Exploring the South Florida Museum – Bradenton, Florida

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. Since it’s summer here in Florida, the temperature easily gets up into the mid 90’s. This is the time of year that most folks stay inside in the air conditioning, kind of like when my relatives in upstate New York stay inside during the winter months. This is an inside attraction which is why we choose it. There are some outside parts, however they are minimal. The admission fee is very reasonable and there is quite a lot to see. I spent about four hours exploring the museum and aquarium. There is also a planetarium, but I didn’t take the time to check out any of the shows. This venue is very family and photographer friendly and there is something for everyone.

Since I had been here about three years ago, I knew this was a DARK place. I realize that all museums are dark, but I wanted something to show up on the sensor. I took a 50mm f/1.4, 18-200mm, external flash unit and extra cards. I didn’t take a photographers vest as these can raise eyebrows. Therefore, my pockets in my shorts were overflowing, but that is a small price to pay for some great photos.

As we walked into the main room, they had an attraction set up with some early Florida Indians hunting an animal. This was a great photo op. I had the 50mm fixed on the camera as well as the flash. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know how I feel about on camera flash. I was with some photo friends, however we were all kind of doing our own thing so this meant no VAL (voice activated lightstand, yes this is a real term!). So I popped one off to see what I was going to get. Sure enough, harsh shadow city. Not to mention that it was very underexposed. I opened up the lens to f/2.8 to get some depth of field and help my flash out. I also raised my ISO to 800. I put the dome diffuser on and pointed the flash straight up, hoping this would spread the ball of light and give me much softer shadows. I took another shot and it was better, but it still didn’t look like what I was going for. I’m used to photographing on location with difficult locations, so I had to find a suitable solution to this problem. At least I didn’t have full sun to compete with! As I looked around the room, I found my answer. To my right there was an entranceway into the next room, however above that was a big white surface before the floor and cut out started for the second floor exhibits. This twelveish foot area was going to be what was going to light the exhibit. I took the dome diffuser off and rotated the head of the flash so it was at a right 90° angle from me. I zoomed the flash head out to 50mm and jacked it up to ½ power. I took another shot and now I had a white frame! As Martha would say, this is a good thing. I lowered my ISO to 400 and reduced my flash power to ¼ power. This equates to reducing the exposure by two stops. I pressed the shutter button again and this was the resulting photograph.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, indian, hunter, spearFlorida Indians Hunting – Spencer Pullen © 2012

As you can see, the shadows are soft and nothing is blown out. I smiled to myself as I moved on to the next exhibit. Here is what separates “pro” photographers from “point and shoot” photographers. Yes, this was a challenge to get the photo that I wanted, but I didn’t give up and move on. If you work through the challenges that you are presented with, it will make you a stronger photographer and your photos will thank you for it. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

In the next room they had many different bones from animals and artifacts that had been found. They had an alligator and crocodile skull sitting on a table. I thought this was my chance to get this close to one, safely anyway. For this photo, I found that the natural light that the museum already had set up was very dramatic so I opted not to use my flash. I also was running into a distance problem with my 50mm so I switched to my 18mm-200mm. Again, this presented a new set of challenges as the f stop on this lens changes depending at what focal length you are at. I set the lens to 18mm at which I could set an f stop to 3.2. I lost a half a stop and I raised my ISO to 1600. This gave me a shutter speed that I could hand hold.

south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, alligator, head, skull Did you bring lunch? – Spencer Pullen © 2012

