This year’s Big Bend Photo Tour took place over the second weekend in April 2015. I have never seen the park so green nor have I ever witnessed the profusion of wildflowers that we had. We couldn’t have timed the tour better!
We started this year’s Big Bend Photo Tour with a light painting session at the Terlingua Ghost Town cemetery. Finding a good composition during the day in the cemetery was a bit of a challenge due to the cluttered nature of the setting. But, once it grew dark, it was much easier as the only subjects visible were the ones we chose to light. As a bonus there was a distant thunderstorm this evening and we had fun working the lightning into our shots.
The first full day of the tour started with a pre-dawn hike. A couple of the participants had been to this general spot before, but never had they hiked it in the dark to be in place for sunrise. Unfortunately, the sunrise did not cooperate and we had a grey dawn. This turned out to be a theme for this year’s trip– a tradeoff for the vibrant wildflowers, I suppose. Folks still got nice shots light painting the rock formations. We then turned to tighter compositions that minimized the sky.
Most of the group headed across the border for lunch in Boquillas. We enjoyed a very tasty meal at a very reasonable price. We met back up for an evening shoot in the Basin. Again, the sky did not cooperate with a large cloud obscuring the sun. However, the sky above was clear and once it got fully dark our attention turned to Milky Way images.
Sunrise on Day Two had a bit more color. We had a lot of fun creating classic Big Bend shots with agave foregrounds and the peaks of the Chisos in the background. Some of the best shots of the trip came from this shoot.
After lunch I had scheduled an optional hike to the Chimneys. It’s 2.5 miles one way and takes about an hour to do this hike in each direction. All but one opted to join me. As I drove to the trailhead in a rainstorm my thoughts were that I would have to cancel the hike. But, once at the trailhead I found very willing participants. The sky there had cleared so we headed out across the desert.
Mother Nature had other plans. As we neared the midpoint of the hike it became apparent that another storm was approaching. Being photographers, the group was strung all along the trail as folks stopped to photograph whatever caught their fancy. I advised the people furthest along on where to find shelter and went back to gather the stragglers.
As I gathered the last photographer the sky grew VERY ominous. Dark with a prominent roll cloud approaching. I figured we had about ten minutes before it broke loose. It so happened that we were about ten minutes away from the rock formations where I knew we could take shelter. The storm hit right as we got to the rock.
It was touch and go for a minute as I really thought the wind might take me off my feet! I would estimate that the wind was at least 70mph for a couple of minutes. Crazy!
Once under the rock shelter we stayed dry and sat out the storm. I think this experience ended up being the highlight of the trip for those that were there. One photographer even donned himself with a new nickname due to his storm-shelter: “Caveman.” 🙂 After the storm we had fun exploring around the formations and taking photos.
Flowers, storms and stars. Big Bend is always a treat!
Recently, I meandered my way to and from the NANPA Summit, which was held in San Diego in February.
My route took me through the backcountry of San Diego, the deserts of southern-California, and much of the Southwest.
The journey, combined with my growing excitement about next month’s Big Bend Photo Tour, highlighted how my favorite places -— tropical rainforests and deserts —- are pretty much opposites.
Understanding my love of the rainforest comes easy because of its abundant profusion of often-colorful life. But, why am I so drawn to the desert?
I realized one reason I love the desert is its clean, stark simplicity. Deserts provide room to breathe. Even the plants give each other some space.
Such simplicity is augmented by the clarity that low humidity adds to the air. A clarity that brings out the night sky in that jaw-dropping way. When compared with so many of our other spaces these days, desert nights allow for easier escape to the natural world that used-to-be. Or at least as close to it as possible; sadly, during my trip such escape was never complete as cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix leave wide swaths of light pollution in their wakes.
But the darkness and clarity that those skies do provide hints at something else I love about the desert: it allows you the ability to get away from the maddening crash and clamor of humanity.
Big Bend, especially, offers this. It’s the only place in the United States where I have ever experienced absolute silence. Not just silence from noise pollution but complete silence. With a Bortle rating of 2, it also has some of the darkest skies in the country.
Unfortunately, though, such silence is in short supply—even in the middle of the Mojave. This recent Southwest trip demonstrated how difficult truly getting away, completely, has grown; even in the backcountry, on roads accessed only with 4-wheel drive, I didn’t have long to wait for the sound of a jet overhead.
I found the pervasiveness of light and sound pollution really astounding. I guess I didn’t completely understand how much effort you have to make in these modern times to find a place without a glow on the horizon and the sound of man’s machines. I used to think 4-wheeling to a remote campsite in the middle of nowhere would do the trick. No so anymore.
Okay, back to the positives – those reasons why I love the desert:
Another thing I love about the desert is its color. It doesn’t pop out at you as flagrantly as it does in rainforests, but look closer at those “drab” earth tones and you’ll see how many shades await.
Depending on rainfall, the wildflowers can be quite a spectacle. Anza Borrego State Park demonstrated that well, even though, due to California’s drought, I didn’t catch it on a “good” year. And, regardless of rainfall, cacti generally put out breathtaking—and to the wildlife, life-sustaining—flowers.
Desert sunrises and sunsets deliver some of the most incredible color. Even on cloudless days, pastel pinks and blues decorate the sky opposite the sun just before it rises or just after it sets. And the play of light on the mountains early and late in the day, that too brings along its own palette.
Air, light, space, color. The bare bones of our Earth laid out for all to see.
The scrappiness of every plant and animal that lives here serves as testament to those reasons I love these spaces. The denizens of the desert are always ready to bite, scratch, sting, poke, impale, or poison you. Mechanisms for defense in an unforgiving world.
I get that and I respect that.
The desert’s inhabitants just want to be left alone to live as they were meant to live. Just like me. Probably like all of us.
Yes, I love the desert, but she does not care. She doesn’t care if any of us think she is beautiful or ugly. She does not care if we live or die. She was here before us and will be here after us. She simply is.
I’ve been working steady getting images ready for the book that Mary and I are doing for Texas A&M University Press. It’s tentatively titled “Explore Texas — A Nature Travel Guide” and will be out in spring 2016.
I thought I’d share some of the best nature destinations near El Paso that we’ve featured in the book.
Of course, the “show” relies on how much rain is received in January and February. This year, El Paso received the most rain in January since 2007 so the show should be pretty good. (February’s figure wasn’t posted yet by NOAA when I put this blog live.)
Each spring, Mexican gold poppies (Eschscholtzia Mexicana) put on a gorgeous show on the east side of El Paso’s Franklin Mountains.
A “Franklin Mountains Poppies Celebration” is held annually to pay homage to the flowers. Until this year the festival took place each March, but they’ve changed it to April in 2015 hoping to avoid some of the windy weather March always brings to the region.
But that doesn’t mean you should skip a March visit. If you do you’ll likely miss the annual lupines that grow here, mixed in with the poppies. They’re a rare treat, to be sure, as they don’t grow in big masses like Texas bluebonnets (nor like the poppies). But they’re still beautiful, made even more so I think by how hard they have to scrap to survive.
These medium-sized birds are considered “dabbler ducks” because of how they feed; short bills allow them to efficiently pluck vegetation from the water, which makes them appear to be “dabbling.” But, in the winter, if you see a male and female pumping their heads chances are they aren’t dabbling; instead, they’re likely getting ready to mate!
American Widgeon (Anas americana) frequent many of Texas’ wetlands in winter.
El Paso’s Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is a great spot for bird watching. There, you have a good chance of seeing Gambel’s Quail as the riparian desert thickets found here make perfect habitat for the birds. Look for large coveys in winter. Come springtime (about now), breeding pairs begin forming.
Rio Bosque Wetlands Park in El Paso is one of the best places in Texas to spot Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii).
Another very cool El Paso venue worth checking out are the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, located on the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) campus. This spot is home to the world’s largest collection of Chihuahuan Desert flora. Twenty-one gardens teach about this unique arid region.
This venue acts as one of only 82 Federally-approved U.S. Plant Rescue Centers, which take-in illegally imported flora at our borders. Some of the Cactus Garden’s 80 species include such “orphans.”
Pretty soon (if not already) the ocotillo should be blooming in the gardens, as well as the surrounding desert. Not long after blooming begins, the hummingbirds will arrive.
Each spring, Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) adds beauty to the desert.
While quite a ways from El Paso, Davis Mountains State Park is still in the Big Bend Region of Texas. It’s the best place in Texas to get photos of Montezuma Quail (Crytonyx montezumae).
