Bucket List Part 2

Artist Portrait | Beebower Productions

So last week we counted down five locations that have Dad drooling.  Let’s finish off his photographic bucket list with the top five spots he’s dying to visit.

5.  Churchill, Manitoba, Canada: 

It’s the polar bear capitol of the world.  During October and November, the polar bears move toward Hudson Bay to feed on ringed seals.  You can catch a ride on a specially designed tundra vehicle that keeps hungry bears out and people inside.  Of course, be sure to bring some heavy-duty winter clothing since you’ll have to roll down the window to shoot out of the vehicle.

Out in the bay you can see thousands of beluga whales that move back from their winter ground to the Churchill the area during July and August.  Belugas are curious about humans and playful with their compadres, so great photographs are possible.

Birds also flock to Churchill since it’s part of a busy bird flyway and you can catch the best show of Northern Lights January through March.  Churchill has a lot to offer photographers.

4.  New Zealand: 

Peter Jackson picked a location winner for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit” movies.  New Zealand, Jackson’s homeland, is packed with sweeping waterfalls, extraordinary glaciers, imposing mountain ranges, mysterious ice caves and even an active volcano. 

Don’t let the Kiwi nation’s relatively small size and remote location (900 miles east of Australia) throw you.  The long, narrow islands that make up New Zealand are packed with possibilities.  The great news is that a small population makes it easy to escape crowds and photograph that unspoiled scenery.  Neither Dad nor I would have trouble finding material for panoramic, stunning images. 

In addition to the landscape, Dad’s itching to photograph some of the enormous rainbow and brown trout that call New Zealand home.  Western author and fisherman Zane Grey called New Zealand an “angler’s El Dorado”.  This gold mine of fish provides super-sized and, apparently very wily, trout.  No problem.  Dad will employ a bit of movie magic to take that memorable fishing shot.

3.  Costa Rica: 

Good thing come in small packages and Costa Rica packs a punch.  The small country, about the size of West Virginia, is sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama in Central South America.  It boasts shores on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  Best known for its coffee, Costa Rica also contains amazing wildlife and scenery that shouldn’t be missed.

To kick his trip off with a bang, Dad could choose between six active volcanoes to photograph.  Maybe he could even do one of those nifty exposures that show the volcano and stars.  Or he could photograph the rain forest that meshes seamlessly with the white sand beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park.  Or maybe he could do waterfall photographs in the cloud forest near the Talamanca Mountains.  Or he could photograph white-faced monkeys at Damas Island Mangrove Estuary.  And then there’s the Osa Peninsula with breathtaking views and an equally breathtaking list of wildlife.

With 812 bird species and 45 types of hummingbirds plus howler monkeys, coatimundi, sloths and jaguars to name a few, Dad could spend months happily photographing in Costa Rica.  And we didn’t even discuss the mindboggling array of lush and unusual plants that cover Costa Rica from top to bottom.

2.  Ecuador: 

Dad salivates over Ecuador because 132 types of hummingbirds, the glittering jewels of the garden, that make their home in this South American country on the Pacific Ocean.  They come in all shapes and sizes including the sword-billed hummingbird whose beak is longer than its body and the rainbow colored long-tailed sylphs.  Ecuador even has a hummingbird that survives at glacier level!  Dad would give an arm and a leg to stay at the Guango or Tandayapa lodges or hike the Papallacta Pass trail just for the hummingbird action.

If, by some chance, he managed to photograph all 132 hummingbirds, Dad would still have plenty of photo opportunities.  Between the 16,000 bird species and 300 or so mammals make their home in the country, he could spend years wandering through Ecuador capturing wildlife photos. 

But the magic of Ecuador doesn’t stop with the animals.  The Amazon River flows through the country creating dramatic scenes.  On the eastern side of Ecuador Dad could photograph San Rafael Falls, the highest waterfall in the country.   The Andes Mountains span seven countries in South America, including Ecuador, and provide dramatic peaks and valleys for landscape images.

Ecuador is well worth a top spot on your bucket list.

1.  Iceland:

Greenland and Norway sandwich the small island of Iceland between them.  The country, about the size of Ohio, is one of the most sparsely populated places in Europe.  That makes photographers very happy because they have lots of room to capture the volcanoes and glaciers that dot the landscape. 

For photographers, Iceland provides an abundance of a key picture ingredient—light.  The sun shines 24 hours a day during the peak of summer, providing plenty of time to capture images.  Mid-winter has short days of 4 to 5 hours of sunlight, but it makes up for the lack of light with the stunning Northern Lights displays.

Surprisingly for a country named Iceland, the island (on average) doesn’t get as cold as New York.  However, visitors may find the daily mini earthquakes a bit unsettling.  The Eurasian and North American plates meet here causing the frequent geologic activity.

