Wednesday, October 13, 2010

T. Rex On Location

 i was never in any danger - these are casts of a Tyrannosaurs rex skeleton, not the actual fossil bones.

Well, these shots happened on the spur of the moment.  Mr. E was invited to a pre-game get together with 'the guys' in the Bear's Lair at UC Berkeley Saturday morning (they were playing UCLA, apparently that's a big deal).  I found out about 7:30, 8:00pm the night i was going to have a couple of hours to wander around campus in the morning. (I'd wanted to go to Jay Schaeffer's Tiny Open House up in Sebastapol that day.  But Jay's having open houses every month now, and we'd seen his previous tiny house already. 'Beers with the boys' won out.)

I knew immediately i'd go try to get some shots of myself with the Tyrannosaurus rex mount in the atrium at the new Life Sciences building.  Why that?  Here's a favorite picture of myself, at around age twenty one, on the windowsill next to my bedside:

I'm at the old Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, standing in front of an Allosaurus mount.  I'd been interested in dinosaurs since i was around three. When we moved from Fresno to the Bay Area (i was in kindergarten), mom got us excited about the move by touting all the dino mounts they had at UC Berkeley.  I've always had a fascination with ancient times, geology and natural sciences, different animals and plants. I'm known for that fascination, and for being able to spell 'paleontology' at the age of four. (That's my brother's varsity jacket - i am not known for any athletic ability whatsoever!)

blooper - this lady was very nice about it.  i told her don't worry, those memory cards are huge.

I've carried around that picture for years, and it's almost become a sort of totem. So there's no way i'd pass up the chance to get a pic with the even more ferocious T. rex.  The only problem - it's in a public place, and i was going to take the picture on a very busy day in that spot.  Well, as it turns out i've been doing enough self-pictures at home and on location that i felt confident about getting some decent shots.  And i did!  Even a few months ago i don't think i would've been able to pull this off.  So i thought i'd share the little that i've learned about shooting yourself on location with you.

First, practice at home as much as possible!  The more you are familiar with your camera, posing, what lite conditions work best for you, how high you like the camera to be and how far away you like it to be, the more relaxed you will be when on location. You'll have enough new variables to keep you occupied without creating more for yourself to cope with. I like to use my body as a 'measuring stick' - i know that i like the camera at about hip height, and about 5 paces away when the camera is on end. If you know these 'measurements' you can scope out locations whenever you run across them. This information is especially important if you don't have a tripod and need to find a shelf, bench, etc. to hold your camera for the shoot.

blooper - framing can be a pain with no tripod and no one to look thru the viewfinder.  review your pics frequently and take lots of shots.

If you feel at all nervous or ill at ease about photographing yourself 'in public', come up with 'your story' beforehand. Just a sentence will do - frankly most people couldn't care less and will be most concerned with not blocking your shot.  But knowing how you will handle inquiries will make you less feel flustered so you can concentrate better. 99% of the time, my conversations go like this:  them: 'So why are you taking a picture of yourself in front of a T. rex?'  me: 'oh, i wanted to take a picture of myself in front of a T. rex.'  them: 'oh. Wow! Great.' Especially if you're in an even remotely tourist-y location, people don't care. Everyone who's noticed me has been really nice and considerate. So don't worry about it - hop on in if you want!

Make Sure Your Camera Is Visible. You don't want it to get trampled or knocked off a ledge! Set a big bag, sweater, or a stack of books next to it so people won't sit or step on it.  Even if you use a tripod, the equipment is so small today that it's easy to miss, especially in a busy public space where most people are pretty distracted.  Also, pay attention to where you place your camera.  You don't want it falling into a scummy pond or trashbin. Gusts of wind can take out a tiny camera.  Taking a minute to tie your camera to a pole or bench could help avoid disaster.

blooper - a tour of prospective students came through. i waited 'em out.

Consider the Time Of Day. Do you want to have a lot of people in your shot, or have to deal with shooting 'around' them? What are the 'busy' times in the location you're considering? What is the lighting situation? If there are a lot of tall trees or buildings in the area, you could have large areas in deep shadow by mid-afternoon (which can be hard to shoot around). If you are inside, is there a lot of natural light or is it largely incandescent or flourescent?  If you don't like how these lights look in photos, do you know how to use a filter to counteract the effect, or how to photoshop it away? (I don't!)

