The Aperture Academy San Francisco Zoo workshop is a great place for learning how to photograph wildlife. Not unlike animals in the wild, zoo animals are unpredictable and hard to photograph, but it helps when they have a limited area to hide in.
After an introduction meeting with instructors Brian Rueb and Scott Donschikowski, it was time to get started on our day at the zoo. Our group began with the mandrill, a vividly colored primate.
The first lesson taught was that wildlife often follows a pattern, as evident by the game trails you would find when trying to photograph an animal in the wild. Even in this enclosure, there are game trails worn out by the alpha male mandrill.
Selecting an area on the mandrill's route, waiting for the best light, and for the mandrill to come into the right view takes away some of the randomness of the situation, and allows the photographer to gain a slight edge. With wildlife, any edge you can take will help.
The mandrill spent a good 20 minutes wandering his route and making sure all his clan were in line...and that the area was safe. This gave us time for capturing our images. Then when he was satisfied, he moved indoors for a nap, and we moved on to see some larger mammals.
In Grizzly Gulch, 11am is feeding time. We arrived early so we could get nice spots along the windows, and give our group the best shot of photographing the grizzlies as they came out to feed. The folks at the San Francisco zoo do an excellent job of putting the bear's food in places that requires them to search for it, like they would in the wild. There are even live fish in the pond for the bears to catch. This gives photographers and spectators a better chance to watch and capture images of the bears' behaviors.
When the bears came out, they didn't disappoint; they thrashed in the water, catching fish with powerful claws, and then devouring them all within mere feet of the window. This type of action takes time and risk to capture in the wild, but in an environment like this, it's right there for the photographing. What better way to plan and prepare for a photography trip to the National Parks, or game reserves of Africa?
We really try to get the students used to the types of settings needed in order to capture the best shots. Low apertures are used to place the focus on the facial details of the animal and blur the rest of the image. This is very similar to the type of settings used for portrait photography. We keep our shutters at a high speed to make sure we capture our images nice and sharp. The only other item we adjust is the ISO, and only when we need to in order to get that nice fast 1/250 shutter speed.
With wildlife, we set our cameras to rapid fire mode and every time the animal looks our way or does something exciting we fire off, machine gun style. Getting that magic moment requires many images. It's not uncommon for a photographer to take over 1000 shots of the same animal and get only one or two that work.
The bears are only entertaining for a small period of time, like most warm blooded creatures -- as soon as they've eaten, they're ready for a nap. We moved from the Grizzly enclosure to the polar bear, which was being fed as well. The bears' bright white fur can be a nightmare for exposure, so we worked with the students on getting the proper exposure (in this case under-exposed) so that the bear fur isn't blown out, making sure the details are preserved. We ran into exactly the opposite problem later in the day when we photographed the gorillas, who are so dark in color we often need to work on slightly over exposing our images to capture the facial details. But that is all part of learning wildlife photography.
Before taking our lunch break, we spent time looking for the big cats, which behave in the zoo almost exactly as they would in the wild; short periods of activity followed by long periods of rest and hiding. On this day, the lions and tigers were very hard to see, but the Snow Leopard was being very kind and even yawned for the class numerous times so we could capture images showing off those large teeth that make it such an effective killer in the wild.
The leopard pen gave us a good example of one problem zoo photography presents...fencing. Believe it or not, with a good zoom lens you can actually zoom into a cage and past the fencing, so that images look as if there is no fence between you and the animal.
Right before lunch we had a blast photographing a little monkey that looked like the Lorax from Dr. Seuss fame. This little guy was as intrigued by our camera gear as we were by him, and he was almost coachable and would often go to the branch we wanted and pose for a brief second before hopping off to another branch to get a better look at us.
Over lunch, the group had a great time chatting, discussing photography equipment, upcoming trips and continuing to learn before heading back into the zoo for the afternoon.
The first after lunch stop was the gorilla pen; always a favorite with any class. The gorillas are a lot like people in the way that they pose, and it is fun to see the images with a gorilla placing its hand under the chin, just like a high school senior would do.
The stars of the gorilla pen were the adults, as the baby was content to hang out just past the view of our cameras. But, the big silverback and some of the females came nice and close to let the class get some great shots of these powerful primates as they went about their afternoon feeding.
We spent the last hour at the children's zoo. While the name implies it is for kids to go and enjoy, it provides some of the best opportunities for photography in the park. The animals are often not caged, and are placed in locations that have little to get in the way of getting a good photograph.
The prairie dogs were in full force. Many of the adults had offspring, and the whole pen was alive with activity. Believe it or not, photographing these little guys will help you with photographing ANY type of animal. The play level of the young pups is on over drive...it's challenging and fun to get them in action as they tumble and roll in their pen. All animal young have an active play drive, and if you can capture two prairie dog pups in action, you can capture baby lions, bears, or any animal. Just remember to keep those shutter speeds up nice and high!
Our last animals of the day weren't animals at all, but raptors. The children's zoo has a great selection of owls and hawks to photograph...and even though it's slightly depressing to see them tethered to the lawn, it is good to get up so close so that we can take portraits of them and show off their beautiful features.
While time spent in the wild photographing animals can often be long and arduous as you wait for the animals to show, time spent at the zoo flies by. There are always animals and you can be shooting almost solidly from start to finish...and when we finished, everyone had a camera full of images just waiting to be taken home and processed.
Great job gang...now it's time to get out there and find the real ones!
Until next time,
Brian and the Aperture Academy Team