Start Your Engines

Pintail in Flight | Beebower Productions

The noise level rivaled the Indy 500.  Chaotic quacks, riotous wings flapping and sudden splashes erupted around the pond as groups of ducks traveled back and forth over the water.

Pintail ducks revved their engines and launched from the water, the wind whistling through their feathers as they screamed around the imaginary racetrack in the sky. A group of mallards flew back from a mission, their energy gone.  They plopped down unceremoniously and loudly on the water.

From his spot hunkered down in the brush along the pond, Dad shot frame after frame of ducks as they zoomed past him.  Even without camouflage clothing, the plants hid him so well, the birds never knew he was there.  The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch was the perfect place for a high-speed bird photo shoot.

A Dream Come True

That really long name describes an oasis for humans and animals alike.  In 1999 Gilbert, Arizona officials started the Preserve based on a 13-year-old dream.  Years ago the town had pledged to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater.   The Preserve helps city officials do just that. 

Seven recharge basins or ponds are filled on an alternating basis with treated effluent water.  That water then steeps down into an aquifer for future use.  In the meanwhile, 298 species of birds and insects plus mammals, amphibians, reptiles and fish benefit from the reliable ponds in the middle of not only a desert, but also a heavily populated suburb of Phoenix.

From its humble start with wastewater, the Preserve provides wildlife habitat, learning and leisure opportunities as well as clean water, a hot commodity in an arid climate.  Visitors can wander over 4 ½ miles of trails, get a duck’s perspective on a floating boardwalk, catch rainbow trout in the designated fishing pond or visit a hummingbird garden.

Flustered Goose | Beebower Productions

Lots of families come to the park and the kids enjoy feeding the birds.  Right off the bat my Mom, who accompanies Dad on all of his travels, met a few of these semi-tamed and opportunistic birds.  Two geese decided Mom really should have purchased more bird food.  When she ran out, one Canadian goose got its feathers ruffled.  It waddled up and attempted to eat the buttons right off her shirt. We’re happy to report the shirt and my Mom are still intact.  The goose was out of luck.

Getting Down to Business

Those miles of wide and smooth trails I mentioned earlier make it particularly easy for wildlife photographers toting lots of gear.  While many of the birds seemed used to people feeding them from the bridge, the majority of ducks preferred a little quieter area near the back edge of the park.  Maybe they were hiding out from the plethora of nature photographers Dad spied on his walk.  In any case, he had no problem reaching the back ponds even with all of the equipment he brought.

One rig contained his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV paired with a Canon 400mm/f.28 lens and a 2X extender on a Wimberley Gimbal head and Gitzo tripod.  The other rig was his Canon EOS-ID Mark IV and his lightweight 400mm/f.5.6 lens that he was able to handhold.

After spending some time studying the birds’ flight patterns around the pond, Dad decided to use the lightweight 400mm lens.  You can read all about the pros and cons of this lens here  in our earlier product review. 

As Dad said, “Those ducks were flying 100 miles an hour like greased lightening. Handholding the 400mm/f5.6 turned my body into the pivot point.  It allowed me to quickly turn, hone in and follow the birds through my viewfinder.  The Wimberley is great in many situations but being tripod-free here gave me the edge in shooting the duck photos.

Mallard on a Mission | Beebower Productions

If you imagine a World War II battleship with those big guns that locked on and followed the target no matter where it went, that was me.  Those ducks were flying so fast, it was all you could do just to find them and mash the camera button down.  Shoot.  Shoot.  Shoot.”

The ducks seemed to move in short bursts.  A group of five to 10 would take off.  Another group landed on the ponds.  Two flew out.  Then nothing.  Dad took the down time to study the images he’d just shot and to make adjustments on the camera.  He was pleased with the photos he was getting. 

“The Preserve is an excellent place to hone your panning and long lens skills,” Dad said.  “Shooting a fast moving subject is tricky and requires a lot of practice.  This place has a plethora of ducks just waiting to be photographed.  It’s easy to get in and it’s free.  What more could you want?”

Ring-Necked Duck | Beebower Productions

If You Go

The Preserve is right in the city of Gilbert between Guadalupe and Greenfield roads, at 2757 E. Guadalupe Road.  You’ll find a small-ish parking area off Guadalupe Road.  I say small-ish because this is a popular spot.  The lot fills quickly.

Hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily but certain areas within the Preserve close at dusk.  You can contact the Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department at 480-503-6200 for more information.  Entrance is free as is the parking.