The bird blind near the campground gets you close enough to appreciate & photograph the birds’ black & white facial markings The bird blinds also get visited regularly by Javelina so you can get some good photos of these Texas critters there as well.
“Pantanal!”—a word that conjures up images of jaguars, capybara, caiman, Jabiru Storks, and Hyacinth Macaws…truly “Oh my!” “Pantanal” equals neotropical wildlife photography at it’s finest. Here, seeing the normally elusive Jaguar is as close as you can get to a sure bet.
In 2014, I had the privilege to lead a photo tour to this mythic land. [NOTE: And again since then. In 2016, we photographed ocelots, too!] The experience delivered everything I had hoped for. It would’ve been cool enough to see a jaguar, but I wasn’t prepared for daily sightings, often lasting quite a while. What a treat!
During our five days in the midst of Jaguar Country, we photographed at least five different cats. Some we saw more than once. (A special shout out to the beautiful Bianca!) The cats are observed and photographed so frequently that they can be readily identified -—thanks to facial markings that help tell them apart.
But, as cool as they are, jaguars are only a part of the Pantanal story. Giant Hyacinth Macaws can be photographed from six feet away. Abundant caiman and capybara also star in this wild “show.” In fact, their abundance is responsible for the high density of Jaguars as the two creatures provide most of the cat’s meals.
If you’re lucky you’ll get to watch—and photograph—male caiman doing their water dance. When males set to bellowing to attract females and discourage competition, the vibrations they create cause the water on their backs to “dance,” much like water drops on a hot skillet. We witnessed this only during our early morning photo shoots (another good reason to head out before sunrise!).
Caiman “water dance”
Giant River Otters aren’t necessarily abundant but neither are they elusive. We enjoyed several close encounters with these 6-foot long carnivores, photographing them as they played and hunted. As they swam and dunked and crunched (they sometimes came so close we could hear them chomping on a fish) they paid us no mind.
Birds abound here. Hyacinth Macaws and Jabiru Storks serve as large (in fact the largest of their respective groups), charismatic symbols of the Pantanal. No wonder! Hyacinth Macaws, with their striking cobalt blue plumage and yellow clown faces, truly are stunning. And, well, Jabiru Storks aren’t exactly beautiful, but they, too, are striking. Both are easily photographed when you find them.
Kingfishers also made popular subjects for our lenses. Four species of Kingfishers and multitudes of fish meant we never had to wait long before seeing another one of the big-headed birds. Hawks also filled the frame on a regular basis. Beautiful Black Hawks and Black-collared Hawks frequent the waterways, providing plenty of photo ops. And, while not as common or good looking, Yellow-faced Caracaras also put in an occasional appearance.
Smaller birds included communities of nesting Yellow-rumped Caciques, swarms of Yellow-billed Cardinals, kiskadees, parakeets, parrots, and flycatchers.
While folks don’t usually think of primates when Pantanal comes to mind, they’re here and they, too, are fun to photograph. We got great images of black howler monkeys and brown capuchins. I really wanted a shot of a black-tailed marmoset; however, it wasn’t to be. I glimpsed them a couple of times but no photos. Maybe next time!
We had better luck with the brown capuchins. During a group hike, we stopped at a canopy tower to take a break. One member of our group climbed up the tower to look around. While she was on top, a troupe of capuchins came through, rowdy and active! We all got great photos as they peered at us from eye level. A couple even scampered partially up the tower.
When our tower-climbing companion returned to join us, she told us, “There’s a nice view and a refreshing breeze up there, but I didn’t see any wildlife.” Image her puzzlement as we doubled over with laughter! Luckily the monkeys came back through and she, too, had a chance to create some great images. One of them even put on an act, doing handstands and jumping about on the platform.
I used a Canon 40D to get this shot of a Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway). These days you can get a used 40D for about $200 — a great deal for a great camera!
There’s no way around it; bird photography gear is EXPENSIVE! While you can get okay results of perched birds with digiscoping, if you want flight shots, or high enough quality images for large prints, sooner or later you will need to invest in some gear.
So what’s an aspiring bird photographer on a budget to do? I mean, come on, a new 600mm lens is $9,800 to $12,000, while a top-of-the-line camera costs over $6,000! By the time you add a tripod (imperative with a big, heavy lens), and gimbal head (to get those flight shots) you’re talking more money than I’ve paid for all but one of the cars I’ve owned. (My money goes into travel, equipment, & maintaining my small central-Texas nature preserve and photo ranch.)
The answer? Look to used equipment. Used camera gear offers affordable options. Lots of them!
Camera bodies, especially, depreciate like a rock as new models come out every 18-months or so. We were taking excellent digital photos five or six years ago, and cameras from that time still take excellent photos.
A crop-sensor camera like the Canon 40D can be picked up used for around $200. Coupled with a used 400mm lens (for around $1000) you end up with a rig capable of producing fantastic images at 1/10th the price of a new 600mm Canon lens alone. If you’re a Nikon fan, Nikon has the 80-400mm zoom that can usually be had for under $1500 used. The super zooms from Sigma are also worth considering.
Where to get these deals?
Start with friends or camera club members moving to newer equipment. If you have a good local camera store they often have used equipment for sale, too. If they don’t currently have what you want ask them to keep an eye out and give you a call when they get something in.
Next, the big dealers like Adorama and B & H Photo both have a used department. That’s where I recently got myself a used Canon 40D after regretting selling my old one (I sold my original camera through a forum, by the way). Other good choices are KEH.com and LensRentals.com.
Online forums — like where I sold that 40D — usually have a section for used equipment. This is a bit more risky if you don’t know the person you are dealing with. And then there’s the old traditional eBay. Again, this holds an element of risk as you don’t really know what you are getting.
One good thing about buying used from the prior owner is that, on occasion, they throw in some freebies, the sort of stuff that goes with the gear, which they no longer need or want. For example, I bought some used equipment directly from the owner and he actually sent me a water-tight Pelican travel case for free! He simply didn’t need it and figured I might. He didn’t tell me beforehand so you can imagine what a nice surprise it was to find that in the box!
Endangered Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) have returned to the Texas Gulf and will remain until early-spring.
The “Whoopers” have returned to the Texas coast and will be with us until early-spring, prompting me to write a little about these big birds that I love so much.
Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) once bred over much of the United States, but, by the early 20th century, none could be found breeding here.
In the 1940s, the birds sat perched at the edge of extinction; some say numbers had fallen to 16, while others quote 21, but no one debates the fact that we almost lost them all. It was not discovered until 1955 that this remnant flock was breeding in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. (This amazing park, by the way, is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.)
They were officially listed as “endangered” on March 11, 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. And still are even though we have a lot more Whooping Cranes now than we did back then.
But we still don’t have enough. Today, their numbers vary annually but average merely 600 birds in the wild (even with a lifespan of up to 24 years). Of that, approximately half migrate to the Texas Gulf in the fall each year. I look forward to their return and photographing them every year!
The “Whooper” is North America’s tallest bird, averaging 5-feet in height!
In 1937, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect their Texas wintering grounds. The flock here travels an amazing 2,500 miles each year down from Canada, and is composed of descendants of the last wild flock.
Adult “Whoopers,” as the birds are affectionately called, weigh about 15 pounds. As the tallest birds in North America, they stand up to 5-feet tall and have a 7 ½ foot wingspan.
Distinguish them from other cranes by their long black legs, all-white bodies, red “caps” on the tops of their heads, and black facial markings and wingtips. They also sound-off with loud, goose-like honks.
Whooping cranes often mate for life. The birds are ground-nesters and both parents contribute to the raising of the young. Of the two eggs per clutch, usually only one survives. Cinnamon-colored chicks are born in the summer and grow quickly—about an inch a day!—as they must be ready for the long flight southward by early fall.
The juveniles that come to the Gulf are about 4-6 months old and, while they can fend for themselves, you’ll often see them “begging” their parents for food.
I love watching the juveniles! If you spot a not-yet-solid white bird tagging along behind a couple of Whoopers, begging incessantly, and noisily, then you’ve spotted a juvenile. Get your lens ready because it’s probably about to grab a Blue Crab from its parents!
There’s a reason Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) blooms seem exotic – they are! These non-natives don’t belong here. They belong in South America.
October 19-25 is Texas Native Plant week 2014. This got me thinking about Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) in particular. Why those two species?
Just last week I returned from leading a photo tour in the Brazilian Pantanal–—a wonderful wildlife experience that I will write about some more another time—–and both species were plentiful there.
