10 Items in Dad’s Wildlife Camera Bag

Osprey with Fish | Beebower Productions

When hunting wildlife, a photographer needs a variety of weapons at his disposal.  Dad’s arsenal contains ten basic pieces that allow him to photograph everything from birds to bears:

1. Canon EOS-ID Mark IV camera body

This camera really gets the job done.  At a powerful ten frames a second, Dad easily captures moving subjects and sees great detail.  The Mark IV also has a stunning ISO range from 100 to 12800 making low-light shooting possible.

Egret Flying | Beebower Productions

2. Canon 70-200mm/F2.8L IS USM

Egret Flying | Beebower Productions, Inc.

A mid-range lens, the 70-200mm is an incredibly sharp and fast lens.  When the wildlife allows it, Dad can get closer to the subject and still fill the frame.  Thanks to this lens, Dad was able to capture an unexpected egret photo when the bird flew directly overhead.

Great Blue Heron Soaring | Beebower Productions

3. Canon 400mm/F2.8L IS USM lens with Cannon EF 1.4X III and Cannon EF 2x III extenders

Dad loves the combination of a long lens with either or both of these extenders.  It doubles his focal length without the cost of a 800mm lens.  That means he can back off from the wildlife and still fill the frame.  He even uses this combo when shooting diminutive hummingbirds.  The speed and sharpness of the lens can’t be beat.  Be warned, however, this lens can get heavy.  Dad uses either a monopod or tripod with a Wimberly Gimbal head when shooting with the 400mm.  This combo allows the camera to move smoothly when tracking a moving subject, thus expanding the uses for a 400mm with extenders.

Cormorant | Beebower  Productions

4. Sekonic L508 Zoom Master exposure meter

OK.  So it’s a bit outdated.  It still works.  Dad’s exposure meter really is from his Rochester Institute of Technology days in the 1970s.  In the field, Dad needs accurate exposure readings on subjects that might be pure white to jet-black.  The camera’s meter, in such situations, often gives deceptive readings resulting in an over or under exposed image because it reads only one section of the image.  The Sekonic gives Dad accurate exposures because it turns all light into 18% grey.  The meter doesn’t read single spots but overall light.  The result is correct f-stops and shutter speeds.

Cormorant | Beebower  Productions

5. Two Canon Speedlite 580EX II flashes with Visual Echoes FX-3 “Better Beamer” Flash Extender

Dad uses one of two flashes depending on his distance from a subject.  The plain flash does a great job of illuminating subjects that are relatively close.  The Speedlite offers automatic and manual settings with a flexible head.  When Dad needs to use a long lens like the 400mm for a far-off bird, he uses the flash with an extender.  The extender takes the light and compresses it into a strong beam that works at great distances.

Pintail Duo | Beebower  Productions

6. Wimberly Head Version II  WH-200

The Wimberly Gimbal head, as mentioned in #3, fits on a tripod and allows for fluid movement of large, heavy lenses.  It’s easy to smoothly track running elk, flying birds or stampeding horses.

Bald Eagle | Beebower  Productions

7. Gitzo G-1327 Mountaineer tripod

In the ever-changing world of photo accessories, Dad’s tripod isn’t even available now.  But Gitzo has an outstanding collection of new tripods that will do just as good of a job as Dad’s tripod.  This carbon fiber tripod is lightweight and very strong, a critical point when hauling giant lenses and other gear long distances in search of wildlife.  The Wimberly head fits nicely on top doubling the value of this tool.

Kauai Rooster | Beebower  Productions

8. Gitzo Series 2 Carbon 6X monopod

Sometimes you don’t need a wieldy tripod, but you’d like something to steady your lens.  The Gitzo carbon fiber monopod does the job.  Like their tripod, Gitzo’s monopod is lightweight yet very strong.  It too can handle the Wimberly head.

Black Chinned Hummingbird at Cuphea Bloom| Beebower  Productions

9. Phottix Strato II Multi Radio receivers and senders

Dad loves his wireless flash triggers, especially when he’s shooting hummingbirds using eight flashes.  Phottix’s amazing product works without fail even when sending signals through walls and around corners.  This gives Dad freedom from wires and great confidence he’ll be able to nail the hummingbird photo he’s waited all day to take.

Roadrunner Breakfast | Beebower  Productions

10. The Vested Interest photo vest

Dad’s custom-fitted vest allows him to distribute weight evenly around his body.  He can carry lots of gear long distances without tiring, leaving more energy to focus on the wildlife.

