Christmas Disasters

O Christmas Tree | O Christmas Tree 2 | Beebower Productions

“Merry Christmas!” “Now, Put ‘Em Up”

Imagine a cozy and warm scene of a family decorating the Christmas tree, laughing while sipping hot chocolate and hanging ornaments with Bing Crosby crooning in the background.  Sounds wonderful, right?

Our first year to host Thanksgiving as a married couple turned out anything but wonderful.  We decided after the big dinner we’d purchase a Christmas tree and start decorating with our guests.

At least that part of the plan went off without a hitch.  We successfully picked out a beauty at the local tree lot and hauled it home.  My parents and Jonathan’s friend dutifully began unpacking the decorations box while my husband and I set up the tree in the living room.

And then the fighting began. 

I asked, “White lights or colored?” 

White, naturally, I thought.  White looked so peaceful and serene like sun glistening off of freshly fallen snow.  Everyone knew that, I thought.

“Colored.  It’s cheerful and reminds me of presents wrapped in all kinds of colorful paper,” he said definitively. 

Wait, what?  You want colored?!   I’d barely processed that thought when I noticed a hodge podge of ornaments popping up all over the tree. 

“Why are you hanging all of those ornaments?  None of them match!” I said in frustration.

He countered with, “That’s how we always do it.  Besides what do we need ribbon for?  We use tinsel.”

Our guests heads’ whipped back and forth like spectators watching a high-speed tennis match.  Things were getting heated!  The tree decorating ground to a halt. 

We had the classic matching vs. eclectic decorating fight.  No amount of pre-wedding counseling prepared us for this.  The pastor never mentioned Christmas decorations.  We felt cheated.  Someone should have told us this would be a major problem!

So that poor, half-decorated tree sat in our living room for a couple of days before we worked out a solution.  (Both of us are a bit stubborn.)  We would, henceforth, have two trees:  one embellished with matching decorations and the other loaded down with a mishmash of ornaments. 

Now that many years have passed we can laugh about that first tree decorating debacle.  We’ve even learned a bit more about the art of compromise.  Each year I buy him non-matching ornaments for his tree.  He lets me put the matching tree in the living room instead of alternating as we originally negotiated.  The way we see it, Christmas is twice the fun it used to be.  Now that’s love.

Now It’s Your Turn

Leave a comment below.  Tell us about your biggest Christmas disaster or just wish the rest of the Photo of the Month Club a Merry Christmas.  Just share something so we can enter you into the drawing for a FREE Photo Print!

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Bucket List Part 2

Artist Portrait | Beebower Productions

So last week we counted down five locations that have Dad drooling.  Let’s finish off his photographic bucket list with the top five spots he’s dying to visit.

5.  Churchill, Manitoba, Canada: 

It’s the polar bear capitol of the world.  During October and November, the polar bears move toward Hudson Bay to feed on ringed seals.  You can catch a ride on a specially designed tundra vehicle that keeps hungry bears out and people inside.  Of course, be sure to bring some heavy-duty winter clothing since you’ll have to roll down the window to shoot out of the vehicle.

Out in the bay you can see thousands of beluga whales that move back from their winter ground to the Churchill the area during July and August.  Belugas are curious about humans and playful with their compadres, so great photographs are possible.

Birds also flock to Churchill since it’s part of a busy bird flyway and you can catch the best show of Northern Lights January through March.  Churchill has a lot to offer photographers.

4.  New Zealand: 

Peter Jackson picked a location winner for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” movies.  New Zealand, Jackson’s homeland, is packed with sweeping waterfalls, extraordinary glaciers, imposing mountain ranges, mysterious ice caves and even an active volcano. 

Don’t let the Kiwi nation’s relatively small size and remote location (900 miles east of Australia) throw you.  The long, narrow islands that make up New Zealand are packed with possibilities.  The great news is that a small population makes it easy to escape crowds and photograph that unspoiled scenery.  Neither Dad nor I would have trouble finding material for panoramic, stunning images. 

In addition to the landscape, Dad’s itching to photograph some of the enormous rainbow and brown trout that call New Zealand home.  Western author and fisherman Zane Grey called New Zealand an “angler’s El Dorado”.  This gold mine of fish provides super-sized and, apparently very wily, trout.  No problem.  Dad will employ a bit of movie magic to take that memorable fishing shot.

3.  Costa Rica: 

Good thing come in small packages and Costa Rica packs a punch.  The small country, about the size of West Virginia, is sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama in Central South America.  It boasts shores on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  Best known for its coffee, Costa Rica also contains amazing wildlife and scenery that shouldn’t be missed.

To kick his trip off with a bang, Dad could choose between six active volcanoes to photograph.  Maybe he could even do one of those nifty exposures that show the volcano and stars.  Or he could photograph the rain forest that meshes seamlessly with the white sand beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park.  Or maybe he could do waterfall photographs in the cloud forest near the Talamanca Mountains.  Or he could photograph white-faced monkeys at Damas Island Mangrove Estuary.  And then there’s the Osa Peninsula with breathtaking views and an equally breathtaking list of wildlife.