They’re also native to the Pantanal. That means they belong there—not here. There, they have mechanisms to keep them in check. There, interdependencies with other plants and animals of the region mean they play vital roles in a healthy ecosystem. In fact, the Pantanal is one of the healthiest ecosystems I’ve ever seen.
Water Hyacinth plays an important part of making things work right there. It filters the water at the heart of the wetlands. The Capybara, a keystone species there, feed on it. An umbrella species of the region, Jaguar, in turn, eat the Capybara. See the connection?
Water hyacinth has a beautiful bloom that you’ll spot in many of Texas’ and other southern states’ waterways. Monk Parakeets are not necessarily a problem, but are increasing in Austin and surrounding areas. So what’s the big deal?
They don’t belong here, that’s what.
Water Hyacinth is actually a detriment to non-native ecosystems. It crowds out native water plants then does little to sustain our native wildlife. (See this article by my wife, Mary O. Parker on the topic if you’re interested in learning more.)
Other Brazilian imports include Brazilian Fire Ants and Brazilian Pepper trees.
If you live in the southeastern U.S. you’ve seen (and likely felt) firsthand the effects of Brazilian Fire Ants (“Red Imported Fire Ants”). Biologists believe they could be a major cause for the reduction of Bobwhites, Eastern Turkeys, Horned Lizards, and other native species.
Brazilian Pepper trees are a problem in places like California where they can crowd out native plants that resident insects and birds need for survival.
Non-native plants and animals have the potential to run rampant because there is nothing to keep them in check. Which is exactly what has happened with Water Hyacinth here in Texas where there are no Capybaras (and other such critters) to eat them. Those gorgeous blooms are not only exotic, but they’re invasive, too.
Because native plants belong here they support the life that belongs here. Plants imported from South America, Africa, and Asia do not. Thus, it’s important to use native plants as much as possible in your landscaping.
Organisms like birds, butterflies, and even mammals, utilize native species for food and shelter. They rely on them and, in many cases have evolved symbiotically with them. This is key! Without the native plant with which they have that special relationship, many species are in big trouble.
A thicket of Chinese Tallow or Japanese Ligustrum is not much different than a parking lot to our birds, insects, and other wildlife. (Check out this PDF from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for more on this topic.) When choosing trees, pick something that will benefit wildlife instead.
That lush, green St. Augustine lawn? I don’t mean to offend those of you who love your St. Augustine, but it’s a biological desert. It supports no real life, while requiring enormous amounts of water and chemical poisons known as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, which, due to run-off, damage innocent bystanders that live no where near your lawn (yes, even most fertilizers).
There are alternatives. For example, check out this cool option. Mary likes a lawn (I’m not keen on one) so what she did is planted Buffalo Grass and then just lets whatever native grasses come up on their own be part of what we call the “non-lawn.” Buffalo Grass takes little water, needs little mowing, no fertilization, and can take the sun much better than St. Augustine. As far as pesticides? That’s what birds and reptiles are for!
For trees, shrubs and flowers there are plenty of native species you can utilize that are not only beautiful but will reward you with an increase in life as your local birds and butterflies find the table you have set for them.
Now that the weather is cooling down are you about ready to start photographing fall landscapes? I am!
In fact, I’m heading to Vermejo Park Ranch next week for my Elk & Aspen Photo Tour and, in addition to photographing bugling elk, we’ll be focusing on the golden Aspen leaves.
I like to do most of my composing in the camera—outdoors and in nature—rather than inside and at my desk, that digital “darkroom.” After all, isn’t that what nature photography is all about?
Time spent in nature is never wasted so take your time when creating fall landscapes. Hopefully, the following will help you do as much of that in the field as possible:
Shoot for Yellow
Fall makes for great photography for many reasons, but one is because of how yellow helps keep things from getting too mellow. Our eyes are attracted to yellows because they reflect high amounts of light. For the same reason, yellows “wake up” sleepy images.
On the other hand, evergreen trees will have a “mellowing” effect when they’re included in the image. That’s okay; many of the best autumn landscapes include a nice balance “yellow” and “mellow.”
Analogous Colors Please
First of all, a little “color theory” review: Analogous colors are any three colors next to one another on the color wheel.
During autumn, nature doesn’t make you look far to find such colors. And, when nature’s colors don’t line up exactly next to one another in an analogous way, change your perspective—use your feet—until three colors are analogous when you look through your lens.
With analogous colors, one usually dominates and that’s okay—just don’t rely solely on color for your focal point.
In addition to lending harmony to your image, analogous colors tend to make it easier to add depth to landscapes.
Let the Light Shine Through
When done well, backlighting adds a nice touch, but it especially brings something special to autumn images.
Picture sunlight streaming in from behind a branch of crimson and golden autumn leaves, the leaves’ irregular edges highlighted by sparkles (some brighter than others, especially where you’ve given them a little squirt with a water bottle) and you can see what a great tool backlighting can be when shooting these colorful scenes.
When’s the best time to create autumn images using backlighting? Early morning or late afternoon when the sun sits low in the sky.
As you search for the perfect fall landscape, put the camera down and pay attention to how your eyes travel.
You’ve heard how diagonal lines take a viewer’s eyes for a more energetic ride so ask yourself: in this particular spot, did my eyes go for such a ride?
If not, squat down, move to your left, your right, stand on a rock, a stump, then set your eyes to wandering again. If they wander a lot you’ve probably got some diagonals in there that’ll make for an interesting shot when you’re all done shooting the scene. (Be careful that they don’t wander so much that they can’t rest, though.) This time of year, color is often at least one of the diagonals in your scene that has set your eyes to their most energetic wandering.
Make Good Photos out of Bad Weather
Most of the time it’s that sweet golden light of early morning and late-afternoon I’m after, but with fall landscapes overcast days can actually result in some of your best images because they bring with them soft, even light.
In fact, when they also bring along rain or drizzle you can actually end up with your best autumn forest scenes.
Such weather and lighting evens out tonalities, making it easier to hone in on details. It also tends to highlight colors found in the leaves, woods, and interesting small stuff of nature that otherwise gets lost in brilliant light.
Fourth of July was coming up and I was solo. Mary was off to North Carolina at a writer’s retreat and had left me to my own devices so I figured it would be a good time to do some Big Bend landscape photography.
I remembered hiking out to some petroglyphs in Big Bend National Park in the mid-to-late 90’s. That had given me an idea for an image I wanted to create. Petroglyphs and stars. To me this symbolized the past and the future.
So I hopped in Yoda, my (somewhat) trusty ’87 4-Runner, and headed west. I didn’t remember exactly where the petroglyphs were, but I knew the general location, recalling that they were on a vertical rock face.
Since I was going to have to do some searching I started the hike out with enough time to do some prowling before it got dark. As I poked around the area I found the little rock window in the photograph to the left. Turns out the rock with the petroglyphs is the one framed in the window. I was close, but hadn’t rediscovered the petroglyphs yet.
About 3 seconds after having the thought, “This isn’t too bright; I’m slipping and tripping on loose rocks 2 1/2 miles from the road and NOBODY knows where I am” I hear a distinctive dry whirring.
“Okay,” I think, “I hear you. Where are you?” I turn to face the direction of the sound and spy a small rattlesnake desperately trying to disappear into the rock overhang she’s taking shelter in. She was just being polite and letting me know where she was so I didn’t clumsily step on her. I smiled and wished the beautiful little snake goodnight.
Once I found the petroglyphs I had a good while to wait for full darkness. It turned out to be a longer while than anticipated. Even though it was only a quarter moon and it stayed hidden behind the rock, too much light still made it tough to create a good starry-night image. That meant I was going to have to wait until the moon set about 2am. It’s surprising how comfortable the ground is once you sweep away the sharp, loose rocks. With my water bottle for a pillow, I settled in for some star gazing and napping.
After I got the image I wanted and hiked back to Yoda it was about 3am. At this point I figured I might as well just stay up to enjoy sunrise. So I headed off to Grapevine Hills and the Balanced Rock. Along the 1-mile hike out to the rock I started to see numerous eyes. I figured it was just coyotes, but it still felt a bit creepy as there were quite a few of them. I finally got a light on the owner of a pair of eyes and discovered it was a Ringtail! I had never seen a one in the wild, but at least a half dozen had seen me in the wild, and were watching my hike. 🙂
At this point I’d been awake for over 24 hours, so it was time to head to the lodge for breakfast and sleepytime. All in all, I think this made for a fantastic way to celebrate the 238th birthday of the United States! I’m so glad the ones that came before us had the foresight to set aside places like Big Bend National Park.