What are your favorite pieces of gear to bring along on a wildlife shoot? 

The E-Kit To The Rescue

E-Kit | Beebower Productions

For as long as I can remember it held a place of honor in the van.  It overflowed with tools, gadgets and a lot of zip ties.  That sucker easily weighed a ton.  However, we gave much honor and respect to the monstrous, gigantic, blue E-Kit.

My Dad’s emergency kit often saved the day when photographic disasters reared their ugly heads.  The calamities ranged from an unruly tree branch encroaching on a photo to an urgent need for a homemade flag. 

On our photo shoot at Madera Canyon in Arizona the sun shifted dramatically throughout the day.  We combated the pesky rays of light hitting our hummingbird set by placing multiple flags on light stands to block the light.  Eventually we ran out of flags. 

Broad-Billed Hummingbord at Mexican Cigar Bloom | Beebower Productions

The E-Kit rode to the rescue.  Within a few minutes I’d whipped up a solution to the problem by duct taping a cereal box to a light stand’s arm.  Dad got some great photos thanks to that little flag.

Dad’s photo shoots often took place in remote locations like ranches in the Rocky Mountains or the deserts of Arizona.  Stores and help were far, far away.  So Dad took everything he could imagine needing in the E-Kit.

“Sometimes a ‘fix’ from the E-Kit didn’t play a major part in a photo but we couldn’t have found the stuff on location,” Dad said.

Cherry Cobbler | Beebower Productions

The kit saved “Cherry Cobbler”.  Dad created this mouthwatering picture for his book “Legends of a Range Cook”.   To get an authentic feel to the photo he went on location and set up the campfire with the Dutch ovens and tools.  However, the wind kept blowing the tools around so Dad dug into the E-Kit and used some wire to lash them in place.

When Dad and his brother Gordon ran their commercial advertising studio, they had to deliver fantastic photos no matter what went wrong.   Both their reputation with art directors and their income rode on delivering despite what obstacles lurked around the corner.  After a short time in the business they became highly motivated to anticipate problems.  It required, however, becoming a jack-of-all-trades with a working knowledge of all sorts of tools.

Dad said, “You don’t know what’s going to go wrong and what you’ll need to fix it.  Basically you’re trying to make something be what it’s not to get the photo. But if you’ve done it right no one will be able to tell what you did either to fix the problem or put it back like you found it once you’ve got the photo.”

Stealing a Great Idea

My Uncle Gordon got the idea for the E-Kit at his first post-college job working for another professional photographer.  He observed this photographer not only used an E-Kit, he also bought bags for light stands, arms and other things in the commercial photo studio.  This made going on location a breeze because gear didn’t get tangled up in transport. 

Uncle Gordon talked to Dad and they decided to swipe both of these ideas.  As former Boy Scouts both guys loved the motto “Always Be Prepared”. 

Their first E-Kit was significantly smaller than the monstrosity I grew up knowing (and secretly hating when I had to try to pick it up). It proved to be inadequate for the amount of stuff they routinely needed on location shoots.

Meanwhile Dad observed one of the worker bees at another studio creating bags of all sorts using an industrial sewing machine and heavy-duty tarpaulin.  The material came in several thicknesses, all with bonded coating to make them waterproof.  Even better, the material wouldn’t rip.  You literally had to cut it to create a break in the fabric.

So Dad purchased an industrial sewing machine, tracked down the fabric and got started on a long career of bag making.  He designed the E-Kit bag with inner and outer pockets to make finding smaller items easier.  He left a large center well open well for items like staple guns and saber saws.  He also added heavy-duty straps for carrying the whole shebang. 

Heavy Duty Rottweiler

Problem solved.  Well, mostly.  As I mentioned the bag weighed about as much as a hearty, full grown Rottweiler.  Perhaps I exaggerated a bit.  Nope.  Now that I think of it, I’m certain it was in Rottweiler range. 

Back in the day it took two people to pick up the thing.  Dad, however, could heft it around by himself. Now Dad’s paired down the bag a bit since his commercial photography days are over, but it still weighs in at a chunky 40 pounds. 

Because the bag weighed so much, it mostly stayed in the van on location shoots.  If he needed something, Dad would send an assistant back to the vehicle to rummage through the E-Kit. 

