Madera Canyon Magic

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cardinal Catchfly Bloom | Beebower Productions

Hunting Hummingbirds

If you want stunning hummingbird photos head to the magical Madera Canyon in Southeastern Arizona.  At any given time, 15 different types of feisty little hummingbirds pass through this mountain oasis.

These little birds have their own magic act.  Their speed makes them appear and disappear as fast as Harry Houdini.  They can fly forward, backward, side-to-side, straight up and even hover.  They are fascinating little creatures.

Our first trip to Madera sprang from Dad’s quest to perfect the art of hummingbird photography.  Dad didn’t just want a picture of a hummingbird, he wanted to see every colorful feather and stop the wing action.  But the birds’ amazing flight speed, agility and small size made them hard to photograph. 

In order to fine-tune his shooting, Dad needed lots of willing hummingbird models.  Madera had them by the hundreds.  Over the next couple of years we would repeatedly visit the canyon.


Santa Rita Lodge | Beebower Productions

The Santa Ritas

Madera Canyon and the Santa Ritas are part of a sky island chain, mountains that rise up out of the desert floor creating several habitats that support an astonishing array of plants and wildlife.

Madera Creek provides a seasonal supply of fresh water that draws bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coatimundi, deer and over 250 types of birds.  You won’t run out of stuff to photograph here assuming you can actually find all of these wild guys.

Our base of operation each time we visit this mountain sanctuary is the Santa Rita Lodge.  Not only do we have a cabin overlooking the creek, the owners have created a huge feeding area that attracts hummingbirds, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches and a plethora of migrating birds.   Since the birds are used to stopping by the lodge, it’s a cinch to attract them to your cabin’s backyard.  Put out a few extra feeders and potted flowering plants and your yard is irresistible to hummingbirds.  Get a recipe for hummingbird juice here  .

The first time we visited Madera, it was a trial run of what Dad thought would work to photograph the hummingbirds. He’d run successful test shots with the birds in his own backyard and figured he was ready for Madera Canyon.  Nothing prepared him for the hordes of hummingbirds that began showing up at our cabin.  That sounds like a great thing, right?  Our plan was working with one little problem.

An Early Version of the Hummingbird Set | Beebower Productions

Testing and Trying

Dad said, “I thought, ‘Holy mackerel!  Look at all of the hummingbirds coming to our feeders.’  But I found out really quickly how frustrating photographing hummingbirds can be when they show up in mass numbers.  We had to revise the lighting and the feeder, move the stands and recalculate the distance of the camera from the background.  It was challenging.  But I finally found a combination that really worked.”

Bringing out the full array of iridescent feather colors requires light to hit from many directions.  To capture these glittering jewels of the garden, Dad experimented with many lighting and background options. 

In the end he devised a custom-made light ring that holds five Canon 580EX Speedlite flashes set at 1/64 power.  The light ring sits in front of the modified hummingbird feeder.  Two additional flashes illuminate the green-screen background located behind the feeder.  Dad uses one flash on the camera with a Better Beamer Flash Extender to light up the front area of the bird.  Phottix Strato II radio signal devices trigger all of the flashes.

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellowbell Bloom | Beebower Productions

Lessons Learned

The Canon EF 400mm/2.8L IS II USM lens with a Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II helps Dad fill the frame with these tiny powerhouses of the bird kingdom.   On average his camera settings were ISO 250, f/22 at 1/500 of a second.  This combo gave Dad his favorite Madera shot “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell”. 

Does all of this sound complicated?  It is!  In November we’ll be unveiling a downloadable hummingbird diagram with instructions in our store.  The diagram will include set-up pictures and information like the distances between the camera and light ring, flash instructions and hardware resources.  OK.  That’s the end of our shameless commercial. 

Over the next couple of trips to Madera, we learned some valuable lessons.  Always use sandbags on your light stands.  You never know when a nice gale-force wind might whip down through the canyon. 

Bring lots of umbrellas, scrims or flags.  There are plenty of trees shading the cabin backyards, but throughout the day you’ll have periods of choppy light hitting your photo set.  Blocking or softening the light creates better images.

