Capturing the Moment

Pony Express | Beebower Productions

If you’ve ever seen one you’d know it.  It’s the kind of picture that makes you stop and say, “Wow! Look at that!!”  It’s a photograph that draws you in, makes you linger, and causes you to wonder about the story unfolding before you.  The photographer has captured “The Moment”.  That is a storytelling image.

I’ll admit, when I was in photojournalism school my professors made a big deal about capturing “The Moment”.  It sounded rather vague and esoteric.  But almost 20 years later, I get it.  You can have a fantastically composed and lit image, but without the sense of “moment” the photo can fall flat.  There’s no curiosity on the part of viewers.  Nothing compels them to keep looking at the photo or even thinking about it later in the day.  A successful visual storyteller draws viewers in and doesn’t let them go.

Let’s look at an example.  Take Dad’s photo “Pony Express”.   Dad gives clues to the viewer, making it easy for them to understand the photo and the story it tells.  Rugged mountains and a brilliant sunset suggest we’re in the Western United States.  Then we have men in cowboy hats, riding hard and handing off bags to one another.  Even if they didn’t know the title of the photo or had just bare bones knowledge of U.S. history, viewers could conclude these men must be the famous Pony Express riders.

This frozen moment grabs viewers and causes them to spend some time pondering the photo further.  The photo turns their imaginations loose.  Where were these guys going?  How fast were those horses traveling? Did they make it? What were in the pouches? 

Viewers’ minds are free to further explore the photo when an image feels authentic.  If the “Pony Express” were shot on a city street and the horses were plodding along instead of running, viewers would have a hard time connecting the photo to the legendary mail service.  It just wouldn’t feel genuine. Viewers loose interest quickly at this point.

Good Visual Storytelling

So how do you capture those storytelling moments?  First, find something that stirs your passion.  If you’re not interested in your subject nobody else will be either.  You want to love your subject because it will take many hours of practice to really learn to capture the moment. 

Next, follow the five “W”s of storytelling:  who, what, when, where and why.  If your photo can answer at least three of these questions without a caption, you’re off to a good start. 

Let’s break down Dad’s photo “The Great Horse Chase”.  Just by looking at the image, you can conclude:

Who:  The rider is a cowboy that’s very skilled with the lasso.

What:   This is a serious, intense horse chase. 

When:  It’s daytime.  It could be the Old West or modern day. 

Where: It takes place out West on a ranch.

The Great Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

Why: This one could have a couple of stories.  Some people could say the cowboy was catching a wild horse or it could just be a couple of run-away horses.  The point is, a viewer cared enough after staring at the photo to guess at the story.

In planning his shots, Dad usually sketches out the image that’s in his head.  This allows him to consider these five questions before he even begins to plan the actual photo shoot. 

You may be wondering how this works with a subject you don’t control.  Never fear.  We’ll tackle that question in detail the next section.  Suffice it to say, I used these questions on a regular basis when I worked as a newspaper photojournalist.  I didn’t have the luxury of planning a photo nor control over most of the elements, but the five “W”s helped me recognize when a “moment” was happening right in front of me.

One other thing every good storytelling image contains is motion to pull you into the story.  Obviously a still photo is just that, still.  However, great photos frequently capture a sense of motion like horses running, blurred water rushing down a stream or a bird hovering in mid-air. 

Roadrunner Breakfast” is a great example of suggesting motion without actually seeing motion.  While viewers can’t see the beak of the roadrunner moving, it’s clear the bird flipped the worm up and was going to devour it.  The motion is implied because of the worm suspended between the bird’s beak.  Always look for some sort of motion to keep to your viewers engaged.

Roadrunner Breakfast | Beebower Productions

Creating vs. Capturing

Are good storytelling images created or captured?  I’d say both.  In Dad’s Old West images, he carefully controlled the models, props, locations, composition, action and lighting. 

He compares creating images like “The Great Horse Chase” to making a movie.  There were many interdependent parts that had to come together at just the right time and required coaching from a single person.  Dad was the director who ultimately knew the moment he hoped to create. 

