Pictures With Santa

How many of y’all have had your picture made with Santa?

It’s been a while for me, but it was an annual tradition in my house.  Put on the good clothes, hop in the car and head for the Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta, wait in line, sit on Santa’s lap, go over the list, smile for the camera, head back home.

I did it for many years.

This time was different.  This time pictures with Santa meant me TAKING the pictures, and Santa sitting for them.  Santa contacted me a few weeks ago and asked for some pictures for his web site and a few other marketing and promotional items.  I did it, of course.  I mean, who would actually turn down SANTA??  (Can you say “naughty list?”)

Santa contacted me and we set a date for the shoot.  I studied hundreds of shots of the jolly old elf, and I put together a shooting plan that I thought would capture the best settings.

I usually spend a good deal of time before a big shoot making sure my equipment is ready and set up properly.  The day before Santa was scheduled to arrive, I went over the entire shooting plan again and checked out every piece of equipment, prop, and light I needed.

I was in great shape until I started checking out my lighting and found out that my second flash unit (a Nikon SB-700) was completely dead.  Most of my shooting plan was built around two lights (I also have an SB-910) so I quickly had to improvise.  A couple of LED lights, gaffer tape, and a C-stand did the trick, or at least allowed me to stay with the plan.  It turns out that the dead flash was the only technical glitch of the day.

Santa got to my house about 10am, and we spent an hour or so reviewing the plan.  He was a great subject, because he pretty much knew exactly what he was looking for, but he worked with me to tweak the execution of the shots.  The energy we mutually created during that hour set the tone for the day.

Setup 1 – By the Fireplace

Santa brought three sets of clothes with him, and he wanted shots with all three sets.  In the first set, which I’ve titled “By the Fireplace,” he wore the “traditional” santa clothes – red pants and top with white fur trim.  Here is the setup for the first round of shots:

SantaSetup1

I was shooting with my Nikon D800 + a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII.  The camera was on a tripod, and the pop-up flash was in command mode.  I attached a Nikon MC-36A remote cord.  I had a Nikon SB-910 speedlight with a Lastolite softbox attached on a stand on camera right, slightly above Santa’s head, and just behind his shoulder line.  There was a fire in the fireplace emitting a soft gold glow, but I enhanced the glow just a bit by using a small LED light covered with a full-cut CTO gel (CTO stands for Color Temperature Orange, and full-cut means that the gel has the strength to balance blue to white ). To camera left, my wife was holding a Lastolite Tri-Grip diffuser with the gold reflector cover attached.

The camera was set to ISO 100, f/8, and 1/3 second.  Probably the most important technique notes were (1) the SB-910 was in remote mode and turned down 1.3 stops, and (2) I was using rear-curtain sync, i.e., dragging the shutter.

Here are a couple of the shots:

SantaForBlog-2  SantaForBlog-1

Post Processing

I catalog all my images in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.  I’ll stay in Lightroom for general adjustments to images, and I’ll go to Photoshop CC for fine adjustments.  I’m also a big user of the Google Nik Collection.  I also use a great application from Topaz Labs called Impression, which is designed to turn images into art, i.e., paintings or other fine art.

I spent a lot of time in Photoshop CC and Topaz Impression for these images.  I have a definite idea of what Santa Claus looks like, and I was going for that look.  I remember all the Coca-Cola ads featuring Santa Claus I saw when I was young, and I’ve always been a fan.  I wanted this set to have that kind of feel.

I delivered the shots to Santa processed like he wanted them.  After delivery, and with his permission, I went through the set again to get the look I was after.

Setup 2 – Long Winter’s Nap

The second outfit Santa brought was his casual one, which replaces the red, fur-lined top with a beautiful casual vest, and adds a shirt with frills down the line of buttons.

Santa wanted a shot by the fire, showing how he unwinds after the big night.  You have to know that he’s tired and ready for some serious sleep.

Here’s the setup for the shot:

SantaSetup2

The setup is pretty close to the previous one, with minor tweaks.  We need to see the fire so we moved back and used a wider angle lens.  I wanted a more straight ahead shot, with the main lighting not quite so oblique.  I moved the SB-910 to just a bit camera right from Santa’s face, and I positioned the camera straight on from a low perspective.  Santa wanted the first thing you see to be his stocking feet and his bright red socks.  I still used the Lastolite Tri-Grip with the gold reflector to camera left, and the small LED light with the full-cut CTO get to make the shot warmer.