The family could easily tag along on this photo shoot.   Between the kids’ play area, floating boardwalk and pollinator gardens the kiddos will keep busy while you’re shooting.  Picnic tables, an observatory with a nifty telescope and plentiful restrooms round out the kid-appealing aspects of the park.  Another bonus:  you can also bring the dog along since they’re allowed on the trails.

We recommend taking a variety of gear since you may be able to shoot close ups like the ring-necked duck as well as long lens shots like the pintail ducks. Having two camera bodies ready to roll with different lenses makes it easy to capture a shot when opportunity knocks.  A long lens like a 400mm with extenders, a zoom of 70-200mm and a wide-angle lens give you the flexibility to shoot tight wildlife photos as well as landscapes.  Naturally you’ll want a tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head combo just in case.

Good luck on your photo shoot and have fun at the races! 


10 Hairiest Photo Shoots Part 2

Horse Stampede | Beebower Productions

#5 Horse Stampede

After repeatedly getting the question, “What’s the craziest or most dangerous thing you’ve done to get a photograph?”, we shared five of Dad’s hairiest photo shoots.  This week we’ll count down the remaining five to find out Dad’s most precarious shoot ever.

Dad found himself buried underground in a steel water tank waiting for a herd of about 50 horses to stampede over the top of him.  His idea was to capture a unique angle from below the horses.  He knew this would be challenging to pull off safely.  He turned to his friend Red Wolverton, who knew lots about movie magic and even more about horses. 

The plan revolved around a steel tank with slits cut in the sides for cameras.  The tank would be buried inside Red’s corral with Dad and his crew inside.  The slits would allow Dad to be at eye-level with the horses’ hooves and still have a degree of safety. 

On the day of the shoot, they could feel the ground vibrating before they saw the horses.  Then things happened fast and furiously.  Dust.  Stones.  Dust.  Hooves.  Shoot.  Shoot.  Shoot.

No one knew exactly what the horses would do, but Dad got his winning shot on the first run.  The horses’ hooves came within six inches of the camera lenses and about 10 inches from Dad’s face.

You can read the full story and see a picture of the infamous steel tank here.  It was a close call, but a successful shoot.

Cowboy and Horse in the Snow | Beebower Productions

#4 Cowboy and Horse in the Snow

Danger didn’t just lurk in the corral.  One of Dad’s models came very close to hypothermia during a winter photo shoot.  Dad, his assistant and his model had traveled to Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Lake, CO.  The plan was to shoot photos of the model on his horse in the deep snow.  But first, they were going to do some pictures at a little higher elevation up on a ridge.

Once the group, including the ranch owners Ken and Shawn Bruton, reached the ridge, the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped.  Dad discovered a much deeper layer of snow than anyone anticipated. 

After a few attempts at photos, Dad called the whole thing off because he was very worried about the model.  He wasn’t used to the extreme conditions on the mountain and hadn’t put on enough layers of clothes to stay warm in the subzero temperatures.  He was freezing.  In fact, the whole group realized they needed to hustle the model down the mountain as fast as possible because he was going into hypothermia.

Ken Bruton knew the snow rescue team members and was able contact them.  The photo group just had to get the model halfway down the mountain to meet the rescue team who would then get the model the rest of the way down.

It was a very close call. Once the group reached the ranch cabins, they hustled the protesting model into a very hot shower and kept him there for about an hour while pouring hot coffee into him.  Between the shower and a roaring fire, the cabin must have been about 90 degrees.  Eventually the model came around, but he was pretty lucky.  As Dad said, it was pretty bad.  So make sure you bundle up before heading out on a winter photo shoot.

The Great Gallery | Beebower Productions

#3 The Great Gallery

Two minor problems plagued Dad on this photo quest:  getting there and capturing the image.    He ventured to Horseshoe Canyon, a remote location two and a half hours from Moab, Utah, where a canyon wall called The Great Gallery tells the story of people who lived there thousands of years ago. 

Ancient artists chose well on the location for their masterpiece.  Few have the fortitude to travel to Horseshoe Canyon.  To see The Great Gallery, visitors must first traverse 34 miles down a hazardous dirt road filled with roving sand dunes and traffic-stopping, wandering cattle.  On this trip, there just happened to be an epic windstorm to navigate through.

Next problem on tap, the extreme heat.  Even in the early morning, temperatures hovered near 100 degrees.  In fact, the National Park Service closes the canyon during certain times of the year due to heat.  On this day, it would only get hotter on the trail to the rock art.

Dad, with his camera bags loaded and plenty of water, along with my Mom descended almost 750 feet down into the abyss, part of Canyonlands National Park, to view The Great Gallery.  Going down was a piece of cake.  Getting out would be challenging.