We were informed that in the “aquarium” part of the facility that they were going to have a manatee demo. The word aquarium is a little strong here. It’s basically a big tank that they keep three manatees in. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking what they have, but if you have been to the Florida Aquarium and you are expecting this to be like that venue, you are going to be very disappointed. We gathered ourselves and headed over to the manatee tank. Before the demo started I wanted to get my exposure down so I didn’t have to worry about that once things got moving. However, this was another challenge, this was a huge room and I was going to have to shoot over the tank and try and light this area evenly with a single speedlight. I had the camera set to ISO 1600, 1/250 at f/5.6. At 200mm the lens will only go to f/5.6. (I’m still waiting for donations for my 70-200 f2/8!) I popped one off and it was dark. I had the flash head pointed up at the ceiling, as it was a light gray in color. I goosed the flash to full power and it was ok, not great though. Then it hit me, time to use the white card bounce that is built in the flash. I pulled the white card out and now I had 80% of the light going up to the ceiling and 20% going forward towards my subject. This proved to be a wining combination. I’m dealing with moving subjects here so stopping action was going to be a challenge. I was at my minimum f stop already and I was at full power on the flash so all I could do was pray to the photographer gods that this was going to work. The handler came out and started the presentation. I took a test photo and I was happy with what I got. Moral of the story, don’t piss off the photographer gods! Anyway, we must have looked like the paparazzi, as there was a line of us with our DSLR’s and flashes going off. The main manatee in the tank is named Snooty. He’s 63 years old and they believe that he is the oldest living manatee in world, pretty cool. The handler explained that they eat 10% of their body weight in food and eat for about eight hours a day. This sounds EXACTLY like me when I show up at a Krispy Kreme doughnut store or at a Golden Corral with unlimited bacon! I could easily eat 10% of my body weight in those fresh glazed doughnuts when the red light comes on! The handler got snooty to come out of the water to get some food. This was a great photo op.

south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, snooty, handler Snooty says, “Where is my cheeseburger I ordered?” – Spencer Pullen © 2012

At the end of the presentation the handler said, “I see we have some photographers here so I’ll bring him over closer.” Wow! A camera friendly staff member! Like a heard of elephants, we all trampled over the poor point and shoot folks who were standing at the tank’s edge to get the shot. It pays off to eat 10% of your body weight in doughnuts, as you have no problem making it to the front of the line.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, snooty, manatee, aquariumBroccoli? I wanted a CHEESBURGER! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

After the presentation was over we ventured out into the Spanish courtyard (the only outside part of the museum) to get some photos of the Hernando de Soto’s home and an old church. We first went into the church; it had a really cool old wood and iron door. The interior has been kept up quite well and the thick concrete walls, kept it at a comfortable temperature. I took a test photo and sure enough the light was dim. I started to think about this as if it was a real estate job. Again, not wanting to use straight on camera flash, I took a look around and saw that the walls were a light cream color. So this was going to work two fold for me. It was going to light the interior and warm it up all in one shot as the light coming from the flash will take on the color that it is reflected off of. Since this was a large space, I cranked up the flash power to nuclear and twisted the flash head so that it would be bouncing off the wall next to me. After a couple of tweaks, this is what I ended up with.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, churchFlashin’ at church – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Next to the church was a represented home of Hernando de Soto. He must have been a smaller person. I’m 6’4” and I was hunched over most of the time to get through the rooms. In the center of the home was the kitchen. There was a bench that looked beefy to hold my Krispy Kreme butt, so I had a seat with another photographer. I was glad that I had my 18mm-200mm lens, as I needed all the focal length I could get. I would have rather had my 12mm lens, but you use what you have with you. The walls were white and this was a small space so lighting this was going to be easier. The entrance to the home was just to my left and it flooded the room with daylight. At first I took a shot that was lit entirely by flash and it looked ok, but it had that “flash” look to it. Then I decided to try and “drag the shutter”. I get so hung up on my sync speed that I forget that we can use slower speeds as well. I slowed down my shutter speed to 1/60 of a second and let some of the ambient light burn on the sensor before the flash went off as the flash was programmed to rear curtain (that would be second curtain for your Canon folks). Photographing the space this way allowed me to get the natural feel with the existing light that was coming in from outside and I was able to open up the shadows a little with flash. For the flash head position I cranked it around so that it was firing back over my head.

south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, kitchen, hernando, soto Eating at Hernando’s house – Spencer Pullen © 2012

We were getting warm so we went back inside. We went to the nature exhibit. Here you walk on a boardwalk and there are stuffed animals for your viewing pleasure. I wanted to get a few photos of these animals, but the ceiling was painted black. Ugh, black is a big light sponge so that was out of the question to bounce off of. Being a little untraditional, I bounced the light off the wood floor. This kicked enough light in to help get some details out of the shadows. Here are a couple of Bobcats playing or one is about to have a really bad day.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, bobcatsFriend or foe? – Spencer Pullen © 2012

