Looking through the annals of National Geographic, its hard not to notice, wonder, and become awe inspired by some of the most beautiful wildlife pictures ever captured. You may wonder how on earth those photographers capture these microcosms of our very large world, and with what luck too, that they were part of a fortunate few to have witnessed such drama in mother nature. We also may be thinking, "theres no way I'll ever be able to shoot wildlife at that caliber," but you would be wrong. All it takes is practice, knowing your gear, getting into position, and waiting for the right moment. That's why The Aperture Academy finds itself and its students at the San Francisco Zoo on a regular basis, as it provides us with the opportunity to discuss and teach those four basic principles in a semi-controlled environment.
On a perfect Saturday May 7th, that is exactly what happened. Arriving at the Zoo on this day and looking up at the sky, one would probably be questioning the validity of "perfect day." But since clouds provide a very nice even light upon our subjects, it is most desirable for learning how to shoot wildlife for the first time. The Aperture Academy's Scott Donschikowski and Ellie Stone were on hand to lend advice, experience and a helping hand to our students, who were ready to tackle taking their cameras out of auto-mode and have some real creative control over capturing some images. After our usual introductions and breakdown of the days activities, we headed over to the big cats area, in the hopes of catching these beautiful creatures waking up and starting their day. Sadly, the Lions and Tigers decided on sleeping in a little bit longer than expected, so we turned around and warmed up by photographing the Giant Eland and Black Rhino. We discussed things like trying to eliminate distracting backgrounds from our images and some examples on how to achieve that. At the Zoo, we have the luxury of being able to change our vantage point without fear of scaring the animals, so we had the students practice moving around the enclosures to get the best and least distracting background to highlight the subject. Used in conjunction with wide-open apertures, this technique provides the best way to get most out of our wildlife images.
As the Lions began to come out and bask in the mornings glory, we turned our attention quickly to them, and without delay they provided us with some great images of some friendly morning playfulness. Without a moment to lose, we began to make our way to the Grizzly Gulch in time for the feeding of the two Grizzly Bears. This is always an interesting time at the zoo, although its not the "ideal" way to capture live Grizzly Bears, it provided us with another set of tools to help us in our quest for that great wildlife image. More practice, getting into position, and waiting for the right moment. It can be a frenzy both inside and outside the Bear enclosure, as willing tourists and our band of would-be wildlife photographers jockeyed for position while the Bears jumped around the watering hole in search of their catch of the day, live fish. As we stayed the course, and the crowd began to wan, we grabbed up as many images of the Bears playfulness as our CF cards would allow, and then prodded on to the other four bear enclosures.
After the Bears, we decided it best to go check on the Gorilla Preserve, by now it was almost noon and they certainly would be active as the day began to heat up a little. We were not disappointed as is usual these days since the addition of Hasani, the little 2 year male gorilla, who always provides an awesome experience for our shutters. Today was no different, as he found it interesting, if not fun, to grab his feet and somersault around while the others watched. All of the family was out in full force, and vamping as usual for the clicks of the cameras. We spent about an hour photographing these majestic creatures, learning more about the ideal focusing and drive modes on our cameras, to help speed up the process of capturing the sometimes erratic, but playful little Hasani.
With our feet and stomachs beckoning, we made a quick stop at the little Tamarin Monkeys and finally sat down and took a load off at the Lemur Cafe before heading out again to the Childrens Zoo area. This part of the zoo provides us with the opportunity to get closer to some of the animals, and sometimes, in the case of the Family Farm area, too close! We spent some time photographing the Meerkats and Prairie Dogs, getting into position and waiting for the right moment to fire off a salvo of clicks when these extremely social animals interact with other. Then it was off to Hawk Hill, to get a rare and spectacularly close look at some rather large, menacing looking, but majestic Hawks and Owls. Again the opportunity here change our vantage point to eliminate the distracting background is paramount to capture these amazing birds of prey. At last we came to the end of our tour at the Family Farm area of the Childrens Zoo. Here we switch to more wide angle lenses and mix it up with the sheep, goats and ducks. The Zookeepers sheered the winter coats off the sheep at the Family Farm, and it was humorous to capture all the sheep hiding in a corner, seemingly embarrassed of their new haircuts.
It was another wonderful day of instruction at the Zoo for our budding wildlife photographers, and hopefully they'll use the skills they learned in this popular workshop to go out and grab the next National Geographic Wildlife Photo! It just takes practice and patience!
From Scott Donschikowski, Ellie Stone and the rest of the crew at Aperture Academy, thanks again for a wonderful day in San Francisco!