Category Archives: Wildlife

Third Time’s a Charm

A few weeks back I visited a local wildlife trail (the Lake Apopka Wildlife drive).  It is only 20 minutes away and I always come back with a few decent photographs.  Plus, some folks have been lucky enough to see Bobcats there recently and I’ve long wanted to have a chance to photograph those elusive felines.

I was one of the first folks on the trail after it opened.  As I slowly rolled along on the beautiful and cool morning  I soon noticed an Osprey hovering over the water to my left.  I watched as it spotted a fish then suddenly dove and hit the water…And missed.  

I pulled off the road, grabbed my camera and watched as the raptor made a long, wide circle and returned to the same spot. 

Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Back for a second try!

This time I had a chance to grab a few shots as he (she?) tried again…And MISSED again!

Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

“What are you looking at?   Like you could do any better!”

I quickly adjusted my camera settings and re-positioned myself close enough that I could shoot nearly full frame images with nice cross-lighting.  Sure enough, the Osprey came back hoping for luck on a third try.

Again it hovered. 

Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Where are you…you stupid fish?

Again it dove. 

Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

And this time,

Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

“The force is strong with this one…”



Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

“I have you now!”

I was shooting with a Nikon D500 set to 10 frames per second…which gave me a slew of shots to capture the action.Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

And with that, the Osprey flew off to enjoy it’s well-earned breakfast. 

Perhaps it wasn’t the Bobcat I had hoped to photograph but watching this persistent raptor fishing was pretty cool just the same.  

Have a great morning!

Third Time's a Charm Osprey catching fish at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive

Breakfast time!

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations Tagged , , , , |

Foxy Lady: Photographing the South American Grey Fox

Patagonia is a slam-dunk prerequisite on any landscape photographer’s bucket list.  It had been a dream of mine for years and I finally had the chance to experience it last month.  It absolutely lived up to the hype.  The landscapes were truly epic… which makes it all the more ironic that my first blog about Patagonia is about wildlife, not landscapes.  Let me give you the backstory.

I was on a tour (Joseph van Os Photosafaris) with another dozen avid photographers.  We had been in Patagonia for about two weeks and were reluctantly on the long drive back to the airport to take us home.   We had to stop at a small border outpost on the Chile/Argentina border to go thru the bureaucratic nonsense that seems to be a characteristic in some parts of the world.  While we were waiting in the bus, someone hollered out “Hey, is that a fox?”  Foxy Lady: Photographing the South American Grey FoxSure enough, a Patagonian Grey Fox was crossing the dirt road not more than 50′ in front of us!

Pandemonium broke out as a dozen frantic photographers started wildly swinging their long lenses around in the crowded bus.  Fortunately, I had my huge 200-400 already set up and ready to go and I managed to squeeze off a few shots before my view was blocked.  I quickly checked the shots and was happy to see that they were pretty good…of course I was shooting through the bus windshield so the shots were never going to be perfectly crisp, but heck, it was the first fox we had seen on the trip.  For that matter, I’d only had the chance to photograph foxes a couple of times in my life and those images were, to be honest,  pretty pathetic.  So I was tickled pink to get a decent shot, especially since I hadn’t hoped for much of anything on the long dusty ride to the airport.

There I am, thinking about all this when someone yells out “Hey, there’s another one on the other side of the bus!”  The bus groaned and shifted violently to the right as everyone scrambled to the windows.  The shutters started clicking away!   

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

This fox was back-lit and regally posing in a windy field

Within seconds, he jumped a stream and scooted off out of sight:

Immediately all 12 of us put our heads down and started checking out our shots on our camera’s LCD screens.  Well, that lasted maybe about a half a second until I heard “There’s another one right behind us!”   This time there wasn’t anyone in my way and I started peeling off 7 frames per second: Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.  And then, this silly fox just plops her tush down in the middle of the road and starts posing for me like a supermodel on a runway!

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

“Foxy Lady ‘ (apologies to Jimi Hendrix)

I took about 75 frames (that look pretty much identical to this one) before my new gal-pal got up and trotted off out of sight. 

By now, we really, really wanted to get off the bus…but the border guards wouldn’t allow it since they had a very detailed and inflexible procedure.  And that procedure required us to remain on the bus until they were ready to walk us into their office and stamp our passports.   Only AFTER that was done, we would be free to get off the bus and photograph to our heart’s content.  So we waited patiently (NOT) for what seemed like an hour (probably five minutes).   Finally we were led into the shack, did the paperwork and got back into the bus…but by now (of course) there were no foxes to be seen.  

“Fox! Fox! Fox!” someone yelled….the ensuing stampede out the door was like something at a Cincinnati Who concert.

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

Finally able to shoot without windshields between us and our quarry, we fired away.  Then someone saw another one behind us:

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

By now it had finally dawned on us that there had to be at least a half-dozen foxes in the immediate area and they clearly weren’t shy. 

At one point I nearly freaked out when one fox casually sauntered toward me and for some reason I couldn’t get a good focus.  It took be a couple frantic seconds to realize he was too close for my lens to focus! (my 200-400 can’t focus less than 20′ away).  I had to burst out laughing…I mean, how often are you TOO close?!

Suddenly, one fox froze as it spotted something coming out of the brush:

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

“And what do we have here?!”

Someone next to me said “Get ready, this could get interesting!”  I looked up and quickly saw what they meant:  there were two house cats not ten feet away from the fox:

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

“I see lunch!”

Folks started yelling at the cats to run for their lives…but then, the strangest thing happened.  The fox and cats just looked at each other, sniffed once and just nonchalantly walked right by in opposite directions. 

Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

“Hi Ed…how’s the wife and kids?”

In retrospect, I’d guess the border guards feed all of them.  So the foxes and cats likely know each other well.  Which would also mean that seeing the foxes there was probably not the once in a lifetime thing I originally assumed.

Anyway, we were still scratching our heads trying to figure this out when another fox just laid down in the grass in front of me. I got down low to the ground to get an eye-level perspective and leisurely ripped off dozens of shots capturing the many expressions and moods of this little guy.  Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia. Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia. Foxy Lady" Photographing the South American Grey Fox in Patagonia.

We had a schedule to meet and soon had to get back on the road…but by then I had hundreds of fox photos on my image card.  I had shots that were perfectly sharp, well exposed, had great compositions, you name it.  I was sure that I had the best shot of the day.  But I was wrong.  That shot was taken by my friend Mark Frey.  He was getting off the bus while some of us were concentrating on a fox in the distance.  He snapped this classic:  

“Hey, where did that fox go? Anyone see it?”

It makes me snicker every time I see it.  My thanks to Mark for letting me include it in the blog.

Okay so, why did our time with the foxes make such an impression on me?  Lots of reasons I guess…but the feeling induced by massive quantities of adrenaline pumping thru my system probably has something to do with it.  It was exciting.  It was unexpected.  It was fun.  It was something I will never forget.

And when you get right down to it, what more can you really ask of life?

Take care my friends,



PS:  I promise my next blog will include some of favorite landscape shots from Patagonia…stay tuned!  In the meantime, check out my newly published Patagonia Gallery!




Foxy Lady: Photographing the South American Grey Fox

Also posted in Patagonia Tagged , , , |

A Morning with Old Friends

Earlier this week I got to enjoy one of the true blessings of living in the Sunshine State…I went swimming with the Manatees.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“How can you not love that face!?”

Manatees are just so darn  laid-back and lovable.  They really remind me of basset-hounds…that are ten feet long and weigh as much as a small car. But they don’t have a mean bone in their body and they like nothing more than slowly moseying up to you and rolling over so you can give them a nice belly rub.  Hard not to adore a gentle soul like that.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Our captain Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours was excellent…and his heated boat was a blessing!

We were having a cold snap (for Florida anyway) and I knew that meant that the manatees would be coming in from the Gulf of Mexico and heading for the warm fresh water springs on Florida’s west coast.  Manatees tend to be most active in the morning  so I was up at 4 am and made the 90 minute drive so I could be on a dawn tour.

I met Captain Wyn as the morning treated us to a colorful sunrise.   Rose and Kyle Hooten, a young adventurous couple traveling the country were the only other folks on the tour.  We changed into our wet-suits and 15 minutes later we were the first boat to reach Homosassa Spring where we could see a number of manatees just below the surface.

I grabbed my camera, climbed down the ladder and headed toward a buoy ten feet away that was moving suspiciously.  Sure enough, a manatee was ‘flossing’ on the buoy’s rope:

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Manatees do love to play with ropes and lines…kinda like kids..

Within seconds, the manatees spotted us and headed over our way.  They seem to be innately curious.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“Meet my (not so) little friend!” Rose greets a manatee.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“Pleased to make your acquaintance!” Kyle and a manatee check each other out.

We were the subject of quite a bit of attention.  During our first 30 minutes or so, I’d guess that at least a half dozen manatees came over to us.  It really is quite a rush to have such a massive creature swim right up to your nose and stare directly into your eyes.


You are allowed to gently touch them with a single hand if they approach you.  Sometimes they come right up to you and start slowly rolling just so you can reach their belly.  A couple of them spent over five minutes with us, clearly loving the attention.  Even though I’ve done this many times, I found myself enthralled all over again.  Often I would just let the camera hang at my side and enjoy the moment…asking myself why it had been over two years since I had last done this.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer


Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

“Just take the picture Sonny!”

Over the next 90 minutes, we saw manatees on a regular basis.  A number of them were sleeping on the bottom, so of course we let them be, but every few minutes or so a manatee would come swimming by and check us out.

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

Certainly not the best over/under shot I’ve ever taken but I thought it was funny when I was taking a photo of our captain taking a shot of me when this shameless manatee photo-bombed us!

Manatee Photography Firefall Photography Jeff Stamer

The eyes of a gentle soul…

Manatee Photography


After a while the chill soaked thru our wet-suits and the heated cabin started sounding pretty darn alluring. But then another manatee would roll up and we’d forget about the cold again for a few minutes.

But after 90 minutes we decided to called it a day and head back to the dock.  As we warmed up in the cabin, Kyle, Rose and I cheerfully gabbed about our day with the manatees and traded phone numbers promising to exchange photos.

It never hurts to remind myself that photography is about a lot more than just taking pretty pictures!

PS:  If you would like to learn more about photographing manatees, check out a couple of my previous blogs here and here.

PSS:  A lot of the regulations concerning manatee photography have changed substantially over the past few years.  I’ll be posting a new blog within the next few weeks with updates and tips.

PSS: Check out my portfolio of manatee portraits here.

Underwater photographer and manatee

Kyle took this shot of me and my underwater rig…can you tell I was having a blast?!

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Underwater Photography Tagged , , |

Whales and Otters and Bears…oh my!

My wife loves cruising and I love my wife.  So I find myself on a cruise boat on a regular basis.  I make the best of it by booking shore excursions that allow me to feed my photography habit.  That can be real challenge in some locations (like the Caribbean).  Alaskan cruises on the other hand are packed with shore excursions that should make any photographer happy.

So, last month I found myself on a cruise ship with my incredible wife heading up Alaska’s Inner Passage.  I’ve never photographed Grizzlies fishing for salmon and this was the trip I planned to correct that oversight.   Taking no chances, I had booked tours in both Sitka and Ketchikan where we would take floatplanes to secluded rivers where you can photograph Grizzlies fishing for Salmon.  On first tour we flew twenty minutes and were ready to land in the lake by the bears before the pilot decided to turn back because of poor weather.

Okay, no big deal.  I had another chance in Ketchikan.  But then that tour was cancelled due to rain before the plane even got off the ground. So a bit of a disappointment.  But since the second tour was cancelled early in the day I was able to book a backup tour.  This was a ground tour that didn’t go to a secluded stream…it went to a Salmon hatchery down the coast.  Not what I had planned but I did manage to get a couple (black) bear shots…

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bear with Salmon

This poor old bear just didn’t seem to have a knack for fishing…she struggled for quite a while before she caught a big juicy salmon.

2017 08 31 Alaska 2939A few minutes later I noticed an eagle feeding on salmon by the edge of the same stream.  While the rest of the tour spent quality time in the gift shop, I walked back out and watched the eagle hoping to catch it in flight.  A few minutes before our bus pulled out, I was rewarded when the eagle suddenly took to flight and I ripped off a series of shots.Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bald Eagle Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bald Eagle









Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bald Eagle

Our third port was Juneau and my wife and I took a four hour wildlife tour.  Its one of those tours that goes out on a two decker catamaran packed with tourists during the middle of the day.    So not exactly ideal for wildlife photography (a kayak heading out at dawn would have been nice), but I was determined to make the best of it.Alaskan Wildlife Photography Immature Bald Eagle with Abalone Shell

We weren’t more than 20 minutes out of the harbor before we came up to our first set of eagles (which seem as common as pigeons in Alaska).  They were high in trees backlit by the overcast skies…which made for difficult photography.  Then I noticed a immature Bald Eagle not more than 50′ from me down on the shore chomping on a Abalone shell.  To be honest, I had no idea what had in its beak until I got home and processed the photos.


Not more than 20 minutes later, we came upon a raft of otters.  I managed to find a spot on the lower deck which allowed me to shoot from only a foot or two over the water and got some decent shots of these adorable critters.

2017 08 30 Alaska 2649_1

2017 08 30 Alaska 2619

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Otter

It’s hard to believe these guys were hunted to the thin edge of extinction…that would have been quite a loss.

But the best was yet to come.  The captain spotted a Humpback whale in the distance slapping the water with it’s tail and he set off  on an intercept course.  At first I was a bit frustrated because I wasn’t in a great spot to see the whale and a lady with long, long blowing hair was right in front of me making it impossible to get a shot that didn’t include her bright red mane.  I was afraid that the whale would dive when we got close and I’d miss getting a tail shot.  But I had no reason to worry.  We pulled up near the Humpback and it continued to slap the ocean…for ten full minutes.  The captain said he had been doing tours for over twenty years and he had never seen a whale do tail slaps for more than a couple minutes.  We considered ourselves quite fortunate.

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

Close enough to see details on the barnacles attached to the tip of the tail!

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

As much as I like the full frame shots, I think I like the ones that include the distant shoreline even more…

So, I got a LOT of whale tail shots (like over a thousand…which is easy to do when you are taking ten frames per second).  In fact, the whale was so close that my telephoto lens was too long.  Over half of my shots cut off at least part of the whale’s tale because it filled the frame…a problem I was very happy to have.

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

Our humpback waves goodbye one last time before its final deep dive.

I had wanted to get good whale tail photos for years but my luck had been spotty.  So you can understand why these ten minutes were the highlight of my trip.

We headed back to port and it was hard to keep the silly grin off my face.  It was a great day.

