Behind the Lens at the Nashville Zoo
Imagine you are on your dream vacation in a game reserve in Africa, Land Rover bumping over dusty roads, the sky a deep blue. The earth shakes with the thunder of hooves as a migrating herd of wildebeest fills the distant horizon. You stand in the back of the open vehicle, camera poised to capture this once-in-a-lifetime sight on the plains of the Maasai Mara, adrenaline pumping.
“Take lots of pictures. Keep shooting! Focus on the eyes of your subject and keep them in the center of the viewfinder!” You mentally go through the checklist. “Raise the ISO to increase the camera’s sensitivity to light, aperture open wide, fast shutter speed to freeze the action. Have your camera ready to go in any situation.”
Amiee Stubbs is the official photographer at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, and loves nothing better than sharing her skills with new students. She is an expert in wildlife and motion photography and her classes are for anyone wanting to capture the world from behind the lens.
How many of us have bought expensive cameras, but been overwhelmed by their complexity? Do you keep yours set mostly on automatic? That’s not why you bought that fancy Nikon or Canon! Take a class at the Nashville Zoo and learn how to get the most out of it while having an absolute blast. This is the way to go behind the scenes.
Get up close and personal with owls, servals, lynx, and lorikeet hatchlings. Understand behavioral characteristics of individual species. A special bonus is a backstage tour through the giraffe house to the hill overlooking their reserve, where they may reach a long neck right into your lap. How cool is that!
“If you’re taking a one-time trip to Africa, you probably want to make sure you know how to use your camera,” Stubbs says to the class.
Zachary Romer gave his mother-in-law the class as a Christmas gift, and joined her in Zoo Photography 101. A science teacher at Smyrna High School, he left for Madagascar two weeks later on a Study Abroad Program, confident and ready to take pictures of lemurs in the jungle.
Rachel is a band groupie and loves to follow her favorite musicians and take pictures. “Everything you learn in the wildlife photography class, you can use at sports events and concerts,” explains Amiee. “The rules are the same. I’ll be teaching you how to master your settings, how to have your camera ready and good to go in any situation.”
Maybe you’re planning an Alaskan cruise up the Inside Passage. Leaning on a cruise ship railing to steady your long zoom lens, you focus on bald eagles perched in a spindly pine tree on the shore. “If you’re shooting with a 200mm lens, your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/200th second to avoid being blurry.” The words of Stubbs may echo in your ears. “Shooting animals, you always want a fast shutter speed.”
She drills the message over and over as we visit the different exhibits around the zoo. This is the ideal locale for learning photography skills under a complete variety of conditions.
Clouded leopards drape the high branches of a tree in their enclosure, tails hanging lazily. “When you see an animal yawning, shoot off a bunch of pictures,” encourages Amiee. “It’s all about the subtle differences. You’re looking for that one where their ears are just perfect, or they glance up at a bird and you catch the sun glinting in their eyes.
We strike it lucky when we reach the elephants. It’s bath time, and one female is being soaped up and hosed off. Her huge ears flap back and forth as water sprays in the sunlight. Before you plan your trip to the zoo, consider checking the feeding schedules or other planned activities for added animal interaction. It’s a fascinating study of animal behavior and brilliant opportunities for capturing that perfect shot.
Late in the day we walk to the tiger enclosure. Sensing feeding time approaching, the white tiger has given up her spot in the shade and runs a track up and down the wooded hillside and across the stream. Cameras click as we admire her stunning markings and muscles flexing.
“If the subject is light, you may want to underexpose to add more detail to it,” Amiee reminds us. “If it’s darker than the rest of the background, like a black gibbon, overexpose to put more light on the face.” We fine-tune our adjustments, taking pictures, checking the results, and continuing to shoot.
Ah, the beauty of digital, where you can see it all as you go.
At the end of the day we have some classroom training on photo editing software. This is just the beginning. We are inspired to come back to the zoo to practice what we’ve learned. We’re all fired up!
Anyone can do this! Check out the zoo’s website for upcoming events such as the Wild Impressions Animal Art Auction in August, where animals will actually do the painting! Sign up for a photography class or a private lesson, have fun, and learn the tricks of your camera. Before you know it, you’ll be taking pictures like a professional!
Do you have a favorite exhibit at the Nashville Zoo? Share the best moment you’ve caught with a camera.