When he was shooting “Evening Stage” he did send an assistant back to the van to get wire.  Dad needed to fasten flour sacks filled with Fuller’s earth to the backside of the stagecoach.   Each time a wheel made a rotation, it hit the bags releasing some of the stuffing and creating dust that made the sun’s rays really stand out. 

Evening Stage | Beebower Productions

Dad came up with this special effect on the fly.  Thanks to the E-Kit and a friend who had the flour sacks, everything came together to make one very believable piece of Old West art.

In making Western pictures like the stagecoach, Dad often sketched out his ideas before heading out to shoot.  One time he envisioned a winter photo in the corral at his friends’ ranch, but he knew he’d need extra lighting.  While still at the studio, he built a light with a strobe head inside to illuminate the model.  Then he headed to Colorado for the frigid photo session. 

Winter Pack Trip | Beebower Productions

Once on site, Dad secured the light to the fence with a drill.   Since this was a regular item in the E-Kit, Dad didn’t give the drill a second thought.  The photo turned out great and the ranch returned to normal by the end of the day.  Everyone was happy.

So a well-designed E-Kit can make or break a photo shoot.  It even helped Dad be a more creative artist as well as a problem solver.  He crafted “Buckboard Cowboy” by combining multiple photographs to make one Old West photo.  After shooting the cowboy driving the buckboard, Dad realized he’d need to add more dust coming up from the horses’ hooves to make it believable. 

Buckboard Cowboy B&W | Beebower Productions

While on location, Dad took a 2×4 from the E-Kit, wrapped it in blue screen fabric and stapled the fabric to the wood.  Then my mother hit the sand repeatedly while he shot the resulting “dust”.  The blue screen fabric allowed him to seamlessly cut out the dust in Photoshop and add it to the big picture composite.  It may have been a small part of the overall photo but that attention to detail combined with the other elements made a realistic photo for the viewers.

Blue Bag O’ Tricks

So you might be wondering what Dad keeps in that magic blue bag of tricks.  We’re going to tell you.  In fact, we’ve provided a complete list for you.  Just enter your email address and then download the list.

But first, one additional note.  Each time Dad goes on a shoot, he evaluates what he thinks he might need.  Anything not on the original list gets added to the bag.  For example, he’ll throw in a few garbage bags if the forecast looks especially wet.  He’ll add a shovel for super snowy locations.  You get the idea.  This is a list of basic supplies.  Tweak it to fit your individual situation.

 

Enter Your Name & Email To Download Your FREE E-Kit Check List

Save the Cranes!

Whooping Crane Take Off | Beebower Productions

They’re international jet setters, flying 2,500 miles just for some tasty food and warm winter weather.  Like any good A-Lister celebrity, whooping cranes steal the show everywhere they fly.

These five-foot-tall birds make an amazing journey each year from their nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Coastal Texas. 

Whooping Cranes Landing | Beebower Productions

Whooping Crane 411

Whooping cranes garner so much attention because so few have survived.  In 1941 a mere 21 cranes existed in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting.  Alarmed conservationists soon created plans to help the birds rebound.

These birds easily made the endangered species list.  Because of that they’ve even managed to get two countries to work together on restoration efforts.  Both Canada and the United States protected prime habitat for nesting and migration.

The Canadian government created Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922 to protect the last remaining bison herd in northern Canada.  But happily the whooping cranes’ last natural nesting area also falls under the park’s protection.

Whooping cranes mate for life, doing elaborate jumping, running and dancing displays to attract that special someone.  They build nests in marshy areas and tend the youngsters together.   

The hatchlings grow quickly going from 4 inches tall at birth to 5 feet tall with a 7-foot or larger wingspan as adults.  In just eighty days these babies morph into strong fliers.  At the end of summer, all of the whoopers get ready to head south for a winter vacation in the Lone Star State.

The birds often travel in family or small groups, stopping to rest at various spots from Canada to South Dakota to North Texas before reaching the Gulf Coast of Texas.  The 2,500-mile trip can take up to 50 days. 

In 2017 biologists captured and tagged a three-month-old whooping crane at Wood Buffalo National Park.  They followed every move of the bird’s journey from Canada to Texas with the help of his cellular-based telemetry unit.  In true scientific form, researchers named the young crane “7A”.  To read about “7A’s” adventures, go Here.

While Canada got an early start in helping the whooping cranes, the United States government followed suit and set aside Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 1937 because of its importance for migrating birds and other wildlife.  In another happy coincidence several years later, scientists discovered the dwindling populations of whooping cranes and the importance of the coastal Texas wildlife refuge to these birds.