Painted Bunting in the spotlight. ~ @JeffParkerImages.com
We had a sold-out tour for this year’s South Texas Birds Photo Tour. The place was hoppin’! As usual, Santa Clara Ranch served up a variety of birds and other species for us to photograph. And we had great luck with the weather, too. Mornings were cool, with temperatures in the low 60’s, and it never got too hot, with highs in the 80’s.
Several of the participants had specific target species they wanted to photograph. Mary Lou Reid was after Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. She succeeded with both, including this very nice Scissor-tail shot.
Bronzed Cowbird helicopter display.
While cowbirds in general are not much loved, the Bronzed Cowbird performs a wonderful courtship display. The male will puff out the feathers around his neck and flutter his wings. When he gets really wound up he will hover a foot or two off the ground. I call this the “helicopter display.” I think everybody at least had a chance to see its unique display if not photograph it.
As I mentioned earlier, we more than birds visited us at the photo blinds. The Mexican ground squirrels provided lots of entertainment — as these quirky critters usually do! Desert cottontails, javelinas and armadillos also “modeled” for us. John Eppler got this neat shot of a Western coachwhip as it came in for a drink.
With three days of photography everyone had multiple opportunities for a variety of shots of many species of birds and other wildlife. During the mid-day breaks and evening meals we had the chance to learn from each other and make new friends. There is no finer way to experience the wildlife of south Texas than to visit one of the dedicated photo ranches.
Now that the weather is warming up, as a wildlife photographer you’ll possibly encounter snakes. So why not enjoy photographing snakes in the wild?
Odds are high that most snakes you encounter are not venomous. In fact, the vast majority of snakes in the world are NOT. In Texas, according to Alan Tennant, author of Lone Star Field Guide to Snakes, we have more than 105 different kinds of snakes (that includes subspecies), but — including subspecies again — only about 15 are actually venomous.
It really bothers me to see people killing every snake they encounter — whether it’s venomous or not and usually before they stop to determine that. Not only do snakes play a big role in helping us humans keep disease-carrying rodent populations in check, but they are another important chink in the chain of life. To kill all snakes simply because they frighten you is plain wrong.
That said, before you set out photographing snakes in the wild, take note of these two safety tips:
1) Know your snakes well! I CANNOT stress this enough!
Learn more than just which ones have venom. Even non-venomous snakes bite, while others are endangered or threatened species. Also, familiarizing yourself with “personality” traits helps anticipate behavior worth photographing and helps you strategize how you’ll go about getting that image. 2) Wear proper attire. Don boots and snake-guards when “bushwacking” for scaly subjects (especially in South Texas, southern New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California where rattlesnakes can be abundant). Wear gloves when handling snakes (like all animal bites, even those that don’t transmit venom can create infection).
And — please! — always treat the snakes you photograph with respect:
1) Let the snake go where you found it. If you collect a snake you found in the wild with the idea of photographing it, release it exactly where you captured it unless doing so endangers it. Like most wild animals, snakes have territories of their own. 2) Don’t keep the snake too long. A captured snake doesn’t know you don’t intend it harm. It undergoes physiological stress, which uses some of its vital resources. Retaining a wild snake too long compromises its ability to survive upon release. 3) Don’t cause the snake any additional stress.
As noted, the snake’s already experiencing stress so handle it as little as possible. Minimize loud noises and jerky movements.
Here are a few of my snake images and some tips to accompany them:
The Jumping Viper:
(See lead photo.) Adult Jumping Vipers average a half-meter long (about 2-feet), but this young snake, which I photographed during a tour I led in Honduras, measured only about half that.
Snakes can strike at a distance of about one-half their body length. With this snake measuring 12” (approx. 30-centimeters), that meant I could work really close to it. But, considering its bite imparts a hemotoxic venom that breaks down red blood cells to make prey easier to digest, calm snake or no, I wasn’t keen on working in macro. Instead, I shot from 6-feet (almost 2-meters) away with my Canon 100-400mm lens. I achieved this image with the lens at 370mm.
As with all photography, background is important. To make it interesting, I used the lines and shadows of the palm frond to lead the eye to the snake.
The Indigo Snake:
Indigo Snakes are the longest native snakes in North America (the longest on record measured 2.74 meters [9 ½ feet]). But, while the size impresses, a photo of a long, black snake stretched out impresses no one so that left me looking for a way to add pizzazz. Think out of the box in such situations. For example: Does an Indigo climb cactus? No, but does the viewer ask him/herself that question? No. Now, if you photographed the snake out of its habitat -— say on a rosebush -— you’d have a problem.
Texas classifies its Indigos as a state threatened species so Mary and I worked with this one only a short while before releasing it exactly where we’d found it. The lighting appears less than perfect because I’d found -— and therefore photographed -— the snake at mid-day. Sure, I could’ve held onto it until dusk’s sweet light, but that would’ve meant more time in captivity for the threatened species.
The Western Coachwhip:
Western Coachwhips are the Speedy Gonzales’ of the snake world so when this one unexpectedly poked up its head while I photographed something else, I decided he was my new subject. Because they’re so quick, I knew his re-emergence would provide my only chance for a good photo. After six hours of waiting, he materialized again and I got the shot.
Because I know this species well, I didn’t lie on my stomach for an eye-level shot like I often do. These feisty snakes — while not venomous — have been known to suddenly turn around and pursue photographers so I didn’t fancy being on the ground when this one surfaced!
My 600mm lens enabled me to wait far enough from the hole so as not to startle the Coachwhip. In situations like this -— where there’s not much color -— capturing the catch-light in an animal’s eye can save an image. (NOTE: With snakes that’s not always possible. They have eye caps designed to assist with camouflage, which often don’t reflect catch-light.)
The Rat Snake:
This non-venomous juvenile Rat Snake possessed such an aggressive temperament that I couldn’t have photographed him without Mary’s help as my handler. Thankfully, its size didn’t match its attitude; it couldn’t yet open its jaws wide enough to bite.
I used a macro lens so I could capture the myriad details of its eye. In this shot I couldn’t have both its nose and eye in focus since they’re on two different planes. In such a situation the choice is always easy: choose the eye!
When working in macro, remember that background! It’s just as important as always. When searching for a suitable background for a subject like this you want something that feels “believable,” is solid enough not to distract, and a color that compliments the animal (brown is made partly from yellow so that worked nicely here).
The Western Diamondback:
I spotted this Western Diamondback crossing a South Texas sendero. When it saw me it turned to leave because, contrary to lore, these venomous pit vipers would much rather leave the scene than make one.
He or she is coiled here because, upon my frantic return from the truck with my camera, I startled the snake into this defensive position.
(By the way — how do you tell the gender of a rattlesnake? It’s not easy since no color or pattern differences provide clues. A visual examination of the tail can provide some idea; females tend to have longer, thinner tails than males. Male tails don’t taper as sharply toward the rattles.)
Please note—IMPORTANT!—while photographing I kept at least 20-feet away and used my Canon 600mm lens. With such a big lens, the snake entirely fills the frame, giving me no need to draw nearer.
Notice how difficult it is to see its eyes? Like all snakes, the Western Diamondback doesn’t have eyelids. Instead, it has eye caps with colors and patterns similar to its skin, which assist with camouflage. (Check out this fascinating book about animals’ eyes.)
I bring this up because when photographing snakes in the wild focusing on the eye is imperative; however, when they have camouflaged eye caps doing so can really challenge you.
Macro photography opens up a whole new world of subjects. A participant in one of my workshops last year compared it to Alice in Wonderland, which is a pretty good analogy.
A lot goes on in the world of tiny that we mostly don’t notice, and that makes it easy to have fun with macro photography. For a nature photographer, I think macro photography is especially valuable as you can find subjects anywhere. You don’t have to go to an exotic destination or even an iconic National Park.
Find a patch of weeds or even a single dandelion growing out of a crack in the cement to create a great macro image. Now get close and look — I mean really look.
Slow down and pay attention. All kinds of details and probably some insects that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise will manifest once you start really looking.
This Rounded Metalmark is a good example of what happens when you pay attention. While moving a photo blind I noticed some movement near my feet.
I looked closely and saw this less than 3/4″ butterfly nectaring on some equally tiny flowers. I quickly grabbed my macro lens, got on my belly, lined the butterfly up with my truck tire (the dark background) and captured a delightful image. The butterfly and flower were both very small and would have been easily overlooked.
Going smaller still, this Western Pygmy-blue is the smallest butterfly in North America (some say in the world) with a wingspan of about 1/4-inch. I found this little guy by looking very closely to see what I could find. It was a chilly morning and the butterfly was too cold to fly. I used this to my advantage as I coaxed him to crawl on my finger and onto this flower. It made a much nicer image than the stick I found him on.
