I have spent a great deal of time over the last ten years photographing cranes, herons, and geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. During that time, I have often thought of expanding my horizons to learn more about other birds, so I was delighted when the opportunity presented itself to photograph Brown Pelicans at La Jolla Cove near San Diego, California.
One of the first things that struck me about these ungainly creatures was their humorous behavior when they take a break from skimming the waves looking for dinner to rest on the bluffs along the shore. They can often be found in the company of cormorants and their interactions are sometimes pretty funny.
This one went through a series of gular gymnastics as a Double Breasted Cormorant looked on. The cormorant seemed unimpressed as the pelican turned himself nearly inside out.
Perhaps the most recognizable of the pelicans’ behavior is the stretching of their gular pouches in what has come to be termed the head toss. It’s not really a toss, but more of a steady extension of the neck until the bill is pointing straight up and the pouch is stretched. This is necessary to keep the pouch flexible and healthy. The trick in photographing this activity is catching a bird that is separate from all the others and in full view.
When you witness a head toss without knowing the reason behind it, you could be excused for believing these birds are a bit off kilter. Perhaps they’re howling at some unseen moon, or performing a weird pelican variation of the sun salutation.
Sleeping is a function that these birds perform with amusing inventiveness. The one-eye-open posture is one of my favorites. It’s as if they can’t quite trust that it’s safe for them to drift off. These two may have made a deal that they take turns napping and guarding each other.
And here is perhaps the most unique balancing act I witnessed over three days of watching these unpredictable creatures. He remained in this exact position for over an hour before standing to stretch his pouch.
One thing I have learned from all the time I have spent photographing birds is they are often synchronous in their movements and behavior, and pelicans are no different. These two were grooming on the bluff at La Jolla Cove. Even their feathers are in sync.
Four pelicans walk into a bar, one could care less, one thinks it’s all quite amusing, one is a bit embarrassed, and one is spoiling for a fight. Their antics endeared these birds to me. Watching them go about their daily routines had me smiling to myself almost constantly. I came away with a formative, but indelible image of these graceful, awkward, serious, comedic, eccentric birds.
2015 was an exceptional year for me in terms of photography. Not just for the images, but for the experiences as well. I made an effort to be more adventurous, and spontaneous in my choice of subject matter. I also vowed to be more responsive to the images themselves when it came to post processing. In all, there are thirty-seven photographs, so I will present this post in two parts. I hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed making them.
In late January we had a heavy snowfall which made it impossible for me to drive out of my driveway. So, I walked down to Soda Dam to photograph it in its winter splendor. This image seemed to be a black and white candidate from the start.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1.3 sec., f20, ISO 50
March took me to southern Arizona to photograph desert wildflowers. I didn’t find the showing I had hoped for, so I contented myself by pursuing Teddy Bear Chollas. When photographed in the right light, they have a luminous quality about them. I made this image at sunset in the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Pheonix. The fabled Superstition Mountains lie on the horizon.
Nikon D800 with 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1.3 sec, f16, ISO 50
I’ve been to Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash many times over the years, but I seldom explore along the southern edge. In April I decided to change that; I made this image looking northwest from the top of the southern rim. This is the section I call the Yellow Badlands. It’s like taking a look back through time.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 f2.8: 1⁄8 sec, f18, ISO 50
In May while exploring a part of Ah Shi Sle Pah Wash I had never been to before, I came across this incredible hoodoo hidden in a small ravine along the northern edge of the main wash. I stayed and worked the area for nearly two hours. This is the first of many compositions using what I call the Neural Hoodoo as the main subject.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄30 sec, f16, ISO 50
This black and white image was made from the opposite side of the Neural Hoodoo. If forced to choose a favorite, this would be it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 50
This final image of the Neural Hoodoo was made from the same general location as the first, but I zoomed in to capture a more intimate portrait.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄15 sec, f16, ISO 50
At the same time I was exploring the far reaches of Ah Shi SlePah, I was discovering some of the amazing and convoluted drainages along the southern rim of the wash. I made this image on a stormy evening in late May. I could not have asked for more appropriate light for this scene.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄60 sec, f18, ISO 50
In early June I went out to the Bisti Wilderness. At the far reaches of the southern drainage, I made this image of a multi-colored grouping of hoodoos. I had photographed this same group several times in the past, but I think this is my favorite. The clouds seem to reflect the lines of the caprocks.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70 mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄40 sec, f16, ISO 50
One morning in late June I noticed the chollas around my house were blooming. I set out the next morning for the Rio Puerto Valley to capture the splashes of color in that dramatic landscape. I made the first image (above) in the ghost town of Guadalupe. The return of life to the desert seemed coincidental to the ongoing decay of the adobe buildings.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
In this image, a blossoming cholla stands at the head of a deep wash as a rain cloud passes over Cerro Cuate in the distance. Even the slightest precipitation sustains life in this environment.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄10 sec, f16, ISO 50
Early on the morning of July 4th, before the road was closed for the parade, I slipped out of town and drove out into the San Juan Basin. I didn’t really have a plan other than to visit the Burnham Badlands, which lies to the west of the Bisti Wilderness, and covers a relatively small area as badlands go (about one mile by two miles). This graceful hoodoo sits smack in the center of it.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄20 sec, f16, ISO 50
After completing my exploration of the Burnham Badlands, I drove west through the heart of the Navajo Reservation and arrived at Shiprock in the early evening. I drove one of the dirt roads that runs along the lava dike until I found a spot I liked. I set up my camera and tripod then waited for the light. Over the next two and a half hours, I made almost a hundred exposures as the light changed and the sun crept toward the horizon. This is my pick.