Barrier islands, bays, shallow marshes and tidal areas along the Gulf Coast near Rockport and Austwell provide perfect foraging opportunities for the whooping cranes.  The coast serves up a buffet of blue crabs, shrimp, clams, wolfberries, insects, seeds, frogs, snakes and mice.  It’s a whooping crane nirvana.  So the birds hang out in Texas until mid-April when they return to their Canadian nesting grounds.

Over the years the numbers of this rare bird kept building.  In 2017 the official count showed 431 whooping cranes at Aransas.  The population exploded compared to the measly 21 from the 1940s.  But it’s still a small number of a very special bird.

Whooping Crane Preening | Beebower Productions

A Wing and a Prayer

Whooping Cranes definitely caught Dad’s attention.  These large, elegant and endangered birds were hanging out a couple hours drive from his house.  The possibility of photographing them drew Dad to South Texas like a moth to the flame.

He’d visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge before, but he hadn’t seen any of the cranes.  After doing more research, Dad decided chartering a boat would be a better way to successfully photograph these graceful birds.  After all they spent most of their time in marshy areas far away from people.

Captain Kevin Sims with Aransas Bay Birding Charters regularly brought photographers very close to the whoopers.  So Dad boarded The Jack Flash with high hopes early one cold, overcast morning in February.  The fog really socked in the bay, creating nice soft light.

Captain Kevin took up photography in 2004.  So he knew what photographers needed to make amazing photos—great light and access.  He worked really hard to get Dad in the best possible shooting situations. 

It helps that Captain Kevin fished and explored the waterways around Aransas for over 45 years.  He not only knows his way around a tricky area, he also understands the wildlife that makes the bays, rivers and marshes home.  In fact, he knows the area so well that a thick fog bank with low visibility prevent him from successfully navigating the waters that morning.

Captain Kevin hit all of the usual spots for whooping crane activity.  The Jack Flash glided through Aransas Bay, past Goose Island State Park and by Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  But the wily birds seemed particularly skittish that morning and flew away before the boat got close enough for Dad to take a photo, even with his Canon 400mm lens plus Canon 1.4 extender.  Several hours passed with many “near misses” and a tangle with a sandbar.  Dad got discouraged.  Prayer seemed like a good option since it would take a miracle to get a shot on this morning.

Just when Dad was ready to give up, Captain Kevin spotted a pair of whoopers near the Intracoastal Waterway eating blue crabs in marshes.  As they pulled up to the sand bar another whooping crane flew a little too close to these birds’ territory. 

Dad captured several frames of the first whooping crane taking off to confront the intruder.  He also photographed the other crane preening plus a roseate spoonbill that landed near the returning cranes.  Dad was a happy camper.

Whooping Crane in Flight | Beebower Productions

Hurricane Harvey

Dad’s whooping crane adventures took place well before Hurricane Harvey.  So we watched in horror this last summer as the coast of Texas got slammed.  We wondered how all of the fantastic folks we’d met through photo adventures faired, much less the abundant wildlife along the coast.  The whooping cranes were safe in Canada at the time, but many other birds were caught in the storm.

While many people in nearby Rockport and Port Aransas experienced complete destruction during Harvey, we’re happy to report Captain Kevin’s back on the water, running his boat trips.  Aransas National Wildlife Refuge still welcomes visitors although many buildings have been damaged or destroyed.

The coastal marsh habitat weathered the storm, although evidence like buoys, plastic and other man-made items washed in from the bay.  Scientists’ main concern for the whoopers stemmed from potential water pollution and an increase in the salinity of the birds’ drinking water.  While the storm did destroy a lot of vegetation, the highly prized wolfberry still awaited the whoopers this fall. 

As Texans banded together to help each other in the aftermath of the hurricane, several organizations jumped into action to help the whooping cranes.  While clean up and recovery is ongoing, the cranes showed up on schedule this past fall and appear to be doing well.  The return of these jet-setting birds gives Texans hope that life will return to normal sometime soon.