Like all trips, this one had it’s share of luck…good and bad.  But even if I hadn’t taken a single frame on the entire trip I would have come home content.  I find it impossible to spend time our largest state without coming home recharged, refreshed and with a renewed appreciation for the wonder that is Alaska.



Also posted in Alaska Tagged , , , , , , , , |

New portfolio of African Wildlife

Hi all,

Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve recently added a full gallery of African Wildlife images to my website.  I’ve selected over 60 of my favorite photos for you to enjoy.  Check it out by clicking on this link.2016-kenya-11-13-11287-crop-nik

Also posted in Africa Tagged , |

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub

Some things are universal.  A mother’s love is perhaps the most touching.  It crosses every boundary and certainly isn’t restricted to humans.  I was reminded of this truism last year in Africa.

We were out photographing on the Masai Mora…which is the part of the Serengeti that crosses into Kenya.  It is a vast grassland that stretches to the horizon.


Our guide, Julius, got a call from another Land Rover that had spotted a lioness creeping into a thicket.  It seemed worth a look but after creeping up a rocky hill, all we could see was this:

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story

Just a tall jumble of branches…frankly, even if there was a lion in there I didn’t see how we would get a photo worth having.  But Julius knew better, so we parked about 50′ away and waited…  Before long, we sensed something moving in the thicket…then we heard a pathetic, wimpy ‘mewing.’    And sure enough, this little guy crept out of the wood pile. The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo storySmaller than a loaf of bread and probably only a couple weeks old.  Barely had its eyes open and could hardly see at all…kept bumping into rocks and stumbling over his own feet.  But he was determined and over the next five minutes he managed to stumble quite a distance from the lair.  Which wasn’t good…there are all types of predators who would enjoy such a nice little morsel…I couldn’t tell you how many kinds of raptors I had seen… 5

…and any of them would have been delighted by this mobile ‘brunch.’  As the minutes stretched out, we started actively searching the skies to see if something would spot our little cub…and he got further and further from home.


The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

Then…we saw Mama…

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

And she certainly saw us!The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

She barked a throaty snarl and gave us a no-nonsense…”Stay the hell away from my cub!” look that affected me deep in the pit of my stomach.  This wasn’t one of those fake “take a shot of the lion when it yawns…it looks just like a roar.”  This was the real thing…and you could see it in her eyes!  After making sure we weren’t a threat, she headed right to her errant cub.

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography2016 Kenya 11 14 14375

Then, this fierce hunter morphed into the most gentle soul you can imagine…

2016 Kenya 11 14 14378

Maybe she was a new mother, but she seemed very apprehensive about picking up her cub…

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

She tried over and over again.  Finally, she seemed to give up and gave him a bath instead..

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

Of course, the cub didn’t make it easy for her…it kept wiggling and scooting away.

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

But finally he settled down and she got a good grip…firm, but not too firm…

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

She headed back to the thicket…

2016 Kenya 11 14 14661The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

But she sure kept an eye on us the whole time…The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography

…and then she silently slipped back into the bramble.

The Good Mother: A Lioness and her Cub Photo story

2016 Kenya 11 14 14814

It’s funny, if we had been even a few hundred yards away, we would have probably never known this little drama had even taken place.  The savannah might be vast, but it certainly isn’t empty and it has stories to tell…2077




The Good Mother:  A Lioness and her Cub   Photo story by Jeff Stamer at Firefall Photography


Also posted in Africa Tagged , , , |

Hunter or Hunted? A tale of the Hippo and the Lion Pride

Every day during my two weeks in Kenya, we would go out into the bush and I would be treated to some wild new wonder. Yes, I had never been to Kenya…so of course it all was new.  But some of the experiences so bizarre they even amazed our guides who were native Kenyans!  Maybe the best example of this was the adventure with the Hippo and the Lions.

One morning, we headed out before sunrise to a spot by the river where we had seen a lion pride the night before.  The lions were still there all right…eight or nine females and their young just lounging around soaking up some sun.

2016 Kenya 11 12 07723

This beautiful lioness relaxed in this sunlit spot on the riverbank posing for us for over ten minutes.

We moved the Land Rover to a great spot on the opposite bank and started snapping shots.  We had been photographing for quite a while when I noticed a hippo surface in one of the deep pools in the river just below us…2016 Kenya 11 12 07736

He (she?) casually climbed out and struggled up the embankment…

2016 Kenya 11 12 07749

That really got the attention of our lioness.  She got up and started trotting toward the hippo.  She maneuvered into its blind spot…

2016 Kenya 11 12 07750

Now lions don’t usually prey on hippos…nothing really messes with hippos, they’re just too big.  Despite their comical appearance, they can be deadly.  Hippos reportedly kill more people in Africa than any other land animal…our guide Julius explained that are particularly dangerous when you get between them and their escape route to the water.

Maybe the hippo heard something, because suddenly it twisted its head and saw the lioness!

2016 Kenya 11 12 07756

It froze for a second and then….it spit up what looked like 20 gallons of water.  I don’t know if this was a defensive action or if the lioness just scared it right out of her…

2016 Kenya 11 12 07760

A split second later, the hippo charged the lioness.  Now, you wouldn’t think a 3,000 pound hippo could move fast…but you would also be wrong.  They can hit 20 mph…keep in mind that Usain Bolt can only hit 27 mph!2016 Kenya 11 12 07762

This is as close as the Hippo got…the lion’s speed quickly got her out of harm’s way.

When it saw that the lion was out of reach, the hippo stopped…2016 Kenya 11 12 07771

Perhaps it decided that discretion was the better part of valor… ’cause it spun around and headed back toward the river.  The lioness immediately jumped off in pursuit…

2016 Kenya 11 12 07777

The hippo glanced over its shoulder… 2016 Kenya 11 12 07780

and seemed to open its mouth to scream when it saw it was being chased again.  She put her head down, put on the afterburners and started really moving!

Check out the dust trail the hippo was throwing up!

Check out the dust trail the hippo was throwing up!

As they passed the pride, the other lionesses started paying attention.

2016 Kenya 11 12 07787

I count four lions in this shot…that Hippo was seriously outnumbered!

By now the hippo had a full head of steam…with all that momentum, I doubt that anything could have stopped it…

2016 Kenya 11 12 07800

In the shot above, you can see that the lioness had caught up to the hippo and was throwing on the brakes.  She must have been thinking “Why am I chasing this guy…what the heck would I do if I caught him anyway?!”

2016 Kenya 11 12 07802

This was my last shot before the hippo passed behind the trees lining the river and headed down the bank…to safety.

Just like that, it was over.  From the time I first spotted the hippo in the river until she jumped back down the embankment less than 50 seconds had passed.   It’s incredible the drama you can experience in less than a minute.  Anyway, it made for an exciting morning…for the photographers as well as the hippo and the lion pride.  Like I said, something new and exciting every day!

Until my next post, take care,



Also posted in Africa Tagged , , |

My Kenya Photo Safari: Ten Impressions (Plus some photos too!)

I can’t remember a blog that has been as difficult to write as this one.  It’s been nearly a month since I returned from Africa and as each day passes I receive more and more subtle (and not so subtle) questions about ‘when are we going to hear about your Kenya Photo Safari (and see some photos!)?’My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

Frankly, part of the problem is that I am a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of photos I took…over 25,000 images.  Just culling and processing them is a huge task.  Plus Africa was so dramatically different from my normal ‘world’ that I’ve been at a loss of even figuring out where to begin.

After four or five false starts, it became clear that I couldn’t write a single article about my trip….it would be exhausting…and very, very long. This first blog is going to be no more than an attempt to relay some of the most intense impressions that Kenya made upon me…along with a scattering of photos.  That will at least get the ice broken and future blogs can cover some of my experiences in detail.


Never met a stranger…

First of all, let me tell you about the Kenyan people.  I’ve never met folks who were so genuinely friendly.  And I don’t mean friendly like the “Welcome to Disney world, thanks for spending a boatload of cash” that I’m used to.  I mean people who wave to you as you drive by a narrow dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Don’t give me wrong, if you walked downtown Nairobi at midnight with a Rolex on your wrist I’m confident you might meet someone who might give you a different impression.  But in a nation with 40% unemployment (yes….40%!), I found it admirable and inspiring that the Kenyans had such sunny dispositions.

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

A Gerenuk…One of many animals I didn’t even know existed before my visit.

Second, Kenya not only has an incredible amount of wildlife but it is shockingly diverse.

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

Even the lizards were cool!

I guess I’m used to the National Parks in North America where, sure, during a good day I might see a couple dozen different kinds of critters and maybe even something big now and again.  But in Kenya, there was such an incredible variety…hundreds of brightly colored bird species, dozens of exotic and strange mammals and an endless supply of animals every bit as big (and bigger) as our Land Rover.  For photography, it was truly a “target rich environment.”


Third, animals are people too.  Well, ok…they’re not human but I mean that after watching and photographing wildlife  ten hours a day for two weeks I was impressed with how often they displayed nearly human emotions and behavior.  The longer I was there, the more I appreciated that for all of humanity’s progress, science and intelligence….we really aren’t all that different.

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

The affection between this cub and her mother is lovingly apparent

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

Who hasn’t seen this look in a teenager’s eyes?

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

“I’m not Screwing around…Back Off NOW!”

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

Madonna and Child










Fourth, Africa is beautiful but it isn’t benign.

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

This is a Black Spitting Cobra. I had no idea what it was when I started snapping shots. My guide nearly freaked when he saw it!

I drove my guides a bit crazy with my desire to get out of the vehicle and take landscape shots.  It made them nervous as hell if I got more than ten feet from the Land Rover.  At first I didn’t really understand it… I’m used to hiking in the Americas where there really aren’t that many dangers from wildlife (assuming you display reasonable caution).  Africa is different.  There are a number of critters there that will kill you.  I learned that you couldn’t just go out and photograph the Milky Way at night by your tent  (a leopard killed an antelope one night inside our camp).  And to always look where you put your feet (see photo to the right).  Don’t get me wrong…its not like tourists are being killed in droves but you have to exercise a higher level of caution than you might be used to.

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

“This meal could have just as easily been you buddy!”

Fifth, maybe I could be a birder after all.  I’ve joked about birders for years, but this trip may be the end of that.  The birds in Kenya amazed me.  So many different species.  So much color.  So freaking exotic.  They were seemingly everywhere and they would let you get a lot closer than I am accustomed to.

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris RollerMy Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris Grey Crown Craine2016-kenya-11-10-05015-crop2016-kenya-11-14-142592016-kenya-11-10-05710

Sixth, what happens when you put a landscape photographer on a wildlife tour?  I just couldn’t help myself…

My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

The Iconic Africa.


My Kenya Photo Safari with Wild4 Photo Safaris

I was watching a nice sunset over the Masai Mara when I noticed this incredible cloud formation behind me.


Pre-dawn shot of the savannah from my hilltop bungalow

Mt Kenya rises from the mist

Mt Kenya rises from the mist

Seventh, Cats are where its At!  Sure, I loved seeing elephants playing in the water or giraffes reaching for leaves on the tops of trees but lions, leopards and Cheetahs generated a whole ‘nother level of interest.  There is something inherently fascinating about these preditors…their powerful grace, surprising tenderness and pitiless lethality.


“Liquid Grace”



“Touch my zebra and DIE!”


“Time for bed little one…”



“And what do we have here?”


“Almost there…”

Eighth, wildlife photography can be intensely exciting.  Stuff happens quickly with no warning.  In landscape photography I might spend weeks planning a shot, an hour just setting up and another thirty minutes taking the shot.  In Kenya we might come around a corner, find two Oryx fighting, rip off 100 frames and be moving on….all in a total of five minutes.



Landscape photography is like writing a book:  it is calm, cerebral and certain…you pretty well know what is going to happen next.  Wildlife photography is like skydiving: Fast and furious and the future is anyone’s guess!


“Leap of Faith”


“…and the hunter shall become the hunted” This hippo was chased by a pack of lionesses…then it turned the tables!


Ninth,  it’s all about the eyes.  Windows to the soul…even with animals.  When a lion looks right into your eyes, you know this ain’t no house cat…and your heart stops.2016-kenya-11-14-14033-subtle


Tenth, I learned to try and photograph a story…not just a moment.  Don’t get me wrong, one-off shots of a majestic lion are great:


“Sundown Serenade”

But the story of a lion cub running around with a shoe…and playing ‘keep away’ from his siblings makes perhaps an even stronger impression.


“Hey….Loooook what I found you losers!”





“Just try and catch me!”

I have a number of other Kenyan wildlife ‘photo stories’ that I will share in blogs over the next few months.  Stay tuned!

Okay, I know that’s a pretty choppy blog…but at least I broke the ice and hopefully it won’t be so long until my next one.

Happy Holidays to you and your family.  Kwaheri!


PS:  I usually plan my own photo trips and rarely go on tours or use guides.  I made an exception with this trip and I’m very glad I did.  My tour was with “Wild4Photo Safaris” run by Stu and Justyna Porter.  This is a class operation and I wouldn’t have come home with half as many killer shots if it wasn’t for Stu and my driver/guide Julius.  These guys had an amazing ability to anticipate where the wildlife was going to do be and what they were going to do.  They never failed to have us in the perfect position for the shot.  Not only that…but they were great people who became my friends.  I owe them a huge thanks for memories that that will last the rest of my life.


Also posted in Africa Tagged , , , |

Safari Njema!

Well, tomorrow I embark on a grand adventure…a two week photo safari in Kenya!

This has been on my ‘bucket list’ since I was a kid and I’m insanely excited about the trip.  My wonderful bride of 26 years gave me this trip as my Christmas present and I gotta say:  The woman knows me well!

I’ve spent the better part of six months getting ready, which included buying additional camera gear (of course), more innoculations than I can count and hours trying make all my gear fit Emirates Airlines’ insanely measly luggage allowance (one carry-on bag for a 20 hour flight..Come on, really?!).

Fortunately, my trip will be with an outstanding, experienced guide (Stu Porter who specializes in nothing but photo tours), so I don’t have to worry about anything once I get to Africa except taking photos.

I don’t expect to have much internet access, so don’t expect to hear much from me for a while…but once I’m back I’ll be sharing lots of photos!