However, shooting wildlife pictures is a whole different ball game.  Dad can’t control the animals.   Wildlife photography is more akin to photojournalism.  You shoot on the fly, looking for the best combination of lighting, composition and action in an ever-changing situation.  Quite often it comes down to luck.  You just happen to be in the right place at the right time to capture a unique moment.

Whether you’re creating or capturing your storytelling image, there are things you can do to tip the scales in your favor. 

Even if you’re carefully orchestrating a photograph like one of Dad’s Western images, you still need to recognize when “The Moment” happens. It may not look exactly like you imagined.  Be ready to shoot anyway. 

Mountain Lion and Dogs | Beebower Productions

Take for example the photo “Mountain Lion and Dogs”.  The mountain lion was stuffed, but the dogs were alive.   They were convinced the mountain lion was alive too.  One dog decided to circle around and sneak up on the mountain lion.  While this wasn’t Dad’s original plan, he recognized in the midst of chaos, the closer dog created unique layers of activity in the photo.  This was his storytelling moment. He pressed the button.

When you’re creating “The Moment” do yourself a favor and get the best folks you can to help you.  Dad always makes sure to find the most skilled cowboys, fastest horses and the best animals he possibly can. Behind the scenes he always hires the top assistants and advisors to make sure the photos are technically excellent and authentic.  That may require shelling out some serious bucks.  It’s worth the money.  Technical incompetence and inauthenticity show in your photos.

“You want to eliminate as many stupid things as possible,” Dad says.  “A horse stumbles or the rope misses the horse because you haven’t got a skilled roper and rider.  You find the best and pay them to help you get the photo.  It’s the only way to make a believable photo.”

If, on the other hand, you’re capturing unscripted wildlife moments, you’ll need some luck.  Getting lucky often starts with doing your research.  Find out where your favorite bird, bear or bobcat likes to hang out. 

Caracara Craziness | Beebower Productions

More often than not, you’ll be better off at a location with thousands of birds like Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge or some place that is designed for wildlife photographers like the Martin Refuge in south Texas.  The Martins have set up photography blinds and regularly feed the birds so capturing moments like “Caracara Craziness” is a snap.  (You can read all about Dad’s adventures at Martin Refuge here.)

If you’re not sure where to go, consider hiring a local guide.  Very early in our wildlife photography pursuits, we once spent fruitless hours sitting on the Carrie Nation Trail in Madera Canyon, Arizona near the chokecherry bush.  Why?  We’d been told the elusive elegant trogon had repeatedly been spotted eating berries from the bush earlier in the week. 

We would have been better off hiring a local birding guide to help us find these shy birds’ favorite hiding places.  We never did see a trogon although we heard two calling to each other way up the canyon as they rapidly retreated from the crazy humans camped near their bush.

Perhaps if we’d known a bit more about the trogons we would have gotten the shot.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand your subject so you can anticipate the action.  This is key to capturing a storytelling moment.  A sports photographer has to understand the game of football in order to anticipate where the ball will go on the field and get in position in time to shoot the action.  Western and wildlife photography are no different.

Broad-Billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell | Beebower Productions

Dad spent a lot of time observing hummingbirds in his quest to capture the photo “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell”.  He purposely chose a drip feeder placed behind the flower to attract the hummingbirds.  He’d observed that the birds tended to contort their bodies into the unique backwards “J” shape when approaching the sugary treats at this type of feeder.  His observation paid off with a great photo.

Besides knowing the habits, you have to shoot a lot of bad photos to capture that glittering jewel that is “The Moment”. 

My Uncle, also a professional photographer, used to say, “Film is cheap.  Shoot, shoot, shoot!!”

Today photographers have no excuse for skimping on shooting.  Digital is dirt cheap compared to film.  Dad shot over 500 photos the day “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell” was taken.  Shoot, shoot, shoot to stack the deck in your favor!

If you’re shooting a lot, you’ll become even more familiar with your gear.  You need to know your gear inside and out.  In hummingbird photography Dad failed many times at capturing photos that stopped the wing motion and showed off the amazing array of colors in the birds’ iridescent feathers.  He knew other photographers had successfully shot the picture and it became highly annoying to him.  (You can read all about Dad’s hummingbird adventures here.)