If you can get beyond all of that, there’s no end to the photographic possibilities.  The Snaefellsnes Peninsula holds many treasures including the highest mountain in the country complete with a glacier.  Dad could also photograph the multi-cascading Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, a real stunner, or wander over to the beaches for scenic ocean images.  At the Floi Nature Reserve an ancient lava field hosts gobs of birds at the wetlands and ponds.  And Latrabjarg’s cliffs house millions of birds, everything from atlantic puffins to northern gannets.  The cliffs also make stunning landscape photos.  And we can’t forget while in the country Dad also could photograph reindeer in eastern Iceland.  When I was a kid, a photo of a reindeer would have gone a long way in convincing me Santa was real.

So there you have it.  Dad’s list of ten amazing locations you shouldn’t miss.  Now we just need a priceless artifact we can sell for a pile of money and Indy’s plane so we can fly off into the sunset.  It would be a perfect movie ending.

Bucket List: 10 Places You Shouldn’t Miss

Artist Portrait | Beebower Productions

His list reads like an Indiana Jones adventure:  mysterious ice caves in New Zealand, giant hungry grizzly bears in Alaska, colorful and glittering jewels in Ecuador, ghost towns baking in Wyoming and unpredictable, angry volcanoes in Iceland.  We’ve all got a bucket list, places we’d love to visit if we had found a pile of gold at the end of the rainbow.  My Dad is no exception.  His bucket list, however, revolves around places with outstanding photographic possibilities. 

He’s been to some of these spots, but it was usually for a commercial advertising shoot on a tight schedule.  Dad would love to go back and explore on his own.  (Incidentally I plan to stowaway in his camera cases for these adventures since I’m currently lacking a pot of gold.)

10.   Wind River Valley and Mountains, Wyoming:

With a motto of “Where Real Cowboys Work and Play” how could you go wrong visiting the area around Dubois, Wyoming in the Wind River Valley?  The valley, located in northwestern and central Wyoming, overflows with century old ranches, alpine meadows teaming with wildflowers, petroglyphs, ghost towns, rodeos, and wildlife.   The valley lies below the impressive Wind River Mountain range that stretches 100 miles through Wyoming.  The Continental Divide marches through the range too. 

Dad could easily fill all three categories of our website (old West, landscapes and wildlife) with stellar new images.  The wildlife alone would make him a happy camper.  You can find pronghorn antelope, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, eagles, badgers and bears roaming the land. 

He could also shoot his latest interest, gorgeous nighttime skies filled with a canopy of stars.  And the landscapes!  Oh my.  Seven of the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains inch through the Wind River Mountains.  The sculpted, giant spires and peaks in the Cirque of the Towers provide a spectacular backdrop for impressive landscape images.   Massive rivers sculpt the land and crystal clear lakes dot the landscape.

No matter where you look both the Wind River Valley and the Wind River mountain ranges are a photographer’s dream.

9.  Absaroka Mountains, Wyoming and Montana:

Next on the list, the Absaroka Mountains.  Nope it’s not the fictional Absaroka County, WY of “Longmire” fame, but a mountain range near the eastern border of Yellowstone National Park.   

The mountains cross the border of Wyoming and Montana and stretch for 160 miles.  This bad boy of ranges contains multiple peaks that reach 10,000 feet or higher many of them whittled into unique shapes.  The climbs can be treacherous due to the crumbling “kitty litter” of rocks.

The Absarokas are one of the most remote areas in the US brimming with wildlife, stunning landscapes, thick forests, active glaciers, tundra plateaus and mountain lakes.  Again, Dad could easily fill our website with old West, landscape and wildlife photos.  You can even go ice climbing on numerous frozen waterfalls at the south fork of the Shoshone River in the southern portion of the Absarokas.  Now that would make an interesting picture!

Dad also could capture images of grizzlies, wolves, big horn sheep, mountain goats, marmots, elk, deer and black bears while exploring this area.  In fact, many local guides lead popular hunting expeditions and packhorse trips into the mountains. 

No matter where you look in the Absarokas, there’s a picture lurking. 

8.  Oregon and Washington State coasts:

Dad’s actually done many commercial shoots in both of these states, but he never had time to explore the coast.  Simply driving along US 101, which closely follows the coastline, provides enough eye candy to keep any photographer happy.  Sea stacks, beach caves, tide pools, sand dunes, lighthouses, shipwrecks and wildlife abound along this stretch of highway.  With so many great photo subjects, the trouble maybe tearing yourself away from one photo op to drive to the next.