Gorilla on Pangani Trail at Wild Kingdom/ Nikon 800E 300mm 400 ISO 1/500sec f/5.6

Tagged , |

My Twelve Best of 2015

Writing my annual Top 12 blog is always interesting.  Yeah…interesting.  It’s a good word.  It covers everything from fun to frustrating…and that’s very appropriate.  Trying to filter 12,000 images down to 12 is a challenge.  Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to remember the trips I took to capture these shots…those are some wonderful memories.  But just 12 images…wow…it’s really frustrating trying to narrow it down that much.  On, the other hand, I guess it’s a good problem to have, it meant that 2015 resulted in a lot of work I was proud of.   Well anyway, you didn’t click on this blog to hear me ramble…you want to see photos, so here we go…my best work of the year 2015 (in no particular order):2015 Smokies_04_30_03285 3260 blendI know I said the photos aren’t ranked, but this might be my favorite shot of the year.  Heck, this might be my favorite shot ever.  I have huge metal print of this image hanging right over my desk and every time I see it, I seem to stop and drink it in for a moment or two.  Not only does it inspire me, but I always think of the improbable chain of events that resulted in me capturing this image.  It’s a shot that I shouldn’t have gotten, but I did…and I’m grateful.

2015 Smokies_04_30_02492 cropJust adorable.  I came upon this cub and his sister playing on the edge of a field in the Smokies and they couldn’t have been more cute if they had tried.  I spent a few hours  photographing them while hand-holding the ‘beast’ (my 200-400 lens…which weighs as much as the cub’s mom)…but it was worth every aspirin I had to swallow!

2015 Smokies_04_28_00219 blendGeorge Jetson was here!  Well, that’s the type of graffiti I was expecting to see on top of Clingman’s Dome when I was setting up this shot.  I love how the spiral observation tower mimics the grace of the Milky Way.


2015 Scuba 17 March 11879 crop2_1My wife and I were diving on a wreck in the Caribbean when this big kahuna joined us and made my day.  I’d never had much luck photographing sea turtles but that all changed on this trip!  I’d be the first to admit that I still have volumes to learn about underwater photography, but even so, my family considers this shot to be one of their favorites!


2015 PAC NW 08 12 2628My son and I had an epic hiking trip to the Pac NW last summer and came home with some lasting memories and killer waterfall photos…this shot of Ryan in front of Wachlella Falls is my pick from that litter….


2015 PAC NW 08 11 2353

On second thought, I kinda like this long exposure perspective of Ponytail Falls too…


2015 PAC NW 08 09 1205cropwm24x36

When I get to visit a location on my “Photographic Bucket List” I rarely come back with a photo I would consider ‘world class.’  After all, when you only have a day or two, what chance do you have to really learn how to best capture the scene PLUS be blessed with weather that makes the image truly something special?  This shot of ‘Thor’s Well’ was a welcome exception to that rule.

2015 Northwest 06 30 451 (1)

This Alaskan harbor seal appears due to the lobbying efforts of my wife.  I would have put it in my top 25 but not top 12…she disagreed.  Over the years I’ve learned to carefully listen when she speaks…



I have a love-hate thingy going with the Oregon/Washington coast.  I love that the coast line has some of the most breathtaking incredible vistas anywhere but I hate that the weather is often, usually, always crappy.  Okay…not always, but it sure seems that way to me.  So it takes some perseverance and luck to get a memorable image.  On the other hand, since you have to go back to the same spot multiple times hoping for good weather, when it finally does clear up, you have scouted the spot to death and know how you want to shoot it!


2015 Northwest 06 20 904

Washington’s Palouse Falls is an incredible sight and I’ve long believed that it would be even more impressive at night with the Milky Way rising over it.  Well, over the years I’ve tried many times to get that shot but the falls are in a deep, dark gorge and it is real challenge to light it up well. I tried long exposures…I tried light painting…  Nothing I did looked ‘right.’  One frustrating and unproductive night when I was breaking down my equipment a guy walked up and asked if I minded if he tried some light painting.  I chuckled to myself and told him to have at it since I’d thought I had already tried everything.  He pulled out the most powerful flashlight I’d ever seen and proceeded to do a masterful job of illuminating the gorge.  I snapped away and ended up with the shot I had always dreamed of.  My thanks to Ariel Rodilla for showing me that I still have a lot more to learn about light painting!


Best Photos of the Year

Perfect Palouse

Every photographer should have the chance to shoot the Palouse region of eastern Washington State at least once before they die.  It truly is a land that time forgot (in a good way) and the 360° views of the sensuous, smooth, and seemingly liquid landscape from Steptoe Butte are stunning.


Best Photos of the Year

Manatee Sunrise

I’ll finish with the most popular photograph I’ve ever published.  When I posted this one on my Facebook page, it seemed to really strike a chord with folks and it went viral.  Oddly enough, this photo bothers me.  When I look at it, all I seem to notice is that the front of this manatee’s nose is out of focus.  Sometimes being a perfectionist means you get hung up on small details and I’m certainly guilty of that.  It was an incredible moment though, when this manatee surfaced right in front of me while I was taking a shot of the sunrise.  If only he had given me the time to make sure the shot was in focus…

It was an incredible year for me professionally and personally.  I explored more of this incredible planet, met lots of wonderful folks, sold some prints, won a contest or two and got a few images published.  Plus, even after all these years, I found that photography continued to challenge and inspire me.   Even better, my wife and I got my first Grandchild (little London Grace)…which helps keep my photography obsession in perspective.

Life is Good.


Also posted in Best Photos of the Year, Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Underwater Photography, Waterfalls

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver’s Paradise

When I first began my career in photography, I was drawn to the icons…Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches (you know the list).  The internet and libraries are filled with info about “Photographing the Southwest,”  “How to photograph the Grand Canyon” and “Fifty Places to Photograph Before you Die.”  These icons are famous for a reason…great photographs can be taken there and as an aspiring photographer it only made sense to  ‘fish where the fish are.’

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Bonaire Bound

But there is a downside too…and that is that it is unlikely that your shots are really going to stand out.  Yes, they still might be impressive, beautiful and inspiring….but honestly, it is pretty difficult to take a unique photograph of Half Dome from Yosemite’s Tunnel View when 43 trillion other photos have been taken from the same spot.

One solution is find a new way to photograph an old icon: a different angle, a creative perspective, something…anything new or different!  You will find this piece of advice in nearly every photography article ever written.  It’s good advice, and I certainly strive to dream up new ways capture these legendary vistas.

But there is another way to take a unique photo.  Find a place that isn’t already well known to every photographer on the planet.

I can’t honestly say that this is the reason my wife and I spent a week on the island of Bonaire earlier this fall.   To be honest, we were there because we are divers and Bonaire is well known as a “Diver’s Paradise.”  I hoped there might be something else to photograph, so I searched the internet.  But even Google failed to give me much except lots and lots of underwater shots.  But I’m an optimist, so I packed my cameras, tripods, lenses and another 80 pounds of photo gear…just in case.

I’m glad I did!

It turns out that there is more to photograph in Bonaire than just fish.  A lot more…

First a bit about the island.  Bonaire lies about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is the least well-known of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao).   Cruise ships don’t visit often and with less than 17,000 natives it is quiet and uncrowded.   It’s a Dutch island and people are friendly but respectful (you don’t get mobbed by people yelling “hey pretty lady, buy my t-shirts!”  Surprisingly, the island is very dry…looking more like the desert Southwest than the typical lush tropical rainforest you might expect.

First of all, there is some fascinating wildlife to keep your camera busy.  Yes, they have iguanas (which I simply love….running around like half-baked dinosaurs)!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Iguana Rex

And then there were the birds…wow!  Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise


For me, a highlight had to be the Flamingos.  Bonaire is host to the one of the few places in the world that has breeding grounds of the Caribbean Flamingo.  Heck, I’d never seen a flamingo except in a zoo….and in Bonaire I saw thousands.  They don’t like noise or movement, so you need a long telephoto and some stalking skills, but where else can you get shots like this?Barika-Hel

As you know, I adore hummingbirds, so I was delighted to see hummers swarming the flowering bushes and trees around our resort even before we got to our room!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Ruby Topaz (Chrysolampis mosquitus)

The Ruby-Topaz hummingbird and the well named Emerald hummingbird  are both gorgeous and much different from the Ruby-Throated hummers we have back at home in Florida.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)

For the entire week, after our morning dives, you would often find me with my 70-200mm staked out by the flowers near our room.  Other tourists would be walking to their rooms, spot me, take a wary look at the guy creeping around with a camera… but then they would see the hummers and their faces would light up and they would start whispering and pointing.

Oh yeah, they had parrots too! (at least I thought they were parrots).  Right outside our room..often roosting in the same trees as the hummers were what the locals called ‘Loras.’   They looked like a huge parakeets on steroids, which it kinda turns out they are.  Meet the Caribbean Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) .  They certainly had no fear of people and posed patiently while I burned thru some memory cards.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

The Schwarzenegger of Parakeets!

There aren’t many big critters on the island.

Spotted Trunkfish

Meet Larry, Curley and Moe

The most interesting are the donkeys. Apparently the early Dutch imported a lot of donkeys for use as pack animals.  When cars and trucks became available, the donkeys were let loose to roam the island and fend for themselves.  Since they aren’t native, life was challenging for the newly emancipated burros, but in 1993,  Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, established a donkey sanctuary on Bonaire for sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys.  Now over 400 donkeys call the Donkey Sanctuary home.  For a small donation you can drive thru the compound.  If you ever wanted the opportunity to get a close-up photo of a donkey, here is your chance.  Hey, it’s not photographing Grizzly’s catching spawning Salmon, but it makes for an entertaining photo op!

Spotted Trunkfish

“Hey Pretty Lady, are you going to finish that carrot?”

How about landscapes?  Well, to be honest, we never even made it to the northern part of the island which is the home of Washington Slagbaai National Park.   This park covers 1/5 of the total island and locals told me it had the most potential for landscape photography on Bonaire.  Unfortunately, I really only explored the southern coast and  central part of the island around our resort (near Kralendijk, the Capital).

The salt flats on the southern end of the island are pretty dramatic.  The water in the flats is actually pink…well maybe mauve…well, it changes, depending on how the sunlight hits it.  The huge mountains of salt in the background can make some fascinating images when contrasted with the salt ponds and if you happen to find a couple flamingos necking in a salt pond in the foreground, you might actually get one of those unique images we were talking about:)

Spotted Trunkfish

“Caribbean Fantasy”

Also on the isolated and unpopulated southern coast were the remains of the slave huts and ship markers that are a fascinating but disturbing reminder of a past when slaves worked under harsh conditions harvesting sea salt from the nearby salt flats.  The huts are minuscule and must have been like ovens with whole families crowded into them.

Spotted Trunkfish

The obelisks were built in 1837 as markers directing ships to the correct beach where the salt would be loaded.

Since there isn’t much light pollution on Bonaire and nothing but ocean to the south, I hoped this might be a good spot for Milky Way photography.  I was right!   It might have been a bit spooky but it made for some wonderful and unusual photography.

Spotted Trunkfish

Cursed Obelisk

After my wife and I returned home, I got a note from one of the folks I had met on Bonaire telling me about a Photo Contest the island’s tourism bureau was conducting.  The top prize was a week of lodging for two along with food, rental car and free diving.  I’m not much on contests, I’d rather be out taking photos than filling out forms but my wife encouraged me to enter.  I find it is usually a good idea to listen to her advice….and guess what?

Spotted Trunkfish

I should always listen to my wife!

Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!


PS:  I have a long way to go with my Underwater photography before I ever see the end of my learning curve.  But I love a challenge,  Plus the underwater world is alien, colorful and visually stunning. My UW shots didn’t win any prizes, but I’d like to share a few of them with you anyway:

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Spotted Eel

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Caribbean Reef Squid

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

My wife loves these little guys. They are just plain funny looking. We call them Cowfish but I’ve been told it is actually a Spotted Trunkfish

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise



Also posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Hummingbirds, Milky Way Photography, Underwater Photography Tagged , , , , , |


It is funny how perceptions differ between people.  It is certainly true for photographers as well.  There are some shots that I consider to be my best work that members of my family look at and politely say…”oh, that’s nice.”  On the other hand, there are images I’ve taken that I think are just okay but others really “ahhhh and oooohhhh” about.

The shot below is a perfect example.  I took this image earlier this year but I wasn’t happy with it.  Sure it was nice to get a manatee and a sunrise in the same shot but I didn’t like how part of the manatee wasn’t in focus so I didn’t even bother to process the shot for a few months.  But eventually I did and on a slow day, I named it “Morning Rendezvous” and posted it to my facebook account.  And it went viral.  Over 10,000 ‘likes’, hundreds of shares and comments.  More than anything that I’ve posted before…heck, more than EVERYTHING combined that I’ve ever posted.  People started tracking me down to buy prints and it is now, by far, my best selling print.  It’s been published and used as the banner for multiple websites…heck…the Crystal River Manatee Refuge even used it as the basis of a mural they had painted at their center!

I really don’t intend to brag.  But to be honest, this is a huge break for me professionally, so of course I’m very pleased.  It really is great to create something that strikes such a chord in people.  That is, after all, one of my goals in photography.

But did it have to be this picture?  Clearly most folks aren’t immediately distracted by the poor focus…which is all the perfectionist in me sees.

Funny, huh?!

Morning Rendevous

All I can see are those (out of focus) whiskers….



Also posted in Best Photos of the Year, Manatees, Underwater Photography Tagged , |

Audubon Bird of Prey Center: Photography Tips

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

Entrance to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

Have you ever had something you’ve enjoyed for years but pretty much took it for granted…until the day you found out it was actually rare and valuable?  Then suddenly you looked at it anew with full appreciation?  Well, it’s surely happened to all of us…and I experienced it again just a couple weeks ago.

I’ve visited the nearby Audubon Bird of Prey Center in Maitland Florida off and on since the 1980s…way back before marriage, kids or even digital cameras!  I might not be a ‘birder’ but I do love raptors and I’ve long enjoyed this facility since it allows me to photograph close-ups of Bald Eagles.  After my visit, I thought about writing a blog but I figured, heck, there are facilities like this everywhere, why would my subscribers, especially those who live far from Central Florida, want to read about this one when they could just visit their local facility?

Well, after a few minutes on the internet, I learned how wrong I was.  It turns out that this is the premier raptor rehabilitation center east of the Mississippi.  Since 1979 they have treated more than 17,000 injured or orphaned raptors, averaging about 650 admissions a year.  In fact, they just released their 500th Bald Eagle last month!  The center includes a state-of-the-art clinic with its own X-ray equipment and a 100-foot-long flight cage, all of which contribute to their 40+% success rate at rehabilitating raptors.

Ok,I guess everyone doesn’t have a place like this nearby.  So, let’s look at some pictures and learn a bit about this treasure.

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

If you wait a while, the eagles will ‘sing.’ It seems to happen couple times an hour and it will send chills down your spine!