I was still shooting with the D800, controlling the SB-910 with the pop-up flash.  I used the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 zoom at 32mm. Once again, the key was adjusting the power on the speedlight, and dragging the shutter, this time to 2.5 seconds.

Here’s the result:

SantaForBlog-3

Post processing in Photoshop and Topaz Impression

Setup 3 – Headshots with Natural Light

Santa wanted a few head shots.  I felt like these would be fantastic using natural light from a window. We went and set up by a huge window that was just beaming in some wonderful diffused light.

Here’s the setup:

SantaSetup3

I sat Santa on a high stool at an angle to the window, so the light would feather the side of his face.  The stool was about 3 feet in front of a white wall with no texture.  I put the Lastolite Tri-Grip with a silver reflector on camera left so that the light from the door would fill in the other side of his face.  I put the reflector low, about at Santa’s knees, and let the light shine up into his face.  The SB-910, again in a softbox, added just a flicker of light to fill in the front of his face.

I shot from just a couple of feet from the wall where the window was.  I’m still using the D800 with the 70-200, but with a wider aperture (f/4) so that the background would be out of focus, and a much faster shutter (1/5th second) but still dragging.

Here’s the result:

SantaForBlog-6 SantaForBlog-5 SantaForBlog-4{

Post processing in Photoshop CC and Topaz Impression

Setup 4 – Kneeling at the Manger

Santa Claus understands the truth that Christmas is all about the birth of Christ.  It is his strong opinion that Santa and the birth of Christ not only can, but should co-exist in the Christmas tradition. He very strongly wanted an image that would reflect that belief.  We thought that having Santa kneel at the manger of a nativity scene really underscored that message.

We found a beautiful nativity scene depicted as a series of shadow boxes.  There are five shadow boxes in the display, and the middle one contains images of Mary, Joseph, and a view of the manger in which Christ was laid.

Here’s the setup:

SantaSetup4

This shot was, by far, the most technically challenging shot of the day.  There were lots of problems to overcome. To start with, we shot at dusk, but the sky was washed out, and not very interesting. Next, the shadows within the shadow box just looked strange in the shot – they were just kind of blah. Lastly, the shot needed to really emphasize Santa kneeling, but not take away the object of his adoration.

To solve the washed out sky, I used a technique I learned from the great Joe McNally, in his book, The Moment It Clicks, which, by the way, just might be the best photography book I’ve ever read.  Do yourself a favor and go get it.  Now. I’ll wait.

The technique is to set the camera’s white balance to tungsten, which will give a deep blue color cast to an outdoor shot.  That neatly solves the problem with the sky, but what about the rest of the shot? I don’t want a blue Santa or a blue shadow box or blue grass.  The answer to that issue lies in basic color theory.  What is the complementary color to blue?  Yellow.  If you combine blue and yellow you get white, so the answer is to put a full-cut CTO gel on the flash, and everything the flash hits will be white.  Problem solved.

I couldn’t figure out how to fix the weird look of the shadow box.  I decided to shoot one picture with the flash, and then immediately shoot another frame without the flash, and blend them together in Photoshop.

To really emphasize Santa, I put the speedlight just out of the frame on camera left, at full power, and zoomed it to 200mm and pointed it directly at his face.

Wow.  Lots of stuff to consider.

Here’s the first shot, with the flash zoomed into Santa’s face, covered with a full-cut CTO gel.  Notice the deep blue sky and the wonderful light on Santa’s face.  The shadow box, however, just looks, well, kind of meh.

SantaKneeling-1

Here’s the shot taken immediately after, with the flash disabled.  The light on the shadow box looks nice, but Santa is unlit.

SantaKneeling-2

Here is the composite image, which I think is a great blend.

SantaForBlog-7

I took this shot one step further and used Topaz Impression to turn it into a chiaroscuro painting, which will be the cover of my family’s Christmas cards this year.