“I was driven with a vengeance to find out what was going wrong equipment-wise,” he said.   “Eventually I got the right gear and worked out all of the glitches.   The result was a super nice hummingbird photo.  But it took a lot of sweat equity over several months before I was successful.”

Learning to recognize and capture a storytelling photo takes time, practice and a bit of planning.   But eventually you’ll begin to develop a sixth sense of when the moment is right.  That’s when photography gets exciting.

As Ansel Adams, the celebrated nature photographer said, “Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”

Desert Oasis

Cranes and Blackbirds | Beebower Productions

The predawn cold seeped into our bones despite three layers of clothing.  As Dad, my husband and I walked to our shooting locations in the dark, the ponds were eerily quiet.  The soft hoot of an owl broke the stillness just as we began setting up our gear.  Then complete silence again. 

As the sun began to kiss the mountains, we could finally see the ponds before us.  Thousands of elegant sandhill cranes were packed close together standing stock still in the shallow water. Suddenly a solo trumpeting call reached across the water to us.  Within seconds a quartet answered back with loud, rolling bugles.  Then one bird was air borne. 

Rapidly thousands of sandhill cranes began calling and flying out in the crisp morning air.  The controlled chaos of flapping wings and rolling bugle calls were deafening.  Within a few moments the once packed ponds were empty.  Stray feathers fluttered quietly down and the skies turned gray with a mass of hungry cranes.

They were off to local agricultural fields to glean grains and corn left behind from harvest.   It’s the perfect combination for these magnificent birds, shallow-water roosting areas that provide protection from predators and plentiful food.  Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is, for the cranes, a desert oasis.  It is an oasis for wildlife photographers too.

Whitewater Draw near McNeal, Arizona is a little known gem of 1,500 acres.  The area consists of a mix of ponds and grasslands that support a vast array of wildlife.  Compared to the famous Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, Whitewater offers less human traffic and plenty of shooting opportunities.

Are you sure about this?

The first time my husband and I drove out to Whitewater, I’d begun to think our directions were wrong.  It appears to be in the middle of nowhere without a drop of water in sight.  The dry, bush-filled valley is dotted mostly with ranches.  In fact, Whitewater used to be a working ranch that the Arizona Game and Fish Department purchased in 1997.  The agency now irrigates the shallow ponds that draw sandhill cranes by the thousands.

Incoming Cranes | Beebower Productions

But you don’t see water anywhere until you turn off the rutted, dusty road that leads you to the refuge.  Then the desert becomes a watery retreat teaming with wildlife.  We couldn’t wait to get out and explore.

Someone thoughtfully created wide, smooth walking paths around the ponds.  That’s very helpful at 0-dark-thirty in the morning when you’re carrying camera gear.  They also installed viewing decks, a few scopes and informational signs about the wildlife.

But what I love about the place is that it isn’t overdeveloped and certainly not crowded.  Very rarely did we run into other people in our pre-dawn tromps.  Even during the peak season for the cranes, it wasn’t nearly as congested as Bosque.

Cranes, Cranes and More Cranes

We’d come to photograph the cranes.  We weren’t disappointed.   Officials estimated there were about 20,000 of the gray birds hanging out at Whitewater, their winter home. 

Sandhilll cranes have a graceful elegance about them despite their large size.  Cranes can reach 5’ tall and have a remarkable wingspan of 6-7’.  Yet they perform amazingly choreographed mating dances with ease.

There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes.  These subspecies are broken into different groups based on their migration patterns.  Members of the Mid-Continent and Rocky Mountain populations visit Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico during the winter, but they make a remarkable journey to reach their breeding grounds as spring approaches.

The Mid-Continent group travels from Whitewater to their summer breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and northeastern Siberia.  The Rocky Mountain group doesn’t go as far, sticking to Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Canada. 

Tandem Cranes | Beebower Productions

Each year the cycle continues.   After the breeding season, the birds begin to gather in late August for the southern journey.  By September and October the cranes begin showing up at the ponds and marshes at Whitewater.  They hang out in the desert enjoying their custom made resort until February or March.  Then they prepare to head north.