The 7-mile, round-trip trail led the couple through a dry, sandy creek bed.  They quickly began seeing small pieces of rock art along the way.  Their anticipation grew as they got closer to the Gallery. 

The canyon that holds the Gallery is a steep, narrow space.  Dad first glimpsed a gargantuan 10-foot tall, evil demon-like figure staring down at him from the canyon wall.  As he peered down the canyon an endless array of faces popped off the stone for at least 200 feet.  He quickly got to work shooting pictures, capturing what he thought was an excellent photo.

Now for the fun part.  The real adventure on this hike was getting out of the canyon.  The sandy streambed became a hamster wheel for Dad and Mom.  There was a lot of walking but slow progress upward as the sand tried to suck them back down into the canyon.  To make matters worse all of that water they’d packed seemed to have disappeared.  By this time the temperature was well over 106 degrees.

After a grueling workout, Dad and Mom finally made it to the “parking lot”.  Dad felt great about the images he’d captured.  Mom felt great that an air-conditioned hotel room would be waiting for them.

You can read the full story of Dad’s adventures in Horseshoe Canyon here.

#2 Packhorse Tumble

As he used a sheath knife to slowly and painfully claw his way back up the embankment above the cliff, Dad reconsidered the wisdom of riding at the back of the pack.  No one saw the packhorse directly in front of him back up causing his horse to side step, lose its footing and roll down the embankment toward the cliff.

No one saw Dad, who managed to get off the horse before it rolled, slide down the same embankment toward the cliff.  No one saw Dad ripping the hemlock tree right out of the ground as he tried to stop his pell-mell rush down to certain death.  And no one saw the bigger tree Dad crashed into that brought everything to a sudden and painful stand still.

Nope.  No one saw any of that.  All they knew was that Hugh was there and then he wasn’t.  And the kicker–somehow the horse made it back to the trail minus Dad.   The back of the pack wasn’t all it cracked up to be.

Dad’s Rocky Mountain trail adventure had started off great. He traveled to Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Lake, Colorado on a photo-scouting mission. Dad had a commercial advertising client that wanted to do a catalog shoot in the area.  His friends Ken and Shawn Bruton assured him there were plenty of locations in the mountains near their home that would work.

So the trio set off on a weeklong packhorse trip. While they found plenty of amazing spots to shoot, the most memorable part of the trip would be the roll down the embankment toward the cliff.

Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

#1 Old Mescal Bronc

But that shoot paled in comparison to “Old Mescal Bronc”.  One crazy horse equals a lot of danger.  On the other hand, Dad did ask for the craziest horse in Arizona.  One of Red Wolverton’s cowboy acquaintances knew just the one.    Now all Dad had to do was capture the cowboy and bucking bronc frozen in mid-air.  No problem.

The plan:  The crazy horse would be flanked by wranglers.  The cowboy would approach the crazy horse on another horse and slide on to the back of the crazy horse.  The wranglers would remain on either side but out of the picture frame to ensure the crazy horse moved in the right direction.

The horses were in place.  Dad’s assistants blew dust in the background.  Meanwhile Dad hunkered down behind some hay bales with a Hulcher sequence camera that could shoot 20 frames a second.  He was ready.  Action!

As soon as the cowboy slid onto the crazy horse, it went from calm to insane.  The horse launched straight up in the air and began bucking its way down the dusty street and through a mesquite thicket near Dad.  (You know that horse was crazy because mesquite trees have some really nasty stickers on them.  The horse wasn’t phased at all.)  Dad was shooting as fast as he could.

After the horse cleared the mesquites Dad began to wonder if it would stop before trampling him.  Dad bailed left and the horse went right.  The horses’ hooves were about three feet from his face.

The cowboy realized the shoot was over and managed to slide onto another horse.  The crazy horse immediately stopped bucking.  He suddenly looked as docile as a kitten.

Dad’s assistants came running to make sure he was still alive.  One of them commented, “Damn!  That was really bad!”  And that was probably the closest call, except for sliding off the cliff, that Dad had in 35 years of shooting.

10 Hairiest Photo Shoots Part 1

People often ask, “What’s the craziest or most dangerous thing you’ve done to get a photograph?”  There have been quite a few wild and precarious situations Dad’s found himself in over 35 years of being a professional photographer.  We’ve narrowed it down to the top ten stories involving our intrepid photographer.  We’ll share five stories this week and the other five in part two.  The rest of the stories, well, we had to protect the innocent so those are going into the vault.

