always, but our photogenic friends, the meerkats, were not playing - instead, they were tucked away in their den keeping out of the overcast conditions. It also seems that one Jack Hannah was in town as well, and decided it would be a good time to take ALL of our birds of prey away to show and tell. But no matter, we always find something to shoot, so we went to the petting zoo to work on photographing close up action shots of ducks, and goats!
The ducks were very cute, and because of a light water background, the class got some really nice shots. We talked some about how photographing a duck like a mallard is difficult because everyone has seen a mallard before, so even the best shot could be a bit uninteresting, but how finding some of the different ducks would add to the interest factor with the shots.
Once we had photographed our share of ducks and goats, we were glad it was time for Jack Hannah to bring our birds back. The owls were great and very close, so all the students got some great shots of these wonderful birds of prey and their amazing yellow eyes.
The owls were in the shadows for the most part, so it was important for us to work on changing our ISOs to be able to get a fast enough shutter speed that we could still get useable images... even in the shadow. The class spent a lot of time working on reading a histogram and how to tell by the histogram if their image would be usable.
There was a lot of information over the day, and as with any wildlife photography, there's so much that changes. Such as light changing over the course of the day, causing constant camera adjustments. The class was great at knowing when the cameras needed adjustment and over the course of the day they got to be much better and confident with their camera adjustments.
Wildlife photography isn't easy, and it was great to see the class not only get the knowledge, but also get some very nice images throughout the day! Next stop, Africa!
Until next time,
Brian, Alicia, Jack Hannah, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team