With 812 bird species and 45 types of hummingbirds plus howler monkeys, coatimundi, sloths and jaguars to name a few, Dad could spend months happily photographing in Costa Rica.  And we didn’t even discuss the mindboggling array of lush and unusual plants that cover Costa Rica from top to bottom.

2.  Ecuador: 

Dad salivates over Ecuador because 132 types of hummingbirds, the glittering jewels of the garden, that make their home in this South American country on the Pacific Ocean.  They come in all shapes and sizes including the sword-billed hummingbird whose beak is longer than its body and the rainbow colored long-tailed sylphs.  Ecuador even has a hummingbird that survives at glacier level!  Dad would give an arm and a leg to stay at the Guango or Tandayapa lodges or hike the Papallacta Pass trail just for the hummingbird action.

If, by some chance, he managed to photograph all 132 hummingbirds, Dad would still have plenty of photo opportunities.  Between the 16,000 bird species and 300 or so mammals make their home in the country, he could spend years wandering through Ecuador capturing wildlife photos. 

But the magic of Ecuador doesn’t stop with the animals.  The Amazon River flows through the country creating dramatic scenes.  On the eastern side of Ecuador Dad could photograph San Rafael Falls, the highest waterfall in the country.   The Andes Mountains span seven countries in South America, including Ecuador, and provide dramatic peaks and valleys for landscape images.

Ecuador is well worth a top spot on your bucket list.

1.  Iceland:

Greenland and Norway sandwich the small island of Iceland between them.  The country, about the size of Ohio, is one of the most sparsely populated places in Europe.  That makes photographers very happy because they have lots of room to capture the volcanoes and glaciers that dot the landscape. 

For photographers, Iceland provides an abundance of a key picture ingredient—light.  The sun shines 24 hours a day during the peak of summer, providing plenty of time to capture images.  Mid-winter has short days of 4 to 5 hours of sunlight, but it makes up for the lack of light with the stunning Northern Lights displays.

Surprisingly for a country named Iceland, the island (on average) doesn’t get as cold as New York.  However, visitors may find the daily mini earthquakes a bit unsettling.  The Eurasian and North American plates meet here causing the frequent geologic activity.

If you can get beyond all of that, there’s no end to the photographic possibilities.  The Snaefellsnes Peninsula holds many treasures including the highest mountain in the country complete with a glacier.  Dad could also photograph the multi-cascading Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, a real stunner, or wander over to the beaches for scenic ocean images.  At the Floi Nature Reserve an ancient lava field hosts gobs of birds at the wetlands and ponds.  And Latrabjarg’s cliffs house millions of birds, everything from atlantic puffins to northern gannets.  The cliffs also make stunning landscape photos.  And we can’t forget while in the country Dad also could photograph reindeer in eastern Iceland.  When I was a kid, a photo of a reindeer would have gone a long way in convincing me Santa was real.

So there you have it.  Dad’s list of ten amazing locations you shouldn’t miss.  Now we just need a priceless artifact we can sell for a pile of money and Indy’s plane so we can fly off into the sunset.  It would be a perfect movie ending.

The E-Kit To The Rescue

E-Kit | Beebower Productions

For as long as I can remember it held a place of honor in the van.  It overflowed with tools, gadgets and a lot of zip ties.  That sucker easily weighed a ton.  However, we gave much honor and respect to the monstrous, gigantic, blue E-Kit.

My Dad’s emergency kit often saved the day when photographic disasters reared their ugly heads.  The calamities ranged from an unruly tree branch encroaching on a photo to an urgent need for a homemade flag. 

On our photo shoot at Madera Canyon in Arizona the sun shifted dramatically throughout the day.  We combated the pesky rays of light hitting our hummingbird set by placing multiple flags on light stands to block the light.  Eventually we ran out of flags. 

Broad-Billed Hummingbord at Mexican Cigar Bloom | Beebower Productions

The E-Kit rode to the rescue.  Within a few minutes I’d whipped up a solution to the problem by duct taping a cereal box to a light stand’s arm.  Dad got some great photos thanks to that little flag.

Dad’s photo shoots often took place in remote locations like ranches in the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of Arizona.  Stores and help were far, far away.  So Dad took everything he could imagine needing in the E-Kit.

“Sometimes a ‘fix’ from the E-Kit didn’t play a major part in a photo but we couldn’t have found the stuff on location,” Dad said.

Cherry Cobbler | Beebower Productions

The kit saved “Cherry Cobbler”.  Dad created this mouthwatering picture for his book “Legends of a Range Cook”.   To get an authentic feel to the photo he went on location and set up the campfire with the Dutch ovens and tools.  However, the wind kept blowing the tools around so Dad dug into the E-Kit and used some wire to lash them in place.