#10   Duck Hunt

Duck Hunt | Beebower Productions

Duck Hunt

Folks love how serene and peaceful this photo appears.  Looks can be deceiving.  The shoot, however, started off well.  Dad had found the perfect spot on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. The lake wasn’t deep, but it had a thick layer of mud on the bottom.  In order to pull off this shot, Dad needed a stable shooting platform, not a bobbing boat.   

So he sunk an eight-foot ladder four feet deep in the mud.  He built a platform that was held up by the legs of the ladder.  The art director would watch from the platform. Dad had climbed higher up on the ladder and would shoot while perched on the steps.

Dad’s assistant Chris was on the far side of the lake in a special boat with a fog machine.  His instructions were to lay down a thick wall of fog to mute the power of the sun and create softer light for the shoot.  Task complete.  Dad was ready to shoot, at least Chris thought he was ready.

Chris heard Dad screaming one thing on the radio, “Faster, faster, faster.  The sun’s gonna burn through!” 

Chris hit full throttle and screamed across the lake with mud and debris flying off the back end of the boat.  Steering the boat while racing across the water, all the while laying down the thick fog bank, created enough air disturbance that nothing bothered him—unlike what was happening at the shooting platform.

Dad was in position.  The model and decoys were in place.  The fog looked good.  Dad had coached the art director to remain very still during the shoot because of the long exposure of 1/15 of a second.  Any movement would cause blurriness in the image.  Just as he was about to click the shutter, the ladder began shaking back and forth.   Then it stopped.  Dad prepared to push the button again.  More shaking.  Then stillness.  Dad’s finger inched downward toward the button. Shake. Sway. Shake. Shake.

“ENOUGH!  What is going on down there?!” Dad demanded of the art director.  “We’re about to loose the shot.” (OK.  Maybe he used a bit stronger language, but it’s a family-friendly story here.)

Hundreds of bloodthirsty mosquitos had swarmed the art director who apparently neglected to use bug spray.  Every time the A.D. swatted at a pesky mosquito, the platform and the ladder shook.  Soon hungry mosquitos were running the show and causing a major headache for Dad.

This would be a good time to point out that mosquitos never bother Dad.  It always annoyed my Mom and I when we were on adventures with him.  Despite bathing in bug spray the suckers attacked us, but they never attacked him even without the chemical bath. 

Anyway, the model and the decoys were perfect.  The fog was just barely keeping the sun muted as the wind began to blow a tiny bit.  In between shakes, Dad was shooting as fast as he could.  The finishing touch was a pair of real ducks that flew through the scene at just the right time.

Dad managed to get seven to eight frames off before calling it a day.   The art director was pleased with the picture even if he did look like he had bad case of very itchy acne over every inch of his exposed skin.  Now they just had to dig that ladder out of four feet of mud.

#9 Storm on Caddo Lake

Storm on Caddo Lake | Beebower Productions

Storm on Caddo Lake

Dad loves to create the weather.  Dust storm? No problem.  Foggy morning? No problem.  Torrential rainstorm?  No problem.  Except sometimes it does create a problem. 

Dad traveled to Caddo Lake on the border of Texas and Louisiana to shoot “Storm on Caddo Lake”.  It was an adventure filled with swamp creatures, electricity and lots of water.

Before the photo set up was even complete, Dad’s assistant Bob ended up in the swamp searching for a sledgehammer and his can of snuff that had sunk into the murky depths.  If you’ve ever been around a swamp you know there are all sorts of reasons to stay out of the water—alligators, water moccasins and even leaches.

Yes, Bob emerged from the depths with the sledgehammer and his tin of snuff plus a few dozen leaches attached to him.  Leeches can be a bugger to remove.  After mumbling amongst themselves, the team eventually decided to burn the leeches off Bob’s arms.

Once Bob was dry and feeling better, Dad hung strobe lights in the trees around the dock.  Everything that could be covered was enshrouded in plastic.  Dad knew the next part of the shoot could give them all a big charge without a little protection.

The plan was to use the Hale pump to shoot swamp water up and onto the boat dock.  Dad planned to deliver a severe rainstorm.  However, the strobes needed a power source, so a generator was brought to the set.  Water and electricity.  Hmmmm…

That thought motivated Dad to shoot exceptionally fast.  One small slip with the lights and everything could short out and explode.  That truly would be a disaster.

There was another motivating factor to shoot fast, the swamp water falling on the set.  You know, the water with leeches, snakes and gunk that fell on the model with alarming efficiency.  Despite his raincoat, the model was trashed by the time Dad was finished shooting.  He took several showers to wash the stench off and even while dry and clean the model vowed not to volunteer for a shoot ever again.

