Creative Secret Sauce Part 2

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

Last week we revealed that Dad’s creative process involves watching lots of Westerns, studying old paintings and doodling on copious amounts of paper.  This week we’ll reveal more of Dad’s secret sauce of creativity.

But first to recap:  Dad starts by sketching the kernel of an idea he gleaned from the said Westerns, paintings and movies.  Once the idea is fleshed out, he contacts the experts for a second opinion on the plan.  Sometimes the experts are cowboys, ranchers or trail cooks.  Other times the experts are taxidermists and fishermen.

Pulling the Pieces Together

At this point, Dad has the idea, he’s talked with experts and developed a plan on how to shoot the photo.  Now he brings everything together by assembling the parts.

Dad asks himself a lot of questions at this point.  Does he have the right camera gear for the shoot?  Who are the people he can count on to do their jobs well during the shoot?  Where can he get the props needed for the picture? What sort of special rigs does he need to build?  Where can he test them?

In the case of “The Great Horse Chase”, Dad built a special metal frame that would hold three Nikon FTN camera bodies.  This rig guaranteed he’d get photos from three different vantage points, ensuring the shoot would be a success since he only had a few passes of the horses before the camera. 

Dad tested and fine-tuned the camera set up in Dallas.  Meanwhile, he trusted Baker and McGrew to arrange for the actual horses, cowboy model and wranglers.  Then Dad secured his two most dependable photo assistants for the trip.

All of this preparation gives Dad a clear sense of how to direct people like models, wranglers and photo assistants during the photo shoot.  Throughout these big photo productions, Dad functions more like a move director than a simple still photographer.  There are many moving pieces he must bring together to create a photo like “The Great Horse Chase”.

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

Other photos are complicated because they require designing and testing unique mechanical rigs to create the action in the photo.  The “Big Bass” shoot required hiring a taxidermist to create a fish so realistic no one would believe it was fake.  The faux fish was then attached to an arm powered by an air cylinder.  (You can read the whole story here.) .  Dad spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the projectile fish before shooting a single frame with his camera.

The idea that photographers just run out and shoot great photos is very flawed.  Occasionally that happens, but most of the time they spend hours creating photos.

Ansel Adams summed it up best.  “You don’t take a photograph.  You make it.”

Photoshop Revolution

One of the key parts of Dad’s creative process is Photoshop.  For Dad, Photoshop functions as an artistic tool like a paintbrush would be to a painter.  He’s been able to create many of his best photos thanks to the software.

In the days of film, you were locked into one location. That site had to have everything you or the art director wanted.  It was limiting, expensive and often required the headache of getting permits, among other things.

One Wild Ride | Beebower Productions

Photoshop allows Dad to shoot a simple landscape shot in one location and the model in a controlled setting at the studio.  Then he merges the two images in Photoshop to create a seamless piece of Old West art.  That’s exactly what he did with “Wild Ride”.

“As soon as I knew what Photoshop was capable of, it became a very important part of planning,” Dad said. “I began to shoot differently, like the movies.  I could shoot a cowboy on a blue screen and drop him into the cactus landscape.  It saved a lot of time and money.  I could create more of the photos I imagined.”

Time Flies

So you may be wondering how long it takes Dad from the time he thinks of an idea until he’s shooting.  That depends on a lot of things.  Sometimes the idea needs to percolate for a while.  Other times the idea is straightforward and entails little planning.  Such was the case with “Barrel Racer”.

“Barrel Racer” required a barrel and one seasoned rider and her horse.  Add a blazing sunset and you’re done.  Within a couple of weeks, the image was shot and processed.

Big Bend Country | Beebower Productions

More complicated images take longer to plan. “Big Bend Country” necessitated traveling to two separate locations, a ranch in Colorado and Big Bend National Park in Texas.  Dad shot the cowboys and cattle at the Goemmer Ranch in Colorado.  But he needed a dramatic background. Dad remembered a desolate area near the Cottonwood Campgrounds at Big Bend that would be perfect.  He hit the road and photographed the mountain peaks. 

It took about two months to get the two photos; however, the real time consuming labor would be done in Photoshop.  Dad worked on this image for about three months, in between shooting images for his commercial advertising clients.  It was a tricky photo to blend.