When Dad and his brother Gordon ran their commercial advertising studio, they had to deliver fantastic photos no matter what went wrong.   Both their reputation with art directors and their income rode on delivering despite what obstacles lurked around the corner.  After a short time in the business they became highly motivated to anticipate problems.  It required, however, becoming a jack-of-all-trades with a working knowledge of all sorts of tools.

Dad said, “You don’t know what’s going to go wrong and what you’ll need to fix it.  Basically you’re trying to make something be what it’s not to get the photo. But if you’ve done it right no one will be able to tell what you did either to fix the problem or put it back like you found it once you’ve got the photo.”

Stealing a Great Idea

My Uncle Gordon got the idea for the E-Kit at his first post-college job working for another professional photographer.  He observed this photographer not only used an E-Kit, he also bought bags for light stands, arms and other things in the commercial photo studio.  This made going on location a breeze because gear didn’t get tangled up in transport. 

Uncle Gordon talked to Dad and they decided to swipe both of these ideas.  As former Boy Scouts both guys loved the motto “Always Be Prepared”. 

Their first E-Kit was significantly smaller than the monstrosity I grew up knowing (and secretly hating when I had to try to pick it up). It proved to be inadequate for the amount of stuff they routinely needed on location shoots.

Meanwhile Dad observed one of the worker bees at another studio creating bags of all sorts using an industrial sewing machine and heavy-duty tarpaulin.  The material came in several thicknesses, all with bonded coating to make them waterproof.  Even better, the material wouldn’t rip.  You literally had to cut it to create a break in the fabric.

So Dad purchased an industrial sewing machine, tracked down the fabric and got started on a long career of bag making.  He designed the E-Kit bag with inner and outer pockets to make finding smaller items easier.  He left a large center well open well for items like staple guns and saber saws.  He also added heavy-duty straps for carrying the whole shebang. 

Heavy Duty Rottweiler

Problem solved.  Well, mostly.  As I mentioned the bag weighed about as much as a hearty, full grown Rottweiler.  Perhaps I exaggerated a bit.  Nope.  Now that I think of it, I’m certain it was in Rottweiler range. 

Back in the day it took two people to pick up the thing.  Dad, however, could heft it around by himself. Now Dad’s paired down the bag a bit since his commercial photography days are over, but it still weighs in at a chunky 40 pounds. 

Because the bag weighed so much, it mostly stayed in the van on location shoots.  If he needed something, Dad would send an assistant back to the vehicle to rummage through the E-Kit. 

When he was shooting “Evening Stage” he did send an assistant back to the van to get wire.  Dad needed to fasten flour sacks filled with Fuller’s earth to the backside of the stagecoach.   Each time a wheel made a rotation, it hit the bags releasing some of the stuffing and creating dust that made the sun’s rays really stand out. 

Evening Stage | Beebower Productions

Dad came up with this special effect on the fly.  Thanks to the E-Kit and a friend who had the flour sacks, everything came together to make one very believable piece of Old West art.

In making Western pictures like the stagecoach, Dad often sketched out his ideas before heading out to shoot.  One time he envisioned a winter photo in the corral at his friends’ ranch, but he knew he’d need extra lighting.  While still at the studio, he built a light with a strobe head inside to illuminate the model.  Then he headed to Colorado for the frigid photo session. 

Winter Pack Trip | Beebower Productions

Once on site, Dad secured the light to the fence with a drill.   Since this was a regular item in the E-Kit, Dad didn’t give the drill a second thought.  The photo turned out great and the ranch returned to normal by the end of the day.  Everyone was happy.

So a well-designed E-Kit can make or break a photo shoot.  It even helped Dad be a more creative artist as well as a problem solver.  He crafted “Buckboard Cowboy” by combining multiple photographs to make one Old West photo.  After shooting the cowboy driving the buckboard, Dad realized he’d need to add more dust coming up from the horses’ hooves to make it believable. 

Buckboard Cowboy B&W | Beebower Productions

While on location, Dad took a 2×4 from the E-Kit, wrapped it in blue screen fabric and stapled the fabric to the wood.  Then my mother hit the sand repeatedly while he shot the resulting “dust”.  The blue screen fabric allowed him to seamlessly cut out the dust in Photoshop and add it to the big picture composite.  It may have been a small part of the overall photo but that attention to detail combined with the other elements made a realistic photo for the viewers.

Blue Bag O’ Tricks

So you might be wondering what Dad keeps in that magic blue bag of tricks.  We’re going to tell you.  In fact, we’ve provided a complete list for you.  Just enter your email address and then download the list.

But first, one additional note.  Each time Dad goes on a shoot, he evaluates what he thinks he might need.  Anything not on the original list gets added to the bag.  For example, he’ll throw in a few garbage bags if the forecast looks especially wet.  He’ll add a shovel for super snowy locations.  You get the idea.  This is a list of basic supplies.  Tweak it to fit your individual situation.


Enter Your Name & Email To Download Your FREE E-Kit Check List

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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