#8   High Country Elk Hunt

High Country Elk Hunt | Beebower Productions

High Country Elk Hunt

Things weren’t going well.  Dad and his team were searching for a spectacular mountain backdrop for an elk-hunting photo.  Besides the normal time constraints on a photo shoot, a giant winter storm was pressing down on Siskiyou County, California.

Dad thought Mt. Shasta, a 14,162-foot volcanic peak in northern California, would be fantastic.  He also knew the mountain was often shrouded in clouds.  The day of the shoot, Dad needed a “Plan B” because the mountain was, indeed, completely obscured by clouds.   When he turned around Dad saw “Plan B”.  It was the perfect spot for his elk hunt photo, but it would prove to be a challenging place to reach. 

In order to get to an elevated shooting spot, Dad thrashed his way through thick mountain laurel and a lot of snow in the semi-dark hours before sunrise.  He wound up with snow down his jacket and icy fingers despite heavy gloves.  He wore layer upon layer of clothes for the early morning shoot because of freezing temperatures, but it was a sub-zero morning.  In fact, Dad loaned the art director some extra clothing so he wouldn’t develop hypothermia on the shoot.  (Remember the art director from “Duck Hunt” story?  It’s the same guy in this story.)

Everyone was cold, including the mules.  They had to forge a way up to the ridge in the photo.  There was no road or trail.  But things finally started to come to together for Dad.  The sunrise was perfect.  The assistant laid the fog in the background at just the right place and the mules were doing the right thing.

The “High Country Elk Hunt” photo shoot was indeed a character builder, as Dad would say.  But despite numerous setbacks, Dad’s determination made a wintery mess look like a serene Old West photo.  You can read the full story here.

#7 South Rim Horse Chase

South Rim Horse Chase | Beebower Productions

South Rim Horse Chase

A rattlesnake almost ended this photo shoot.  Dad and his assistant Chris were setting up the camera gear when Dad noticed a five-foot long rattlesnake just two feet away from Chris.  It was hiding under a cholla cactus, but it was very aware of the duo invading its territory.

Without another thought, Dad grabbed the belt loop on Chris’s pants and told him to hang on to the camera as he yanked Chris away from the snake.  Crisis averted.  The camera was still in one piece.  Chris was fine and the snake was relocated with the help of a shovel. 

While Dad was distracted with the snake, the horses were creating a situation back at the corral.

Working with horses in a high-speed situation can be, despite all of the precautions you take, dangerous.  In order to create the action in this photo, Red Wolverton and his wife Marge set up a temporary corral in Mendoza Canyon, Arizona.  Red and Marge often provided horses, wagons, props and a great deal of expertise to Dad on his Old West shoots.

The couple was well acquainted with the horses in “The South Rim Horse Chase”.  They owned the trio.  One of the white beauties decided to act up during the photo shoot and created a ruckus as the horses were racing out of the corral toward the camera. 

Marge, who was opening the corral gate, got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The horse stepped on her foot during the chaos.  Thankfully it was just a bruise and not a broken foot.  That’s not to say it didn’t hurt like the dickens, though.

#6 Canadian Mountain Wilderness

Canadian Mountain Wilderness | Beebower Productions

Canadian Mountain Wilderness

A commercial advertising client wanted a photo with snow-capped mountains and a stream with rushing waters as a backdrop for his product.  Dad already had the mountains and part of the river from an area in British Columbia.  But the river needed a few more sections to be complete.  Unfortunately his Canadian location was snowed in, so Dad had to look in Colorado to finish the photo illustration.

He did find the perfect spot near a campground in the Rockies.  The stream had cut down into the rocks, so it was about a six-foot drop into the riverbed and down to the waterfall.  The stream was really rushing because it had rained and snowed the night before.  It was bitterly cold and there were sheets of ice along the edges that made moving treacherous. 

No problem.  Dad donned a homemade rope harness and the art director, a buff man with great upper body strength, held (yes, held) Dad above the river.  Dad’s assistant Chris held on to the art director.

Dad shot like crazy.  It began snowing.  The river was spitting water all over him.  It didn’t take long for the cold to really seep into his coat and boots and pretty much everything.  He shot three magazines of film and then the group tore out down the mountain.  Dad had a happy art director, a really nice photo and he managed to avoid hypothermia.  You can read more about this adventure here.

Coming Up Next Week…

We’re just getting started with Dad’s adventures.  Join us next week as we wrap up the top ten hairiest photo shoots of Dad’s career with stampeding horses, a little hypothermia, a scosh of dehydration, a tumble down the mountain and the craziest horse in the state of Arizona.

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