First of all, The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is tucked away on a small, 3 acre, heavily shaded lot nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. Although only about 20 minutes north of Orlando, you would never know it is there unless you were looking for it (Actually, I drove right by it my first time without even seeing it!)  It is a quaint, clean and well laid-out facility housing more than 20 species of raptors, including Bald Eagles, Caracaras, Red Tailed Hawks, Ospreys, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, Kestrels and many others.  Although the birds currently being rehabilitated can’t be seen by visitors (they don’t want them to become accustomed to humans) the Center has 20 non-releasable,  permanent ‘residents’ that you can observe.Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

The center has a series of large aviaries that houses many of the birds.  Unfortunately for us shutter-bugs, those aviaries are covered with thick gauge wire enclosures that don’t lend themselves to good photographs.   However, if you photograph birds that aren’t close to the wire and use a wide aperture (f2.8 or 3.5) you can often throw the wire so out of focus that it isn’t really visible.

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

This Crested Caracara was in one of the outdoor aviaries. Strange looking bird in a wildly exotic way…

The good news is that there are usually 7 or more birds kept outside of the enclosures when the center is open.  They are placed on perches about 10 feet or so from the walkway…which obviously makes for wonderful photography.   In addition, you can also photograph another half dozen species of smaller raptors that are housed on the back porch of the Audubon House (the 1920s bungalow that is the center of the facility).

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

Newton is an American Kestrel. You can see him on the back porch of the Audubon House.

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

The “Viewing Gallery” (aka “shooting gallery”). You can see “Paige” the eagle thru the left window.

To me, however, the crème de la crème is the “Viewing Room” (I used to call it the “Shooting Gallery” but my wife pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t a politically correct term for a bird rehabilitation center).  This is a large room with three windows that faces an open-air side porch where many of the larger birds are kept on perches (Eagles, Owls and Hawks).  To make it even better, there are binoculars and comfortable chairs right in front of the windows.  In other words, you sit in a chair, in an air conditioned house and photograph magnificent raptors that are 10-30 away.  The windows aren’t in direct sunlight, so you don’t have to worry about reflections.  And to help make this near perfect, the staff will even let you open the center window so you can photograph without any glass between you and the raptors.

Usually I have to hike thru sweltering woods while being attacked by blood-thirsty mosquitos to get good Eagle photos.  So I truly appreciate the “Viewing Room”…Nature photography has never been so good!

For a different perspective, you can also photograph thru the bars of these gates ...

For a different perspective, you can also photograph thru the bars of these gates …

If you visit the Center a few times, you will get to know some of the ‘residents.’  My favorite is “Paige.”  Paige is a majestic female Bald Eagle.  She isn’t a petite little lady either…at 10 pounds she is among the larger eagles you will ever see.   Unfortunately she has a permanently injured wing and will never be released into the wild.  You would never know it by looking…she conducts herself with pride and is incredibly impressive.

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

Paige is one fine looking female! I love that I can get close enough to capture the flecks of color in her eyes…what a wonderful place to photograph eagles.

Another of my favorites is Cinnamon.  She is a Red-Tailed Hawk with lots of personality who always seems to turn her head sideways to get a look at me when I arrive.  Maybe she thinks I’m Brad Pitt, but then again she is near-sighted…

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips

Cinnamon spots her favorite photographer!

If you like to photograph wildlife, you will love this place and if you are a birder, you will absolutely be in heaven.  Admission is only $5 and you should plan on spending 1-2 hours….

Did you know?

In 1973, Florida had only 88 remaining nesting pairs of Bald Eagles.  Now we have over 1,400, the most in the lower 48.

“Today in Central Florida alone we have more eagles and eagle nests in that area than in the entire 48 states in 1965,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy at Audubon of Florida, to the Winter Park / Maitland Observer.

Clearly the staff and volunteers at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey have made a difference!


The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is located at 1101 Audubon Way in Maitland. Center hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. It is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children, except for those under 3, who enter free

Directions: From Interstate 4, take exit 88 and head east on Lee Road. Take the first left onto Wymore Boulevard and then a right onto Kennedy Boulevard. Turn left onto East Avenue. Audubon Way will be the third left, and the Center is immediately on the right.  See this link for a Google Map.

Tips for Photographers

1)  Although you can get much closer to these birds than you ever could in the wild, you still want a long lens.  A 300mm lens will allow you to get shots that will fill your frame.  However, if you want a head shot that will fill your viewfinder, you are going to need something close to 600mm

2)  Bring your monopod or tripod, especially if you are hefting a heavy lens. Otherwise your arms will be turning to jelly by the end of your shoot.  There is plenty of room and your tripod won’t get in the way.

3)  A speed of 1/125 is usually fast enough since the birds are resting on perches.

4) I usually shoot at my widest aperture.  Even so, I often have to tweak the exposure in post-processing since the shots at 1/125 are a bit dark.

5)  I’ve never used a flash here, but I might try a “better beamer” or similar product next time to provide  some fill flash.  However, I’ll be sure to first ask the staff for permission (I didn’t see any signs saying “No Flash Photography” but I would want to make sure first!)

6)  Although I like to be there at opening (10am), I might try late afternoon next time.  If so, the birds in the garden outside the “Viewing Room” would be shaded by the house.  This would prevent the ‘hot spots’ from sunlight thru the dappled leaves.  An overcast day would be ideal, but those are rare here in Central Florida.

7)  It is rarely busy but visit during the week if you can.  Also, call ahead to see if they have any groups planned to visit that day, if so, just schedule around them.  Note that they are closed on Mondays.

8)  Take your time.  If you want to capture unusual or interesting behavior, you need to be patient and not just pop a few shots of each bird and head for the parking lot.  The eagles, for example, will occasionally start calling to each other, when that happens, you can get really interesting shots of them with screaming with their beaks stretched open.  Besides, the whole place has a quiet, laid back atmosphere, the staff is friendly and it is rarely crowded (especially during the week)….so don’t rush, this is far different from visiting a theme park (thank God!)

8)  Talk to the staff and volunteers.  These folks are super friendly and they love to talk about the birds.  Plus, the more I learn about each individual bird, the more their photos mean more to me.

10)  While you are there, walk out onto the dock that extends to a gazebo over the lake.  During the summer, water lilies bloom there and you can get interesting shots from the elevated deck.  Check out these shots.

If you are ever in the Orlando area (and everyone seems to visit here at some time or another), take a break from our world-class theme parks and treat yourself to a bit of the natural Florida at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey.

Take Care!

Audubon Bird of Prey Center:  Photography Tips



Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations Tagged , , , |

The Cubs of Cades Cove

I have to admit that I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to the topic of bears.  Well, black bears anyway…I don’t think I will ever take a Grizzly for granted!  I live near a state park and see black bears walking thru my yard all the time.  So last week when I was photographing a sunset in the Smokies and the guy next to me insisted I see the bear photos he had taken the day before, I took a deep breath, hid my lack of enthusiasm and glanced over at his smartphone.  And what I saw took my breath away.  He didn’t have your garden-variety photos of bears…he had photos of bear cubs!

Keep reading to find out how I got this adorable shot.

Keep reading to find out how I met this cute little fella…

I had lived around bears for twenty years but realized in that moment that I had never seen a cub.  And Lord…they were so incredibly cute!   Although I had made my trip to the Smokies intent on photographing landscapes and spring wildflowers, that focus suddenly shifted.

Black Bear Cub Photography

I was lucky to find some Mountain Laurel which anchored this image.

A couple days later, I was taking a sunrise shot from the Foothills Parkway when a lady pulls into the overlook and sets up her tripod.  I couldn’t help notice that she was still in her PJs…and that started a conversation.  It turns out she was a local (she had rushed out of her nearby home to photograph the sunrise and didn’t have time to change, which explained the PJs).  As we talked, I realized that I had seen her photography on Facebook.   Her name is Kellie Walls Sharpe and a friendlier person doesn’t exist on this earth.  As we worked the sunrise, I mentioned the bear cubs.  Kellie knew all about them and told me exactly where they could be found (her local knowledge of wildlife and photography locations was amazing). Well, as soon as the sunrise had faded, I thanked Kellie and headed off to the spot in Cades Cove she had told me about.  About an hour later I was hiking across a field and sure enough, spotted a bear.  But it was just a yearling…kinda scrawny and not terribly photogenic. So I kept walking and looking.  Ten minutes later movement caught my eye near the base of a hill.  I ambled up and saw a pair of cubs…and a big mama bear about 20 feet beyond them.

Now, let me say that the Park regulations require you to keep a 50 yard distance from bears.  And although black bears are not usually aggressive, only a fool would get between a mother and her cubs.  Fortunately, I had brought my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter, so I was able to keep my distance and still get tack-sharp images.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Twins: Up they go!

The twins immediately scrambled up a tree.  Mama took a hard look at me, decided I was just another fool photographer and then promptly and totally ignored me for the rest of the day.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Mama checking me out…’

I lifted all seven plus pounds of the 200-400 for the first time and started shooting.

Black Bear Cub Photography

These little guys could really climb.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Well, now I really understand what inspired the first ‘Teddy Bear’

The cubs were delightful.  They played like a couple kittens…taking swipes at each other, rolling around in the grass, tripping over their own feet…just adorable.

Black Bear Cub Photography

It’s time to go kids!

Soon I noticed that the bears had a system.  Mama bear would look up at the tree…make a series of short grunts and the cubs would climb down.  Then she would rumble about a hundred feet away to a new patch of the forest and start scavenging for food.  The cubs would tag right along behind her and as soon as she stopped, they would head right up the nearest tree.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Snacktime for the cubs

Being youngsters, they had big appetites.  They nursed at least twice over the next few hours.    Afterwards, I think mama needed a break, so she took a good stretch and rubbed her back against a tree.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Nothing like a good scratch in the right place.

By late morning the cubs were getting tired.  They climbed a big walnut tree, settled in a comfy fork between two branches, stretched, took a good look around, snuggled together and started to snooze.

Black Bear Cub Photography

Mama tucks in her cubs for their nap.


Black Bear Cub Photography

Getting settled in for naptime

Black Bear Cub Photography

One last peek!

I hung around for another 20 minutes but the cubs didn’t move an inch.  And frankly, by then I had been following them for three hours and had lifted that darn 200-400 what felt like a million times.  No, I hadn’t brought my monopod.  I had figured that if I did see bears, it would be for only a few minutes, so why bother bringing another piece of equipment?  I’ll never make that mistake again…my arms were jelly…heck, my elbows still hurt now and it’s a full week later!

Anyway,  I figured the 1500 frames I had were plenty, so I left mama and babies in peace and hiked by to the old Subaru. As I walked back I counted my lucky stars.  It had been a blessing to spend the morning with my little ‘Bruin’ family observing their antics.  I knew that I had captured some nice images and even if I drove home right then, my trip would have been a success.

But little did I know that the best was yet to be. With that teaser, I’ll conclude this story.  You’ll just have to wait till next week for the rest!

Till then,


Black Bear Cub Photography

If you don’t have floss, you just make do with what you can find.


Also posted in Southeast U.S.A. Tagged , , , |

Busting the Turtle Jinx: Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Photographing sea turtles underwater has been a challenge that has long taunted me.  Over the years I’ve had a few opportunities but they just never seemed to pan out.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Honu breaking the surface off the Big Island

Sure…I’ve gotten some decent above-water shots…like this “Honu” on Kona’s famous black sand beach at Punalu’u …but whenever I slipped below the waves, I seemed to be jinxed.

That streak of bad luck seemed to continue right through last week.  My wife, Anita, and I had done some research and learned that scuba divers often saw turtles at Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Thomas in the American Virgin islands.  That sounded great to us…so we planned a vacation with the goal of diving at Buck Island.

Last month, we were in St Thomas and it was finally time to go!  It was early morning when we made our way to the port, dragged our gear down to the dock and climbed aboard the dive boat ready for our adventure!

..And then the Captain informed us that he was cancelling our dive because one of his engines had just failed.  I shook my head.   We were only going to be on St Thomas until nightfall so it wasn’t like we could just book a dive with another company the following day. The jinx was still alive and well.

Some folks would have just figured that the gods were against them and headed to a bar to find comfort in a large quantity of tall, cold and wickedly alcoholic drinks crowded with little umbrellas.  Actually, I considered this option for a second or two…but I knew it was impossible.  Because I know my wife.  Anita had her heart set on turtles and I knew she wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.  As we feared, all the other scuba tours were booked for the day but within ten minutes she had found a snorkeling tour and we were climbing onto a catamaran by the name of “Virgin Breeze”.  No, it wasn’t what we had planned…but at least the day wouldn’t be a total bust.  Then things started looking up when the crew told us that they were heading to ‘Turtle Cove” on Buck Island…the exact same spot our scuba tour had been going to dive at!  That sounded promising but we were determined not to jinx things by getting our expectations up.  But that determination crumbled when we spotted a turtle surfacing for air just as we entered Turtle Cove.

As soon as we anchored, Anita and I hit the water and immediately spotted two turtles about 25 feet below.  That’s a difficult depth to reach without weights and I watched a few folks try…but none of them even got close.   Fortunately, my camera weighs a ton (well it probably tops out at 15 lbs or so…but it feels like a ton when I’m lugging it around all day).  I took a deep breath and let my ‘Nikon Anchor’ pull me down.  I dropped like a rock and within seconds I was face to face with this Big Kahuna:

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

“How did you get down here Buddy?!”

I think he was kinda surprised that one of those silly humans flopping around on the surface had actually gotten to the bottom.  He stopped eating, slowly raised off the sand and turned his head to take a good look .  I was able to get a few portraits before I had to head back to the surface…dragging that dead-weight camera the whole way.

I dove a number of times but the turtles were already bored of the guy with the big camera.  They just kept eating the grass and totally ignored me…which meant no eye contact (and boring photos).

There was a small reef nearby with lots of colorful tropical fish which attracted a lot of the snorkelers but I stayed with the turtles as was rewarded with a few more solid images:

"Turtle Planet"

“Turtle Planet”

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

“Dive! Dive! Dive!

I had hoped to photograph turtles near the surface but other than the one we had seen when we first arrived, they all seemed pretty happy staying on the bottom (I later learned that they can hold their breath for 4-7 hours  while they sleep although they breathe more often while awake).  I was starting to think that the tour would be over before a turtle would need air…but then this one headed up:

2015 Scuba 16 March 11727

As it surfaced, I was able to squeeze off a number of shots that captured Anita and the turtle in the same frame.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

In my opinion, these are two incredibly beautiful aquatic creatures

Before I knew it, the crew was blowing the whistle to get us all back on the boat.  Like usual, I was the last one out of the water (a fact my wife never fails to note).  As we dried off, Anita and I caught ourselves grinning like a couple of kids.  It had taken a long time, but we finally had broken the jinx and got our chance to get up close and personal with sea turtles.