The secret to merging the Big Bend photo with the Colorado cowboys was the dirt.  Some of the dust coming off the horses and cattles’ hooves was part of the cowboys’ photo.  But Dad also needed some dust from Big Bend to make the scene believable.

He got the dust by creating a special hoof-shaped tool that his assistant used to hit the ground, stirring up the dust.  The tool was encased in blue screen, a fabric that is used in the movies.  Special software detects the blue color and efficiently cuts it out as if it had never been there.  So when you look at Dad’s photo all you see is the dust, not the tool.  And, yes, there were two colors of dirt naturally occurring in the Big Bend half of the photo.   So all together Dad spent about five months developing this picture.

Always Learning

As you can see Dad’s always learning something new.  Whether it’s how to propel a fish out of the water or how to blend dust from one location with another location in Photoshop, photography is never boring.

“Oh, you’re always learning something new.  It may just be a tidbit, but it’s an on-going thing,” Dad said.  “You just keep packing the info in your head, but eventually it’ll come back around and you’ll use the knowledge again.”

That on-going quest of learning helps keep Dad’s creative juices flowing.

Replenishing the Well

Every once in a while, though, Dad hits a creative roadblock.  Every artist does.  When that happens, he shoots something new, visits a new place, purposely meets new people or tries out a new technique.

Horse Stampede | Beebower Productions

“You have to mix it up every so often so you don’t get stale,” Dad said. “A while back my friend Red Wolverton gave me the idea to shoot a stampede from underneath.  He buried a steel tank in the corral for me.  We got some fantastic images from that shoot thanks to Red.  It’s a unique perspective.”

Start to Finish

So there you have it:  Dad’s creative process from a kernel of an idea to the actual photo.  The planning that goes into each of his photos takes them from average shots to authentic Old West photos.

We’d love to hear how about your artistic process.  Do you have a secret sauce to spice up your creativity?

Creative Secret Sauce Part 1

Chuckwagon Grub Line | Beebower Productions

Every artist has one: a creative process that takes a kernel of an idea to a finished photograph.  Dad’s creative process involves watching lots of Westerns, studying old paintings and doodling on copious amounts of paper.

While his wildlife photography doesn’t follow this process because, well, the animals are wild, all of his other images started out as a tiny idea that mushroomed into a full photography expedition.

Stealing from the Greats

Dad often is asked where he comes up with the ideas for his photos.  Does he have a secret sauce for creativity?  Yeah.  He steals them from other great artists.

Renowned artist Pablo Picasso said, “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal.”

The difference between copying and stealing in Picasso’s definition is pretty simple.  Stealing, according to Picasso, is allowing someone else’s work to inspire you to create something unique rather than just copying another artist’s work.   

Dad often gets ideas from TV Westerns, movies, Old West paintings and dime novels.  He pilfers the ideas and then creates his own photograph with a different twist.

Sedona Stage | Beebower Productions

“You’ve seen the action some place,” Dad said.  “You read a lot of books, looked at a lot of ancient paintings and seen a lot of movies.  I got the idea for ‘Sedona Stage’ after watching Mel Gibson in ‘Maverick’.  Of course if you do something based on something you saw, it’s going to look totally different than theirs because it’s so hard to shoot this stuff and you want to make it your own.  Coming up with ideas is just part of the problem.” 

Sketching the Nitty Gritty Details

Dad works out a lot of the problems by sketching his ideas.  When I was growing up Dad would often come home from the studio and spend the evening in his own little world.  He’d draw idea after idea on his yellow legal pads or sheets of paper folded into quarters. (I don’t know why it was quarters, but every paper was folded into quarters.  I never asked because I didn’t want to mess with his creative mojo.) The TV was on, but Dad was so engrossed in his sketches, he couldn’t tell you much about the show.  He was a prolific sketcher.

When Mom and I would clean, we’d find discarded sketches under the couch, stuffed into magazines or full yellow legal pads haphazardly piled up near his seat.  We never dared throw them away.  You never knew when he’d need that sketch.

Like Dad most photographers are visual thinkers.  Sketching out a photo idea helps artists to think through and plan for multiple aspects of a shoot.   There are so many pieces to consider.  It would be easy to miss something that will really impact the success of the shoot. 

