Behind the Scenes Photowalk at the Desert Museum

I’m an educator so it probably goes without saying that I think learning new things is important.  I try to spend some time each month, if not each week, learning something new but my typical sources are either trade journals or online sources.  Those are great and of course very convenient but sometimes it’s good to get out in the world and learn directly from others.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to take a class at one of my favorite places to visit with my camera – the Desert Museum.

This is a view that is typically reserved for zookeepers.

This is a view that is typically reserved for zookeepers.

The Desert Museum is dedicated to teaching its visitors about the Sonoran Desert and as you might guess, much of that education is in the form of scientific knowledge.   In 2001, they founded their Art Institute program with the goal of promoting conservation of the Sonoran Desert through art education.  Today the Art Institute offers about 80 classes a year including drawing, painting, photography, and more.

The class I enrolled in was Behind the Scenes Photowalk taught by Jay Pierstorff.  Mr. Pierstorff spent more than 30 years as a professional photographer before he retired and became a docent at the Desert Museum.  A few years ago, he approached the Art Institute and pitched the idea for the class.   Today the class is offered over two days – one primarily in the classroom and the other making photos around the museum grounds.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect before I arrived but I was sure that I was in for a good experience.  I wasn’t disappointed.

My class learning about what goes on behind the scenes at the Desert Museum

My class learning about what goes on behind the scenes at the Desert Museum

Day one, as I mentioned, was primarily set up as a day in the classroom.  The class is geared so that it offered something for beginners with point and shoot cameras as well as to those with advanced knowledge and pricey camera systems.  Importantly, the class time was about more than photography basics – Mr. Pierstorff also shared some of the tips and tricks he’s picked up while photographing at the Desert Museum over the years.  Some of those tips were as simple as camera settings while others offered suggested approaches aimed at making the best possible images of the animals.  The latter included some keen observations about individual animals’ behaviors and for me, that alone was worth spending the day in the classroom.  Day was one broken up with two shooting opportunities – one in the hummingbird aviary and one at the afternoon Raptor Free Flight.

We had early access to the Free Flight area so that we could choose the best places to set up.

We had early access to the Free Flight area so that we could choose the best places to set up.

Day two was entirely on the museum grounds and was the behind the scenes part of the class.  We met Jay Pierstorff early on Saturday morning and were joined by the Desert Museum’s Curator of Mammalogy & Ornithology, Shawnee Riplog-Peterson.  Because the Desert Museum was established as a museum and not a zoo, they have a Curator of Mammalogy & Ornithology however in practice, Ms. Riplog-Peterson’s job is head zookeeper.

Shawnee talks to one of the zookeepers as the class (and a few visitors) photograph the bear.

Shawnee talks to one of the zookeepers as the class (and a few visitors) photograph the bear.

As you might imagine, learning about what goes on behind the scenes at the Desert Museum is very interesting.  We learned a bit about how they take care of certain animals, about the research that they conduct, and more.  In that way, the Behind the Scenes Photowalk class was similar to the Zookeeper for a Day activity that Robin and I did a few years back, but of course, that was mixed in with some incredible photo opportunities as well.  One of the tips that Mr. Pierstorff shared on Friday was if you see a zookeeper going to interact with an animal, that you should follower her or him, because the animals know that if a zookeepers are around, they are likely to get some goodies.  On Saturday morning, we not only had a zookeeper with us, but she called ahead to one of her employees so that when we arrived, the animals were ready for us to snap away.

I hand fed the ram for this photo.

I hand fed the ram for this photo.

The class was a lot of fun and I enjoyed sharing time with my classmates, with Jay Pierstorff, and Shawnee Riplog-Peterson.  I look forward to putting the lessons I learned in class to good use during future visits.

We took turns being a part of the exhibit.

We took turns being a part of the exhibit.

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