SantaKneelingPainting-1

Setup 5 – At Night on the Marble Pavilion

By this time, Santa and I had been shooting nonstop for about 6 hours.  We were clicking, and frankly, having a blast.

Santa’s third outfit is a fantastic one that he refers to as his Father Christmas outfit.  It has a wonderful long coat with a band of gold braid at the bottom, just above the fur fringe.  He also wears a pair of calf-high boots with a cuff at the top.  He really wanted a picture that showed this outfit well. We set up at a large marble pavilion with beautiful ambient light.  This setting gave us a great opportunity get the shot.

Here’s the setup:

SantaSetup5

The placement of the equipment is similar to the previous setups, but with the equipment placed differently.  Once again, the keys to the shot are precise control of the flash, and rear curtain sync.

Here’s the image:

SantaForBlog-8

Post processed in Photoshop and Topaz Impression.

Summing It Up

Santa and I started work at 9am, and by the time we shot, culled, and post-processed, it was 11pm. The time flew by, and we were both tired, but very happy with the results.

I continue to be impressed by the technology available to photographers today.  I was able to very finely tune my lighting and exposure to a very high degree .  Using Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz Impression, I was able to take my images and add subtlety and nuance, which allowed me to achieve pretty much exactly what I had in my mind when we planned the shoot.

I was physically worn out at the end of the day, but I was pretty pleased with the results.  So was Santa, which was the whole point of the exercise.  Santa advised me that I made it on to his “nice” list, so now I’m making my list.

Maybe a new lens.  Or two.

Thanks for reading!

Star Trails Part 4

This is part 4 in my series about how to capture star trail images.

In part 1 we discussed location and equipment. We continued in part 2 with camera settings. In Part 3 we actually captured the images.  In this part, we’ll process our shots and produce a single image from the collection.

Post Processing

By this point, we’ve captured our series of images and we have them stored somewhere (hopefully with a backup somewhere else).  Now we have another decision to make – how are we going to take this collection and make a single image?

Specialized Software

There are a few applications specifically written for producing star trail images.  StarTrails.exe and StarStax are just a couple of them.  I’ve used StarStax, and it actually works pretty well.  Probably the coolest thing about StarStax is you can usually see the image take shape as the app works.  It’s very neat to watch.

StarStax

StarStax

I’ll leave the instructions for how to use these apps for you to figure out.  They are pretty straightforward, but they each have options, and I don’t want to short any of them.  Get them and try them, and If you use one of them and have a great experience, please let me know about it.  Again, I’d love to learn from you.

Adobe Photoshop

For me, the easiest and most straightforward way to produce a star trail image is by using Photoshop, especially if you want the highest resolution possible in your final image. I’m using Photoshop CC here, but previous versions will work as well.

I spend about 95% of my photography editing time in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.  No matter what I’m doing, I’ll load my images into Lightroom first.  I love the organizational capability of Lightroom, and I have every shot I’ve taken over the last three years in my main catalog, all tagged and with complete metadata.

Most of the time I can do just about any post-processing I want or need to do in Lightroom. There are, however, times when I need to hop into Photoshop.  Producing a star trail image is one of them. There are a couple of ways to build the final image in Photoshop, but I prefer to use layers.

After I’ve loaded my individual images into Lightroom, I can select the ones I want to include in my final image and then load them into Photoshop as a collection of layers:

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 3.51.24 PM

Depending on how many images you have, and how large each image is, it may take a while for all your images to load.  After your images load up in Photoshop, you’ll see all your individual images as layers on the right side panel.

Next, you select all your layers and then set your blend mode to “Lighten.”  This mode will use the brightest spot (the stars) in your individual images, thus producing the final image. Like this:

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 4.05.53 PM

Next, flatten the image by clicking Layer->Flatten Image from the Photoshop menu bar.  After the image is flattened, save and then close the image.  The image will be saved and added to your Lightroom catalog.

You can then use Lightroom’s export, publish, or print services to show off your amazing star trail image.  Here’s my latest one:

A star trail image taken from my patio, high up in the Smoky Mountains

A star trail image taken from my patio, high up in the Smoky Mountains

Star trail images are wonderful to look at, and with the right location, decent equipment, and some patience, they are very straightforward and not too difficult to do well.