Nikon D800 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄6 sec, f16, ISO 50
Hidden in plain sight, just a few miles north of Ah Shi Sle Pah is the Fossil Forest. At the end of a low ridge which runs east to west, you can just make out the telltale signs from the county road: the striated color, and the deep cut drainages where geologic treasures lie exposed. I went there with an agenda: to find a fossilized tree stump. I’ve related the whole story in an earlier post, so I’ll just say here that we were able to locate the stump after some scrambling and sleuthing.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 16-35mm f4 lens: 1⁄25 sec, f16, ISO 100
In July, I made a trip to visit my daughter Lauren in Madison, Wisconsin. She accompanied me on the return trip. Early on the second morning, somewhere in central Kansas, she mentioned the large birds roosting on the fence. I had driven past and hadn’t noticed them, so I backtracked until we found them. The birds turned out to be a committee of turkey vultures sunning themselves and drying their wings. I was able to get pretty close to them without distressing them, and I managed to capture quite a few exposures. This is my favorite.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f9, ISO 500
In August we set out on the high road to Taos. The way passes through many small villages: Chimayo, Truchas, Las Trampas, and Picuris Pueblo to name but a few. At Picuris, we visited the plaza, and there, I noticed the shapes and texture of the adobe walls of a small church. This is the result of my efforts there.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-120mm f4 lens: 1⁄400 sec, f14, ISO 1600
Farther up the road, we took a fork to visit the village of Tres Ritos. There, in a meadow by the side of the road, was a spray of mountain asters with a small wetland full of cattails just beyond it. The dark foreboding sky intensified the saturation of the colors and was the perfect backdrop for the scene.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄640 sec, f16, ISO 1600
In late August on a trip to Denver, I drove up highway 285 instead of using the interstate. Late in the day, the clouds were hanging in tatters from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the east. The grasses were just beginning to turn and the colors filled the spectrum. When I came across the trees, it all came together.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄5 sec, f11, ISO 50
On my return from Denver, I was driving across the Taos Plateau and the nearly full moon was climbing through the clouds above the Sangres. The Chamisa was in bloom and all I needed to do was find the right combination.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f13, ISO 800
Still on the Taos Plateau. The texture and colors in the grasses and sage, along with the rays of sunlight piercing the dark clouds caused me to pull over again (at this rate, I would never get home). The lonesome Ponderosa Pine anchors this image, but the thing that really ties it all together is the thin strip of light colored ground below the mountains.
Nikon D700 with Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 lens: 1⁄500 sec, f11, ISO 800
I was recently interviewed by Outdoor Photographer magazine about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge as a Photography destination. It is my first time being published in a major publication, so I’m pretty psyched about it. To read the interview click this link.
Many of you probably know that I make a trip (pilgrimage is more like it) every year in November or December to photograph the cranes, herons, and other waterfowl that inhabit the refuge during the winter months.
Most of you have probably seen these images before too. But, I thought I would re-post some of my favorites that weren’t included in the article.
For those of you who would like to visit Bosque del Apache, it is located about twenty miles south of Socorro, New Mexico on state road 1. And, once again, if you would like to read the interview, click here.
