Getting the Lion Head Trophy Shot


Getting the Lion Head Trophy Shot

Yes, the only “Animal Trophy” shots I like to go for are the photographic ones. Usually it’s animals in the wild, but the Calgary Zoo’s IlluminAsia has come to town. This is a pretty incredible show.

There are 366 animal and tree lanterns, full of expression and grouped around the zoo. All nearly life sized except for the bugs and lizards, they were huge while the dinosaurs were smaller than real life.

It is fantastic when someone else stages something amazing to photograph. Here are some tips and techniques to make the most of this stunning display of creative lanterns.

Arrive early so you can catch the twilight light, perhaps even the sunset. This gives you dramatic backlight while still getting the glow of the lanterns.

For setup you will need to work with a higher ISO, mine were 3,000 and 5,000 ISO. That made me nervous, being an old film guy where unmanageable grain appeared in 800 speeds. The technology has come so far, especially if you process your files with the camera’s native file processors, that grain only appeared in underexposed images.


You will need a tripod or monopod. This helps keep the ISO down by going to lower shutter speeds.

For the most part I found the 24 to 70 zoom covered my needs. The lanterns are roped off but the rope is on the edge of the animals.

Leave your color balance on Daylight. You will get the warm glow of the lantern’s lights that gives the animals this wonderful color. The animals that need white light, like the zebras, pandas and penguins have a daylight-balanced lighting. You will get clean whites.

Mostly work with your lens close to wide open. This helps manage the lower ISOs too. There will be times when you will want to get a greater depth of field so some adjustments will be made on the fly.

The approach I find most effective for setting these up is start with setting your f-stop. Then dial down your exposure to as low a level as you can. Long exposures can cause problems though. Small breezes will move the large lanterns creating subject blur. Finally adjust your ISO until you have the right exposure.


You will need to be flexible with your exposures, since the animals glow differently, some brighter than others. I found working with my over and under exposure wheel worked well.

Flash will destroy the lantern lighting effect, especially on camera flash.

Most people take their images from a standing position looking slightly down. The result is nearly all the viewpoints are between 5.5 and 6 feet. If you drop down low or get higher than that your images will feel very different to viewers.

Don’t forget to get close ups too. Still use the rule of thirds composition.

For most of the displays you can move around 180 degrees or more. You will have to leave the path but trying these different angles will make your shots more interesting.

Go for parts of the whole, close ups can add a whole new dimension to your collection.

Take your time getting your images. Also, take time to just enjoy these incredible creations too.

There are some fantastic Trophy Lions to be shot here. These tips should help you bag yours. IlluminAsia is on for a limited time so don’t delay!


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