When it comes to photography, most of us have special subjects that we love to shoot. I love landscapes and trains. Rochelle prefers portraits and abstracts. So, it isn’t surprising that those subjects make up the “bread and butter” of our photographic experiences.
But you know what? Shooting the same thing all of the time is boring. And when you’re shooting “Your Favorite Thing”, your standards can become so ridiculously high, it’s easy to be disappointed by anything that’s less than an “OMG! THAT’s AMAZING!” photograph. And trust me; those types of shots don’t come along very often.
So, to relieve the boredom of shooting the same subject a million times, and also relieve some of the pressure from looking for that one killer shot, Rochelle and I often go out and shoot something entirely different, just for the heck of it. And it turns out, that’s when we have some of the most fun. So that’s why we spent all day Saturday at a Civil War Reenactment in Knight’s Ferry California.
Knight’s Ferry is a small community along the banks of the Stanislaus River. Its claim to fame is its historic covered bridge. Built in 1864, it is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi. The area is also a popular starting point for Class 1 and 2 river rafting trips. Rochelle loves the area mostly for the river-side trails which are typically covered in poppies and bush lupine in the spring.
It’s also the perfect location for a Civil War Reenactment. The old bridge and surrounding buildings give the event an appropriate historical environment, and the hillside next to the bridge allows all of the spectators to get a great view of the proceedings.
Saturday morning, we loaded up our Class B motorhome “Charley” for a day trip, which is basically all of our camera gear and lunch. We knew we were going to make a day of it, so bringing the little motorhome would give us a great base camp. It’s a good idea to get to these kinds of events early. The reenactment in Knight’s Ferry seems to get busier every year, and parking becomes more and more of an issue. But there’s another big benefit to showing up early – you get to take all of the photos you want of the army camps.
The historical details of the camps are amazing. Cooking is done over open fires. Sleeping is in open tents with old-fashioned bed rolls. And everyone is wearing clothes from the day as well. Hint — that means lots and lots of wool. And if you’re into antique weapons, you can spend your whole day shooting guns. Oops, I meant to say “photographing” guns.
A walk through the camp is an educational experience as well. The participants are more than willing to share their “character’s” backgrounds, with stories about their army experiences, their living conditions and events of the day. They’re also more than willing to pose for a portrait. How great is that? Not only do you have a host of “free” models (the only cost for the whole day is a $5 donation for parking), but all of your models are wearing wonderful costumes.
Seeing that Rochelle is more interested in portrait photography than I am, I volunteered to be her executive assistant of lighting. In other words, I held the off-camera flash. Well, I did a little bit more than that. I also put a new little toy on our flash called a Flash Bender, and shaped it to get the best bounced-lighting effect. I think the results look pretty dramatic.
Just a quick note about model releases. A lot of people think you need to have a model release every time you take a photograph of a person. That isn’t true. If your photograph is going to be used for artistic purposes, even if it is for sale in a gallery, you don’t need one at all. But if you’re going to use the photograph to sell something, or you’re going to license it to a stock photography company, then be sure to have your model sign a release.
After we got finished shooting at the camp, we had a quick lunch in the motorhome and then headed back out for the first battle of the day. It’s great to go all day to one of these events, because there are usually two battles, and that means two chances to get the action you want to capture, from exactly where you want to capture it.
For the first battle, Rochelle and I decided to stay down at ground level to get shots of the armies as they prepared for battle. This is where you can get some great candid portraits as well as some nice shots of the opposing groups of soldiers. The way Knight’s Ferry is set up, the Union camp is located on the north side of the river where the battle will take place, and the Confederate camp is located across the river on the south side. So the Unions soldiers are already in the battlefield, while the confederates cross through the covered bridge to meet them.
You know the action is starting by the boom of the canon. And what a boom! If you have young children, you might want to cover their ears, because the big guns are very, very loud. Loud enough to set off car alarms (please don’t set your car alarm at a reenactment) and cause babies to cry.
Because we were down low, we missed out on a lot of the action down on the battlefield. But it did give us a chance to shoot some of the action with the spectators, and I think these types of shots are important to give people who haven’t been to one of these battles a feeling of what it must be like to be there in person, experiencing the sights and the sounds (can you see the woman holding her ears?) of the event.
We had a couple of hours in between battles, so we went back to the motorhome. We were happy to have Charley as a base camp, because we could spend a little bit of time recharging both our camera batteries and ourselves.
We went out very early for the second battle so we could get a good spot on the viewing hill. I say “good” with a grain of salt. You have a nice, unobstructed view of the battle from high up on this hill, but you are pretty far away from most of the action. A long lens is a must. I was happy to have my 400mm zoom. And I was also happy that I had picked up two Manfrotto monopods before the event. The monopods don’t take up any space, and they really help to keep your camera steady. Monopods also relieve the weight, which is important too. Big lenses get mighty heavy after a couple hours of shooting.
From our high-up viewing location, we could see the soldiers as the march to battle and fought one another in a series of skirmishes. It was certainly action-packed, and over before we knew it.
Of course, that was only part one of our shooting day. Or I should say Rochelle’s shooting day. She was itching to head over to her favorite trails and see how the poppies were fairing this spring. She wasn’t disappointed at all. We’ve had a terrible drought this year, but there must have been just enough water for the poppies to be happy. Knight’s Ferry was thick with them.
When we did finally get home, it was time to turn on the computers and start processing our photos. The whole idea of a Civil War Reenactment is to portray a moment in history. So while I like to do my typical color and black and white processing to show people what the event was like, I also like to try my hand at processing at least a few of the photographs so they look like historical photographs. And getting out of your “comfort zone” while you’re processing is just as refreshing as shooting something that’s unique and fun.
The Battle at Knight’s Ferry occurs every year in the later part of March. If you haven’t gone, you owe it to yourself, and your camera, to go next year. And if you live too far away to make it to Knight’s Ferry; just check the towns around where you live. With over 50,000 Civil War Reenacters in the Country, you’re bound to find an event near you.