I am constantly on the lookout for new images. Even while I’m driving, one eye is searching for a photograph. But, to really see, it is important that I be present so I can delve into the potential image, dissect it and study the relationships between the elements. What is the best way to do this? What should I look for as I move through this process?
The first step is to ask myself: What was it that drew me to this scene? Usually it was a singular object, or a play of light over the landscape. The Soaptree Yuccas, the sidelit patterns, and the subtle light on the sand dunes at White Sands National Monument were what grabbed my attention and led to this first image. Understanding my motivation made it easier realize what I want to say with the photograph.
Next I had to frame the scene in a way that would tell the story in the best way possible. I placed the closest yucca up front, but a little off center, leaving little doubt that it was the main subject of the image. This placement also allowed me to separate it from the others in the middle ground and avoid a confusing and static composition. My choices for the exposure had to be based on the dynamic range of the scene, which, In this case, was pretty wide considering the bright highlights on the sand in the distance, and the dark tonality in the shadows near sunset.
The first technical requirement was that I capture a broad dynamic range, so I made a bracketed series of exposures that covered the entire spectrum of tonalities in the scene. Even though I didn’t need to use all the different exposures, it’s better to have them and not need them than it is to need them and…well you know. The next requirement was that the depth of field be wide enough to have sharp details front to rear. Because of the low light level at the time of day I was shooting this, the fact that I was shooting at the lowest possible ISO–to achieve the best possible image quality, and the small aperture needed to get the depth of field I required, my shutter speed was relatively slow–1/10th of a second. That meant that I needed to shoot with my camera mounted on a tripod (something I usually do anyway). It’s easy to see from this cause and effect chain how my creative workflow was based not only on composition and design elements, but also included technical considerations.
The second image of Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was made at twilight, that special time in the evening just after the sun set and the light is bouncing off the upper atmosphere. I was taken by the reflection of the colored sky and the reeds in the placid water of the foreground, and the transition from the smooth to the to the rough texture of the water, which created a layer-like effect because of the sudden change in color and texture. This layer is also where the action takes place: the cranes mingling, spreading their wings, foraging for dinner. There is then an abrupt transition to the golden reeds and the darker background before the final shift to the lighter tonality and magenta shades of the distant mountains and the sky.
I had my camera mounted on my tripod as usual, but I kept the bullhead swivel loose so I could easily pan to follow the movement of the birds. This image also relies on a wide depth of field to preserve sharpness in the details of all the layers mentioned above. I wanted to make the layering effect more obvious, so I boosted the saturation and contrast a little. Once again, the thought process kicks in and the decisions are made. The point of all this is to stress the importance of being involved in the making of an image. If you want a photograph to be yours, you need to put a little of yourself into it, and you need to be intentional throughout the process.
I love my Nikkor 80-400mm lens. On a crop sensor camera like my Nikon D300, I can get the effective reach of a much more expensive 600mm lens–albeit with a stop less light. The 80-400/D300 is my lens/camera combination of choice for photographing wildlife; I rarely use my full frame cameras and wide angle lenses while I’m at Bosque del Apache–at least not while photographing the birds. But, in a deliberate attempt to step out of my box, I have lately been making some wider angle photographs of birds, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the results.
My choice of the longer lens and crop sensor camera is driven by that combination’s ability to get in close and isolate the birds. By stepping back a little and capturing the wider view, I am trading the up close and personal frame for the more inclusive approach, which, I think, makes a more informative image. It puts the action in context.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will stop photographing these birds in an intimate context, the wider view is just a different way of approaching the subject, of telling the story.
If you were to go through this blog’s archives and read all the posts about Bosque del Apache, I doubt you would find very many, if any, of these kinds of photographs. So, it is my intention to give you a better overall idea of the scope of the experience.
One of my favorite things about a trip to the refuge is standing near a large flock of geese when they suddenly, in unison, explode into flight. The first image is my attempt to convey that feeling of synchronized confusion that accompanies these abrupt incidents. The geese will also land as a flock, but they are more relaxed in their approach so a few may land at one time, followed by a few more, until they have all touched down.
The Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand generally take off and land in pairs or small groups of two or three. Cranes are monogamous and will keep the same mate until one of them dies. They also move from one place to another in pairs or as an extended family group.