Some of the things Dad considers while sketching are: the strength of the photo idea, what the photo communicates to the viewer, the best composition, types of lighting, models-both human and animals, additional helpers that might be needed on the set, props, equipment (beyond just the camera and lenses), special effects, possible problems and the price tag for the shoot.

As world famous photographer Ansel Adams said, “To visualize an image (in whole or in part) is to see clearly in the mind prior to exposure, a continuous projection from composing the image through the final print.”

The Great Horse Chase Setup Diagram | Beebower Productions

Case in Point

Let’s take a look at one of Dad’s most popular photographs, “The Great Horse Chase”.  He got the idea on a trip to Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.  Then the real work began.  The photo looks like an impromptu action shot, but it required an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes planning to pull it off successfully.   It also involved a crew of about 10 people.

Dad sketched this idea out in detail and came to the following realizations:  A team would be needed to construct the corral and create a path for the horses to run right past the cameras.  One photo assistant would need to run the wind machine and another would need to throw Fullers earth into the wind stream. Wranglers would open and close the corral gates and the cowboy would throw the rope at just the right moment as he sailed past the cameras.  That was a lot of people to coordinate.

Without the visual thought process of sketching his photo shoot, Dad would have missed many important elements required to pull off the shoot.  He also wouldn’t have been prepared for the next step in his creative process.

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

Consulting the Experts

Once Dad’s idea has been sketched, he moves on to the consulting phase.  He takes the idea to those who can best help him.  In the case of “The Great Horse Chase”, he presented the idea to Jim Baker and Pat McGrew at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.

The duo advised Dad on whether his idea for the cowboy and horses were true to life and where to find the best horses, cowboys and wranglers.  They supplied the inside knowledge needed to create a great Old West photo.  Dad often finds brainstorming with experts, in this case cowboys and ranchers, takes his photography to a whole new level.  He was very pleased with the outcome.

Sometimes, though, Dad has to bring in the big guns to pull off the image he visualizes.  Big Bass”.  Dad knew enough about bass to realize fish don’t jump out of the water on cue repeatedly.

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

“Sometimes it takes talking with movie special effects guys and that in itself becomes a real task.  You’re trying to pry out of them how to do things,” Dad said.  “Sometimes they’re reluctant to let you in on their secrets.  But I usually got the information.  I just had to be persistent.  A lot of times the answer meant I needed to build a special set up to pull off the photo.”

Luckily, Dad also happens to be very mechanical and he can build pretty much anything he’d need for a shoot.  That helps in the next part of his creative process, pulling the pieces together.

Coming Next Week

To find out the rest of Dad’s secret sauce of creativity join us next week.  We’ll see how he pulls the pieces together, how Photoshop figures into his artistic vision and what he does when the inspiration dries up.

The Eyes Have It

Soulful Sea Lion | Beebower Productions

When we meet someone new, we lock on to their eyes like a heat seeking missiles.  Why? The eyes can tell you lot about someone.  Eyes can convey moods, telegraph intentions and even give us insight to the soul. 

This is true with people as well as animals.  For wildlife photographers, eyes play an important part in our compositions.  Eyes can bring a photograph to life. 

“When an animal looks at you, there are all kinds of emotions that come from the eyes.  They tell you the animal is at ease or if you’ve scared the bejebbers out of it.  The eyes are the portals to what’s inside.  The eyes tell it all, “ Dad says.


Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

Dad’s photograph “Old Mescal Bronc” is a perfect example of the eyes conveying everything you need to know.  The horse in this photograph was just plain crazy. As soon as the cowboy slid into the saddle, the horse launched straight up in the air and began bucking its way down the dusty street and through a mesquite thicket near Dad.  Mesquite trees have some really nasty stickers on them.  The horse wasn’t phased at all.

When Dad studied the film back at his studio, the horse’s crazed eyes spoke volumes about its feelings regarding the whole situation.  Those eyes add an extra layer of interest and dimension to an already great photo.  (You can read the full story about this photograph here.)

