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Sunday, December 18, 2011

My first Aperture Academy photography workshop at the SF Zoo

I think this preening flamingo is one of the prettiest pictures I've ever taken. I took it with my Panasonic Lumix Micro Four Thirds DMC GF2 camera, shooting in manual mode! I never shoot in manual mode. I suspect most of us don't. Turns out it's pretty easy to do when you know what you're doing and have the luxury of time to adjust your settings.

Aperture Academy (located at the Pruneyard in Campbell, CA) is a wildlife and landscape photography gallery that features the work of owner and award winning wildlife photographer Stephen W. Oachs. The gallery also offers an extensive schedule of educational classes and workshops. You can take in-house classes about photography, photo editing (Photoshop and Lightroom) and printing. Workshops range from local one day excursions to 2-3 day trips throughout California, Arizona, Oregon, Utah and Washington. And for the most adventuresome there are also 7-14 day "Sojurn Series" workshops that in 2012 include a 7 day Alaskan Cruise, a 10 day trip to Iceland and a 14 day trip to Africa.

Hubby has been taking workshops at Aperture Academy for the past year. This was my first and it was at the San Francisco Zoo.

We arrived bright and early at 9:30 AM at the main entrance of the zoo just off the Great Highway and Sloat Blvd. Immediately to the right of the Ticket Office building, on the right in the photo above, you can see some of the "African Savanna" exhibit without even having to pay to enter the zoo!

This is the view from the entry area. Through a double fence you can see zebra, giraffe, ostrich, oryx and kudu. See the zebra to the right?

Of course the view once inside the zoo is even better. At the end of the day I went to take pictures of them. I absolutely love the way the backlighting of this zebra highlights the whiskers around her muzzle. What a beauty.

We saw three reticulated giraffe wandering around the savanna exhibit and Giraffe Lodge. The warm light around 3:30 pm cast a really lovely golden hue to the photos.

But that morning we began at the chimpanzee exhibit. The light was much more direct and very bright. Something about the kind of messsy looking wiry hair of this backlit little chimp made me think of my dog Kitai. LOL

My goal in the class was simply to learn how to use my camera. I was still grappling a bit with the whole concept of aperture and shutter speed. After dedicating some real effort to trying to memorize the basics in time for the class I made a breakthrough that doesnt' follow the typical description about how the smaller f-stop numbers equal a larger opening and faster shutter speeds equal less light. Huh?

So here's what I realized, it's all in the "L's." If I move my selectors to the left it means left is a "longer" shutter speed and left means the aperture setting will let in more "light." Just like that. It finally all made sense!

Got to the next feature early and had to wait. Where was I?

It was suggested our telephoto lens should range to a minimum of 200mm but mine is 14-140mm. I could have rented a 100-300mm lens from www.BorrowLenses.com but decided I'd rather save the $54 and apply it towards purchasing the same lens as soon as I can afford to. So my pictures weren't as detailed as they could have been.

After the chimps we headed over to the grizzly bear exhibit. The two female grizzlies are a great example of how zoo's can save animals lives. The bears have two enclosures one of which includes a meadow and sizable pond that is stocked with live fish and fruit for their meals allowing the bears to forage as they would in the wild. Add to that the zoo says:

"Our two female grizzly bears were orphaned as cubs in Montana and cared for by Montana wildlife officials before being released to the wild. Used to human-induced food rewards, they were considered “problem” animals after invading the ranch of some Montana residents. After several attempts to relocate them away from human development and numerous phone calls to find the bears a new home, Montana wildlife officials were forced to make the agonizing decision to euthanize them, when the Zoo agreed to take them in. You can find our grizzly sisters in Hearst Grizzly Gulch."

From there we took a quick lunch break before heading over to the western lowland gorilla exhibit where a single silverback male lives with four females and one new baby male gorilla.

The silverback is magnificent to look at. I was busy adjusting my aperture and shutter speed as the light changed and as I moved between two different viewing points so that I could master shooting in manual mode.

I discovered a little trick throwing the camera into the intelligent auto (automatic) mode to get a light meter reading, then going back to manual, inserting those settings then manually finessing them from there.

I even remembered to adjust my ISO setting a few times that day increasing the ISO to let in more light when my subject matter was shaded. Baby steps.

Speaking of babies, the baby gorilla was more difficult to shoot because the light was more direct. I lightened the space between and around his eyes just a bit in post production so that his face wasn't too shadowed.

One of the females, possibly the baby's mother, was chowing down. It was very challenging to not blow out those puddles of light above her yet give her enough light to show as much detail on her face as possible.

This Nile hippopotamus was really cute. It would submerge itself in its pool and would rise like a submarine every few minutes for a quick breath or two of fresh air then re-submerge. I decided to photograph it because we were having a hard time trying to get a photo of the tiger across the way.

The way the tiger's and lions are confined bothered me quite a bit. They have very small grass and rock enclosures that are at the same level as viewers with steps that lead down to a mostly concrete (with a little bit of grass) moat between the elevated section and where viewers stand. The big cats don't have enough space (imo). I think every animal that is kept in captivity should have enough room that they can behave in the most natural manner possible. None of the cats have room to run. This tiger was exhibiting what I would call a stress a behavior walking in circles around the bottom of the moat. Basically pacing back and forth. This isn't a natural behavior. I would rather see the zoo choose to keep either a tiger or group of lions and knock down the walls between the three small enclosures creating one giant enclosure that could be a more modern and natural habitat.

This is a standard bear enclosure.

I felt the same way looking at the polar bears and the spectacled bear. Their habitats are so small and outdated :( The polar bear enclosures look like prison cells compared to the natural habitat the grizzly bears are afforded.