Photographing the cranes is easy with the right equipment.  These birds are a jittery and wilily bunch, so they tend gather a bit further out from the walking path.  If you want a good close up of them roosting or flying, you’ll need a long lens like a 300mm.  If you’ve got a longer lens or extenders, bring them.    

Also consider your clothes when heading out.  A white or bright shirts scream “HUMAN” to a crane.  All it takes is one nervous crane noticing you and the whole bunch will fly further away.  Brown, green and mottled shirts and pants are great as is a hat.  You’ll want some camouflage on your gear too.

With a little preparation, you’ll be able to capture some great images at Whitewater.

The Other Guys

While we came primarily to photograph the cranes, we quickly realized there were a lot of other fantastic birds hanging out at Whitewater.  They love the area for the same reason as the cranes-plentiful food and water.

Loggerhead Shrike | Beebower Productions

On one of our early morning adventures I was walking to my Dad’s shooting location when a loggerhead shrike flew right in front of me carrying something in his beak.  Reflexively I whipped the camera up and shot quickly.  This cute little mouse was definitely on the shrike’s breakfast menu.

The loggerhead, to borrow a phrase from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “is a songbird with a raptor’s habits”.  It sure is a cute little bugger.  However, you might look at a shrike a little differently after learning about its unusual habit.  The shrike kills its prey with its sharp, hooked beak.  But it has, for humans, a nasty habit of storing food by impaling its victims on thorns or barbed wire.

The shrike wasn’t the only “non-crane” I found at Whitewater.  Each morning when we pulled into the parking lot I noticed a curve-billed thrasher sitting on the fence.   It always kept a close eye on us as we walked by, but it never flew away.  Since the thrasher seemed to be as interested in me as I was in it, I stopped and took its photo.

Curved Billed Thrasher | Beebower Productions

You’ve got to admire this guy.  Thrashers often build their nests on cholla cacti or other spiny plants.  The spines and thorns provide protection from predators like snakes.  But cholla have vicious spines with hooks on the end that once embedded are very painful to remove.  How this bird manages to build and nest and stay spine-free is a mystery.  Kuddos my curve-billed friend!

The shrike and thrasher are the tip of the iceberg at Whitewater.  Depending upon the season, I regularly saw cinnamon teals, northern shovelers, vermilion flycatchers, owls, a variety of sparrows, hawks of several varieties and shorebirds.

Birds aren’t the only wildlife at Whitewater.  Coyotes stalk the cranes, deer graze in the grasslands and the plains leopard frog calls the marsh home too.  Not to be out done, Mohave and Western diamondback rattlesnakes plus a plethora of reptiles like the Texas horned lizard inhabit the land too.  During the summer months you’ll find colorful butterflies and dragonflies along with copious amounts of blood-sucking mosquitos.

Whitewater’s main draw may be the sandhill cranes, but the desert oasis attracts a wide range of wildlife just waiting to have their pictures taken. 

If You Go

Be prepared.  Whitewater is literally surrounded by desert.  The closest gas station is about 11 miles north in Elfrida, Arizona.  So fill up with tank, bring lots of water and your own food.  Don’t forget the bug spray in the summer.

Go early or late in the day.   You’ll see the most wildlife during these times.  We preferred arriving before dawn.  We rarely saw people so early in the morning.  We did, however, see lots of wildlife.

Osprey in Full Flight | Beebower Productions

In the hour or two before sunset, there were more people and the wildlife was a little spooked at times.  However, you can get a nice sunset shot with the mountains in the background.

During the monsoon season the dirt roads leading to the refuge can become muddy messes.  Try to avoid going there right after a heavy rain unless you have 4-wheel drive.

Getting There

You can reach Whitewater from Sierra Vista, Bisbee, Tombstone, Douglas, Willcox or Tucson.  The best thing to do is use Google maps to create a customized route.  The directions, in our experience, were accurate.

In general, though, if you’re coming from Tucson take I-10 to Highway 191 and head south to Elfrida.  Turn right on Davis Road.  At Coffman Road, turn left and go about 2 miles.  You’ll see the sign for the refuge on the right.