Also, certain locations (museums, stadiums, theatres) will be swamped with people on some days of the week and deserted on others. You might want to check schedules for any special events as well. Events with a lot of people in costume or decorations can offer great photo opportunities.

a decent shot!  persistence pays off.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time.  I was hanging around that dinosaur for about 45 minutes or an hour.  Take a book or your iPod.  You'll want to take even more shots than usual because of all the potential bloopers.  And you don't want to be a pest - three boys were there with two of the boys' father, and they had a fantastic time taking pics and playing around that dinosaur before going to see the Big Football Game. They even spotted some UCLA fans!!!! I just hung out and read while they had a blast.  It's a public place, everyone should be able to enjoy it.

You'll also want to spend some time checking out the area for interesting angles and details you may not have noticed that could add to your photos. Wander around, up and down, crouch down, look up stairways and down from landings or balconies.  Look through the viewfinder to see how the camera will capture the same space from different angles. I've always loved this Pteranodon mount, but have never had any luck with photographing it - all those rails overwhelm the delicate bone structure.

spot the pteranodon - if you can.

But after 40 minutes of sitting and wandering around, i noticed:

Holy Cats! there's a dinosaur flying through the Life Sciences building!

These shots aren't perfect, but they give a much better feel of the excitement of being right next to this long dead, flying creature in the building's atrium. Many locations have an 'obvious' angle from which they are photographed. Often, that angle has become popular because it's recognizable and makes for a pleasing composition. But if you can find another angle or take on a familiar spot, the photograph becomes more your own.

Finally, What To Wear. That's a whole book in itself, so i'll just mention a couple of ideas.  The basic question is do you want to blend in or harmonize with the environment, or do you want to create a dramatic contrast between yourself and the background location? Do you want to create an association between your outfit and the location (wearing a Victorian-style blouse in front of a Victorian-era house, leopard print blouse at the big cat enclosure in the zoo, etc.). I'd already settled on this outfit before i knew i'd be at UCB. But i do like the bright blue against the yellow tones of the T. rex, and the prim, ladylike feel of the outfit against the savage, rugged bones and teeth.

I love shooting on location - there are so many amazing places out there and the creative opportunities are unbelievable. You are putting yourself on display, though......but if the creative side of you wants to explore this type of photography, it's completely worth doing. Just prepare as best you can beforehand, and be flexible when you get there. If anyone asks what you're up to, just brazen it out.  It's a blast!

Dress: own design, inspired by Work With What You Got
Petticoat: own design, inspired by Alisa Burke
Shoes: Clark's Passion
Hat: ??? from the Berkeley Hat Company
Stockings: ??? from The Dark Garden
Earrings: liliswan on etsy
Scarf: wedding gift


  1. I have soooo much to say about this post, oh dear. When we moved to the Bay Area, I did promise dinosaur bone viewing, and we did deliver on that. But back then, the bones were not 'put together' nor were they in that beautiful Life Sciences Building. I'm so glad you discovered it; I thought you knew all about it, go figure (I should mention that I worked at UCBerkeley for some time - I guess I figure what I know, you surely know). The T Rex is very intimidating, but the pteranodon is exquisitely lovely. May I suggest another place on campus you might want to visit? It's Ishi Court in Dwinelle Hall (on the Campanile Road side). There's a small plaque outside the doors onto Campanile Road, and it is one of the most peaceful places on campus. Lovely. Thanks for a great trip down memory lane!

  2. I love love love dinosaurs! I fell in love with bones and paleontology when I was a kid too. Have you ever been to Drumheller, Alberta? They have a fabulous museum there, full of bones.

    Great tips on public picture-taking!

  3. hi ma! i thought you'd get a kick out of this one. i've known about these exhibits for years, i just didn't have a camera (thanx bro!) the restrooms are very nice, as well, and open all weekend if you're in the area. and yes, for such a huge, bustling place, UCB has a number of little gems where you can really 'get away from it all'.

    hi Sheila! somehow i'm not surprised that you're a fellow dino-girl.....
    ; ) & i've never been to Canada. that museum sounds incredible, thanks for telling me about it! of course in CA we have the La Brea Tar Pits (which is so worth visiting, and brings up another family story - for later).

    i realize not everyone would think they'd be up for taking pix of themselves in public, but i encourage folx to give it a whirl! it's a lot of fun and there are so many great locations, it can add a lot to your pictures. i say if you're at all interested, at least try once or twice.

  4. Love it! I'm actually designing a paleontology exhibit right now, so I always appreciate seeing/reading/hearing other people's opinions and impressions of those spaces.