7.  California:

The Golden State overflows with great scenic spots.  Dad would love to explore in great detail Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Yosemite and Redwood National parks.  He’d happily return to Mt. Shasta too.  All of these locations have outstanding landscape possibilities as well as abundant wildlife opportunities.  Dad will get to shoot at a few of these sites soon since I recently moved to the California.  Plus he gets the bonus of free room and board at my house during his photo expeditions. Throw in the free location scouting and taxi cab service I provide and Dad’s got it pretty easy in California.

6.  Alaska:

Without a doubt, Alaska is synonymous with landscape and wildlife photography. While Dad has been to Alaska several times, he’d gladly return.  Living glaciers, forests, stunning mountains and beaches make taking landscape photos easy.

The wildlife is impressive too, but three areas hold Dad’s interest.  Kachemak Bay near Homer teams with marine life in the protected Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.  You can also find gobs of bald eagles.  If you want to capture our national symbol in flight, Kachemak is the place.

Admiralty Island near Juneau also has eagles.  In April and May it’s common to have over 800 bald eagle nests on the island.  Admiralty, also known as the island of the bears, really does have a whole lot of bears, about 1,600.  So if they don’t eat you for lunch, you have a pretty good chance of capturing them with your camera.

At Lake Clark National Park and Preserve west of Anchorage you can see bears as well as a plethora of volcanoes, glaciers, salmon, moose, seabirds and pristine lakes.  What’s not to like?

For the truly adventurous, Saint Paul Island in the Bearing Sea between Alaska and Russia is the place to photograph breeding seabirds and northern fur seals.  It’s also a major flyway for migratory birds.  It’s not, however, for the faint of heart.  Saint Paul is considered a polar climate because even during the summer temperatures it only reaches a high of 50 degrees.  During the winter, temperatures dip into the negatives.  And there’s only one city on the island, Saint Paul.  We don’t know if you can see Russia from your backyard while on Saint Paul, but you sure can get some stellar shots of birds and seals.

No matter where you look in Alaska, there’s definitely something to shoot.

Join us next week when we reveal the remaining top 5 locations that have Dad drooling over polar bears, ice caves, volcanoes, jewels of the garden and reindeer.

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.

When Photo Shoots Fail (2)

Mysterious Sanctuary | Beebower Productions

Every professional photographer experiences failure. Sometimes we spend a lot of money to travel to a fantastic location for a limited amount of time and a giant storm hits tanking our plans. Maybe a crowded photo hot spot with lots of restrictions makes it challenging to get one photo much less multiple show stoppers. Occasionally the wildlife we drove hours to photograph decides to play hide and seek. Or maybe the mirror fell out of our camera halting all photos (true story).

Plenty of things can make photography stressful. What happens when photo shoots go awry? Do we give up and go home? Nope. We turn lemons into lemonade.

Plan B or C or D

When a shoot goes sideways, Dad and I take a step back to assess the situation. How bad is it really? We try not to get stuck in our preconceived shots and panic. We look around for a “Plan B”.

Take my situation at Garrapata Beach in Big Sur, California. I’d planned a sunset shot at the beach but a giant fog bank rolled in five minutes before the big show. I’ve done enough outdoor shots to realize things don’t always work out.

So when I arrived at the beach, I scouted out my sunset spot and then proceeded to explore other photo opportunities. Golden light bathed the entire coast in beautiful color, making it the perfect time to shoot other pictures. I photographed some unusual rocks and then I found one of my favorite photos, Footprints in the Sand.

Footprints in the Sand | Beebower Productions

It pays to ask, “What if this photo doesn’t work out? What’s Plan B or C or D?”

Because I remained flexible and I exercised the “what if” scenario, I walked away with a multitude of photos. I even shot the original sunset photo. It wasn’t the glorious explosion of color I’d imagined, but the cool, sinister look drew me in anyway.

Fog rolls into Monterey Bay often. Because it interfered with my planned shots so frequently I learned to use it in my photography. When I set out to photograph Asilomar State Beach, I envisioned beautiful sunrise colors and light hitting the rocky coast. But a giant fog bank rolled in early that morning. So I combined the fog and a long shutter speed to create Mysterious Sanctuary (the photo at the top of this blog) where the waves and fog blend together giving the photo a soft, enigmatic look. The muted colors add to the mystique.

Garrapata Trio | Beebower Productions

Just like me Dad experienced weather issues in his quest to shoot a spectacular high country elk hunt for a client. He’d traveled to Northern California’s Mt. Shasta. A blizzard shut down his location scouting. But the next day dawned clear and snow free.

Unfortunately when the crew arrived at the mountain clouds enveloped in the peak completely. Dad’s “Plan B” involved turning around. Directly behind him was the perfect spot for his elk-hunting photograph. Had he remained locked in to his original plan, he would have run way over budget and his client would have lost confidence in him.