If you run out of umbrellas or flags, you can race down the mountain to Wal-Mart in Green Valley and buy several patio umbrellas on clearance.  Just remember those gale-force winds might shred your recently purchased emergency umbrellas.  So keep an eye out for wind changes. 

Use radio signal devices on your flashes.  That annoying choppy light can really mess with infrared triggering systems.  Dad had to switch to the radio signals because the sun would set off half of the flashes before he fired a shot.  Premature flashes drain batteries quickly.

One other lesson, don’t forget to enjoy the rest of Madera Canyon.  The hummingbirds are amazing but we had other creatures like baby squirrels and acorn woodpeckers hanging out on set with the hummingbirds.  Taking a hike through the wildflower meadow while butterflies dance around you, following the soothing sounds of Madera Creek and eating an ice cream bar while enjoying your porch swing have their own magic.

Baby Squirrel | Beebower Productions

Bee on a Wildflower | Beebower Productions

If You Go

  • Stay at one of the three lodges or the campground in the canyon to save you valuable shooting time in the morning and evenings. Make reservations well in advance as everything in the canyon books up quickly.
  • Fill up the gas tank and buy food in Green Valley, AZ.  Bring lots of water.  There are no stores to buy supplies in the canyon.
  • The best time to see large numbers of hummingbirds is during the spring and fall migrations in March/April and September/October.  You also might get to see migrants like elegant trogons, lazuli buntings, grosbeaks, tanagers or a variety of warblers.
  • Make sure you pay the $5-a-day U.S. Forest Service use fee.  Rangers actively patrol and will ticket you.
  • Watch out for rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats and bears.  The most common of these guys are rattlesnakes.
  • If you’re not used to a 5,000 foot and higher elevation, take it easy for a day or two and drink lots of water.  Some people aren’t bothered at all and others feel terrible.  Among other things, you can develop shortness of breath, headaches and sluggishness.
  • Cell phone service is spotty in the canyon.  Plan accordingly.

Creating the Weather

We’ve got a saying in Texas.  If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.  It’ll change.  Dad’s taken that saying to a whole new level. 

If the weather doesn’t match what he needs in a photo, Dad creates his own weather.  It’s a bright and sunny day, but he needs a dust storm.  No problem.  It’s another bright and sunny day, but Dad needs blinding rain.  No problem.  An early morning sunrise would look better with some fog.  No problem.  He’s got it covered.

Photographers often have a short time to get a photo.  A hard deadline, financial considerations, model availability or a photo permit with specific date restrictions often create pressure to get the photo quickly.  That’s when photographers begin to wonder how they can create the weather.

“Mother Nature never does what you want her to do when you want her to do it,” Dad said.  “Even if she did, the model or the art director or something wouldn’t be available.  You need to create weather on your own time table.”

Movie special effects guys have it figured out.  That’s who taught Dad all of his tricks. Early on in his Western shoots, Dad employed a couple of special effects guys to create a rainstorm on a cloudless, hot Texas day.

He watched the wizards of weather turn a mud puddle into an instant and robust rainstorm with a Hale pump.  “Buggy in the Rain” truly looked like it was shot in a torrential downpour.  Dad was hooked.

Buggy in the Rain | Beebower Productions

So he watched and he studied and he learned everything he could from the movie gurus.  Soon Dad was creating his own weather with a little help from his auto mechanic.

In order to pull off “Dust Storm” Dad knew he needed a very powerful wind machine.  Rather than rent one, he commissioned his mechanic, Bill Hewitt of Hewitt’s Garage in Dallas, to build one.  Bill took a 454-truck engine and turned it into a giant 96-inch wind machine with a wooden propeller.  The whole thing was mounted to a trailer and encased in a metal frame.  When completed, the entire set up was about 10-feet tall and it sat on a 12-foot trailer.  Unlike many wind machines of the day, it was a super quiet model thanks to Bill’s innovations.  It was a work of art.

Dad quickly put the machine to the test in Arizona with “Dust Storm”.  There was a bit of a learning curve the first time out, though.  The wind was so strong it almost blew the coat off the model, but it didn’t seem to bother the horses.  I guess they were used to Arizona’s real dust storms.

Dad’s assistants sucked up Fuller’s Earth, a fine dirt used in movie special effects, from 5-gallon buckets with leaf blowers right into the stream of the wind machine.  The result:  a really nasty dust storm.