If You Go

  • Hurricane Harvey impacted much of the Gulf Coast in August 2017.  Many businesses are rebuilding, so check out the availability of food, gas and lodging thoroughly before heading to the coast.
  • Make reservations with Captain Sims in advance Here
  • You can share the cost of a charter if you’ve got several photographer friends.  Check it out Here.
  • Pair down your gear.  Tripods and camera bags are allowed and can be stored inside the cabin, but we’ve found the less gear the better.  We like to take one camera with a zoom lens for anything that happens close to the boat as well as one camera with a long lens, at least a 400mm.  Obviously you’ll need a tripod for any large lenses.
  • Bring snacks and drinks.  Captain Kevin provides water and soft drinks.
  • Don’t forget the Dramamine if you’re prone to sea sickness.
  • Wear rubber soled shoes.  Decks can be slippery.
  • Bring sunscreen and a hat.  Even on an overcast day the glare from the water can give you sunburn.
  • Dress warmly in the winter.  Winds off the water can make it chilly.
  • The best time of year to see whooping cranes is mid-November through mid-March, although they begin arriving in October and leave by April.

All I Want for Christmas

Santa’s Cookies | Beebower Productions

At this time of the year everyone’s making lists for Santa including Dad and me.  If Dad would stop eating all of the cookies I make we’d even leave the jolly old fellow a smorgasbord of goodies just to grease the skids, so to speak, because we have a few things that would make our holidays bright. 

Dad and I always wanted a picture of the elusive elegant trogon.  Just one elegant trogon.  Please Santa?  That’s all we want.

We had come close, but something always got in the way.  But this time was different.  Our intel was solid:  The trogon came every day to the choke cherry bush 15 paces from the intersection of the Carrie Nation and Vault Mine trails in Arizona’s Madera Canyon. 

Confident in our sources, Dad, Mom and I hiked up the steep trail at 5 a.m. one cold morning, found the choke cherry bush and hunkered down to wait for the bird.  Excitement was building.  We could actually hear not one but two trogons calling to each other as they made their way down the canyon.

Camera.  Check.  Camouflage.  Check.  Silence.  Check.

Wildflower | Beebower Productions

And then we heard the hikers.  A loud conversation took place between the man and the woman, while the man lauded the beauty and uniqueness of every flower they found on the trail.  As the voices drew closer, the birds faded out.  In fact, we heard them calling back and forth, heading back up the canyon as fast as they could, probably snickering about hapless photographers.

Meanwhile the clueless hikers stumbled upon two frustrated photographers and their companion crouched in the shrubs along the trail.  It might have looked like a scene from “Criminal Minds”.  Maybe.  The report of missing hikers was greatly exaggerated.

Trade You a Trogon for a Bear

On another adventure to locate the elusive elegant trogon, we found ourselves in Huachuca Canyon patiently waiting in the shrubs while Mom quietly sat at a picnic table not too far away.  Nothing.  Not a single bird could be heard.

About 20 minutes later I noticed what I thought was a javelina ambling down the dirt road toward us.  As it got closer, I realized it was a little bigger than a javelina.  Actually it kinda looked like a bear.  Yes, a bear. 

Dad and I made eye contact with each other and then froze.  I began a frantic mental review of bear encounter tips.  Don’t run. No problem.  I was glued to the spot.

Make lots of noise to let the bear know you’re there.  Nope.  That bear was too close.  That didn’t seem like a good idea, especially as it wandered about 50 feet from Mom who was sitting in plain view.  But the bear acted as if she weren’t there and moved on to the berry bush behind us. 

After watching the said bush shake vigorously for a few minutes, our trio quietly crept back to the van and jetted out of the canyon.  In the shock of the moment neither Dad nor I took a picture of the bear, and we certainly didn’t shoot a picture of an elegant trogon.  The shoot was a bust.

So Santa, if you could send a trogon our way this Christmas we’d be mighty happy.  If the trogon’s too much trouble could you at least give us a really nice, safe lightning photograph?

Killer Lightning, Please

Last summer Dad and I trekked through Utah, Colorado and New Mexico on our “Great Southwest Photo Adventure”.  We photographed multiple amazing locations. Dad also hoped for a killer lightning shot (no pun intended) during the afternoon monsoon storms.

We’d wrapped up two weeks of travel and still no lightning.  But we decided to stop at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico for some landscape shots on our way back to Texas.  As we pulled into the parking lot we noticed storm clouds building far, far away.  It looked like we’d have time for a short hike.

We set out on the Cave Trail, a 1.2 mile hike, that wanders close to the white cliffs and fantastical cone shaped spires.  About 1 mile down the trail, a brisk wind kicked up, cooling us off from the sweltering August temperatures. 