Dad said, “You certainly have to be flexible, sometimes almost instantaneously. One minute the area looked great and the next minute a big cloud covered up the mountain. The art director was getting nervous. But I always try to have something, a Plan B. Sometimes that ‘something’ actually might be better than the original, if you’re lucky.”

High Country Elk Hunt | Beebower Productions

That mentality helped Dad out years later when he traveled to Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur. He loved the photos he’d seen of a shaft of light blasting through the arch. But that phenomenon only happens for a limited time in December. Due to other circumstances, he couldn’t be there in December. That didn’t deter Dad though.

He shot the arch and sunset at the same beach, but separately. Then he used some Photoshop magic create a piece of art in his own unique style.

As Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

That requires staying flexible and alert for new possibilities on every photo shoot. Thinking outside the box doesn’t hurt either.

 

Keyhole Arch | Beebower Productions

Stack the Deck in Your Favor

Consistently making great photos entails being adaptable on location. However, a little preparation goes a long way in a successful photo shoot.

If you’re going to a new-to-you location, do the research. Find out things like the weather patterns for that time of year. Discover what challenges exist there. Find out about photography permits. Unearth sunset/sunrise charts and tide charts. Pinpoint services like gas stations, grocery stores and camera shops. See what other photographers share from shooting at that same location. And get reliable directions so you don’t miss the event because you’re lost. GPS coordinates often save the day.

If you’re photographing animals, learn all you can about that specific species. Dad and I delved deeply into the lives of hummingbirds before planning a shoot at Madera Canyon, Arizona. We learned their food preferences, including specific flowers, migration routes and times, behavior around other hummingbirds and where different types hung out in the United States.

That helped us narrow down a shooting location to Madera Canyon. Then we researched other photographers’ experiences in the canyon. That led us to the Santa Rita Lodge. We knew that the lodge kept year round bird feeders and that thousands of birds migrated through the area each year. We put ourselves in an area that had lot of the animal we hoped to photograph. Dad took one of his all time favorite bird photographs thanks to our diligent research.

When we go on a photo shoot, we know that it might take more than one day to shoot what we really want. Wild animals don’t necessarily cooperate and Mother Nature often throws us curve balls. So when possible we try to build in enough time at a location to work around those things.

We also realize we may need to return another time. We spent a week at Madera Canyon on two different trips. I returned to Asilomar State Beach five times before I shot Mysterious Sanctuary. Persistence, patience, and determination play a huge role in successful photography.

Broad-Billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell | Beebower Productions

Test that Gear

While research sets us up for victory, our gear can literally make or break our photo shoots. We test and retest our gear before heading out in the field. Obviously that won’t prevent a mirror from falling out of the camera, but it does do two things for us.

First, we can quickly see if everything’s functioning well. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, I recharged my camera batteries before heading out to sea. Normally I test all of the gear before leaving, but I was in a hurry that day. If I’d run a quick camera check, I would have noticed the batteries weren’t holding the charge well. I could have purchased new batteries instead of sweating bullets and doing photo triage. Lesson learned.

Second, we know how to operate our gear without thinking so we don’t miss a shot. That confidence comes from lots of practice when the pressure’s off. When we’re in the middle of a shoot, we don’t have time to think about how to set our camera’s white balance or how to cut the power in our flash. It needs to be automatic so we can focus on composition and capturing the moment.

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly | Beebower Productions

Take a Chance

Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, things don’t turn out as you expected. Case in point: Dad’s trip to Antelope Canyon in Arizona. He’d researched and decided to pay extra for the “photography tour” because photographers supposedly got more time to shoot in the canyon.

Unfortunately other tours ran through the same space at the same time, so it was a sea of humanity. Dad traveled light with one lens and a monopod. But even with that limited amount of gear he couldn’t maneuver well because the tour guides packed them in like sardines.

My Dad’s a perfectionist. So these conditions caused him to itch like a bad case of poison ivy. He knew he had limited time in the slot canyons. He also knew he wouldn’t be back in the area for a long time. So even though he really needed a tripod for a long exposure, a few hundred less people walking through his picture and something to keep the blowing sand off his camera, he took a chance. He hung back from the tour group, braced himself on a wall and waited for a two second break to snap this photo. He didn’t even have time to bracket before people started flowing through again.

If you know this is your one chance to capture an image but the conditions aren’t exactly right, take a chance. You might just be surprised at the results. Dad was.

Antelope Canyon | Beebower Productions

Sipping Lemonade

So the next time a photo shoot doesn’t work out as planned, take heart. We’ve all been there. Get creative, come up with a Plan B or C or D and take a chance. A positive, can-do attitude goes a long way in photography. These character-building situations create wisdom and confidence in dealing with future “failures”. Plus you might just get some tasty lemonade out of those lemons.

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