Good luck with your images, and by all means, please let me know about your experiences with star trails.  Most of all – have some fun!

Thanks for reading!

Star Trails Part 3

This is part 3 in a series of posts about how to capture star trail images.  In part 1 I covered when & where as well as equipment.  In part 2 I discussed camera settings.  In this part I’ll discuss shooting the images we will use to create the final image.

A Star Trail image from my patio

A Star Trail image from my patio

Composition

Ok, we’ve found our location and set up our equipment.  Now let’s capture some images.

Remember – the stars are not actually moving.  It’s the earth that’s moving underneath them. Why is that important?  Because it means that there are very very few places in the sky that will not leave a trail. One of those places is Polaris – the North Star.

Understanding that the North Star will not leave a trail leads to the first big decision you need to make about your composition.  Do you want your trails to be a series of concentric circles? Like this:

Star Trails Around a Point in Space – the North Star – from  http://mashable.com/2013/08/17/star-trail-photos/

Or do you want your trails to be just “passing through” your image?  Like this:

Star Trails just Passing Through the Image – from http://mashable.com/2013/08/17/star-trail-photos/

If you want the concentric circles around the North Star, then the first thing you need to do is find the North Star in your sky.  There are lots of ways to do this.  I use an app called Star Walk from Vito Technology.

Once you have found the North Star, then you need to compose your shots with it as the point of interest in the shot.  Again, there are many ways to do it, but I’d suggest you frame the shot so that the North Star is on a power point – one of the four intersections of horizontal and vertical lines in a rule-of-thirds grid.  In the example above, the North Star is pretty close to the upper left power point.

I mentioned it in part 1 – you want some kind of foreground interest in your shot to give some scale and some context.  An image with just star trails is interesting, but not as interesting as one with something in the foreground.

You have lots of choices here.  Trees, mountains, structures, and even people can be in the foreground.  It’s just best to have something there.  Find a foreground that really helps you tell your story and use it.

With all that said, the basic guidelines of composition still apply.  Lines, patterns, and textures are important.  Depth of field is not as important as other elements because these shots tend to have very deep depth of field.  Symmetry can be used to great effect in these images.  The following symmetric shot is stunning and beautiful:

Using Symmetry in a Star Trail Photo – from http://mashable.com/2013/08/17/star-trail-photos/

Shooting

Ok, we’ve set up and composed our shot.  Now we start triggering the shutter.

The next big decision you need to make is – how many shots and for how long?  And just like everything else, there are lots of options.  Here are the general rules of thumb:

  • The length of your trails is determined mostly by how many shots you take.  The more shots – the longer the trail.
  • The interval between your exposures determines how solid your trails are.  The shorter interval – the more solid the trail.

In my shot above, I used 90 shots of 30 seconds each, with 30 seconds of delay between shots.  You can see that the trails are very long, and they are, for the most part, solid.  I urge you to experiment and see what works best for you.  There are some very impactful shots that use shorter, disconnected trails.  Here’s an example:

A Star Trail Image With Shorter Disconnected Trails – from http://mashable.com/2013/08/17/star-trail-photos/

After you decide how many shots and for how long, it’s time to release the shutter.  You may choose to do it manually or automate it.  I advise you use some type of intervalometer.  In my shot above, I used a Nikon MC-36a remote shutter release, which has an intervalometer built into it.  I set it up to (1) wait 10 seconds before it starts so I could put the remote down and let the camera settle, (2) open the shutter for 30 seconds, (3) close the shutter and wait 30 seconds, and (4) repeat steps (2) and (3) 90 times.

Then I went inside and watched baseball.

I went back out to check the camera every 30 minutes or so just to make sure things were still working.

After 90 minutes, the process was done.  I took the camera inside, removed the memory card, and read the images into Lightroom.  Then the fun started.

In the next post I’ll cover post processing.  Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

Star Trails Part 2

In my last post I began a discussion of star trail images and how to do them.

131008_wst_0004-Edit

In this post I’ll continue that discussion.  Last time I covered when and where, as well as the equipment you’ll need.  This time I’ll cover camera settings.