Both of us have been out in the desert during monsoon season.  We realized that wind might feel nice, but it could spell trouble.  Dad kept one eye on the skies while I picked up the pace so we could at least get a panoramic shot before a storm hit.

Off in the distance, I heard a faint rumble of thunder.  It galvanized me into action.  I shot pictures like a paparazzi on a bender.  Horizon line straight?  Who cares?  We can fix it in Photoshop.  Just shoot, shoot, shoot!

Sudden Storm | Beebower Productions

Then like the spaceship scene in “Independence Day” a very dark, very ominous cloud crested the ridge of the mountains and blotted out the sun.  Our heads swiveled up and our mouths dropped open simultaneously.  The cloud hovered over the far end of the mountains while throwing out lightning bolts left and right. 

This wasn’t just a little rain shower.  This was a storm.   With little grace or coordination Dad and I raced back down the trail to the parking lot praying all the while that we wouldn’t end up on the evening news as fried photographers.

To our utter amazement and horror a grandmother with two children headed up the trail and toward the storm.   As we ran past them my exact thoughts were,” What?!  That. Is. Crazy!!!!” We almost mentioned the storm to them, but by then it was pretty obvious something big was about to happen.  So we kept running as lightning started to get uncomfortably close to us.

Just as the first big, fat raindrops hit us, we skidded to a stop at the van.  We threw our gear in the back and slammed the doors as the sky just opened up and all heck broke lose. 

Boy that was one doozy of a storm.  Lightning, flood conditions and hail. We dodged it on the way to the van, on the way out of the park and waiting on the side of the road when the rain came down so hard we couldn’t see.  Dad got his lightning.  But when you’re in the middle of the storm, lightning photos are pretty hard to get because you’re too busy trying not to get killed.

So Santa, this year we’d really like some lightning photos that we don’t require dodging bolts of said lightning.

If you can deliver an elegant trogon and lightning photos, I’ll leave you a whole batch of my best gingerbread cookies.  Well, unless Dad beats you to it.  But they say it’s the thought that counts, right?

Serengeti of the Sea

Dolphin Ride Along | Beebower Productions

Everyone held his or her breath as the giant creature surfaced within arms reach.  The whale’s enormous size dwarfed our boat.  That caused a few of us to imagine how easily this whole trip could go sideways.

But we forgot all about the danger when the whale suddenly exhaled through its blowhole.  A fine, stenchy mist hit us.  We’d just experienced whale breath up close and personal!

As suddenly as it had appeared, the whale gracefully slipped below the water, glided under the boat and emerged on the other side.   Crisis averted.

That humpback whale encounter started my obsession with the wildlife of Monterey Bay in California.  The crew at Sanctuary Cruises in Moss Landing fed my wildlife addiction.

I took my first trip with the Sanctuary crew during a cold, windy spring day.  I hoped to see a whale.  But I soon discovered humpback whales were just the tip of the iceberg in this oasis.

Whale Tail | Beebower Productions

Cruising the Sanctuary

Captain Mike and his marine biologist partner Doris picked the perfect spot for their business.  Because of that giant canyon just off shore, the waters outside of Moss Landing team with wildlife.  Much to my surprise the wildlife often heads into the busy harbor to hang out.

Sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals gracefully glided around the vessels.   Some even climbed aboard tethered boats and took over the docks, much to the dismay of the humans.  Cormorants, pelicans and sea gulls perched on dock pilings or soared deftly around boats.   I never expected to see such an abundance of wildlife around an active marina.  But the animals didn’t seem to mind the people at all.

After viewing the amazing array of creatures in the harbor we motored out to the bay.  While Doris explained about the unique world under our boat, Captain Mike headed to an area where humpbacks had been spotted.

I, meanwhile, discovered my sea legs.  Sort of.  OK.  Fine.  I had no sea legs. Spring on Monterey Bay brought choppy water.  For a landlubber such as myself, balancing the camera gear and remaining upright provided a challenge.  But thanks to a tip from the captain, I braced myself against the cabin’s outer walls.  That gave me stability to photograph without going overboard or looking like an idiot.

Sea Otter | Beebower Productions

We hadn’t gone very far when we came across a dramatic showdown between a sea otter munching a crab and a very persistent sea gull that wanted the crab.  After several aggressive dive-bombing attempts by the bird, the sea otter disappeared underwater, crab and all, leaving the frustrated bird behind.

Then the real show began.

