When Photo Shoots Fail

Pfeiffer Beach Drone | Beebower Productions

We arrived early and staked out our spot on the beach.  We waited patiently with other photographers for sunset at the magical Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in California. 

Then we heard it.  A distinct hum filled the air and the heads of 12 photographers swiveled to and fro searching for the source.  It was… it was a drone, the bane of still photographers.  Most of us assumed the drone operator would be polite enough not to fly through our shot.  Flying above us was fine, but not through our scene.  We were wrong.

By now the sun had begun its slow descent into the ocean, so our gaggle of photographers, including Dad and I, quit looking at the drone and focused on capturing the moment.

Not two seconds later, that hateful little drone sped in front of the arch and zipped down the beach.  I heard a few muttered curses as our fellow photographers realized what was happening to their beautiful sunset shot.

I, meanwhile, focused on a rock formation far down the beach.  I thought I was in the clear.  I, too, was wrong.  The drone raced toward my rock.  Sure enough, it flew right through my photograph.

For anyone that possesses Photoshop skills, removing the drone from the image isn’t a big deal. I readily admit drones have produced some amazing footage never seen before.  But they’ve also annoyed a lot of people.  In this case 12 angry photographers kept shooting while plotting the drones’ demise.

So what happens when photo shoots go awry?  Do you give up and go home?  Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons photo shoots fail.  Next week we’ll show you how to turn lemons into lemonade. 

Garrapata Trio | Beebower Productions

Mother Nature’s Grumpy Side

Everyone talks about the creative and nurturing Mother Nature.  Photographers give her credit for stunning sunsets, beautiful rainbows and amazing fall colors.  But this venerable lady has a petulant side.  It’s not pretty.   Mother Nature can ruin the best-laid photography plans.

Dad needed a spectacular backdrop for an elk-hunting photograph. A blizzard in California nearly spelled defeat.  Semis slid off icy roads, wet snow fell and one team member lost his wallet full of money as they scouted locations.  Things just kept getting worse.  Route 5 near the border of California and Oregon shut down one hour after Dad’s crew found a good spot for the photo.  Mother Nature forced the team to hole up at a hotel and wait for the calm after the storm.

Mother Nature’s bag of tricks includes other elements like fog.  When I planned a sunset shot at Garrapata Beach in Big Sur things looked great.  A few puffy clouds floated above the ocean, suggesting a spectacular sunset with the colors of the sinking sun brushing the sky in rich hues.  I could see a fog bank way out in the Pacific, but it seemed so far away that I didn’t think it would be a factor.  Wrong.   That fog bank hopped the express train to the shore and completely blacked out the sunset.  I took a few shots anyway, but they were duds.

Coastal California’s winter storms pack an even more debilitating punch than fog.  High wind gusts knock down trees and giant waves wash away parts of the coastline.  After these storms Point Lobos State Park often shuts down until the staff gets things cleaned up.  I frequently found myself patiently waiting for the gates to open.

Closed Point Lobos Beach | Beebower Productions

Even after getting in the park, one beach remained closed every single time I tried to visit.  A storm washed out the staircase down to the beach and then harbor seals used the beach for pupping part of the year. Over the entire two years I visited the park, it never opened.

Photographers have a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature.  But she’s not the only force that can sabotage your photos.

McWay Falls with People | Beebower Productions

People Creating Problems

If there’s a rule, people love to break it.  I, along with about 20 other photographers, waited on the cliff high above McWay Falls in California for the sunset.  My mouth hit the dirt when I saw a group of people scrambling down the cliff toward the waterfall. 

Every two feet there’s a sign stating the beach was closed for safety reasons.  Not only that, the giant gaggle of photographers stretched from one end of the overlook to the other.   Obviously they were trying to shoot the waterfall.

This group of people walked right up to the waterfall and began a private photo shoot on the beach. I know they are hard to see this small version of photo but if I blew it up for a large print they are definitely visible.  Like the drone shot, the people could be removed in Photoshop.   But it was rude.

Sometimes the problem isn’t respect rather a lot of people crammed into a single small space.  One summer Dad found himself squished into the mass of humanity touring Antelope Canyon in Arizona.  The elder Navajos consider the canyon a cathedral where one should stop and prepare to be in touch spiritually.  While Dad was in awe of the slot canyon’s grandeur, it was hard to be in sync spiritually or photographically due to the sheer number of tourists running back and forth. 

The enormous traffic jam stretched through the entire narrow, winding quarter mile canyon.  Dad realized it was going to be mighty tricky to capture a decent photo without folks stepping into his picture.  He also battled sand that blew down from the rim on to his camera gear and mixed lighting that made him wish for a tripod.  But the rules said no tripods.  He would have to work very hard to capture even one image.

Whether they’re photo bombing pictures or squeezing photographers out of a prime shooting spot, people often force photographers to be more creative and work harder to get the shot.

Hugh on Monteray Bay | Beebower Productions

Animals on the Run

Like people wild animals can be downright uncooperative.  Recently our whole family embarked on an adventure to photograph elk in Pennsylvania.  After a lot of research we developed a very solid plan.  We’d stay in a cabin near a known elk hang out.  The cabin came with a built-in photography blind plus we’d be able to use the van as a rolling blind.  We tallied the odds heavily in our favor.

Unfortunately we got stuck in traffic and then took a meandering detour, so we were running late for our check in time.  We blew past a herd of elk on the way up the mountain.  Turns out those would be the only elk we would see on this trip.  Yep.  Not a single elk for two days.