The way you set up your camera will, in large part, be determined by how you want to approach the image.  There are basically two ways to get one of these shots.  You can (1) take one long exposure, or (2) take lots of shorter ones and “stack” them together, after the fact, with photography post-processing software.

I’ve seen excellent examples of star trail images taken both ways.  It really depends on how you want to do it.  I recommend method (2) – taking lots of shots and stacking them.  I like to have options, and I think you have more options and more creative control that way.

From here on out, I’ll assume you are taking lots of shots and stacking them together.

Exposure

One of the things I love about photography is that there are multiple ways to approach any shot, and no one way is best.  Controlling exposure is one of the best ways to alter your creative vision, and these shots are no exception.  I encourage you to take several test shots before you start.  Try lots of different exposure settings and see which one(s) you like – which ones express your intent the best.  Use your imagination and try to envision what the trails will look like.

I also encourage you to try lots of different settings.  If you do, and you find something that works, please let me know.  I’d love to learn from you.

Shutter Speed

While you could use short shutter speeds (1 second or less) to get these images, the best results seem to be from longer ones (30 seconds or more).  The rule is pretty much the shorter the shutter speed, the more images you’ll need to get the effect.  One of the benefits of using lots of shots stitched together is that each shot will be less noisy.  Generally, the longer you open your shutter, the more prone the image is to “hot spots,” either through the sensor heating up or just the introduction of digital noise.

My recommendation: 30 seconds

Aperture

You want the stars to be the story, so you need to make sure they are as bright as they can be.  To make them really bright, it’s best to open up your lens as much as it will go.  If you have a lens with a wide open aperture, like f2.8 or better, try that and see how you like it.

You will probably want to focus your lens on infinity, so sharpness isn’t as much of an issue as with other types of pictures.  Of course you want it sharp, but you’ll be safe opening up wide and focusing on infinity. Keep in mind though, that for most lenses, the aperture that is 2 stops above maximum is generally the sharpest.  For example, if your lens’ widest aperture is f/2.8, then f/5.6 will probably render the sharpest images, all other things being equal.  Try out your sharpest aperture and see how you like it.

My recommendation: The more open the better – f/2.8 or wider is good

ISO

Here is where you’ll want to experiment.  A good star trail image will have nice long bright trails against a vividly dark sky.  In addition, you’ll want some foreground interest that is exposed enough to show what it is, but not enough to steal the scene.  To get all that well, you’ll probably want to set your ISO a tad high. Start with 200 and try some test shots all the way up to 3200 or so and see which one you like best.

My recommendation: ISO 800

Other Settings

There are a couple of other in-camera settings to think about.

Format: RAW or JPG?

For these images I recommend shooting RAW, simply because it gives you more control over the editing process.  If you are using a specialized software package to stack or process your images you might want to check and see what formats they support.  For example, StarStax only supports JPG.  You could still shoot raw and export them to JPG before using such a tool, though.

My recommendation: RAW

White Balance

If you use automatic white balance, you introduce the possibility of the white balance changing over the period where you are shooting.  The first image may have a very different white balance than the last one.  Now, that’s not necessarily bad.  It just may make for an interesting image.  If you want the entire collection of shots to have the same white balance, pick one at the beginning and stick with it.  Which one?  It depends on the surroundings, and what you choose for your foreground interest.  Personally, I want the foreground image to look warmer, so I start at about 4500 K and go from there.  If you shoot RAW, you can pretty easily tweak the white balance in Lightroom or Photoshop if you need to.

My recommendation: Automatic

Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Some cameras have a setting that will allow the camera itself to clean up some of the noise that is introduced in a long shutter speed exposure. The cost of this setting is that it takes some time for the camera to do the adjustment.  Sometimes it’s a long time – I’ve seen a 30 second exposure take 20 seconds to process before it writes to the memory card.  If you leave this setting turned on, make sure you understand the time it takes for the camera to process the image.  You don’t want the delay to be longer than the interval you need between your shots.  Better yet?  Leave it off.

So now that we have a location, and the right equipment set up properly, let’s move on to actually getting the shots and making the image.

Stay tuned for the next post, and thanks for reading!