In the middle of the exhibit is a Florida “Cracker” house. The term cracker is in reference to the old Florida cowboys when they would “crack” their whip. This is another example of a real estate shot. You can see outside the window and it was dimly lit indoors. To ensure that I didn’t blow out the window, I was going to have to expose for the outside light and raise the interior light to match the light from the outside. This is kind of tricky, because there is a lamp and electric fire that also needs to show up in the final exposure. So I ended up splitting the difference and using 1/125. This way I wasn’t blowing out the window and it allowed the light from the lamp and fire to register on the sensor. I bounced the flash off the wall/ceiling joint to help illuminate the rest of the room.

south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, cracker, house The simple life – Spencer Pullen © 2012

On the second floor of the museum they have many different types of items in glass cases. There are old Indian artifacts, crystals and they have quite an assortment of old cameras. They had everything from the old cameras that the photographer would put the cloth over them and hit the flash powder to an iPhone as it has a camera in it. As I was walking along, I came across this old Nikon. Being a Nikon shooter, I had to take a photo! If you look closely, you can see just above the camera is a reflection of me taking the photo and you can see the work “Nikon” in white.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, nikon, camera, 1950How many megapixels is this? – Spencer Pullen © 2012

There was a Model T Ford that caught my eye. I still remember my grandparents telling me when they had one that they would put their dinner that was wrapped in foil on the exhaust of the engine and when they got to where they were going it was cooked. Try that with today’s cars! I wanted to get a photo of the engine as well, but it was a dark hole. I was in luck. The car was parked next to a faux garage that was white. I dragged the shutter and bounced the flash off the white wall and I was able to spread the light across the car. You can see the specular highlight that is on the hood that is reflecting the light that I bounced.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, model, t, fordIf you buy it, I’ll throw in the oil can for FREE! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Around the bend they had a medical section set up. There is a doctor’s office, pharmacy and operating room set up. I’m glad that I’m alive now and not a hundred years ago. The tools and equipment looked so scary, I would have rather died than have someone coming after me with any of this stuff! I’m sure a hundred years from now; people will be saying the same things about our time. This dentist office had some really cool lighting set up. I wanted to use it, but the rest of the room was in a black hole. As I’m sure you figured out now, I bounced the flash off the ceiling at a lower power to help bring out the details and not overpower the ambient lighting of the room. Did you notice the foot petal driven drill?

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, dentist, officeOpen wide and get ready to rinse and spit! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Toward the end of our journey, we came upon a wood working shop. The other photographer that was with us was taking some photos inside and I was outside watching and I had an idea (scary, I know). I thought wouldn’t it be neat if I could shoot some “late afternoon light” through the window and spread it across the tool wall? I was able to put my flash in SU-4 mode, this is Nikon speak for slave mode and have the other photographer trigger it with her pop up flash. This is a crude way of doing things, but again you use what you have with you. I zoomed the flash head out to 105mm and aimed it at the window from outside. By the way, when you are standing there talking with another photographer that is 25 feet away, holding a flash unit like Lady Liberty, you will get some strange looks from other people, or maybe it’s just my face they were looking at. Anyway, she took a test shot. In the photo, I marked where I was standing. Here is the result.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, wood, shop, flashWoodshop with flash only – Linda O’Neill © 2012

What I was really hoping for was that orange late afternoon light. This was a call for a CTO gel. As it would be, my gels were in the car. So, being lazy resourceful, I looked around and there were wood shavings all over the floor. I picked one up that was about the size of the flash head and used that as my gel. This warmed up the light a little. The other issue that we had was since we were using the pop up flash to trigger the SB800, it looks like some of the pop up flash contaminated the scene. Nevertheless, it was worth trying. I can see where it warmed it up some, but if I had to do it again, I would use maybe a half cut of CTO and increase the flash power to increase the effect.

 south, florida, museum, bradenton, spencer, pullen, wood, shopWoodshop with wood shaving as a gel – Linda O’Neill © 2012

This was a long post and a great trip. I hope this was helpful and a enjoy to read. If you are in the Bradenton, Florida area, stop by and check this place out. As I mentioned before there is a planetarium as well, but I didn’t have time to see what that was about. Charge your batteries, clean your lenses and get out there and shoot!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Another great job, Spencer. Maybe you can trade in your broken Nikon 300 for the Nikon in your picture. Will have to start looking for wood shavings for the next time I shoot flash.


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