Catch a Wave

Rolling Wave | Beebower Productions

Epic Waves

The Beach Boys had it right.  “Catch a wave, and you’re sitting on top of the world.”  We don’t surf, but that’s how many photographers feel when they successfully capture the power of ferocious waves wreaking havoc along the coast. 

Dad and I spent most of our Christmas vacation scouring the shores of Big Sur for epic waves.  If you’ve ever been in the midst of a Pacific storm as it hits the coast, some unbelievable things happen with the waves.  We challenged ourselves to creatively capture the monstrous, energy-filled waves pounding rocks and then dissolving into foamy white water.  Between the king tides and the winter storms we hit the jackpot. 

So what’s the secret to catching great wave photos?  It comes down to two simple things: location and timing.  You’ve got to know where and when to find the waves.  And there’s no way around it.  You have to do your research. 

There are some iconic wave locations that combine fantastic ocean activity with stunning scenery like Big Sur in California or the Hawaiian islands.  But the Atlantic coast of the US or coastal towns in New Zealand can give you stunning results too.  It’s all a matter of how much money you want to spend traveling.

Once you narrow down a general location, you’ll need to find a specific shooting spot.  Today the Internet gives you a big boost in virtual location scouting.  In fact, I wrote a whole blog about some of the resources available.  Rather than rehash the whole article, you can check it out here.

So you’ve done your due diligence and researched the perfect spot to find some wave action.  Don’t do what we did.  Don’t assume written directions will actually help you find the shooting location.  Get GPS coordinates. 

We once spent a harrowing day driving up and down Highway 1 looking for the elusive Sycamore Canyon Road only to discover the road doesn’t have a sign.  As a result we missed a great sunset at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur.  If only we’d taken the GPS coordinates.  You can read all about that fun adventure here.  Just don’t make any assumptions.  Get the GPS coordinates.

Crashing Waves | Beebower Productions

Once you know where to go, zero in on when to go.  For both the Pacific coast and the North Shore of Oahu big waves and storms roll in during the winter.

Your best source of information on weather patterns is the locals.  Even if you don’t know someone who lives in Big Sur or Haleiwa, there are plenty of resources like websites and e-books produced by local folks in the know.  Surfers especially are tuned into the ocean’s patterns.  Many surfing websites like provide a plethora of information useful to photographers.

Other photographers are also excellent sources of information.  Many photographers blogs’ reveal not only their favorite spots but also the best time of the year.  So browsing photo websites for the area you’d like to shoot can really pay off in useful information.

And, of course, a Google search for wave, ocean or coastal photography in a specific area will provide even more leads on when the action takes place.

So after lots of research, you’re finally ready to shoot.  Here are a couple of tips for capturing mammoth waves:

Scouting Before Shooting

Once we’ve found our location and the best time of year, we usually assume the first trip will be a scouting mission.  We do take pictures, but our expectations are low.  Mostly we’re studying the lay of the land, how the ocean affects the coast, the composition possibilities and where we can safely take pictures. 

It’s a good idea to visit the location at different times of the day and even during different seasons to see how things like the tides and lighting change.  We carry printed sunrise/sunset and tide charts for our location.  There are apps that also track this information, but we prefer the printed versions because many of the places we visit don’t have cell reception and the apps don’t work.

The tide chart keeps us from being caught unaware in the midst of rising water.  Our gear costs too much to take a soaking, not to mention we’d rather not be swept out to sea.  Beyond safety, the photo can look completely different with a high tide compared to a low tide.  It’s helpful to know when both will occur.

Smash 1 | Beebower Productions

Set the mood

You can create the mood in a wave photograph simply by playing around with your shutter speed.  A high shutter speed freezes the wave action, but a slower shutter speed turns the waves into foamy or ghostly streaks.

Smash 2 | Beebower Productions

In the picture “Smash 2” the water begins to have wisps of white, ethereal swirls instead of all solid droplets.  This picture has a softer feel than the previous one.  It was shot at 1/320 of a second.  By going even slower on the shutter speed, say 1/30 second or below, you will turn the waves into a mass of eerie streaks.