Star Trails Part 1

Have you ever seen those fantastic landscape images, taken at night, where the sky is painted with lines tracing the path of the stars?  These images, commonly known as Star Trails, are wonderful. They are almost magical in their look and feel.

This picture isn’t mine, but it’s a beautiful example of a star trail image:

A Star Trail Image

To me, the images are otherworldly. They are a juxtaposition of nature and technology.  Our eyes can’t see or track the stars as they move across the sky, but my camera (along with Photoshop) can (actually, the stars aren’t moving – it’s this big wide world we’re all sitting on that’s moving underneath them).

I finally took the time to try one of these shots.  The stars lined up (literally) for me.  I had a crystal clear night, and from the patio at my house high up in the Smoky Mountains, the stars were shining like Christmas tree lights.  The moon was at 10% but was well below the treeline behind my house.  I turned out all the lights in the house, went out on the patio and went to work.

Here’s the first of my images I feel is good enough about to share:

131008_wst_0004-Edit

I tried a few of these.  I studied a lot, experimented a lot, and threw away a lot.  I think I understand now how to approach one of these shots, and I intend to do many more of them. In this post I’ll explain what I’ve learned.

Location

Before anything else, you have to have the right location.  What’s the right location?  For starters, you have to have access to a wide open sky.  Ideally the sky would be cloud-free and with no moon. Last but not least, it has to be dark on the ground around you.  I mean really dark.  Bright ambient light keeps you (and your camera) from seeing all the stars.  When you get to a place that is really dark, you will be amazed at how many stars you can see.

My house sits high up in the Smoky Mountains and there are almost no streetlights or any other form of ambient light near me.  Even so, I have to turn out all the lights in the house to minimize the “light pollution” on the sky.

I think the rule is – find the darkest place you know, and then go look for something darker.

Equipment

I believe the common wisdom about camera equipment as it relates to getting good images – you can get great images without a bag full of expensive equipment.  This is one case, however, where having good equipment matters. Here’s what is important:

  • A good camera body:  At the very least, you need to be able to have manual control over your camera. That means being able to set the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO independently.  You also need to be able to do long exposures – 30 seconds at the least, and wide open until you shut it (bulb mode) at the most.  You need good high-ISO performance.  You might want to shoot your individual shots at a relatively high ISO – say 1600 or above.  Can you get the shot with a point-and-shoot?  Maybe.  Could you do it with a crop-frame DSLR? Absolutely. That said, though, a full-frame DSLR body is best for this kind of shot.  You just have more surface area to work with.
  • A good tripod: I can’t imagine being able to get a good star trail image without a tripod. Whether you are taking one long shot, or lots of shorter ones, the camera must be absolutely still, or your trails may look jagged or irregular.  A tripod, or some other way to anchor the camera in a fixed position is a must.
  • The widest lens you can find:  The stars are the story.  You want to include as many of them, as well as the surrounding sky, as you can.  I suggest using a wide-angle lens – the widest one you have.  Somewhere between 12 and 24 millimeters will work nicely.
  • A remote shutter release: The shots you take to make one of these images are relatively long exposures.  You want to do everything you can to reduce camera shake,  Using a remote takes that a long way.
  • Some way to trigger a series of exposures:  If you choose to take several shots and combine them, you need a way to trigger the shutter at regular intervals over a period of time.  You can certainly do this by sitting by your camera, watching a stopwatch, and manually triggering the shutter when you need to.  A better way is to use some type of timer – known as an intervalometer – to automatically trigger your shutter.  Get one of these things, find a way to make it work with your shutter release, and you can start it and then go back inside where it’s warm and drink coffee while it does all the work.
  • A flashlight:  Remember how I said you need it to be dark?  If you find a dark enough place, you won’t be able to see well enough to set your rig up.  Use a flashlight.
  • A flash:  A flash?  Outside in the wide open spaces? Yep.  These shots work best when you have some type of foreground interest to give some scale and some context.  A shot of just the stars looks kind of, well, lost.  The foreground should be lit enough so that you can tell what it is, but you don’t want to light it too much with ambient light because it will “pollute” the night sky.  I suggest using a flash (off the camera if possible) to give just a touch of light to your foreground.
  • A computer and software: If you choose to shoot several images and stack them together, you will need a computer, and photo editing software, e.g. Lightroom, Photoshop, StarStax, Startrails.exe.