The Monarch is a large flashy butterfly, but with macro we can get in there and show its beautiful details. This is not always easy to do with wild butterflies as they will often fly before you can get in this close.
A 180mm macro lens will give you a better chance as you don’t have to be as physically close to capture these intimate details.
A true macro lens will often allow you to focus so closely that your subject becomes somewhat of an abstract. This provides a great opportunity to get your creative juices flowing. With such a small subject you can manipulate the light and play with different angles, perspectives and backgrounds; with just a slight change in your perspective you create a completely different look.
Macro photographer Mike Moats likes to say “There’s more to macro than flowers and bugs.” I agree, but — as you can see — I have been seduced by “flowers and bugs.” Whatever seduces you, I urge you to look, really look, and discover your own Macro Wonderland.
It was 26 degrees here at Red Belly this morning. Cold for us, but for many of you I suspect that would be considered warm!
After months of really nippy temps here, I see signs of spring “springing” and the beginning of great wildflower photography opportunities. We’ve had a real central-Texas winter — the first one in years, complete with Blue Northers — and that should bode well for the wildflowers. The Bluebonnets are growing (though blooming elsewhere already; I don’t think our soil is sandy enough here for early-bloomers) and so, too, are other forbs.
My wife, Mary, and I did a lot of seeding this fall so our fingers are crossed for a blooming show of Texas natives. We’ve had some rain, but I am not sure we’ve had enough to make 2014 a stellar year.
Considering that we’re entering wildflower season, I thought I’d post my “7 Tips for Great Wildflower Photography” in time for you to take advantage of the season. Of course, this list of tips isn’t all-inclusive, but it does provide a great start for those of you just getting going in wildflower photography.
You can also download these tips as a PDF. Visit the LEARN section of my website and you’ll see the PDF there.
1) MORNING SHOTS ARE BEST.
You’ll find flowers not only their freshest in the A.M., but you’ll also often find them covered in photo-enhancing dew. Take advantage of that gorgeous moisture, which sparkles just right in morning’s first light.
2) MAKE FRIENDS WITH FOG & MIST.
Spring mornings can prove unpredictable and the weather might coerce you to stay snuggled under the covers. But when that sweet golden sunshine is absent, instead of staying in bed grab your macro lens and capture the drama created by the added condensation.
3) WIND CAN BE YOUR FRIEND, TOO.
True, in blowing wind photographing small objects like flowers can prove frustrating, especially that in-and-out focus phenomenon. But, wind can actually work in your favor if you slow your shutter speed. Try it and watch as the flowers before you take on new personas. Yes, surprisingly, blur done well can be beautiful!
4) CREATE YOUR OWN SHADE WHEN HARSH LIGHT ABOUNDS.
The nice part about photographing flowers is they’re small enough to shade easily. That provides the flexibility which allows you to work even in harsh light. While early morning and dusk are still the best times for photography, flowers lend themselves to mid-day photo shoots better than many of nature’s other models.
5) GET ON YOUR SUBJECT’S LEVEL.
Wear your bum-around clothes when photographing flowers so you can get down and dirty to capture the intricate beauty of these beauties. Let yourself be a kid again (so what about those grass stains!) and hunker down to photograph your petaled subjects at their most interesting angles and viewpoints.
6) DON’T PUT YOUR MAIN FLOWER DEAD-CENTER IN THE FRAME.
Remember the rule of thirds? An off-center subject pleases the eye much more than one that’s centered. And don’t forget to apply the rule of thirds to patterns, colors, and empty space as well.
7) TIPTOE THROUGH THE TULIPS.
As you get lost in photographing the flora be sure to treat nature’s landscaping gently. To us wildflowers are objects of beauty, but to bees, butterflies, and other animals, flowers provide a means of survival. And the forbs themselves provide a means to perpetuate the species.
We were blessed with good weather for the 2014 Whooping Crane tour. With an ice storm Friday morning and another the next Tuesday we really lucked out even if it was a bit chilly on Saturday morning. This year’s group was interesting in that 3 of the 5 participants were retired Air Force pilots. Friends Rob Wilbourn and Howard Hackney signed up together and it was just a coincidence that we had a third ex-jet jockey, Tom Spellman, join the group.
Although we had great success with the cranes, including a front row seat watching them pound open crab shells with jackhammer blows from that stout bill, my favorite shots of my own and the others were of other birds. Saturday afternoon we ventured to Cove Harbor Marina and we all captured some great images of the birds there. I like the white-on-white of this Great Egret flight shot.
Initially we had gone to the marina on a report of a Great Blue Heron that had built a nest in easy photographic reach. The nest had blown down the day before, but we went anyway in the hope that they would be rebuilding. Sure enough there was a GBH in the reported spot and Rob Wilbourn captured this image after it came down from the former nest site.
It didn’t take long to exhaust the photographic possibilities of the heron so we moved to the cleaning station where some sportsmen were cleaning their catch. Howard Hackney got this gorgeous shot of a Brown Pelican as it came in for a landing and a free handout.
Howard’s shot makes mine look positively pedestrian. I probably should have gone back to the car and grabbed my 100-400mm lens. The “Big Gun” aka 600mm is not always the best tool for the job. I got lots of shots with cut off wings, heads, etc. However, it was great fun trying to capture the action as the birds came flying in.
The next morning was about 10 degrees warmer which made everyone’s day. We got away from the dock before sunrise to be on site for that sweet first light. I was able to grab a shot of this pelican silhouetted against the sunrise sky as we were enroute to our morning rendezvous with the cranes.
As usual Captain Kevin Sims put us on the birds. The result? A great morning watching wild Whooping Cranes feed and go about their daily lives. At one point one of the cranes looked like it was just going to keep working closer until it was on the boat with us!
The Gura Gear Bataflae is getting really good reviews. Many of my clients have this bag.
In the past few weeks I have had several people ask about air travel with photography equipment. I don’t know what has prompted the sudden interest, maybe folks are making plans for summer trips, but traveling with photo gear has been a hot topic.
I recommend a bag that is as large as possible, yet still carry-on legal. I use a ThinkTank Airport Security and the Gura Gear Bataflae 32L is getting rave reviews. NOTE: Scroll to the bottom of this post for some price comparisons on these bags between B&H, Adorama and Gura Gear.
The Think Tank Airport Security Bag works great for me.
These bags will hold a 500mm or even 600mm lens, a couple of bodies, an intermediate telephoto and even a few shorter lenses. The trick is to remove all the internal padding that comes with the bag. Otherwise you will never get all that stuff in there! I use clothing to pad my gear or you can use LensCoat covers. The outside of these bags is padded pretty well and so far this strategy has worked.
This carry on bag is primarily for the lenses and bodies that you don’t want to put in checked bags. Tripods, heads, flash stands and other sturdy equipment will go in your checked luggage.
With the checked bag fees these days everybody is trying to do as much carry-on as they can. I try to get on the plane as soon as they let me so as not to get in a situation where all the overhead storage is full (I do not even want to think about checking that expensive glass!). Unfortunately, some airlines (such as United) now board those with aisle seats last. At 6’3″ you can bet I always get an aisle seat, so when we did our Costa Rica Photo Tour in summer 2013 this caused me some stress.
Something else to think about is not having your bag scream “expensive camera gear inside.” I try to make my bag look as innocuous as possible. Cover or remove any Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. logos from the outside of the bag (see Tip #1 below). It doesn’t hurt if the bag looks a little scruffy or dirty either. You never know who might be watching for an opportunity to take off with your stuff.
Here are some tips that I sent out with one of my newsletters last spring:
(You can also find this in my “LEARN” section as a PDF.)
7 Tips for Air Travel with Photography Equipment
1) Disguise your gear.
You don’t want your bag to scream “Expensive photography equipment inside!” so make sure it looks like any other bag—or, make it look worse (perhaps you can even have a bit of fun making it look “extra” undesirable). Cover up or remove any easily recognizable logos like “Canon” or “Nikon.” A bit of black electrical tape works well.
Gura Gear’s Bataflae 32L, open
Think Tank Airport Security Bag open to show padding…though, honestly, I take my padding out and create my own with clothes.
2)Invest in the right bag.
When it comes to photography, seems you can spend money endlessly, but I discovered through lots of experience that having the right bag for your gear constitutes money well-spent. And it’s even better money well-spent when the bag has wheels and your “personal item” bag (e.g. your camera backpack or laptop case) has heavily padded straps. With that said, always double-check that your flight won’t be on a commuter-sized plane requiring you to check in that carry-on bag!