By contrast “Harbor Seal Portrait” shows an animal that is more curious about the photographer than alarmed. The eyes are soft rather than panicked or distraught.  Since we were floating along in a boat, something it saw regularly in the slough, the seal knew we didn’t pose much of a danger.  So it watched us for a moment and then went back to sleep. The seal’s eyes in the photograph create a bond between the viewer and the seal.

Capturing the Eyes

If eye contact is so desirable, how do you make sure you capture it regularly?  Through the years we’ve found a few things that tip the scale in your favor.

  • Know your gear:  Understanding how your camera, lenses and flashes work is critical.  You don’t want to be in the animal’s environment frantically reading the camera manual while trying to figure out how to change your f-stop.  You’ll miss the shot.  Often animals only look at you once before they disappear.  You need to be able to adjust your shutter speed, compose a picture and know when to press the button all while the animal makes that one-time, often-brief eye contact.
  • Know your subject:  In the animal kingdom staring is often considered a challenge or something predators do before attacking.  So it pays to know your subject.  If you want to get close enough to take a photograph of a bird, avert your eyes and move very slowly.  Camouflage always helps too. 

Pelican Portrait | Beebower Productions

I was able to creep closer to this pelican simply by looking away and taking tiny, sideways steps with frequent stops.  The pelican certainly knew I was there, but it didn’t freak out.  In fact, I was able to take numerous photographs and the bird remained on the post after I finished, even as I backed away.

No matter what type of animal you plan to shoot, learn as much as you can about it’s natural environment, predators and normal behavior because those things will help you get the picture, especially a picture with good eye contact.

  • Get on the animal’s eye level:  In this picture of the sea lion the eyes make direct contact with the viewer because I was right at the sea lion’s eye level.  The eyes draw the viewer into the photo and keep him engaged.  Shooting at the animal’s eye level can create a powerful connection.
  • Choose a high ISO:  Most wildlife moves quickly.  Such was the case with this osprey.  Dad chose a high ISO before the bird ever showed up because knew ospreys were fast.  In order to freeze the action and keep the eyes sharp, he needed a very high ISO of 4,000.   That ISO allowed him to choose an equally high shutter speed of 1/4,000 of a second.

You can do everything right by focusing on the eyes, but if you don’t have a fast enough shutter speed the animal’s movements will render your photo a blurry mess.  We recommend a minimum speed of 1/1,000 of a second for moving subjects. 

It’s important to note that you get what you pay for in digital camera purchases.  My husband attempted to photograph this same osprey, but was very disappointed with the results. 


Osprey in Flight | Beebower Productions

His Canon 60D allowed him to match Dad’s ISO, but the results were very grainy compared to the same image Dad shot with his Canon EOS ID Mark IV.  The culprit?  The Mark IV’s noise reduction capabilities far outpaced the 60D, making Dad’s photo flawless while my husband’s photo was a grainy mess.

  • Focus, Focus, Focus:  If you can see an animal’s eyes in the photo they have to be in focus.  Nailing the focus in a portrait is relatively easy.  But with a moving subject you’ll have to lock on to the subject’s eyes and hang on for the ride, constantly checking to make sure you’re still on target.

Caracara Craziness | Beebower Productions

Catch Lights

Just capturing the eyes isn’t enough.  You want those eyes to sparkle.  Catch lights are the answer.  It’s that little bit of light that makes you believe this is a living animal. This is especially true in animals that have dark eyes.

“It’s all about the light,” Dad said.  “Photography has always been all about the light, including the catch lights.  If you haven’t got that dimensional quality to the eye, you fail.”

There are three ways to make sure you have a catch light in your subject’s eye.

  • Create one naturally:  In many situations you can position your subject so the sun creates a natural catch light.  Dad’s photograph of a crested caracara demonstrates this beautifully.  The sun was behind Dad, shining directly into the birds’ faces.  You’ll notice the catch light in the left bird’s eye.  A natural catch light is, by far, the easiest way to bring a sparkle to your subject’s eye.
  • Create one with reflected light:  This method is better suited to tame animals or human subjects, but under the right circumstances it could work in the field.  Have an assistant position a Flexfill collapsible reflector near the subject so you can utilize the reflected light in the image.  Of course, you have to find an enormously patient assistant to hold the reflector for hours at a time while wearing camouflage. 

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