In the next post I’ll go into camera settings and how to set up.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday in the Zoo

Who doesn’t like a trip to the zoo?  To me, it’s always fun, and it makes me feel a little like I’m on safari.  Well, as much as you can be on safari where there are gift shops and restaurants and indoor plumbing.  Oh, and all the animals are in cages.

This past Saturday, I took a trip to the Knoxville Zoo with the Southern Appalachian Nature Photographers, a club full of photography nuts like me.  Kendall Chiles is the president of the club.  Kendall is an amazing photographer, whose work appears regularly in travel and outdoor magazines in East Tennessee.  He also teaches in the University of Tennessee Photography Certificate Program.  That’s where I met him.

Kendall arranged the trip together with Betty Wasserman, who works in the education department at the zoo.

Betty Wasserman, a member of the education department at the Knoxville zoo

The first thing I learned about the Knoxville zoo is that the people who work and volunteer there love to be there.  They talk about the animals at the zoo as if they were their children.  They know the names of the animals, and they work hard to give them the best life they can provide.  Everyone I met was great.

It’s a quality place full of quality people and beautiful animals.  They deserve your support.  Get out there and make it a day – you won’t be sorry.

Betty had a couple of volunteers there to help her.  Larry and Linda tagged along with us, and were very patient and helpful.

Larry and Linda

There were a couple of things that made the trip special.  First, Betty is a photographer herself so she was able to give us the tour from a photographer’s perspective.  She gave us lots of tips about what positions will give the best opportunities, and the best ways to get the attention of the animals.

Did you know you can make a fence disappear with a camera?  And no, I’m not talking about Photoshop.

This is a shot of a wild dog.  There was actually a pretty stout fence between me and the animal.

Wild Dog Through a Fence – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney

The trick to the shot is using a wide open aperture – the wider the better.  If the animal is far enough away from the fence, the fence will disappear.  Why? Shallow depth-of-field.  In addition to making the fence disappear, the shallow depth-of-field blurs the background, which makes the animal stand out.  This is much easier to do when you focus the cameral manually. The autofocus will try very hard to focus on the fence, and most of the time it will be successful.  Flip the AF off and refocus manually.  Thanks Kendall and Betty for the tip.

In addition to the education, Betty gave us special access to the animals.  We got into the park before the actual opening, so we were able to get up close to the animal habitats, and we were able to take our time and set up our shots.  She also knows how to get the animals into great positions within their habitats.  She gave us ample opportunities for good shots.

At one point, I asked Kendall about the magic bullet for great animal shots.  What is it that makes someone go “wow” when they see a picture of an animal?  I mean over and above great composition, proper exposure, and tack-sharp focus?

He told me that it is pretty much a must that (1) you get the animal’s eyes, and (2) get them in super sharp focus.  Just like with people, eyes are a big part of expression.

Blue Monkey – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney

And speaking of expression, Kendall said that gestures that show the personality of the animal are great. After all, Animals are people too.  They have expressions and gestures, and they are aware of their surroundings – like a bunch of people standing at the fence and staring at them.

Zebras Playing – (c) 2013 EIdon Images / Cliff McCartney

Just as with any photographic subject, light is everything.  A picture that has all the other ingredients, but is taken in bad light, will not have the impact it might have had.

The same rules apply – early morning and late evening light is best.

Relaxing Zebra – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney

Back in the spring I went on a weekend workshop to Fall Creek Falls state park.  Kendall also led that trip, and and one point someone asked him the secret to getting great sunrise shots.  His answer? “f/16, wake up early, and get out there.”

Indeed.

Get out there.  It was great to get out to the zoo first thing in the morning and take some shots of these beautiful animals.  This was a great experience for me, and I hope to visit the zoo again soon.

I’ll leave you with a few more shots of the animals.  Thanks for reading!

Silverback Gorilla – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney

Barn Owl – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney

Peregrine Falcon – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney

Female Lion – (c) 2013 Eidon Images / Cliff McCartney