3) Bring only what you need.
Find out the carry-on weight allowance and work backwards from there. If you’re really organized you can keep a list of how much each piece of equipment weighs and tally it up as you pack (beginning with the weight of your bag, of course). Think in terms of what you’ll primarily photograph rather than what your secondary subject will be and pack accordingly. If you’re not sure, ask your photo-tour operator what equipment he/ she recommends.
4) Carry on all but the tough stuff.
Lugging your gear around as carry-on can get tiring so checking it in might tempt you. When temptation arises, watch workers load or unload luggage from a plane; that should convince you to check-in only your toughest stuff (such as your tripod and head).
5) Prepare for security.
Open camera cases and any other equipment bags to make everything visible in order to minimize handling by security-line personnel. And don’t worry about memory cards; simply traveling through the conveyor belt won’t hurt them.
6) Get on first.
When making reservations request a seat near the back of the plane as these rows normally board first. (Note: As I wrote above, I know of at least one airline that now boards aisle seats last no matter what the seat number is, so it’s best to check with the airline when booking.) Now that airlines charge for checked-in bags, passengers tend to push the “carry-on” limit to the limit! That makes overhead-bin space not only tough to find, but tough to procure close by. With thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment inside, you definitely want your bag not only safely secured but secured in sight.
7) Don’t forget a change of clothes.
Remember to carry-on a change of clothing (and, says my wife, Mary, a toothbrush!) in case your checked-in luggage doesn’t arrive when you do. In doing so, think in terms of what you can “pack” into the clothing you’re wearing. Of course, you don’t want to fly uncomfortably, but if, for example, you travel wearing a photo vest use it to store items that would take up other carry-on space. A clean T-shirt fits into a large pocket (and doubles nicely as an appreciated small pillow or extra arm-rest padding on a long, international flight).
While prices are similar between B&H and Adorama, believe me when I say it pays to compare. Sometimes one of them is having a sale on something while the other one isn’t, or offering free shipping while the other one isn’t. Since I’m an affiliate for both, if you ever buy through my site and have any problems let me know. They don’t want to lose affiliates so the couple of times there was a slight issue they were quite eager to make things right.
Also, when checking prices, don’t forget your local camera store. If its price is only a little bit above the big guys, wouldn’t it be worth spending a little extra to help keep a rare independently-owned store in business?
Watching — and photographing — the quirky Mexican Ground Squirrels that live in the South Texas Brush is a lot of fun. Copyright ~ Jeff Parker
Photographing wildlife in the South Texas Brush Country is one of my favorite things to do. Don’t be tricked by the desolate look of the landscape. Truth is, its biodiversity makes it one of North America’s best places for photographing wildlife.
I’ve created these “Five W’s” of Photographing Wildlife in the South Texas Brush Country to help others when they head that way:
With your first glance at the South Texas Brush County you’ll swear — just as Spanish explorers did in the 1500s — that you’ve arrived in a barren no-man’s-land. The acacia-ridden, thorny landscape seems bereft of life. But, in this case, looks really do deceive!
Harris’s Hawks dot landscapes and skies everywhere here. These white and rufous colored birds are North America’s only raptors known to engage in cooperative hunting, usually in pairs or trios. Another photogenic South-Texas raptor is the Crested Caracara. Get great action shots as these falcon-family members battle it out with Turkey Vultures over carrion meals.
Over 450 species of birds migrate through South Texas each winter, many of them songbirds. Come summer, birds like the gorgeous Painted Bunting brings along its beautiful tunes. You also have the chance to photograph year-round beauties such as: Green Jays, Roadrunners, Great Kiskadees, Northern Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias, Couch’s Kingbirds, Screech Owls, Chachalacas, Vermilion Flycatchers, Altamira Orioles, Curved-bill Thrashers, Cactus Wrens, Black-throated Sparrows, and White-winged Doves.
The giant — but gentle — Texas Indigo snake calls the Brush Country home, too, sometimes at lengths of up to 9-feet. Unless you’re a rattler — a favorite meal — you won’t consider this Texas state threatened-species aggressive.
The state-threatened Texas Indigo Snake is very gentle ~ probably a big reason its status is at risk. Copyright ~ Jeff Parker
Coyotes make great photography subjects, too. Listen for their evening howls, which often signal to family-group members that time’s come to reunite after a stint of individual hunting. The canines come out during the daytime, too, and photo ops abound at the right photo ranches.
And, of course, come also to photograph a special South-Texas legend — the Javelina (“have-ah-leena”). These nearly-blind Collared Peccaries rely heavily on their sense of smell and one another as they travel in herds.
Scientists classify South Texas as a “semi-arid, sub-tropical” region. The result? Lots of biodiversity, a large number of bird species living at the far northern edges of their ranges, and warm weather most of the time.
South Texas winters bring occasional cold snaps, but they never last long. Overall, precipitation is sparse and unpredictable, although late summer and/or fall can bring periods of heavy rain if a tropical system makes landfall since the region lies close to the Gulf of Mexico.
By late May temperatures turn hot (around 100°F/38°C). While that’s bad news for most humans, it’s good news for wildlife photographers because the animals grow more active (see “When”).
While South Texas has plenty of amazing mammals and interesting reptiles, its primary photographic subject is its birds. Most of those known as “South Texas Specialties” are the year-round residents I noted above. However, spring migration dramatically boosts the number of species to focus on, especially along the coast.
Blue Grosbeak in the South Texas Brush; Copyright ~ Jeff Parker
Peak migration occurs in mid-April and a fall-out on the coast can bring a marvelous photographic experience. By the end of April the summer breeders, such as Painted Buntings, Varied Buntings, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers have arrived.
The best photography occurs when the animals are hot and thirsty. They flock to water to drink and cool off. Painted Buntings, in particular, really like their baths! This makes late-May and June prime time for South Texas Brush Country photography. But prepare yourself for the heat! When the animals are hot and thirsty, you will be too! (see “What”) If heat gives you trouble, April to early-May will work better, but temperatures will still be on the very-warm side.
South Texas is blessed with several parks, preserves, and nature centers for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. However, if your goal is photography rather than observation, I highly recommend one of the private ranches set up for photography. These private lands have blinds designed specifically for photography. They take into account factors like light direction, backgrounds, interesting perches, and water features. You’ll see birds and animals within 20-feet of you, going about their lives in full view of your lens. Many photo ranches even have specially created raptor blinds.
When you head to one of these photo ranches, not only are you supporting private land owners who support biodiversity, but you’re getting a superior photography experience. Bottom line: in my opinion, South Texas photo ranches offer one of the best opportunities in the United States today for the wildlife photographer.
If you do decide to go public, I recommend one of Texas’ nine World Birding Centers since there you’ll also get to learn about the local avian species. But keep in mind that these places aren’t designed for photographers. Instead, they’re created for viewing birds. Backgrounds, set-ups, and lighting will be inferior—though, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get some keepers.
I suggest you bring a big lens to South Texas for two reasons. The first has to do with what you’ll be photographing: primarily small birds. The second reason is because of where you’ll be photographing. Chances are if you head to South Texas to do photography you’ll make at least one trip to a photo ranch and take advantage of their special set-ups. There you’ll need at least a 500mm to get the keepers you want to take home and show off.
Young White-tail buck, South Texas Brush Country. Copyright ~ Jeff Parker
Whether you decide to pursue images at a photo ranch or a World Birding Center, you can get satisfactory results with a 400mm. However, I promise you, you’ll be happier with a 500mm (or even larger). Little bitty birds are best photographed with great big lenses!
You will need a good, steady tripod to support that big lens. Tripods make for better images no matter what type of photography you enjoy, but trying to hand-hold a super telephoto nearly guarantees a less than sharp result.
I prefer a gimbal style head on my tripod. With a gimbal head you can balance your rig so that it stays in any position when you let go of it. I don’t usually work with a ball head when photographing wildlife because, with it, you run the risk of your lens flopping over as soon as you take your hands off. (I do use one with landscapes, however.)
Think of the clothing you pack for the South Texas Brush Country as part of your gear as well. I consider a hat, sunscreen, and water “musts” when photographing here. Most photo ranches keep an ice box stocked with water in their photo blinds. Drink water whether or not you feel thirsty as it’s easy to grow dehydrated quickly with such high temperatures.