On another adventure I took Dad on a whale-watching cruise in Monterey Bay, California.  I planned it during peak whale season, so a photo should have been pretty easy to come by.

I’d sailed with the Sanctuary crew before and always returned home with some treasure: photographs of a whale, a dolphin, sea lions, harbor seals, something.  Dad wasn’t so lucky.  We stayed on the water two and half hours.  Zilch.  Zero.  Nada.  Dad’s never looked at whales the same since that ill-fated trip.

Wild animals often disappoint photographers.  They are, after all, wild.  Capturing images of them requires persistence and patience.  But it really hurts when your gear fails you.

Variegated Fritillary Butterfly | Beebower Productions

Gear, Gadgets and Disasters

Beautiful light hit the flowers perfectly.  The butterflies flocked to my garden with the warm summer air.  I was getting great stuff.

The tinkling, clinking noise totally caught me off guard.  It sounded as if it came from inside my camera.  With dread I removed the lens and realized the mirror had completely detached and fallen out.  Thankfully it wasn’t broken but it did need a trip to Canon’s repair center for some TLC.

A couple years after the dreaded mirror incident my rechargeable camera batteries began playing mind games with me.  Unfortunately I first noticed the problem while bobbing on a boat in Pacific Ocean.

I’d diligently recharged my batteries the night before my big boat trip.  In fact, I had five batteries charged and ready.  So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed the low battery icon flashing on my camera display.  I’d only taken five photos.  It was strange, but I swapped out the old batteries for new and focused on shooting.

A few minutes later, the low battery icon flashed again.  What in the heck?!  Every battery did the exact same thing.

I was forced to shoot a frame and turn off the camera. Then I’d turn it on briefly with a fully charged battery to shoot another frame before the display began blinking again.  Not ideal.  I missed shots.  I got angry.  Then I drove home and bought five new batteries.  Rechargeable batteries do have a shelf life.

The Bottom Line

Nobody likes to discuss it, but there are plenty of reasons photo shoots fail—even for professional photographers.  But you don’t have to give up in defeat.  Next week we’ll take those lemons and tell you how to turn them into lemonade.

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?

High Country Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing at High Country Lake | Beebower Productions

The $1,250.00 radio made a loud plopping noise as it splashed into the lake.  It slowly dropped three feet down in icy water before hitting the bottom of the chilly lake.  Everyone froze.  The main line of communication between Dad and his model just sank.

They needed that radio.  Someone needed to fish that thing out of the lake.  The model drew the short straw.  Surprisingly, despite the polar bear plunge, the radio worked perfectly.  That proved Dad’s motto:  it paid to get the best.

Dad’s idea for a serene fly-fishing shot started off with a splash.  But his due diligence the day before saved the shoot.   Dad’s location scouting led him to this high country lake that sat at about 11,000 feet elevation.  It was perfect:  scenic, stocked with trout and the sun hit it just right at sunrise.  He even worked out everyone’s position so the next morning would be a breeze.

To get in place for the sunrise shot, though, required hiking in at 0-dark-thirty.  Dad, his model and an assistant hiked in the bitter cold and pitch black to this lake at Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico. They battled attacking tree branches, uneven mountainous terrain and October temperatures hovering around 25 degrees. 

The trio lugged camera bags, tripods, a fog machine and, of course, fly fishing gear.  Once they reached the lake, the crew scrambled to their pre-assigned locations.  The assistant with the fog machine made it to the back of the lake.  The model waded out into the lake and promptly dropped the radio.  Dad set up his tripod and camera in the foreground.  Once the radio had been retrieved, they were ready.  But darkness and thick clouds enveloped them.  It was “a hurry up and wait” scenario.

While he waited, Dad contemplated the overcast skies.  One of two things could happen.  The clouds could completely sock in around the lake, ruining his chances for a stunning sunrise and requiring another early morning hike.  Or the clouds could part like a scene from a Biblical masterpiece letting warm rays of sun saturate the model and surrounding landscape in glowing colors.  He feared the first and hoped for the latter.

God must have been smiling on Dad that morning.  Just before the sun rose, the clouds parted, giving the rays of sun somewhere to go.  The shoot was on!   The model cast his line. The assistant ran the fog machine.  Dad worked the scene from about three different points, wanting to make sure he got the best shot.

The fishing line played an integral part in the shot.  Dad purposely chose a yellow line on the rod because it snapped out from the background.  But for maximum effectiveness, the model had to make sure the line reached far into the lake.  The model snapped the line over and over again for 40 minutes.  Dad shot and shot and shot as the line traveled various distances.  Finally he felt satisfied that he had captured the moment.

Back at the studio Dad used Photoshop to really make the yellow line jump out of the scene.  The impact of the line depended on the amount of light hitting it and the distance it traveled.  The winning photo needed a bit of touching up. 

Part of the line glowed yellow because plenty of light hit it.  The other part of the line needed tweaking in Photoshop because it was in the shadows.  But after hours of work, everything finally came together to create the serene fishing scene Dad imagined.

If you enjoyed our fish story, check out these fishing images from our Old West gallery as well as our Wildlife gallery.

Fly Fishing on Blue Lake | Beebower Productions

Madison River Fly Fishing | Beebower Productions

Ice Fishing | Beebower Productions

Fish in Net | Beebower Productions

Big Bass | Beebower Productions

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. 

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! 


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