The next day, we were in St Kitts diving on the wreck of the M.V. River Taw (we were on a cruise vacation so we scheduled dives at every island the ship docked at).  We were running low on air and about to finish the dive when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turned and…you guessed it…another turtle!  Clearly the jinx was totally busted.  This green sea turtle was skimming over the wreck in about 40 feet of water. Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

It was headed in my direction and I  got off a flurry of frames before it saw me and curved away.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtles grow to over 5 feet in length and this one looked every inch of that to me!

Luckily, Anita had spotted the turtle before I had and quickly positioned herself in the background for this shot.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Anita has learned how to be an underwater model much faster than I’ve learned how to be an underwater photographer!

Within seconds the turtle gracefully glided over the wreck and faded into the deep blue.

Although we dove another five times over the next week, this turned out to be the last turtle we would see….but we weren’t going to complain.  Years of ‘near misses’ and missed opportunities had been put behind us after two unexpected and thrilling encounters in less than 24 hours.

Photography is like that.  You can plan things to the Nth degree but sometimes they just don’t go the way you anticipated…you just have to go with the flow.  I guess life is like that too.  Funny the things you learn as you grow older…



Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

We have this print in our home. It makes us smile every time we walk by it!

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles



Also posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Underwater Photography Tagged |

The Bears of Kaktovik: Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

My passion for photography has resulted in a fair bit of traveling over the years, but photographing Polar Bears in the Arctic was undoubtedly my most exotic photo excursion so far (and certainly the most expensive)!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I was lucky to capture this touching moment between a mom and her cub…

A couple of months ago I had the chance to visit the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean just off the north coast of Alaska. kaktovik_alaska[1]This tiny town (250 hearty souls) is the only permanent settlement on the North Slope portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Although small, Barter Island’s claim to fame is that dozens of polar bears conjugate here every fall before the ocean freezes.   The native people of Kaktovik (the Inupiat) are allowed a substance harvest of 3 Bowhead Whales each fall and the carcasses of those whales attract the Polar Bears year after year.

This wasn’t one of those trips where you do a bit of research on the internet, fly in, rent a car and drive off to photograph the sights.  The tourism ‘industry’ here is in its infancy and unless you’ve visited before and have good local contacts, I’d suggest you book a spot with one of the few photo tours that go to Kaktovik.  These tours  have access to the handful of rental vehicles and small boats that are an absolute necessity for polar bear photography (don’t expect to find a Hertz or Avis in town!)

I went on a tour operated by Hugh Rose.  Hugh is a real pro and has conducted Polar Bear Photo tours to Kaktovik for years.  He truly knew his stuff and he made sure his group got great shots and stayed safe as well.

It is an adventure just to get to Kaktovik.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Judging from this wreck next to the runway, I’m pretty sure the safety record at the Kaktovik Airfield isn’t exactly perfect!

There are no roads to the island, so nearly everyone has to fly in.  We first had to drive 500 miles on the Dalton Highway (aka: the “Haul Road” of Ice Road Truckers fame) from Fairbanks to Deadhorse before a short 100 mile flight in a puddle jumper to Barter Island (there are direct flights from Fairbanks, but our tour included two days of Aurora and wildlife photography in the Brooks Range along the way).   The Kaktovik airport is little more than a short gravel strip with no control tower.  Bad weather makes delays and postponed flights pretty you need to be flexible in your scheduling.

After the five-minute drive from the airstrip, we unpacked in our home for the next few days…the Waldo Arms.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Rustic would be a good description of the Waldo Arms Hotel


Basically, the Waldo looked to me like a half-dozen mobile homes pushed together with doorways cut open between them.  The bedrooms are tiny, the bathrooms are communal. There is a dining room and lounge but don’t be expecting the Ritz (or even Motel 6).  With that said, I don’t think we noticed the rough edges after a few hours…the Waldo made up for its lack of style and sophistication with friendly staff, great food and a funky, comfortable, Arctic lodge atmosphere. don't have to empty your own bedpan...the Waldo does have real bathrooms:)

No…you don’t really have to empty bedpans…they have real bathrooms:)

No granite countertops here,,,

No granite countertops here…

Arctic Humor?

Arctic warning label.


Reminds me of my old college dorm!










Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, Hugh called us together to review our options for photographing the bears:

  1. Rental vehicles (retired ‘shorty’ school buses) are the most common option.
    The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

    Just can’t get there from here…

    You just put your camera on a bean-bag and shoot through the open windows.

    •  The primary down-side of buses is that they can’t always get to where the bears are.  The bears like to spend most of their day hanging out on a sliver of an island about a 1/4 mile or so from Barter island.  There isn’t a bridge, so you have to wait for them to swim over to you.  Fortunately, the bears do make the trip over nearly every day to feed at the boneyard (where the whales are butchered).  However, this area can flood at high tide, so even if the bears are there, the buses can’t necessarily reach them.
  2.  Photographing from small boats is expensive but it is your best way to get great shots.   You are right at eye level…which makes for much more impactful images.  Plus, if the bears aren’t at the boneyard, you can just cruise over to that little offshore island and photograph them there.  In addition,  you might get a chance to catch the polar bears in the water…which is an incredible photo-op!
    • A word to the wise:  If the cost of renting boats is not included in the cost of your tour, get a firm price from the boat owner when you get to Kaktovik.  My impression was that prices can fluctuate substantially depending on supply and demand.  The boats hadn’t been out in 3 days because of bad weather when we were there…so I think the owners made up for lost revenue by charging a hefty premium over the ‘regular’ rate .  This wasn’t Hugh’s fault, the boats are independently owned and operated by locals…and they have clearly learned the fundamentals of American free-enterprise capitalism;)

      The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

      Yes…I said small boats!

  3. Don’t even think about hiking out to the boneyard on foot.  Polar bears have little fear of man…so you don’t want to be walking around anywhere alone, especially after dark or in poor visibility.  In fact, the bears occasionally cruise right into the village (see this link for a recent incident).

Once we heard these three options, well…naturally, we all wanted to go out on the boats.  But the weather was too rough…none of the boats had been able to get out of the little harbor for a while.  Instead we loaded into our school bus and made the short trip to the boneyard.

The boneyard was kinda gruesome and it frankly gave at least a couple of folks in our group the ‘creeps’.  Just the week before, the village had caught and butchered whales (in fact, they had actually caught all 3 of their allotted bowheads in one week…a rare event).

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

After butchering, there are still plenty of scraps that draw in the bears

Parts of the boneyard were nearly ten feet high packed with the bones from years of whale hunts.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Looks like the set from a George Romaro horror flick.

There wasn’t a bear to be seen when we first got there.  Well, we could see them…with binoculars.  Over two dozen beautiful white polar bears were cruising up and down the beach just a few hundred yards away on the little barrier island just off-shore of the boneyard.  But just as it started getting close to sunset, things really got interesting!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

A mother polar bear and her two cubs emerge from the surf…

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

and walk right by one of the buses filled with photographers as they amble over to the boneyard

We parked our bus close to the bone pile and waited.   Hugh spotted three bears jump in the water and start swimming toward us.  Soon they were joined by others…many others.   Most of them ignored us, but the cubs seemed to be curious about people.

One cub got bored with the bones, rose up, sniffed the air and looked over at us.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I smell a photographer…

Then he headed right at us……and he didn’t stop…

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

At a distance, I thought this cub was cute, but as he got closer I was very happy to be inside a nice steel bus!

He rambled right up to the bus.  We enthusiastically honked the horn, yelled and reved the engine to scare him away.  Hugh clearly felt a great responsibility to prevent the bears from getting too close…and too accustomed to humans.  As he explained, those were the ones that eventually might threaten the locals…and end up getting shot in self-defense.

Within a few minutes nearly a dozen bears were milling around within 250 feet of us.

Bear Buffet

Bear Buffet

Inside the bus all you could hear were shutters frantically clicking as the photographers desperately tried to capture the spectacle right before them.


The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Looks like a spinal column in his mouth…sure hope it belonged to a whale.


The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Two big bruins take a bead on brunch.

Before we knew it, the light faded beyond the ability of the best camera sensor.  We put our equipment down and silently watched until it was pitch black.  Only then did we head back to the Waldo.

The weather worsened overnight.  Morning dawned with waves whipping across the lagoon.  That meant no boats again.   We checked the bonepile, but the bears weren’t around, so we had a few hours free.  I grabbed a new buddy I had met on the trip, Cesar Aristeiguieta, and we used the time to head out and do our own ‘Photo-Walk’ around Kaktovik.  The village itself is a wild blend of people and culture..both old and new.  It was truly fascinating.  I’ll publish a separate blog about Kaktovik next month and show you some of the shots I took on our walk.  Even without the bears, there is plenty to keep a photographer busy here.

2014 Alaska 091514 01484

Early Warning Radar

After lunch, the weather still wasn’t cooperating, so Hugh took us out in the bus to explore the rest of the island.  We drove past the Cold-War DEW-Line radar facility and out into the tundra to check-out the wildlife.

A number of the folks on the tour were birders and they had a field day over the next couple hours as they spotted one unusual bird after another.  Cesar and I may have been the only non-birders on the tour and, yes, maybe we did joke around a bit and say ‘hey, look…another small brown bird’, but even we had a good time.

After another home-cooked dinner at the Waldo, we suited up in our muck-boots and parkas, climbed into the bus and headed out to find some bears.   It was heavily overcast and the light was far from ideal but there were tons of bears at the boneyard, so we weren’t complaining!The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

We woke up the next day to find that the wind had finally settled down.  There were a lot of photographers on the island from other tours that had also been waiting a couple of days to get out in a boat, but Hugh’s long-term relationship with the locals allowed him to snag one for us.  Cesar and I headed out soon right after breakfast and it took no more than five minutes to cross the lagoon.

Although the sun wasn’t exactly shining, the cloud cover did thin out and we were finally able to get some good light.  Better yet, the bears were very active …it was what military pilots call a ‘target-rich environment!”  I took more photos during the next couple hours than I took on the rest of my entire 10 day tour.  The most exciting 40 minutes of the trip unfolded when two cub siblings ran into the surf and had a rambunctious (but good-natured) battle:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Battle Royale!”

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“What did you just call me?”

After a while (and over a thousand photos), one of the cubs seemed to notice our boat..

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

and then he started to give us the evil-eye… The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Suddenly, he put his head down and started swimming right at us.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

He must have been over 100 feet away, but he covered the distance in a flash.  Our boat captain was paying close attention and  fired up the engine and moved us away.  But the bear got close enough that I didn’t need a zoom for this shot!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Another couple of seconds and I would have had that Nikon for lunch!”

Soon after, the cubs got bored and headed for shore.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

It was amazing how the bears shook water from their fur…like a huge white dog on steroids.

The siblings kissed and made up:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Sorry if I got carried away bro”

And right about then it seemed that every bear within sight decided it was naptime:The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Sleeping bears are cute but soon we started cruising up and down the coast looking for activity.  Although there were still a lot of bruins in sight, they were all snoozing.  After six hours on the boat, my cash was tapped out, so I decided to call it a day and had the captain drop me off at the harbor.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Great Sphinx of Kaktovik

I met up with the rest of the group and we headed out to the bonepile one last time.  By then the light was fading, but one bear was playing on the bonepile like it was a jungle gym:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“King of the Hill”

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I loved it when this bear stood upright and grabbed this part of Bowhead skull…couldn’t have posed him better!

And just like that, the adventure was over.  The next morning, it was time to go.

2014 Alaska 091414 00379

Seeing these magnificent apex predators in the wild was an incredible, emotional and intense experience.  One that I will remember the rest of my days. I made a bunch of new friends, learned a lot about wildlife photography and got a real feel for a world far different from the one I was returning home to.

Polar Bear Photography Tips and Suggestions for my Fellow Photographers who might make this Trip in the Future:

  • You will need a good zoom.  I found my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4x teleconverter to be perfect.  Even when the bears were a distance away, the 400mm was adequate and the flexibility of a zoom was a godsend as the bears moved around.  Plus I think that you would find anything larger than a 400mm to be unwieldly in the bus and on the boat.
  • Bring a second camera mounted with a 50mm or a small zoom (24-70mm or so).  Keep this handy if a bear approaches your bus or boat.  Otherwise you might find you can’t focus close enough to get a shot.    Also, there isn’t a camera shop within 500 miles, so a second body will serve as a backup if you have problems with your primary camera.
  • You won’t really need a tripod/monopod for the bears, but bring a small travel tripod if you get a chance to shoot the Northern Lights at night.  Plus it will come in handy for landscape photography around the island.
  • If your funds aren’t unlimited, schedule your time on the boats to be early in the morning and near dusk.  Although the bears can be active at any time of the day, they seem to be less ‘frisky’ during the middle of the day.
  • Shutter Speed. If the bears are just walking around, a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second will be fast enough to stop the action.  If they are playing in the water and there is water spraying around, you will need something around 1/100th.
  • Aperture.  If light is poor, you may have to shoot wide open.  If the bears are at a distance, then depth of field won’t be a problem.  However, if they are close, you may have to select a higher aperture to avoid having part of the head out of focus.  If so, adjust your ISO up (or set your ISO on an auto function so it does it changes automatically).
  • Fast Memory Cards/Big Buffer.  I love my D800E, but it wasn’t the ideal camera for this experience.  You need a camera that can shoot quickly and has a buffer big enough to hold a lot of shots.  Often the action is fast and furious when the bears are playing in the water.  I missed shots when my buffer filled up.  My friend Cesar, was shooting with a D3 was able to get twice as many frames per second…and his his buffer could handle it.
  • Dress appropriately.  The buses have little heat (but more than the boats!) and the wind on the water can be nippy.  If your extremities are going numb, you won’t be likely to take great shots.  Good gloves, insulated ‘muck boots,’ chemical hand warmers, warm hat and a parka should be considered mandatory.

I hope you get a chance to visit the Bears of Kaktovik…it is quite the adventure!


PS:  If you would like to see some of my other blogs about photography in Alaska, check out my story about seeing the Aurora Borealis and my write-up about How-to-photograph the Northern Lights.  You might also be interested in my article about the Highlights of my Alaska trip.


Also posted in Alaska Tagged , |

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

Hello All,

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a frenzy of non-stop Photoshop processing of the thousands of the images I took on my Alaskan photo tour.  Now that I’ve got the bulk of the photos done, I’m in a bit of a quandary about how to write a blog to accompany the pictures.  The problem is simply that it was an incredible 10 day trip packed with an expansive range of photographic subjects…everything from Polar Bears to the Aurora Borealis, so  if I tried to write a single blog and cover all these topics…well, the result would be a small book.