When it comes to field work, I don’t recommend shorts as most vegetation bears thorns. What ever clothing you do bring, however, I suggest treating it with a Permethrin product before you go to discourage ticks. Because of the thorny brush, bring thick-soled shoes for the field. Tennis shoes don’t protect well enough considering that the average mesquite thorn measures nearly 1-inch long (about 3 centimeters).
Let me know if you have any questions about photographing wildlife in the South-Texas Brush Country. As I’ve noted, it’s truly one of my VERY favorite places so I’ll be happy to burn your ear about it all you’d like.
I lead photo tours there often. We photograph wildlife at the best photo ranches in South Texas so if you’re interested in joining me, check out my Join Me section to see what I’m currently offering.
So you’ve probably heard the term “expose to the right” (ETTR) in regards to digital photography. The image above is an extreme example of this. This shot was accidentally exposed WAY to the right as I was shooting in manual mode and forgot to adjust my shutter speed after shooting in the shade. Nevertheless, it’s a good example of what is possible with digital photography and RAW files. If the original capture had been a JPEG this amount of recovery would not have been possible as there simply would not have been enough data to work with.
Even though the image was completely overexposed, the RAW file still captured enough data to allow a nice recovery. By adjusting the exposure and fill light sliders in Adobe Camera RAW during conversion I was able to get a perfectly usable shot out of this mess.
If this shot had been underexposed, or exposed to the left, this badly it would not have turned out so nicely. If you attempt to lighten an underexposed image you introduce noise into the image. You can use noise reduction software to eliminate the noise, but you would also have eliminated the details from most of the image.
Now I’m not advocating that you shoot grossly overexposed images like this original shot. I do advocate shooting a bit overexposed and definitely shooting in RAW. By having your histogram extend into the rightmost portion of the graph you capture the most possible data and can easily darken the final image to get the look you desire. Underexposing and then trying to lighten the final image will give you a muddy, noisy image.
Now that winter has arrived, I figured this would be a good time to post these Raptor Photography Tips so that those of you who don’t subscribe to my newsletter can take advantage of them, too.
The word “raptor” comes from the Latin “rapere,” which means “to snatch, take, or carry off.” This style of hunting—snatching prey and carrying it off—unites all raptors. The group includes: hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, vultures, kites, and osprey.
What else do raptors have in common? The tools of a great hunter such as: strong, sharp talons for capturing prey and a hooked bill for tearing into meals. They also share the gift of keen eyesight; some raptors, such as Golden Eagles, can see a mile (1.6 kilometers) away.
These tips for photographing raptors apply to non-captive birds, wild birds, the sort that tend to be skittish.
1) Burst mode’s best.
When birds blink, their second eyelid (called a nictitating membrane) opens and closes, which can result in strange looking images. Since an in-focus eye is one wildlife-photography “must,” burst mode ups your chances of capturing keepers. It also helps collect quick action such as birds fighting over carrion, landing, and taking off.
2) Wary is the word.
Nobody had to teach raptors about stranger danger—these birds are born nervous! Quick movement catches their eyes the most. In and out lens movement may even give them pause. Act like a statue, staying still as much as possible. Nervous birds will look at you; if one does, FREEZE! If not careful your actions will scatter your subjects—for the rest of the day. Allow raptors to relax after you shoot your landing shots. A raptor on one foot signifies a relaxed bird. A bird stretching its wings might make you think he’s relaxed, but not necessarily! If he has sat still for a while the opposite is probably true—he’s probably preparing for take-off.
3) Keep concealed.
There’s a reason we use the phrase “eagle eye” : raptors will see you before you see them (see tip #2). Your best bet’s to work from a blind. Often a vehicle works well as a blind, especially if you bring your biggest lens and sit extra still for a while after shutting off the engine. Since I’m talking about photographing non-captive birds, plan on staying far away from these subjects.
4) Stay silent.
Raptors can hear well. Vertically offset ears located just behind the eyes help hone in on sound location. Some species get extra ear-range from facial disk feather arrangement. Your voice and your shutter—especially non-stop actuation—could cause the birds to leave for the day. If you must talk, keep your voice down. And use short bursts when shooting.
5) Lookout for landings.
Focus on where a bird is headed before she arrives. Like airplanes, most birds (including raptors) take off and land into the wind. Considering when the light’s best for photography, an a.m. east wind and a west wind in the afternoon, means you’re in luck!
6) Prepare for lift-off.
You get some of your best action shots as birds leave. That means you’ve got prepare for take-off. Good news! Raptors also prepare for take-off and will give you plenty of signs that they’re about to depart. A bird looking into the breeze and/or crouching is a bird about to take-off. So, too, is a bird that defecates.
7) Practice patience.
Patience pays in wildlife photography, especially when shooting raptors. Don’t fire away at a perched bird just sitting there. You’re creating lots of boring images and running the risk of scaring your subject away with the sound of your shutter. Wait for natural behavior, the kind of show a relaxed bird puts on: stretching, preening, calling, eating. Wait for her to do something before taking your shot.
GEAR I USE when photographing raptors:
Canon 5D Mark III
Canon 600mm lens
Gitzo Mountaineer Tripod
Wimberly gimbal head
WHERE TO BUY (great prices & often free shipping):
Eight photographers joined me for the sold-out 2013 Vermejo Park Ranch Elk & Aspen Photo Tour, the first-ever event of its kind at this historic New-Mexican ranch. Participants enjoyed many opportunities to create incredible wildlife shots and images of the sublime beauty of the Vermejo Park Ranch landscape.
Unfortunately, somebody forgot to send the memo to the aspens as they were very late in changing color this year. Normally, in full color by the third week of September, the trees just began their color changes during our time at Vermejo.
But, as you can see in the above photo, we did get a bit of snow and that made for some beautiful scenery!
Unlike the aspen, the elk cooperated fully and were in full rut. They put on quite a show, bugling, posturing and occasionally fighting. I saw two fights, but did not get any good shots as one took place after dark and the other had tree branches obscuring the scene.
The Vermejo elk are not habituated as in Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain N.P. so photographers had to be stealthier than at the parks. This added to the challenge of getting good images, but it also added tremendously to the thrill when you pulled it off.
The experience was unlike any you will ever have in a national park, especially because you get to get so close to these remarkable animals. The Vermejo guides are capable of getting photographers into place and then calling the bull elk in, practically on top of the photographer! When photographers did their part by being quiet and not moving unnecessarily, they were treated to point-blank shots and/or long periods of observing and photographing the rutting bulls. What an amazing experience!
The image above is a bull that was chasing a cow and running right at me as I crouched behind my lens while sitting on the ground. It happened so quickly I failed to get his feet while trying to get the rack in the frame.
Here he is as he comes right by my position. This image isn’t a crop; it’s right out of the camera. The next frame in this series is soft as the bull was within minimum focusing distance. He ran right between myself and the guide.
Opportunities to photograph other wildlife — such as this Black Bear image, courtesy of Bill Boss — abounded. We were able to climb a ridge and peek over the top to observe and photograph this bear for several minutes before he moved back into the forest.
A couple of the guides served as models for us on one of the landscape shoots. As you’ll note here, guide, Gene Coon was particularly photogenic. Bill Boss did a good job of doing justice to Coon (and his faithful shadow companion) with this nice black and white conversion.
Not to be outdone, participant Jim Akers provided this lovely black and white elk shot. These scenes from the American West really lend themselves to black and white. Jim’s composition is especially pleasing here.
Are you asking yourself, “Which camera should I buy?” With all the choices out there today, it can be an overwhelming decision.
I’ve been noticing lately that more and more of my particpants have Olympus cameras. So it seems the “Nikon or Canon” conversation may be growing a little outdated. Sure, for heavy-hitting pros, Nikon and Canon are still the big players, but Olympus seems to be creeping up on them, especially thanks to its Olympus OM-D E-MI with its mirrorless Micro Four-Thirds system.
During a recent workshop I gave for Travis Audubon, one of the participants had an Olympus. I was amazed at how light it was. The lack of mirrors made a big difference. The camera weighed in at about 1.1 pounds compared with my Canon 5D Mark III , which, without a lens comes in at 2.1 pounds.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m still a Canon man. In fact, I just bought my 5D Mark III this past summer and I am findng that I am extremely pleased with it.
Its high ISO capability makes it a particularly valuable addition to my tool kit. I find that my shooting range has just about doubled from what it was. For example, this shot of an elk was taken at ISO 25600. Yep, I said 25,600! That wouldn’t have been possible with my 7D.
Of course, my 7D has its own role to play. Many of my clients have 7D’s because, for the money, it’s a very versatile camera. It’s a great tool for wildlife and macro photography.
