San Francisco Zoo Wildlife Photography Workshop, March 13th 2010

San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - March 13th, 2010

Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! Of course I may be a bit biased, but spending time observing and photographing wild animals, be it in a zoo or out in the wild places of the world, is pretty much tops in my book. I realized that, fortunately, there seemed to be quite a few others out there who feel the same way, as Aperture Academy gathered a fun group of like-minded individuals on a warm and sunny Saturday morning.

The conditions for our first San Francisco Zoo workshop of 2010 couldn't have been better. The previous day had been nothing but dark clouds and pouring rain, but sometime in the night, after a few Hail Mary's and multiple crossed fingers, the clouds disappeared, the rain dried up and Saturday morning awoke to sunny and clear skies. Even the animals in the zoo seemed to be enjoying the sunny spring weather.

Shooting at the zoo is a great intro to wildlife photography. The techniques we teach are the same ones used by the pro wildlife photographers in the field. There's such a wide assortment of subject matter at the zoo, often the most difficult thing is figuring out which animal you want to concentrate on. It's not too often in the wild that you're photographing polar bears one moment and lowland gorillas the next. Plus, if one particular animal subject is sleeping off his breakfast, there's always another subject right around the corner. One of the best things, though, is that our subjects rarely flee at the sight of a human, so one's tracking and stalking skills need only to be minimal.

In most cases, our animal subjects are well within 20 feet (some only 20 inches), which makes for excellent frame-filling portraiture, not to mention animal abstracts. Lighting conditions are varied and constantly changing, which allows for great practice determining and fine tuning exposures, just like what one would find when out in the field. In fact, one of our students was taking the class in preparation for her upcoming Galapagos Island trip. (We're all envious, Lilei!)

The first hours before breaking for lunch seemed to fly by. We spent much of the time learning how to optimize our exposures manually. For many, this was a first, as they had always relied on the camera's auto functions. In some situations, auto mode on the camera works great, but often, especially in tricky lighting situations, the camera's meter gets confused, resulting in a poorly exposed image... much to the chagrin of the shooter. We like our shooters to be in control of their photography, so it's really gratifying to see a student light up when they realize they're no longer at the mercy of the camera.

The gorillas always make for fun subject matter, and this day was no different. The youngsters were rambunctious balls of energy, constantly running around harassing the adults, while the regal silverback was always ready to strike a pose. Watching the young gorillas play, one student/mother laughingly commented on how photographing active wildlife will have great cross-over applications when shooting her young children.

After hanging with the gorillas (no pun intended), we casually made our way over to the lions. In the wild, lions routinely spend from 12-20 hours of their day sleeping. So it came as no surprise when we found our lion subjects fast asleep. The king of the Savanna was enjoying his sunny spring weather. No worries though, as numerous other critters were busily going about their day.

Although not as mighty as the lion, but in my opinion far more fun to photograph, our group next assembled at the meerkat exhibit. If anyone's ever caught an episode of Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet, they know these are incredibly entertaining animals to watch. With their cute faces and child-like antics, they made for perfect models, their boundless energy supplying us with great action shots, while the sentinels standing guard atop their mounds only a few feet away gave us fantastic full frame portrait opportunities.

We continued walking the loops, observing the polar bears, checking out the zebras, rhinos and giraffes, always stopping when a particularly interesting moment presented itself or a new technique was explained. Five hours at the zoo can fly by, and that was certainly the case here. As we neared the end of the workshop, we devoted much of the last hour fine tuning our new photography skills with some amazing shots of owls, eagles, hawks and other feathery fowl.

At Aperture Academy, we like to give a lot of one-on-one attention to our students, to ensure they're getting as much from the workshop as possible. This approach paid off this day, as noticeable improvement in picture quality was evident by day's end. In our short time, the quality of images that were being produced by the group were outstanding. For many, a judge would be hard pressed to tell our images from those of a professional. As an instructor, this makes for a very rewarding and fun day. Excellent job guys! Thanks for coming and we really look forward to seeing you again.

Until next time,

Scott, Stephen, Brian and the rest of the team at Aperture Academy

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