Doing the Time

When you’re attempting to photograph the ocean, you’re at the mercy of the elements.  You’re waiting for a big storm that never develops.  You’re all set to photograph waves backlit by a killer sunset when the fog rolls in.  A big storm creates so much flooding, the road to your location is shut down indefinitely.

Basically you’re going to face many challenges when photographing the ocean.  Be prepared to invest a lot of time returning to the same spot until the conditions are right and you get the shot you want.  It’s not unusual for landscape photographers to shoot at a spot for months or years before they get a winner.

You also need to be flexible because, again, you’re at the mercy of the elements.  We were all set to shoot at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve only to find the park was closed due to storm damage.  We regrouped and headed down the road to Garrapata Beach where we found some fantastic wave action.  Flexibility saved the day.

Get in Close (Safely)

To suck the viewer into your photo, you must get close to the action.  But you need to be smart when you’re around big waves.  Each year sneaker or rogue waves sweep people right out to sea in Big Sur killing them. 

Never turn your back on waves.  Study how the waves come in before choosing your spot for photography.  Take a buddy with you, someone who can watch the ocean for you while you’re shooting.  Plan an escape route in case the unexpected happens and keep your gear in waterproof containers or rain covers.

This all sounds rather dramatic, but it’s solid advice.    As Dad says, “If you’re going to get into a precarious position for a really cool shot, you’ve got to think ahead.  What if ‘it’ gets you instead of you getting the photo?  Sometimes you need to take extra measures to stay safe.”

We used longer lenses to capture many of these photos, so we were able to stand pretty far up on the beach and shoot.  But when we use a wide-angle lens, it requires us to get very close to the action.  We follow all of the tips mentioned above. 

We also use waders.  In the wide-angle situation, you don’t want to be a drenched, cold and grumpy photographer because you had to stand in the surf to get you photo.  The waders make us happy (and dry) campers.

Rocky Storm | Beebower Productions

Use Color to Your Advantage

Most people think of dark gray clouds and lack of color during a storm.  But surprisingly the colors are there.  You just have to notice them and play them up.  Often the rocks and the swirling waters themselves will add a pop of color.  Look for aqua, deep blues and even green in the water.   While the skies maybe gray and the majority of the ocean reflects that gray, there are pockets of color to be found.  Despite the gray sky the warm rocks and aqua water certainly jump out in “Rocky Storm Cove”.

Change Your Perspective

Shooting from the top of a cliff gave Dad a fresh composition as a storm approached this spot in Point Lobos.  Humans tend to get into ruts like always shooting from a standing position.  Changing your perspective is the key to great ocean photos. 

So challenge yourself to climb up top for a different view or get down low as the waves roll on the beach (just stay safe).   Changing your perspective helps spur creativity. 

Clean it Up

When you’re all done playing at the beach, make sure you clean up your gear immediately.  The beach is like the perfect storm of elements that can really mess up your camera gear.  Between the water, the sea spray and sand it can be a bugger to keep things clean.

As I mentioned earlier, we do take raincoats with us for the camera.  Depending on how close we are to the action, we might need them.  Better safe than sorry.  If you don’t have rain gear, a Ziploc bag and a rubber band work just as well.

That fine mist of sea spray can quickly make your lenses mucky.  We use filters over our lenses for protection, but we also immediately clean the filters when we’re done.  If the spray is particularly heavy we might even have to stop shooting and do some cleaning.  So make sure you bring lens cleaner and a soft cloth.

If we’ve used a tripod, we make sure we get all the sand off the legs before collapsing them.  If you don’t that gritty substance can wreck havoc with your tripod legs the next time you want to lock the leg in place.

Diligently cleaning up your gear ensures a good shoot when the next big storm or set of waves rolls in to your location.

So there you have it:  our guide to catching a wave.  Shooting pictures of the ocean from waves to beaches to seascapes is addicting.  It’s always changing and challenging.  There’s just something magical about it.

As Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it has cast its spell, holds one in its own net of wonder forever.“

He should know.  Cousteau spent his whole life filming and photographing the ocean.

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