Since my specialty is wildlife photography, the set-up that I seem to be using most these days is my 5D Mark III with my Canon 600mm lens.
My wife, Mary, always jokes that the 600 was “our new car for a long while.” She has something there; it was definitely a big decision but one I have never regretted. The 600mm allows me to get up close and personal with wildlife in ways I never would have been able to before. Of course, sometimes it gets me too up close and personal; when working in the blinds at the south-Texas photo ranches there have been times I wished I had a 500mm. But, overall, put my 600mm and my Canon 5D Mark III camera together and you’ve got a power combination.
Of course, at the rate Olympus is going, they’re on their way to creating a power combo of their own. And, everyone I’ve talked with who owns them is quite happy with them.
I often get asked which is better, Canon or Nikon? My answer: they’re both great.
I don’t shoot Nikon so I can’t tell you much about it, but I did do a lot of research before I committed to my first camera about a decade ago. I learned that both offer great systems with many lenses and bodies to suit your style of photography.
Why did I choose Canon? Because at the time Canon lenses were not nearly as expensive as Nikon. Today, the shoe is on the other foot and I would be mighty tempted to go Nikon. However, once you choose a system it’s an expensive proposition to change.
The 2013 Hummingbird Photography Workshop is a wrap and a great one at that! We had a good number of hummingbirds and a great group of enthusiastic participants.
Two stations set-up for multiple flash allowed participants a chance to create some great “freeze all the motion” hummingbird photographs. Several other feeders about Red Belly Ranch provided lots of opportunities for available-light photography. One feeder, in particular, proved much more popular with the hummingbirds and all that action tended to draw the attention of the photographers as well.
Participants had a chance to learn some new skills and perfect old ones. Fill flash was one item that – thanks to that extra-active feeder –ended up getting lots of use and practice.
The lead photo is a wonderful capture by participant, Rob Wilbourn, using fill flash and a natural light background. Great pose and color here.
I love the pose captured here by Larry Petterborg at the flash setup. This demonstrated the figure eight pattern that hummingbirds use in their wing-strokes. The only way to capture this is to use the multiple-flash. Otherwise it will always be a blur as you just cannot get a fast enough shutter speed to stop this action. Larry worked patiently to get the shots he was after and also enjoyed experimenting with different backgrounds.
Another flash shot, this one from Michael Cryer, shows just how well you can bring out the iridescence created by the oval-shaped platelet cells of these tiny birds. The gorget on this juvenille truly shows you why these birds are called “ruby-throated” even though this male hasn’t even finished getting all his color. That green wing is a nice touch, too – made possible with the use of flash.
I don’t photograph during my workshops, but after everyone left I grabbed my camera and got creative. I added a Trumpet vine flower to the flash set for a bit of added interest.
These vines are native to the area and the hummingbirds love them! If you look at how deep the flowers are you can get a feel for how long a hummer’s tongue is. (Yes, they lick the nectar; they don’t suck it.) You can also get a feel for the bird’s length: each flower measures about 2″ long.
I noticed the light streaming through the wings of the hummingbirds late in the day at the “hot” feeder. This was made a bit more magical since we’d just had a late-afternoon rain shower. I decided to try for some backlit images. My images would’ve worked better with some fill flash.
To get a good exposure of the bird without fill flash the wings are pretty much burned out. A technique to work on for the workshop next year.
Thanks a bunch to all who came this year! We had a great mix of beginners, those who simply love hummingbirds, experienced wildlife photographers, and even someone who was a landscape photographer years ago has returned to nature photography. And a special thanks to all who contributed images for this blog. If you still want to share, it’s not too late!
I’ve been busily going through the images created on our recently-completed Costa Rica Photo Tour. One of the surprises of the tour was just how much fun I had photographing Costa Rican frogs! It seems everything is more exuberant and colorful in the tropics, especially them. Immediately upon our arrival at Selva Verde we began to see poison dart frogs. Both the Black-and-green and the Bluejeans poison dart frogs were quite common on the grounds of the lodge.
The Green and black frogs were several inches long, but the Bluejeans is a tiny little guy only about an inch long. They don’t stay in one place long and that makes them a bit of a challenge to photograph given the low light levels in the rainforest, their small size, and propensity to hop away just about the time you acquire focus.
Of course the star of the frog show is the Red-eyed Tree Frog. It has become synonymous with nature tourism in Costa Rica. From billboards to the cover of guidebooks, you can find images of this species everywhere. There’s a reason for that: they’re amazingly photogenic critters! With their wild colors and appealing look, these frogs make the shot list of most wildlife photographers heading to Costa Rica.
Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) taking a bath ~ photo by Jeff Parker, copyright, 2012
We are blessed to have Painted Buntings in abundance each summer here at Red Belly Ranch. But, for such a brightly colored bird, they can be frustratingly hard to spot! Often I can hear them singing their little hearts out but cannot seem to find them when in the more forested areas. Many people who have lived in Painted Bunting country their whole lives have never seen one.
Luckily for me they really love to bathe when it’s hot. This brings them out to water features or to play in the sprinkler making them much easier to observe. They also have a fondness for white millet which I have exploited with a tube feeder at special set-ups.
Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) playing in the sprinkler; copyright Jeff Parker, 2013
While locally common in places such as Red Belly Ranch (located in central Texas) or parts of south-Texas, the Painted Bunting has seen a population decrease of 55% in the past thirty years. In fact, IUCN now gives them a Conservation Status of “Near Threatened.” That makes it all the more special to see a group — or “palette” — of buntings.
Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) female; copyright, Jeff Parker, 2013
Totally overshadowed by her mate, the female painted bunting is an attractive little bird herself. Dressed in her green plumage, she is solely responsible for raising the young. In fact, the males head on back south by August, leaving the females and juveniles in the breeding territory for another 4-6 weeks.
Texas Bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum); copyright Jeff Parker, 2013
June 15th is Nature Photography Day. It’s a day to reflect on nature photography, what it means to you, and—most importantly—get out there and take a picture!
Why do I care about nature photography?
I have a lifelong obsession with the natural world. My wife, Mary, calls me her “Wonder Junkie.” Always looking for my next fix.
Nature photography allows me to share that Wonder with others. Perhaps, more importantly, it gives me a semi-legitimate excuse to be outside pursuing that Wonder.
Of course, I love grand mountain vistas, Grizzly Bears, Bull Elk, colorful birds…who doesn’t? (I suppose there are folks who don’t love these things, but I try not to think about that.) But I have also found myself lost in Wonder on the side of the road with a macro lens in my hand. I’ve stopped to photograph wildflowers and, what seemed only a short time later, realized a full two hours had gone by.
Yes, I get lost deeply in Wonder.
This is why I spend WAY too much money on photo gear and challenge myself with the art and technique of photography. I can now do the things I would be doing anyway and claim to be “working.”
I encourage you to find your own Wonder through nature photography. Every day is a good day to do it, but I understand how difficult it can be to find time if this isn’t how you make your living. But maybe you can devote yourself to doing it for one full day –— Saturday, June 15th –— Nature Photography Day. Maybe for one full day you can get lost in the Wonder, you can head out with your camera in-hand and let your Wonder completely wander.
No matter where you are you can take a picture of something in nature. A blade of grass, an ant, clouds, the sun, birds, a Grizzly. Well, okay, depending upon where you live, a Grizzly might not be as easy to find, but even in the city nature is nearer than you might think. Bring along your Wonder and you’ll see.
When you have captured your image the next step is to share it. With Facebook, email, blogs, that’s easier than it used to be. NANPA, the sponsor of Nature Photography Day, even has a special Facebook page just for that purpose: https://www.facebook.com/events/374898169286197/. Or, make a print to put on the wall, make notecards, whatever, but share!. If your image stays on your hard drive and nobody ever sees it, it might as well not exist. Of course, you still enjoyed feeling that Wonder, but others don’t get to share in it.
I will be on the road on June 15th, but I will post my Nature Photography Day image to this entry when I get home. Who knows what it will be—what Wonder I’ll stumble upon during my own adventuring on Nature Photography Day.
What will yours be? (…and if you’d like, please, feel free to share your Wonder with me.)
UPDATE ~ Here it is…as promised I’ve posted the photo I took on Nature Photography Day.
Wildflowers have a way of sucking me in. I photographed these beautiful Texas Bluebells to celebrate the day. It was perfect since they don’t start blooming until about mid-June. These are prairie flowers and will bloom, typically, throughout the summer in Texas.
I hope that you were able to get outside on June 15th and capture some images from the natural world. If circumstances didn’t allow it there is always tomorrow!