Let me stop and say that Captain Mike and Doris know their stuff.  It’s obvious that they love their work.  That’s why I love Sanctuary Cruises.   Mike regularly gets tips from other boaters who see wildlife around the bay, so there’s always something to photograph.  Plus he goes out of his way to make sure photographers get the best possible shooting situations. I wasn’t too surprised to learn Mike also is a photographer.  So he knows what to look for.

Because Doris understands the animals, she excells at predicting what they will do next.  That allows the photographers to anticipate the action and increases our odds of capturing a great shot.

3 Lunge Feeders | Beebower Productions

And now back to the story.   After tooling further out in the bay, hunting humpback whales popped up around our boat.  Not just one or two but five or six!  They rocketed straight up out of the water lunge feeding, a practice of rounding up and chasing their prey to the surface with their mouths wide open while scooping up a meal.  Lunge feeding events often involve fringe feeders like the birds swarming the area.  It was an amazing display of ocean prowess by a huge but graceful animal.

We stayed with these giant animals for about 40 minutes before heading back to the harbor.  Like a fish on the line, my first experience on Monterey Bay hooked me.  Over the next year I’d see common and Rissos dolphins, blue whales, harbor seals, elephant seals and albatrosses in addition to the humpbacks.  Each trip gave me new things to photograph even if that included the slightly stinky whale breath.

Ghost Ship | Beebower Productions

Sea Lions on Buoy | Beebower Productions

If You Go

    • Sanctuary trips are a bargain.  They charge $55 for adults and $45 for kids on the 3 to 3 ½ hour trip.  If your kids get antsy quickly, they also offer a 2-hour trip.
    • Dress warmly and in layers, even in the summer.  Fog often rolls into the bay making it chilly.  In addition to dressing in layers, I always took a pair of thin gloves so I could manipulate the camera without freezing.
    • Wear as much waterproof clothing as you can.  Large waves, sea spray and fog can soak your clothing by the end of a three-hour trip.
    • Take suntan lotion and a hat.  Even on an overcast day glare off water can cause sunburn.  Polarized sunglasses are also helpful.
    • If you decide to wear a hat, make sure you have a way to secure it.  The wind swept more than one person’s hat into the ocean on my trips.
    • Rent the anti-nausea bracelet.  It really works.  NASA developed the bracelet for astronauts but it works great for seasickness.  The $7 rental fee is totally worth it.  If you choose not to rent the bracelet, take seasickness medication before boarding the boat.  The bay can be very rough at certain times of the year.
    • Eat a light breakfast.  When you’re bobbing like a cork on the ocean, your stomach will thank you.  Enough said.
    • You can bring food aboard or get some from the snack bar on the boat.  I never either did because I didn’t want to chance seasickness.
    • Wear flat, rubber-soled shoes.  The deck is often wet and slippery. 
    • Pare down your gear.  There’s not much room for bulky bags plus you don’t want to worry about a bag going overboard.  Leave the tripod and monopod at home.  I’d suggest a camera with a long lens you can handhold, say a 100-400mm zoom, and another body with a medium zoom in case animals show up close to the boat.  Stuff extra batteries, camera cards and a lens cleaning cloth in your pockets.

Sea Lions | Beebower Productions

Swimming Sea Lion Trio | Beebower Productions

Whale Tail | Beebower Productions

The Pelicans | Beebower Productions

The Eyes Have It

Soulful Sea Lion | Beebower Productions

When we meet someone new, we lock on to their eyes like a heat seeking missiles.  Why? The eyes can tell you lot about someone.  Eyes can convey moods, telegraph intentions and even give us insight to the soul. 

This is true with people as well as animals.  For wildlife photographers, eyes play an important part in our compositions.  Eyes can bring a photograph to life. 

“When an animal looks at you, there are all kinds of emotions that come from the eyes.  They tell you the animal is at ease or if you’ve scared the bejebbers out of it.  The eyes are the portals to what’s inside.  The eyes tell it all, “ Dad says.

 

Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

Dad’s photograph “Old Mescal Bronc” is a perfect example of the eyes conveying everything you need to know.  The horse in this photograph was just plain crazy. As soon as the cowboy slid into the saddle, the horse launched straight up in the air and began bucking its way down the dusty street and through a mesquite thicket near Dad.  Mesquite trees have some really nasty stickers on them.  The horse wasn’t phased at all.

When Dad studied the film back at his studio, the horse’s crazed eyes spoke volumes about its feelings regarding the whole situation.  Those eyes add an extra layer of interest and dimension to an already great photo.  (You can read the full story about this photograph here.)