So instead, I’m going to break up the adventure into bite-sized topics and cover them separately in-depth.  Today I’m going to just give you a taste of things to come by providing a brief recap of my Alaska Photo Tour Highlights.

The adventure started off with an incredible night of the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks.  In fact, it may have been the best northern lights we saw on the entire trip!

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The calm Chena River was a wonderful reflector for the Aurora!

Believe it or not, this view was not more than 20 feet behind the little cabin I stayed in.

Day two and three were spent driving up the Dalton Highway (the “Haul Road” made famous in the “Ice Road Truckers” TV show)  which was built to supply the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton is over 400 miles, most of it is gravel and there are only 3 small towns on the entire route (with a TOTAL population of less than 40, combined)!

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The Alaska Pipeline has been controversial, but it certainly is an engineering marvel…and it can be photogenic as well!

The Alaska Pipeline was our companion the next couple days and was usually within sight off to the side of the road.

At Deadhorse (the name of the town at Prudhoe Bay) , we took a puddle jumper to Barter Island. This is a small island off the northern coast of Alaska only 70 miles west of Canada which has become justifiably  famous for the Polar Bears that can be viewed there this time of year.

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

A mom and cub share a polar bear ‘kiss’

We photographed the bears from buses and from small boats.  The weather was pretty iffy, but I got one 40 minute window with good light the last day I was there and made the most of it.  My adrenaline was pumping!

These two sibling cubs were engaged in a good-natured rumble!

These two sibling cubs were engaged in a good-natured rumble!

After three days of photographing polar bears, arctic wildlife and the fascinating native town of Kaktovik, we headed back to Prudhoe.  About an hour south of town, our sharp-eyed guide (Hugh)  spotted a herd of Musk Oxen.

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

Truly prehistoric beasts!

It was pretty cool ‘stalking’ these huge critters!   You have to walk in single file to avoid appearing like a predator.  Even so, it took every bit of 550mm to get this shot.

Heading down the Dalton a few hours later we noticed that the Northern Lights were making an appearance.  We stopped for an hour or so along the road and didn’t get to our rooms until 3am, but no one was complaining.  Of course, then I had to stay up for another couple hours drinking beers with the guys.  It sure seemed like a good idea at the time…

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The Aurora was absolutely breathtaking!

I was the only one up for sunrise…I got precious little sleep but I had plenty of time to make up for it during the 23 hours it took me to fly home (thanks to a couple long layovers).

Sunrise over Wiseman Creek

Sunrise over Wiseman Creek

Okay, I know that this blog was brief, but I’ve been stuck for a few days trying to get started so I’m glad I’ve broken the logjam!  I’ll be writing some detailed articles over the next few weeks about the Aurora, Polar Bears, Dalton Highway wildlife and landscapes .  I also plan to provide a review of the actual tour I was on (Hugh Rose Alaska Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour) for those of you who might be thinking about going yourself!



Also posted in Alaska, Roadtrips Tagged , , , , , , |

Peeking at Puffins: Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

One of the “Puffins” from my old stamp collection..

Puffins.  I think everyone likes Puffins.  Football shaped, Penguin-esque, with their colorful, mini-toucan beaks…no wonder they are called ‘clowns of the sea.’  Puffins… heck, even the name sounds funny!  I first learned about Puffins when I was a kid.  I was one of those nerds who collected stamps, and as it happens, there is a small island off the coast of England named Lundy, which prints their own stamps featuring, you got it, Puffins.

More recently, I was planning a photo trip to Acadia National Park when I ran across an article about photo tours to a Puffin breeding island off the northern coast of Maine.  Now, I’m not a ‘birder’…I mean, I do like photographing birds, but it’s not like I  plan my vacations around them (not that there is anything wrong with that)!  However, since I thought Puffins were just plan cute (and maybe because of fond memories of my stamp collection), I decided to find out a bit more about the tour.

I learned that although Puffins are common in the North Atlantic, they stay at sea most of the year.  They only come ashore for a few months each year to have their young… and there are only 5 breeding islands in the US.  Only one of those islands (Machias Seal Island) allows photographers and tourists to actually come ashore. Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island A total of 30 people per day are allowed to photograph Puffins from plywood blinds on the island, often with the Puffins only a few feet away.  That option sounded a lot better than the other tours where you just take a boat out and try to photograph them from the rocking deck!  Two tour companies have permits for Machias Seal Island…one (Bold Coast Tours) leaves from a small port (Cutler) in northern Maine and another (Sea Watch) is over the border in Canada. I booked with Bold Coast for three reasons:

  1. They were a lot closer to Bar Harbor (where I would be staying)
  2. Cutler is closer to Machias, so the boat ride would be half as long (especially nice if the weather is rough)
  3. Their reviews on Trip Advisor were excellent.

Before I knew it, a couple months had passed and the alarm was ringing at 4am in my small hotel room in Bar Harbor.  The  drive to Cutler was a bit over 2 hours, so I needed to be on the road before 5am to be at the dock by 7am. I checked the off-shore weather report and saw that it was going to be clear and calm.  This was great news because there is always a chance that if the seas are rough, you won’t be able to actually land on Machias Seal Island once you get there.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

The Barbara Frost

A couple of hours and a few cups of coffee later I arrived at Cutler: a small, quaint working harbor.  The 16 folks on the tour were quickly ferried to the Barbara Frost, a 40′ coast-guard inspected cruiser where we met  Capt. Andy Patterson.  Andy has been doing this tour for a couple decades and his jokes and stories kept us all entertained.  He also knew his birds and was able to educate us about Puffins and the other wildlife we would see.  Fortunately, the ocean was smooth as glass, which allowed us to cover the 9 miles to Machias in slightly over an hour with the bonus that no one got seasick.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Machias Seal Island is only about 15 acres and is nothing more than a low-lying pile of rocks.


Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

They use this skiff to shuttle you to and from the Barbara Frost

Surprisingly,  the island is claimed by both the US and Canada, but so far the dispute has been amicable…although a group of Maine lobster boats did ‘blockade’ the island for a short period a few years back:)  Although Puffins were heavily hunted in Maine and nearly eliminated in the early 1900s, they have since made a comeback and we were greeted by literally thousands of them as we approached the island. We got ashore and were given the ‘rules of engagement’ by the resident Canadian wildlife warden about what we could and couldn’t do while on the island.  He takes his job of protecting the birds seriously, as one of the tourists learned when she broke a rule and got a sharp reprimand.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Those small rectangles on the side of the blinds are the sliding windows you photograph thru.. As you can see, the Puffins are not exactly shy.

We were led to the blinds in groups of four and as we approached, the puffins in the area took to wing.  The blinds are simple plywood shacks, barely big enough to hold 4 adults and not a place for anyone with claustrophobia!  Once you got in, there was very little room to move around.  Our blind had ten small windows with sliding panels that you could open and photograph through. We had barely closed the blind’s door when the Puffins returned.  They were everywhere, you could even hear them marching around on the roof!

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

“Pose for the camera please…”

The four of us started snapping happily away.  About ten minutes later I came to the brilliant realization that if I took all my shots from the same window, then they would all look pretty much the same.  I mentioned this out loud and everyone laughed, because we were all thinking the same thing.  We soon worked out an agreement where all 4 of us would shuffle clockwise to the next window every five minutes or so.  This allowed us all to shoot out of different windows and capture different backgrounds.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal IslandI think we were all surprised when the warden opened the door and told us that our hour and a half was up.  I might not be a birder, but time had definitely flown by…it sure seemed like a quick 90 minutes to me!

Everyone was chattering excitedly as we headed back to the boat.  It really was an incredibly neat experience.  Once back on the boat, we circled the island photographing other birds and the seals on a nearby island.  We got back to Cutler about 1pm…about six hours from when we had left.

Was it worth a half day and $120?  Oh yeah.  No question.  Even if you aren’t a birder, this is a great tour.  For example, one of the folks on our tour was a typical teen-ager who had been dragged on the trip by his dad, who was clearly an avid birder.  It was every bit as clear that the kid couldn’t care less about wildlife or birds…most of his time on the boat was spent playing with his phone.  When he got in the blind, you could see that he was bored out of his skull.  But then he glanced out the window as the Puffins landed within a few feet of the blind and he got a ragged smile.  Then, he nearly squealed when the Puffins landed on the roof and started stomping over his head.  Soon the iPhone was out and he was making a video for friends at home…all the while treating us to a stream-of-consciousness monologue about how cool it was!

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Tug of War: Puffin Style!

Tips for my fellow photographers:

1)  Which tour should I choose?

First of all, if your heart is set on photographing from the blinds, make sure that you make this clear when you contact the company.  Both Bold Coast and Sea Watch also sell cheaper tours (about $55)  to the island in which you don’t go ashore…you just cruise around Machias taking photos from the water.  Don’t even consider this option, spend the extra $60 bucks and go ashore…you won’t regret it.

2) When should you go?

Tours are offered from mid-May through mid-August.  However, the birds are thickest from mid-June thru the end of July.  The absolute best timeframe is mid-July when the Puffins can be photographed with their beaks full of fish they have caught for their chicks.

3)  What lens should I use?

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

I was there in mid-June when the Puffins were building their nests among the crevices in the boulders.

The Puffins do get close, so even a 200mm lens will get you some good shots.  I used my Nikon 200-400mm zoom with a 1.4 tele-converter, which was absolutely ideal.  It was able to focus on birds close to the blind and give me frame filling head shots, but with the effective 550mm length (thanks to the teleconverter), I was able to get great shots of the birds on the edge of the shore as well.

Changing lenses in the blinds is difficult.  I’d suggest you bring a single zoom instead.  A second option would be to bring a second lens on a second body.

Anything 500mm or larger is not going to be practical in the blind…plus the other folks in there would be sorely tempted to kill you.

4)  Camera Settings?

Unless you are going to try to capture them in flight, you won’t need a particularly fast camera setting for Puffins.  I rarely had to go over 1/1000th of a second.

I was able to shoot with an ISO of 200 but you might have to boost that if you are there on a foggy or rainy day.

5)  Tripod?

The blinds are tight, so this isn’t a shoot where you want to bring every piece of gear you have. Leave your tripod and monopod at home.  You could bring a beanbag if you have one, but I found that I could support my big lens on the bottom of the windows and it worked just fine.

6)  Don’t get in a rutPeaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Going on this tour, my goals were simple.  I really wanted to get a good puffin headshot and some in-flight images.  On any ‘normal’ photo tour, those goals would have been challenging enough to keep me busy for a half day.  But not here.  The puffins are so close and so comfortable around humans that I easily had those goals nailed in the first ten minutes.  Don’t get so focused on your initial goals that you miss out on other opportunities.  Try for different backgrounds and look for unusual behavior or poses.

7)  Clothing/Footgear

You have a good chance of getting wet on this trip.  Have rain gear for both your camera and yourself.  It is also a lot colder out on the water than on shore, and the wind will make it seem even more so.  Dress in warm layers.  Wear footgear with a good non-slip sole.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Puffin’s wings are also used to propel themselves underwater.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Their landings antics aren’t graceful, but are good for a chuckle or two.

8)  Backpack

Everything you bring on this tour should fit in a single waterproof backpack.  Stepping from the skiff to the floating dock at the island can be challenging, especially if you have some waves. Carrying your gear in a backpack will be a lot safer than trying to lug it onto the dock in a hand-held bag.

The backpack should be compact…remember, you won’t have room in the blinds for a full sized hiking backpack.

9) Photo gear

Fog and rain are common so bring extra lens cleaning cloths.

Bring a polarizer if you are blessed with a bright day.  It will help saturate the colors and tame glare off of the water.

Don’t forget an extra battery and memory cards…you will be taking a LOT of photos.

I didn’t need a flash unit on the sunny day I visited.  However, if you were to visit on a dark/overcast day you might want to give it a try.  Keep in mind that the windows are only about 6″ tall, so you won’t be able to use a camera mounted flash.  You could use a remotely controlled flash and hold it out another window but that would be awkward (if you are making the trip with someone, you could ask them to hold your flash while you shoot).

10)  Food/Sundries/Facilities

Maine Puffins

Larry, Curley and Moe!

It is a long day, so have a good breakfast and bring some protein bars or similar compact snacks.  You might want to leave a full lunch in your car to enjoy when you get back.

If you are prone to seasickness, buy some pills and follow the directions (and hope the other folks on the tour do so as well).  Andy has water on board but I brought my own drink bottle as well.

There is a bathroom on the boat as well as porta potties on the island that you will have access to should the need arise.

11) Make your reservations early.

With only a single boatload going ashore per day, the tours fill up fast, especially those for the peak-timeframes.  Reserve early.    Weather in Maine can be ugly and tours being canceled are not uncommon.  If this tour is the primary reason for your visit to Maine, increase your chances of a successful photo op by making reservations on consecutive days.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

The famous “Candy-Stripe” Lighthouse at Lubec is only 20 miles from the harbor at Cutler.

12)  Take a map and print the directions to Cutler Harbor from the Bold Coast website.

Cell service is spotty around Cutler and my GPS was completely confused as I got into town.   Don’t count on electronics to get you to the dock.

13)  Bring cash or a check

You pay the balance of your deposit when you arrive at Cutler and  Capt Andy doesn’t take credit cards.  Cash is always nice to have as a tip at the end of the tour as well.

14)  Bring your passport

You don’t need a passport to visit Machias Island.  However, after your tour you should keep in mind that Canada is only 30 minutes away.  Campobello Island and the Roosevelt Campobello International Park are nearby Canadian locations that you might want to photograph.

Lubec Maine (the northernmost city in the US) is also nearby and features a very photogenic lighthouse.

15)  A special note for you birders

In addition to puffins, there are nesting colonies of Artic Terns and Razorbills on the island .  Other species that we saw included Black Guillemots, Common Murres and Common Eiders.

2014 June Acadia (760)

Arctic Terns had disappeared from the island but they have returned

Arctic Terns had disappeared from the island but they have returned

You will likely see a number of seals in the waters off the island...

You will likely see a number of seals in the waters off the island…



Unless you were to visit on a stormy day and get seriously seasick,  I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t have a great time on this tour.   I thought it was a wonderful change of pace from photographing landscapes at Arcadia and it got me to another part of the coast I wouldn’t have explored otherwise.

If you are planning a trip to the coast of Maine or Acadia National Park during May-August, this tour is something you should put on your itinerary.

Have a great time!

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

I got that head shot I wanted!

