Do you dream of being a wildlife photographer, roaming the African Savannah in search of big cats and majestic giraffes? Or how about photographing bears in the wilds of Alaska? Or maybe you just want to take better pictures of the family dog? Whatever your goals may be, we at Aperture Academy have got you covered!
Wildlife photography is a unique and often frustrating activity. It takes preparation, practice and patience. Animals are unpredictable, the natural settings are often uncooperative, and when opportunities do come about, they are often over in the blink of an eye. So as a wildlife (or family dog) photographer, we need to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities by learning about our equipment, what settings will work best in different conditions, practicing those techniques over and over, and then have a little patience in waiting for the right moment to come together.
Fortunately, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have access to an amazing location where we can prepare and practice all while being surrounded by more than 2,000 exotic, endangered, and rescued animals throughout 100 acres of beautifully landscaped property, the San Francisco Zoo!
Fellow Instructor Aron Cooperman and I met our class of 8 photographers interested in learning (or improving) wildlife photography skills. Everyone arrived right on time and we were soon underway. We always start our workshops with some quick introductions. This gives Aron and I a chance to get to know our students a little better and find out what they are hoping to learn during the workshop. After introductions, we discuss some of the settings we will be using throughout the day. For this particular workshop, we have the students shoot in Aperture Priority mode, so we help everyone make sure their settings are correct.
Then it's time to find some animals!! We start in the area with the Lemurs and smaller primates. We notice that the patas monkeys are pretty active and give our students their first opportunity to catch some action. Aron and I discuss appropriate settings as well as some compositional tips like minimizing distracting backgrounds, or using the trees and branches as natural framing devices.
We move on from the monkeys to the penguins, who were happily playing in their pond under the sprinklers. This offered our students the challenge of capturing fast moving targets and observing their behavior so you can anticipate where the next shot may happen. Aron and I work with each student to make sure they understand how to adjust their camera settings to make sure the shutter is fast enough to stop the action and ensure a crisp image.
Our next stop is always a favorite, the big cats! This is where the patience comes in. Sometimes the lions and tigers are playful and active, other times they prefer to lay in the shade or sun and nap. Today, we were lucky. One of the tigers was quite active and our students were able to get some great shots. One challenge with photographing in a zoo is that the habitats may not look that natural, there may be concrete, glass, mesh fencing. But you can overcome this, by zooming in and letting the animals face fill your image, making sure to keep those eyes is focus.
We were off to a great start and it just continued from there. We made our way through the zoo, stopping at the black bear exhibit and watched them play in the spray of a garden hose, moving to the Mexican wolves napping in the sun. we took a quick group shot and continued on. The Grizzly bears didn't want to cooperate and hid in the grass, but that what's happens sometimes as a wildlife photographer, and no one seemed to be that upset.
We stopped for a quick lunch and to look over some of the morning's images. Aron and I offered critique and answered as many questions as we could.
After lunch, we went to Australia to see the kangaroo, wallaby, and emu in their habitat, and on to the koalas who were napping in their eucalyptus trees. Often the koalas are hidden and hard to spot, but today we got a pretty good view and we were able to get some good shots. As we continued on our way through the zoo, we stopped at the flamingos to admire their bright pink feathers. Aron showed everyone that sometimes it is really interesting to concentrate on the patterns of the feathers rather than the whole bird. You get some beautiful repetition and textures. It's a nice reminder to take a step back and look at your subject and their surroundings to see what might make a different or more interesting image.
We found ourselves back near the lemurs, and this time they were more active climbing trees, jumping from branch to branch. This presented another common challenge for wildlife photographers: how to shoot a dark subject against a bright sky, or any other high contrast condition. The trick is to make sure the subject of your image is exposed properly to see the details. This may mean over- or under- exposing the rest of the image. It's a technique that takes practice, but it's really worth working on.
From the lemurs, we worked our way to some of the most popular exhibits, the giraffes and gorillas. The giraffes are majestic creatures that move with such grace, it's easy to just stop and watch them. The gorillas once again present the challenge of photographing a dark subject in bright light. Today, they weren't very active, but we were able to got some practice shots in.
By now, it was approaching the end of our time, and we headed back to the entrance. Aron and I answered more questions along the way and gave a few parting tips. Then we thanked everyone for spending their day with us, bid them Farewell, and sent them on their way to be the next wave of wildlife (or family dog) photographers. It was a great day at the San Francisco Zoo and another successful Aperture Academy workshop!
Until next time,
Aron, DeAnna, and the rest of the Aperture Academy team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.