The dust was so thick the model had trouble seeing where to walk.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll let you in on a little secret.  The model was a tough Arizona ranch dude who wasn’t about to let a little wind and dust deter him.

But back to the story.  Dad, to protect the camera gear, was off to the side of the wind stream.  He could see just fine and he avoided any muck coating his camera.  He got off about 6-8 frames before calling the shoot off.  The assistants ran out of Fuller’s Earth, the model was caked in dust and Dad had a winning picture.

Dust Storm | Beebower Productions

After “Dust Storm”, Dad did every conceivable shot he could with the wind machine.  Some things really worked well like “The Great Horse Chase” and with other shots the wind proved to be too intense to create the effect he was hoping to capture on film.

Pretty soon Dad was ready to try his hand at creating other types of weather, like a rainstorm.  To photograph “Cowboy, Calf, Rain” he needed another tool called a Hale pump.  Firefighters use Hale pumps everyday to pump fast, steady streams of water on to fires.  Dad would use the pump to drench his models.

He photographed “Cowboy, Calf, Rain” at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.  It just so happened that the ranch had a new 4’x20’ stock tank that the ranch guys filled with ice-cold spring water using the Hale pump with a two-inch hose.  It took about an hour to load up the tank.

For the shoot, the Hale pump would propel water from the tank up two 18’ tower poles where it would then spray out over the photo set.  In order for the water droplets to show up in the photo, the entire scene needed to be backlit about a half an hour before sunset.

After locating the calf at a nearby ranch Dad got the model, the horse and the calf in position for the photo.  Then the fun began.  Dad started firing off the camera just as the guys cranked up the Hale pump and added a little gust from the wind machine to create a slight sideways direction to the rain. 

Boy was that spring water cold!  Really cold.  The model was frozen by the end of the shoot.  The calf, despite the cold, was a trooper.  It only started to squirm at the end of the shoot (if you don’t count the squirming just prior to the shoot).  Most importantly Dad was happy with the results.

Cowboy, Calf, Rain | Beebower Productions

But you know Dad wasn’t going to be satisfied by merely creating dust storms and rainstorms.  Nope.  He quickly moved on to making fog for his image “Pack Horse Rider Fog”.

“Fog is a wonderful element that puts mystery into photos,” he said.  “If you take a horse and guy out there it’s not the same as a horse and guy in the fog.  It’s ambience.”

To create that ambience, Dad had his assistant run through the background carrying an Igeba fog machine.  The assistant had a tough job.  He was running at 11,000 feet elevation with the temperature hovering around 11 degrees.  That elevation does weird stuff to your body.  Add some running and bone chilling temperatures and the assistant was one tired puppy at the end of the shoot.

The Igeba fog machine the assistant carried has a gas engine with a long exhaust pipe in the front.  A mister sprays the fog solution on to the exhaust pipe and the solution instantly vaporizes into fog.  The reason Dad loved this fog machine was that the fog didn’t dissipate quickly which gave him time to make sure everything else in the photo was right.

Dad got his mysterious fog photo just as the sun was rising over the pond at Vermejo Park Ranch that frigid fall morning.  “Pack Horse Rider Fog” certainly wouldn’t be the only photo Dad would infuse with fog.  Now that he knew the special effects secrets of weather, Dad was just getting warmed up for future photo shoots.

Packhorse Rider Fog | Beebower Productions

As you can see, the key to creating great rain, dust or fog in your photos is having the right equipment.  Beyond that, you have to have a plan.

“You’ve got to know what you want to create and then you have to know how to do it,” Dad says.  “If you don’t have a good concept, you can’t direct your assistants.  How are you going to light it?  Where will the models be?  Where do the assistants need to direct the fog or wind or rain?  It’s like you’re a movie director only you’re shooting stills.  You’ve got to be on top of your game.”

At the top of his game, Dad created a lot of weather for his photos.  He even made snow out of boxes of instant potato flakes that were blown around by the wind machine.  If there were a snow shortage at the North Pole, I’m sure Dad could help Santa have a white Christmas.  He’d just need about 6 tons of instant potatoes, several wind machines and a couple of assistants.  No problem.

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