The grizzlies have a standard concrete enclosure but also have at attached meadow and pond known as Grizzly Gulch which increases the size of their enclosure to about four times the size of the other bears.

On the way to our next destination, I spotted this Giant Eland and couldn't resist stopping to quickly take a few shots. Again with the back lighting! I swear I've never taken as many backlit pictures as I did yesterday! When shooting in auto mode you end up with a too bright background and a too dark subject matter. The manual mode is pretty cool!

And then we arrived at the meerkats. They were the only animals who seem actually seemed curious about us and didn't mind posing for our cameras. Their habitat is more natural and full of meerkat burrows and faux termite mounds. The two tallest termite mounds are used as lookout points to watch for predators which made for some great shots.

To be honest I don't know how I created the short depth of field that made the background and fore ground fuzzy in this picture. I know it has something to do with my aperture setting. I'll work on grasping the full concept of that the next time so I can do it on purpose :P That day it was all about just getting the basics under my belt.

And this was a very cute Lady and the Tramp moment when two black tailed prairie dogs decided to eat the same piece of hay at the same time.

Our last stop was to see some birds of prey. This is a turkey vulture. It seemed like the reason they would be called turkey vultures is because they have no feathers on their heads like turkeys.

But when he puffed up his feathers I was surprised at how much more similar to turkeys they can look than just because of their naked heads!

The zoo has two turkey vultures. This is the younger of the two. The others is approximately 40 years old and is named Toulouse. Toulouse and his sibling were allegedly left in a box, decades ago at the old Marine World animal and amusement park. They had been tamed to the point that they were imprinted on humans so they couldn't be released back into the wild.

Just the other day I read this blog post about what to do the next time we see a wild animal in distress. I've twice rescued birds off the street. One was an injured juvenile crow that someone had shot in the wing with a bb gun. The second time I found a baby hummingbird sitting on the sidewalk. It was fully feathered but so tiny that I suspect it fell out of the nest just a few days too early. It was getting dark and cooler and the tree it had fallen out of was huge, at least 50 feet high, so there was no way to put it back in its nest.

Each time I immediately tried to get the birds to the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley rehabilitation center for help. The crow I took directly to the center. The hummingbird I found after hours so I took him to the humane society which coordinates with the wildlife rehab center to do intake when their offices are closed.

Later I learned the crow was euthanized and the hummingbird was released back into the wild. Either bird could have been tempting to try to keep and turn into a pet but no way would I ever do that. For most wild animals being imprinted on humans doesn't end well.

Only occasionally is it ok to allow them to imprint on humans.

Meet Wilbur, a barn owl who can never be released back to the wild because as a chick he suffered neurological damage when he and his two nest mates contracted West Nile Virus. His siblings made full recoveries but not Wilbur. So he will have a safe forever home at the zoo as part of their Koret Animal Resource Center where volunteer handlers share the zoo's animal ambassadors with the public.

A great horned owl.

And this eurasian eagle owl was really lovely. It was tethered by both feet so that it could be outside but couldn't fly away. It didn't even try to fly. The younger turkey vulture would. It was a bit distressing to watch it thrash around a bit when it would attempt to fly and the tethers would jerk it back to the ground :(

And guess what? Owls really can spin their heads 180ยบ! 

It was 3:30 and our class was over. I had a great time and definitely accomplished my goal of learning how to use my new camera.

On the way out the light was perfect! Hubby was in a hurry to go get coffee (he usually has a mocha at 3:00) but I couldn't resist stopping to take more pictures of the flamingos, the zebra and giraffe. My camera was still on the tripod but I'd closed the legs up to their shortest setting so sensing his lack of patience I took the flamingo photos with my left leg raised and the tripod resting against my thigh. LOL. It was worth it though. I think the flamingo pictures were my favorite pictures I took the whole day.

I have to say that when it comes to zoos in general my feelings are always torn. On one hand I hate that wild animals are captured and sold to be put in cages and small enclosures for our viewing pleasure. On the other hand I appreciate that one of the best ways to motivate the public to care about conservation, wildlife and the environment is to allow them to see the animals up close, creating a connection to them. So they are able to educate the public but at what cost to the animals?

An injury in the wild necessitated the partial amputation of this eagle's wing.

I do appreciate that the SF zoo participates in conservation projects and takes in wounded or damaged animals that might otherwise be destroyed. IMO, in a perfect world, these would be the only animals kept in zoos.

So there's good and bad but to me, the most important thing about the SF Zoo in particular is that they want to improve the outdated enclosures many of the animals live in but they need to raise more funds, about $5,000,000.00, to do so. So visiting the zoo is, at the end of the day, helping the animals who are already there to one day have a better quality of life.

My thanks to our Aperture Academy instructors Scott Davis and Ellie Stone. They were both great. Keeping us on schedule, answering our questions and sharing all kinds of advice with us. I found just walking beside them meant I could glean all kinds of information as they talked to other people around them.

I'd definitely recommend taking a workshop with Aperature Academy and now understand even more why hubby has taken 11 so far :)

Aperture Academy
(408) 369-8585
1875 S. Bascom
Suite 600
Campbell, CA 95008

San Francisco Zoo Entrance
Sloat Blvd. & the Great Highway
San Francisco, CA. 94132

Current Zoo Admission Prices as of 12/18/11
Adult (15-64) $15
Seniors (65+) $12
Children (ages 4-14) $9
Children under 3 Free
Parking Mon-Fri $8
Parking Sat-Sun / Holidays $10

Discounted Rates: Available for San Francisco residents and military

Free Admission: The first Wednesday of each month but only for San Francisco residents. You must show proof of residency through a valid driver license, identification card or utility, phone or other local bill, delivered to your home address.

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