Before I began photographing them, I never paid much attention to the habits of birds, but the more I watch them, the more interested I have become in their habits and their lives. Some of these habits can be very useful to a photographer. For instance, when they lean forward with their gaze fixed, it means that take off is imminent, so an informed photographer can be ready when the action begins.
Cranes are gangly creatures. When they approach a landing, they look like marionettes dangling from a string. Their long, spindly legs are improbable supports for their frames and their activities. But there is a certain majestic aplomb and zen-like intensity with which they carry out these movements that negates the clumsiness.
Over the years I have developed a kind of schedule for photographing at the Bosque. I usually get to the pond early, just before sunrise and then spend several hours with the cranes as they awaken and fly off to the fields for the day. Afterwards, I drive around the tour loops in the refuge looking for anything that may catch my eye. This is usually when I catch a heron hunting for his breakfast. I realize that this image is a departure from the subject of this article, but this really is the best way to tell the story about the herons. They do nest in groups at night, but their daytime existence is a solitary one. They wade through the shallows looking for a meal, and then move on in search of the next one.
It’s also during these drives around the refuge that I come across scenes like this: hundreds of geese floating placidly in a pond, drowsing, or grooming themselves. Then suddenly and without warning they explode in a cacophony of sound and motion.
Of course, there are other kinds of wildlife besides birds to be found at the refuge. bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, javelinas, and many others make Bosque del Apache their home. As we were driving toward the exit we came across this young mule deer buck calmly strolling through one of the ponds along the connector road. The two mallards swimming in the opposite direction seemed un-fazed, but stayed on their side of the road.
Bosque del Apache is located about twenty miles south of Socorro, New Mexico along the Rio Grande. I would highly recommend it as a stop on your next visit to New Mexico. If you are a photographer, and you want to isolate the birds, a long telephoto (at least 400mm) is recommend, but as this entry makes clear (I hope), you can make some great images with a shorter lens as well. The best time of year to visit if you want to see the cranes and geese is November through February, but the refuge is open year round and many of the birds and other wildlife make Bosque del Apache their home year-round.
Here we are again (already) celebrating another year and renewing the circle. In looking back on 2014, I realize that I didn’t spend as much time in the field as I would have liked to. If I made resolutions, which I don’t, I would resolve to get out with my cameras more in the coming year. That being said, I did manage a few keepers over the past twelve months, so here they are.
In March I made a drive up to Abiquiu in search of nesting eagles. I didn’t see a one. But, I did find this scene of the Chama River just north of the village of Abiquiu. The light was amazing and the way it lit the distant peaks was icing on the cake.
Regina, New Mexico is a small village north of Cuba. It has a sleepy feel to it even though New Mexico highway 97 passes through the middle of the town. This old cottonwood, barn, and Chevy flatbed were watching what little traffic was moving by on the road. It seemed a bit nostalgic to me so I made this image.
In May I made several trips to the Bisti Wilderness, but I concentrated my efforts on the northern area off Hunter Wash instead of the more popular southern section off Alamo Wash. I found this nest of emerging hoodoos in a small hollow in the surrounding hills. The skyline is populated with small stone wings which are more prevalent in the north section than in the south.
A little further along on the same day I made this image of Robin making her way across the rolling bentonite hills near the highest point in the wilderness. When these soft hills erode, the incipient hoodoos buried beneath them will be revealed–as illustrated in the preceding photograph. The process is slow, but relentless.
In August we returned to the Bisti Wilderness on my birthday and I made this portrait of Robin and me on a small sandstone throne. We were actually within fifty yards of the highway which cuts through a rocky outcrop downstream from where Hunter and Alamo Wash converge.
This image is a bit of a cliché, but I think it does a pretty good job of telling the story: these places should not be taken lightly. The badlands of the San Juan Basin, or any wilderness for that matter, can be deadly. I never venture forth without enough water and a GPS receiver.
When you shoot into the light as I did in this image, it is called contre-jour lighting. Actually this is not contra-jour in the strictest sense of the word; the sun was not directly behind the scene. But, the effect is pretty much the same. In this case, the backlighting lends a feeling of ephemeral mystery to the image.
This image was made one day after the previous one. In this case I was driving past a place that I see every day on the way home. I was struck by the intensity of the colors and by the uncertainty of the sky.
The last two images were both made at Bosque del Apache NWR. The landscape is a view looking northeast along the south tour loop. It is a peaceful image and the colors are a bit of an emotional contrast.