By contrast “Harbor Seal Portrait” shows an animal that is more curious about the photographer than alarmed. The eyes are soft rather than panicked or distraught.  Since we were floating along in a boat, something it saw regularly in the slough, the seal knew we didn’t pose much of a danger.  So it watched us for a moment and then went back to sleep. The seal’s eyes in the photograph create a bond between the viewer and the seal.

Capturing the Eyes

If eye contact is so desirable, how do you make sure you capture it regularly?  Through the years we’ve found a few things that tip the scale in your favor.

  • Know your gear:  Understanding how your camera, lenses and flashes work is critical.  You don’t want to be in the animal’s environment frantically reading the camera manual while trying to figure out how to change your f-stop.  You’ll miss the shot.  Often animals only look at you once before they disappear.  You need to be able to adjust your shutter speed, compose a picture and know when to press the button all while the animal makes that one-time, often-brief eye contact.
  • Know your subject:  In the animal kingdom staring is often considered a challenge or something predators do before attacking.  So it pays to know your subject.  If you want to get close enough to take a photograph of a bird, avert your eyes and move very slowly.  Camouflage always helps too. 

Pelican Portrait | Beebower Productions

I was able to creep closer to this pelican simply by looking away and taking tiny, sideways steps with frequent stops.  The pelican certainly knew I was there, but it didn’t freak out.  In fact, I was able to take numerous photographs and the bird remained on the post after I finished, even as I backed away.

No matter what type of animal you plan to shoot, learn as much as you can about it’s natural environment, predators and normal behavior because those things will help you get the picture, especially a picture with good eye contact.

  • Get on the animal’s eye level:  In this picture of the sea lion the eyes make direct contact with the viewer because I was right at the sea lion’s eye level.  The eyes draw the viewer into the photo and keep him engaged.  Shooting at the animal’s eye level can create a powerful connection.
  • Choose a high ISO:  Most wildlife moves quickly.  Such was the case with this osprey.  Dad chose a high ISO before the bird ever showed up because knew ospreys were fast.  In order to freeze the action and keep the eyes sharp, he needed a very high ISO of 4,000.   That ISO allowed him to choose an equally high shutter speed of 1/4,000 of a second.

You can do everything right by focusing on the eyes, but if you don’t have a fast enough shutter speed the animal’s movements will render your photo a blurry mess.  We recommend a minimum speed of 1/1,000 of a second for moving subjects. 

It’s important to note that you get what you pay for in digital camera purchases.  My husband attempted to photograph this same osprey, but was very disappointed with the results. 

 

Osprey in Flight | Beebower Productions

His Canon 60D allowed him to match Dad’s ISO, but the results were very grainy compared to the same image Dad shot with his Canon EOS ID Mark IV.  The culprit?  The Mark IV’s noise reduction capabilities far outpaced the 60D, making Dad’s photo flawless while my husband’s photo was a grainy mess.

  • Focus, Focus, Focus:  If you can see an animal’s eyes in the photo they have to be in focus.  Nailing the focus in a portrait is relatively easy.  But with a moving subject you’ll have to lock on to the subject’s eyes and hang on for the ride, constantly checking to make sure you’re still on target.

Caracara Craziness | Beebower Productions

Catch Lights

Just capturing the eyes isn’t enough.  You want those eyes to sparkle.  Catch lights are the answer.  It’s that little bit of light that makes you believe this is a living animal. This is especially true in animals that have dark eyes.

“It’s all about the light,” Dad said.  “Photography has always been all about the light, including the catch lights.  If you haven’t got that dimensional quality to the eye, you fail.”

There are three ways to make sure you have a catch light in your subject’s eye.

  • Create one naturally:  In many situations you can position your subject so the sun creates a natural catch light.  Dad’s photograph of a crested caracara demonstrates this beautifully.  The sun was behind Dad, shining directly into the birds’ faces.  You’ll notice the catch light in the left bird’s eye.  A natural catch light is, by far, the easiest way to bring a sparkle to your subject’s eye.
  • Create one with reflected light:  This method is better suited to tame animals or human subjects, but under the right circumstances it could work in the field.  Have an assistant position a Flexfill collapsible reflector near the subject so you can utilize the reflected light in the image.  Of course, you have to find an enormously patient assistant to hold the reflector for hours at a time while wearing camouflage. 

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