I hope you enjoyed viewing my images as much as I enjoyed making them, and I wish you all a happy and healthy new year.
Wow! Another year fades into memory. I have spent the last couple weeks editing the images I’ve made in 2013 with the goal of culling my favorite dozen. Image editing for me is a labor of love; I have a connection to my work, so picking “the best” out of hundreds candidates is not an easy task.
I knew from the time I made this photo of a bull elk in my yard on January 3rd that I was setting a high standard for the rest of the year. Also, not only was it serendipitous, but the image was a departure from my usual wide angle landscapes. I had been feeling for some time that my work had been stagnating, so I resolved then and there to take it in a new direction.
In early February, I ventured into an area along US 550 that I had been looking at as a shooting location for some time. I was drawn by some red sandstone pinnacles that were visible from the highway. As I walked toward them, I came across this old section of road that is slowly eroding, being reclaimed by natural forces. The scene made me realize how impermanent our impact on nature really is. In the end, this is the image that stood out above the others I made that day. Again: serendipity.
As the year progressed, I found myself revisiting some places I had been before. The image of the church on San Ildefonso Pueblo (a scene I had driven past countless times before) is more about the light than the subject matter. It is also a more visually compressed image than is usual for me due to my use of a longer focal length lens.
Every year at the end of May–Memorial Day Weekend to be exact–the Pueblo of Jemez hosts the Starfeather Pow Wow. Hundreds of native dancers from across the country come to dance and compete. I made hundreds of images that weekend, but this portrait of two brothers stood out. They are dressed in “dog soldier” head-dresses, hair-pipe breastplates, and feather bustles, all made by their father. Just before I released the shutter, I told them to give me some attitude. I think they did a pretty good job.
Anyone who is familiar with my work, knows that I spend a great deal of time in the Rio Puerco Valley. It was near the middle of July and the rains had just started after several months of searing heat and cloudless skies when I made this image. There are many possible causes for this animal’s demise, but the location of its desiccated remains along a now rain-filled wash and the rain falling from a heavy sky tells an ironic story about the uncertainty of life in this harsh environment.
And speaking of harsh environments, the Bisti Wilderness in July can be a sobering place. The temperatures can soar to well over 100°F. I usually try to discourage clients from booking a photo tour during this time, but if the monsoons have started, it can be relatively pleasant and the cloudy skies lend a sense of drama to the scene. I made this image of one of my clients pondering the maze in the Brown Hoodoos section of the wilderness.
From a land of parched earth to a place where water is omni-present; my travels took me to Wisconsin in August. On a day-trip to Olbricht Botanical Gardens with my daughter, I made this image of the Thai Pagoda. Normally I steer clear of this kind of symmetry in a photograph, but the structure, and the entire environment seemed to demand it.
Autumn is the best time to be in the badlands, especially if the atmosphere cooperates. Even though the ground was soft and the washes were running from the rain, there were still cracks in the earth. It was as though the soil had a memory of the scorching it normally receives and refused to let go. After processing this image, I realized that it was best to convert it to black and white.
During the months of September and October I spent a great deal of time photographing the trains of the Cumbres-Toltec narrow-gauge railroad which runs from Chama, New Mexico to Antonito, Colorado. I spent every weekend for nearly a month chasing the trains and the fall colors. In the end, my favorite image had nothing to do with color and everything to do with the train, the track and the trestle.
To most people, in the US anyway, November means thanksgiving. For me it is my annual trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years, I have come to relish my time with the cranes, herons, geese, and other waterfowl that call the Bosque home during the winter months. Even though I have thousands of images of the birds flying, taking wing, landing, wading, eating, and doing whatever else it is that they do, I still managed to make two of my favorites there in 2013.
This first is obvious and familiar: a crane in the process of taking off from one of the ponds to fly to the fields where he will spend the day foraging. The second is a departure from my normal Bosque images, but one that illustrates the reason that I keep returning year after year.
In December I travelled by train to visit my oldest daughter (an adventure I wrote about in my previous blog entry). Chicago’s Union Station was a surprise to me. I made several images inside the station and when I wandered out the doors to Canal Street, I found this scene. I was immediately drawn by the fact that while some of the elements had symmetry–there’s that word again–some didn’t. And of course the cherry-on-top: the wet pavement reflecting the lights and columns.