Also posted in Northeast U.S.A. Tagged , , , |

Grand Teton: An Icon Worthy of the Name

Photography Icons.  You know the places I’m talking about…the ones with their images plastered all over the magazines and websites catering to photographers… heck, you even see them in TV commercials!   The photos are awe-inspiring, entrancing and amazing… but it often seems that when I finally get the chance to actually see them in person, I’m disappointed.  Sometimes, the reality just can’t live up to the hype.

But sometimes it does.  This summer, I went on a wonderful road trip to photograph a dozen or more of these icons in the western US.  Looking back on the trip, one place in particular stands out in my mind:  Grand Teton National Park.  Perhaps the reason is because the photos I had previously seen actually failed to do it justice…it was far more impressive than I had anticipated.

Now, I love to write detailed how-to-photograph articles about new locations, but honestly, I only spent a couple of days at Teton, so I’m simply not qualified.  Just the same I was so enamored by this park that I wanted to at least share with you some of my thought and images.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

“Welcome Party” I came upon this Grizzly foraging next to Blackwater Creek a couple miles before I got to the border of Grand Teton…great way to start a visit!

So why did Teton hit my hot button?  Well, the Tetons themselves are dramatic mountains…and they dominate the landscape.  Sharp, angular and huge.  Plus there is the added bonus of the Snake River and a number of lakes which make wonderful foregrounds.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

The Oxbow Bend Overlook on Highway 287 is well known to landscape photographers and with a view like this, it’s small wonder why…

Another popular spot is Schwabacher’s Landing.  In fact. even well after sunrise, Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tipsthere were still a half-dozen photographers trying to find an unobstructed spot for their tripod *see photo to the right)…

But when you have a view like the one below, it is easy to understand!

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Schwabacher’s was my favorite vista at the Tetons. The placid water (thanks to a beaver pond) make a perfect reflector for the splendor beyond.

Teton isn’t as well-known as Yellowstone for its wealth of wildlife photography, but I found myself swapping my landscape lenses for zooms on a regular basis.  In addition to the Grizzly already mentioned, I stayed busy snapping Elk, Bison and all kinds of waterfowl.  Perhaps my favorite wildlife shot, however, was this beaver I surprised early one morning at Schwabacher’s while waiting for the sunrise.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Check out the look in this little guy’s eye! He wasn’t expecting me to be hiding behind that shrub!

So, mountains, water and wildlife…I thought I was in heaven.  And then it just got better…flowers!  I found this spot just off a gravel road near Oxbow bend one morning…

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Just Incredible….Even though I wasn’t there during prime wildflower season, I was pretty impressed with this beautiful field in the lowlands near the Snake River.

Unlike many National Parks, I didn’t see a swarms of tourists (although I did run into a number of fellow photographers).  Teton was peaceful:  at many sites, I was the only soul around, like when I stopped by the historical Cunningham Cabin.

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

Location! Location! Location!

Although it was nothing but a simple cabin, it certainly had a million dollar view out the back!  J.P, Cunningham was a lucky man.  I spent over an hour there photographing the landscape and the nearby prairie dogs.  But I kept getting drawn back to the cabin.  Something about the juxtaposition of the raw-framed log home and the soaring mountains was palatable.  The shot above was perhaps my best effort to capture the view.  I used a 7 frame HDR to balance the severe dynamic range between the dark cabin interior and the morning clouds outside.

A bit south of the Cunningham Cabin is the bend in the Snake River made famous by Ansel Adams.  I ‘channeled’ my inner Ansel and came up with this effort:Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

After I got home and started processing my shots, I converted a lot of them into black and white.  Something about the Tetons just seems ‘right’ when viewed this way.  Perhaps the drama of the landscape and intense weather just made color unnecessary.

There was so much to see that even though I was up before dawn and didn’t stop shooting until well after dark, I never got the chance to photograph some of the famous spots at Teton, like Jenny lake and  “Mormon Row.”   And the weather wasn’t exactly cooperative:  clouds prevented a chance to shoot the Milky Way and the sunrises/sunsets weren’t exactly epic.  Despite those challenges, the landscape provided a weath of photo ops.    Unlike some places that I visit and ‘check the box’,  I will be visiting Grand Teton again..and I’ll be staying longer next time!

Grand Teton:  An Icon Worthy of the Name   Grand Teton Photo Tips

 Grand Teton photography tips

Grand Teton photography tips

Also posted in Landscape Photography

Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

Those of you that subscribe to my blog know that I’ve been photographing Manatees for years.  Every winter, I look forward to the Manatees returning to Crystal River and my chance to interact and photograph these gentle giants.  And every year, I  learn a few tidbits that help me take better photographs (who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks?!).  In today’s blog, I’d like to share with you the best of my manatee photographs as well as my learnings, tips and suggestions.


Manatee Photography: Tips and GuideBefore we get started, if you are looking for an in-depth review of how to photograph manatees, check out this article I wrote last year.

My first tip : Who to book your tour with

  1. Crystal River/King’s Bay
    • In the past, I haven’t recommended a specific tour company…because over the years I had found them all pretty much the same.  However, this year I took two trips with Bird’s Underwater and I was incredibly impressed.  They’ve been in business for quite a while and somehow manage to combine all the best aspects of the other tours with none of the downsides…and their pricing is competitive as well.  I’m not the only one who thinks highly of them, they also have an excellent Trip Advisor rating.  Here is a link to their website.  And…no, I (unfortunately) don’t get any kickbacks/discounts for this recommendation:)
  2. Homosassa
    • If you decide to try the more ‘photographer friendly’ Homosassa area, then I’d recommend Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours.  Wyn actually has an enclosed and heated boat, which is quite appreciated when climbing out of the chilly water.  His Trip Advisor rating is also excellent and he is passionate about the manatees..and his customers.  And again…no kickbacks…darn it.

Buy an underwater housing for your DSLR

Although you can get solid quality manatee photos from a waterproof point n shoot camera (which is what I’ve recommended in previous posts), I finally broke down last year and bought a Ikelite underwater housing for my old Nikon D700.  Although I got it used on eBay for half of the retail price, it still wasn’t exactly cheap.  But, I have to admit that using a DSLR provides a significant advantage.

When combined with a 15mm fisheye and an 8″ dome,  you can get truly remarkable shots of Manatees with a technique known as CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle).  Since manatees will come right up to you (heck, they will bump you!), CFWA is perfect for this type of photography (I wouldn’t try it with Great Whites though).  Alex Mustard is a underwater photographer I have long admired and he has provided a great recap on techniques involved in CFWA…check out this link for more.

Note:  As of 2018, restrictions prohibit approaching closer than 6 feet from a manatee, so if you are using a wide angle lens, be aware of your distance. 

Shooting underwater with a fullsize DSLR takes some practice.  Over the years,  you get to know your camera’s controls without even looking, but don’t be surprised if using an underwater housing initially seems like learning how to use your camera all over again. The sheer size, bulk and weight of the housing can also be a bit intimidating but it manageable with practice.  Oh, and you will certainly get comments from your fellow snorkelers!

Hold your camera down and aim up at the Manatee.

I photographed manatees for years before I realized what a difference it made to use this technique.  It will allow you to capture the dome of the blue sky in your shot, which makes for a beautiful contrast to the grey manatees and green-blue water.

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Looks like a huge blimp is flying overhead!

The photograph bellows illustrates a photographer using this technique:

2014 Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

Regulations prevent you from diving below the surface, but you can accomplish the same effect by holding your camera below you and and angling it up toward the manatee..

Try to capture sunbeams streaming thru the water.

I think sunbeams are a magical enhancement in a manatee portrait.  Although silt in the water doesn’t help the clarity of your photos, it does enhance the sunbeams. Position yourself with the sun nearly in front of you and you should have some luck.

2014 Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

 Try Off Camera Flash

UPDATE 2018:  Flash photography is no longer allowed when photographing Manatees in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge (which includes Kings’ Bay/Crystal River/3 Sisters).   Photographers should no longer consider early morning trips in this areasince you won’t have adequate sunlight.  Fortunately, manatee photography is usually done within a few feet of the surface, so if it is a sunny day, you should have adequate light during the day.

Note:  Flash photography IS still permitted in the Homosassa River area (about 10 miles south of Crystal River).  Although the manatees are not quite as plentiful, there are still plenty when the air is cold.  You can find are tour companies on TripAdvisor who are located in Homosassa.

Using a flash attached to your underwater housing (not the one on your camera) is a tremendous advantage, for a few reasons:

  1. First of all, by moving the flash away from your lens, you deemphasize the ‘backscatter’ of the silt suspended in the water.
  2. It also helps you illuminate the bulk of the manatee and give it a more 3-D appearance.
  3. Finally, when it is overcast and/or visibility is murky…a strobe will cut thru the gloom and help you finish your day with some usuable shots that wouldn’t have been possible otherwiseManatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Be Aware of New Manatee Laws & Regulations

The laws and regulations that protect Manatees from over-enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) are reasonable and should be respected.  Not only that, they are actively enforced.  Know your responsibilities as a photographer and be well informed before you go…this video from the US Fish and Wildlife Dept. is a great recap (eff March 2014).  Note that the regulations seem to be upgraded every year…be sure you have the latest info.

A few watchouts/suggestions:

  1. No flash photography allowed in the Crystal River Wildlife Refuge (see above)
  2. I suggest that you ask your tour captain how the laws are currently being applied to photographers.  Since there can be some subjectivity to how the regs are enforced, your guide will be able to provide the latest scoop.
  3. Finally, you should be aware that there are those who would prefer that we not be allowed to snorkel with manatees and that all observation be restricted to above-water.  We should consider it to be a honor to be in the water with manatees and be on our best behavior.  It would be a shame if a few overly enthusiastic photographers were to cause all of us to loose this privilege in the future.

Hope this article helps you get better shots the next time you get to photograph these wonderful animals,

Take care!

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

How could you not love these friendly critters?


 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions



Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Photo Tips and Guides, Underwater Photography

Georgia Aquarium Photo Tips: Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Belugas…oh My!

One item on my “bucket list” is to snorkel off the Yucatan coast and photograph Whale Sharks.   Alas, my budget this year is already blown due to trips planned to Yosemite this spring and the Arctic in September (if only that darn Powerball number had come thru!)  Anyway, I took my beautiful daughter to Atlanta recently for a cheerleading competition.  With free time on our hands between events, I convinced her to visit a few downtown venues near our hotel that would allow her old Dad to get his photography “fix.”  We had a blast at both Centennial Park and Zoo Atlanta…but it was the Georgia Aquarium that really rocked me back on my heels because…guess what?:  They have whale sharks!

Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

Massive…just incredible creatures!


Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

They are nasty and invasive…but the camera loves Lionfish!

It’s funny, I probably visited Atlanta 50 times or more during the 3 decades that I slaved away in my corporate job, but I never even heard of the Georgia Aquarium until a couple weeks ago when I Googled “photo ops in Atlanta.”  Boy, I’ll tell you, it is impressive.  It’s the second largest aquarium in the world, and the only one outside of Asia that has whale sharks.  I’ve been to a number of other aquariums over the years, but this one is in a class of its own.  And as a photographer, it is a gold mine! You could easily spend a full day here and I would have done exactly that..if it hadn’t been for my daughter dragging me away so she could also see the twin baby Pandas at Zoo Atlanta.

The Basics:

  • The Georgia Aquarium is located in downtown Atlanta right next to the World of Coke and the Centennial Park (see this link). They have on-site parking for $10
  • Admission is $36…which isn’t cheap (but a lot cheaper than airfare to Cancun)!
    • If you have time to visit more than just the Aquarium, the CityPass is a great option.Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.
    • CityPass costs $75 and gets you access to the Aquarium, Zoo Atlanta, World of Coca Cola, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.
  • The aquarium is open 365 days a year. Doors open at 10 a.m.  and it closes at 5 p.m. (except Saturday, 9am to 6pm).
  • Get there early and try to visit on a weekday.  This place gets BUSY and as you can imagine, it is often packed with kids on field trips.  If you get there at opening, you will have the place nearly to yourself for an hour or two.

Photography Tips:

  • Don’t bother with a tripod or amonopod.  The aquarium does allow them, but most of the critters you will photograph are moving…so  a tripod would help you capture the background perfectly, but moving animals would still be out of focus.

    Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

    Use a F-A-S-T shutter speed and pan your camera with the otter to freeze the action!

  • You probably won’t want to bring a stobe either.  Most of the exhibits have signs prohibiting flash photography.
  • Shoot in RAW.  There can be a wide dynamic range of light in the tanks.  If your exposures are in the RAW format, you have a better chance of being able to dial back the overexposed highlights and lighten up the deep shadows.
  • Bring your fastest lens.  Light levels are low, so you will want to open your lens up to its widest possible aperture.
  • Experiment with your shutter speed at each exhibit and then select the slowest shutter speed that will actually freeze the action.  I found that I could shoot jellyfish at 1/60th a second but the energetic otters required nothing less than 1/160th of a second!
  • You won’t need a telephoto lens…and there is isn’t much need for wide angle glass either.  Nearly all my shots were between 85-120mm
  • You’ll want a camera with good low-light/high-ISO performance.  Full frame cameras were made for this type of thing but some of the newer APS-C DSLRs are pretty impressive as well.
  • Take a series of shots with a range of ISO settings.  Then review them and see how high you need to set the ISO to get decent exposure.  Depending on your camera, the higher ISO setting will likely result in some ‘grain’  that you will need to clean up in Photoshop.
  • Spend extra time reviewing your shots to see if you nailed the focus.  With your lens opened all the way up, you often will have a pretty small range of perfect focus in your photo.Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.  Try to focus on the eyes of your subject and don’t hesitiate to switch to manual focus if the lack of light is too much for your camera’s auto focus.
  • Watch carefully for reflections on the plexiglass.  If you position yourself at angle to the glass (not at 90 degrees), you can often avoid the worst of them.
  • Also look for the vertical seams in the glass that run from the floor to the ceiling in the larger tanks.  Try to take shots when your subject is not directly behind them.



  • The aquarium’s central attraction and largest exhibit is the Ocean Voyager: 
    Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

    The biggest in the world…both the fish AND the tank!

    This is the largest indoor tank in the world ( 6.3 million US gallons (24,000 m3) and contains over 50 species and several thousand fish.

    • Here is where you will find the Whale Sharks…and Manta Rays, Sawfish and dozens of other species that will help you fill up that memory card.
    • There is also a glass tunnel that runs undera section of the tank.  Thiscan be a great spot to get shots from below…which can be an interesting perspective.  The tunnel has a moving walkway but there is room off on both sides where you can stand and take shots.

      Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

      Beluga Ballet

    • The viewing area for this exhibit has two levels and since it is over 60 feet long, there are a number of different angles you can shoot from.  Take a walk around first and explore your options before you start shooting.
  • Cold Water Quest has a floor to the ceiling tank with four Belugas.   They are incredibly graceful creatures that move like they are practicing an underwater ballet.  This exhibit also has sea otters (who are fun but challenging to photograph), penquins and sea dragons (which are the most wicked sea-horses you will ever see).
  • Tropical Diver has a wonderfully illuminated tank of jellyfish that I could spend hours photographing (actually, my daughter accused me of doing exactly that!)  A large pacific reef covered with brightly colored tropical fish might actually get you to put your camera down and just enjoy the relaxing view.Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.
  • There are two or three other exhibits and all of them have some wonderful photo ops.  The only one you might want to skip is Dolphin Tales.  This is a theatrical show featuring human and dolphin actors.  You are not allowed to take photos during the show and frankly, my daughter and I thought it was pretty corny although some of the dolphin stunts were neat.  If you have small children, however, they would probably love it.

Finally, if you want to try something really different, the aquarium offers you the chance to actually swim in the Whale Shark tank.  Cost is about $240 and you are in the water for about 30 minutes (details at this link).  Sound pretty wicked to me, but I think I’ll wait until I can do it for real in Mexico.Photo Tips for the Georgia Aquarium. How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

Have a great week!

PS:  Sometimes my wife accuses me of never taking photos of people.  Just to prove her wrong, here is a shot of my daughter during her competition:

131207Emy Cheer00157-73

My Emily Rose…performing her heart out!





 Georgia Aquarium Photo Tips

Georgia Aquarium Photo Tips: How to take great photos at the Georgia Aquarium.

Georgia Aquarium Photo Tips:  Whale Sharks, Manta Rays and Belugas…oh My!



Also posted in Southeast U.S.A. Tagged , , |

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

Here in Central Florida, when photographers start planning a photo trip to a zoo, our first thoughts are often no different from any tourist:  Animal Kingdom, Sea World and Busch Gardens.  These are huge, extravagant and impressive parks that can keep a shutterbug happy for a full day.  But there are three other ‘traditional’ zoos nearby that, although smaller, offer unique photo opportunities:  The Central Florida Zoo (Sanford), Lowry Park Zoo (Tampa) and the Brevard Zoo (Melbourne).  I’ve previously posted a blog with tips about the Central Florida Zoo, and Ed Rosack covered Lowry this year (see this link) but I’ve never seen much about the Brevard Zoo so my wife and I drove over this past weekend to see if it might be of interest to photographers.

I’d never been close to a Hornbill before..Wow, what an incredible feast for the eyes!

The short version

This compact (50 acres), high quality zoo is a wonderful location for photographers!  Most of the exhibits are the modern, open-air, cage-less type that allow you to photograph the animals in a ‘natural’ setting. The zoo has the animals grouped in different exhibits based upon geography (an African area, one for Asia, Americas, etc).

Some of the exhibits, like the giraffes and rhinos are better for photographers than anything the ‘big’ attractions have.  And…if you are a birder…you will be in heaven.  I’ve never been to any zoo with as many great bird photo opportunities!

If you have kids (or grandkids) the zoo has an area (Paws on Play) designed specifically for them that they will love. If you have teenagers (or folks that act like teenagers) they have a great zip line adventure (a $20-$40 additional fee) that lets you zip right over zoo exhibits (it is a thrill to zip over the gator enclosure!)

Let’s talk some specific tips and opportunities:

First of all…be there when the zoo opens.  This is true of any zoo because the animals tend to be more active before the day warms up.  Once the sun is up, most of the critters find a shady spot and nap…which makes capturing interesting images challenging.

Second…find out when the animals are fed.  I usually phone ahead or ask the first zoo employee I see.  Some of these critters seem to sleep 23 hours a day, but they are active when the feeding bell rings!  Also, if you identify yourself as a photographer and ask employees their thoughts on how to get some good shots, I’ve found they are happy to share with you insights that can help you capture images you wouldn’t have imagined.

Third…don’t make the mistake of making only one ‘circuit’ thru the zoo.  Some of my best shots came at the end of the day when I went back to check on the animals that were sleeping or hidden deep in shadows my first time thru.  The zoo is compact enough that you can walk anywhere in less than ten minutes, so make a second effort before you head home.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

I stopped at Melbourne Beach on the way to the zoo and captured this paddle boarder doing his thing as the sun broke over the horizon.

Fourth…catch a sunrise at the beach.  Since the zoo opens at 9:30, you can drive to the beach, photograph a sunrise and still have time to stop for breakfast and get to the zoo at opening.  It is less than 12 miles to Satellite Beach.

Have you ever looked DOWN at a giraffe?

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

You photograph the giraffes from this ‘eye level’ deck

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

“How’s the weather up there buddy?”

Well the Brevard zoo’s viewing area for giraffes is built about 15 feet off the ground…so you look at them eye level.  This is pretty cool and will allow you to get some unique shots.   When you get to the zoo, check to see when they will be feeding the giraffes…they will walk right up to the viewing area and you can get shots from inches away


Brevard Zoo Photo TipsRhinos

Unlike Animal Kingdom, you don’t have to try to photograph the Rhinos from a moving vehicle.  Actually, you see them from the other side of the giraffe deck.  With a long lens, you can easily fill up your viewfinder.  One thing I didn’t have a chance to try was the “Rhino Encounter.”  Apparently this allows you to get “up close and personal”…which could make for some impressive photos!. These encounters are offered from noon to 1 p.m. at a cost of $15 per person . Each tour lasts about 20 minutes they are in an open area.


There are multiple locations spread throughout the zoo for bird photography.  My guess is that the zoo’s designer had a particular love for birds (and he/she might have been a photographer as well!) because the habitats are beautiful and photographer friendly.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

Is that one intense stare, or what?!

There are a couple owls set up in small ‘houses’ in the “Paws On” area as you first enter the zoo to your right.  You can photograph them from eye level and less than 10′ away.

Three Eagles were perched about 50′ from the boardwalk in the Wild Florida area. Brevard Zoo Photo Tips These raptors have been injured and can’t be returned to the wild, but they look majestic nonetheless.  You will need a long lens to get a decent shot.  If they are in the shade you might have to push your ISO to a higher range than normal to be able to keep your shutter speed over 1/60th of a second to freeze any motion.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

Being able to close within ten feet allowed my camera to deliver a sharp image with wonderful detail of this Spoonbill.

The zoo is circular in shape (see map)…about halfway thru you will come to a large food gazebo called the Flamingo Café.  As you stand there, you should see a large pond full of Flamingos, Scarlet Ibis and Rosette Spoonbills.  I’ve photographed Spoonbills many times in the wild, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to photography these strange looking birds up close.

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

The Lorikeets will land on you when you feed wife loved it!

There is a nice Aviary in Australasia where you can feed Lorikeets for $1.  This is also where the hornbills are located (see first photo in this article).  The hornbills are actually not in the open Aviary, but right next to it behind a kind of  ‘Chicken-wire.’  If you get close to the wire and select your smallest aperture, you should be able to throw the wire out of focus so it doesn’t show in your shot.

Other shots:

There’s quite a bit more to keep you snapping away than I will be able to cover in this article. For example, there is an exhibit with Giant Anteaters (fascinating and impressive creatures).  For the non-locals, you will also see plenty of gators.  You will also have a chance to photograph Kangaroos, Cheetahs, Jaguars, Tapirs…there is a surprisingly large number of species, here is a complete list .

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

There is a nice Otter exhibit that has good photographic potential (if they are awake).

Brevard Zoo Photo Tips

You will need to work a bit to exclude glimpses of cages in your monkey images.


Location:  The zoo is located a half mile east of I-95 (exit 191) in Melbourne (8225 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne, FL 32940).  Here is a link to Google Maps that you can use to plan your trip.

Hours:  9:30am to 5 pm

Admission:  $15 for adults

More info available on their website

Last thoughts:

Two thumb up!  If you like photographing wildlife at all, then you will leave this zoo with a smile and a memory card full of great images.



Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations Tagged , , |

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

I’ve just returned from a two week photo extravaganza in Hawaii and I have a lot of photos, stories and tips that I’m dying to share with you.  After the first ten days or so, I was starting to think that my biggest problem would be deciding what I would write about first, but that turned out not to be an issue after my wife and I did a night snorkeling Manta Ray tour!  Holy crap…this was one of those kick-you-in-the-head incredible events that leave you positively giddy!  I mean it was otherworldly, graceful, enthralling, ethereal, beautiful, exhilarating,…and another hundred adjectives that elude me right now.  Read on to learn more about an experience you will be adding to your bucket-list.  This article will give you some pointers and tips that will ensure you make the most out of your trip and also help you take incredible photographs to keep along with your memories.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Just imagine this big guy shooting up at you from the ocean floor! (Click on the photo to see a full resolution image)

So, what makes this so impressive?  Well, start by looking at the photo above.  Imaging laying on the surface of the ocean, at night, and you start to notice shadows moving on the periphery of your sight, then this massive, but impossibly graceful apparition swoops up from the ocean floor, slowly opens its huge mouth and heads right toward you.  Then, inches away from your nose, it turns away and silently glides back into the darkness while your body rocks from the water displaced by its passage.  Now imagine four or more of these creatures doing this same ballet repeatedly over an hour.  Oh, and by the way, when I say massive, let me clarify…many of these suckers are easily 12′ or more from wingtip to wingtip and can weigh 2,000 lbs.   The captain on our boat referred to one local Manta they call Big Bertha that is more than 20′ across!  If you would like to read more about Mantas, check out this link.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Almost like you are on another world having a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind!”

Absolutely insane.  This was without a doubt, the most incredible thing I did in Hawaii (which is truly saying a lot).  Not only that but my wife ALSO agreed that it was the highlight of our trip…which is perhaps an even more impressive fact:)

Okay, I’m assuming you want to give this a try this now, so here are some answers to some questions that often come up:

Is it safe?

Mantas eat plankton.  If they mistakenly get a fish in their mouth, they spit it out.  They certainly don’t dine on Homo Sapiens. Also, unlike, stingrays, mantas don’t have stingers (so don’t concern yourself about a repeat performance of the sad story of the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin).  Put it this way, the nickname for Mantas is the “butterfly of the sea”…gentle, non-aggressive, no worries.

One other thing, there are two locations that most of the tours go to…one is by the Sheraton at Kona and the other is near the airport.  Both locations are within 100′ of the shore, so it isn’t like you are heading out a couple miles to sea.  If the boat sprang a leak you could swim ashore in two minutes.   Also, the Kona coast is pretty calm so unless you are very susceptible to seasickness, you can leave the Dramamine at home.


Some folks have a real phobia about sharks…but attacks are rare. Your chances of getting hit by lightning is much higher and a fatal traffic accident while driving to the marina is even more likely.  I did an internet search and couldn’t find a single record of a shark attack during a night manta ray dive.  I’d worry about other things instead.20130912_Hawaii_3625

Is it difficult?

No…we had boy and a girl under 7 years old on the tour.  You basically float on the surface while breathing thru a snorkel about ten feet from the boat. Most boats have large floating platforms (see photo to the right) with hand grips you hold onto (so you don’t even have to really swim).  This float has lights that shine down into the water…which attracts the plankton and the plankton attracts the mantas (and the mantas attract the tourists)!

By the way, the two kids didn’t have a good time for the first five minutes.  The reality of floating in the ocean at night wasn’t as cool as they had anticipated.  Once the Mantas showed up they settled down and had a great time.  Obviously folks that hate the dark or the ocean might not enjoy this as much as most.

Is it expensive?

My wife and I paid $90 each.  For a bucket-list item, that seems cheap to me!  Of course, you still have to get to Hawaii…which is anything but cheap.

Where can I do this:

The Big Island in Hawaii near Kona is the only spot in the Hawaiian Islands that I’ve heard of.  However, if you ever get to Australia, Bora-Bora or the Maldives, I understand that you can do night dives with Mantas there as well.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Here is a critical Thing to Know:

Not all tours are the same.  Some of the folks we saw on another tour were given glow sticks and a cheap underwater flashlight to attract Mantas (their boat didn’t have the lighted floating platforms).  Needless to say, those folks didn’t see many mantas and probably didn’t have a memorable experience.  When you are deciding which tour to take, be sure they use the lighted platforms.  We used a tour operator named “Sunlight on Water“…they did a fine job (no, I don’t get kickbacks from tour operators…wish I did though).

One other thing, I was checking out Trip Advisor and saw that some folks on other tours didn’t see a single manta when they went out.  Being wild creatures, no operator can guarantee sightings, but if your tour operator knows what they are doing and have the right equipment, you should have a very high chance of success.

Other hints:

Most of the tours start about an hour before sunset (so the actual start time depends on the time of year).  You will be told that your tour will be about 3 hours long, but your time actually in the water will probably be 45 minutes to an hour)

Bring a towel and some dry warm clothes to change into when you finish your dive (yes, it is Hawaii and the water is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is less than 98.6 and you will feel a chill by the end of your time in the water.)

Our tour operator supplied a wetsuit, snorkel gear and gave us hot chocolate on the way back to the harbor.  Check to see if yours does the same.  It really is nice to have something to get the taste of saltwater out of your mouth.  Our tour also had a warm fresh water shower right on the deck which was great as well.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Don’t use a Flash!

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Backscatter at its worst…

I know this seems counter-intuiative, it would seem to be common sense to use a flash at night, especially underwater.  The problem is that using your flash/strobe will result in backscatter because of all the plankton (backscatter is a term used to describe when an underwater flash illuminates small suspended particles in the water resulting in thousands of little specs of light in your photo…see example to the right).

The tour operators told me all this, but I had lugged my strobe nearly 5,000 miles and I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, even though I had my strobes set up on the arms set as wide as possible away from the camera housing, I still got terrible backscatter.

If I ever have a chance to try this again I might try to have an assistant hold another flash unit off-angle about six feet away and trigger it remotely.

The floating platform actually generated a lot of light…enough for me to get great shots without the flash.  And since those lights are shining straight down and you will be off to the side, the backscatter won’t fill your frame.


Take the first 15 minutes to Experiment

This will be difficult advice to follow.   You will be so excited and overwhelmed by the mantas that you will want to capture every moment.  Trust me that the action will get better the longer you are in the water (you often get in the water right at sunset and it takes the mantas some time to be attracted to the lights).  Use these first minutes to try different camera settings (ISO/Shutter speed/exposure) to get your camera ‘dialed-in’.  It is more important to finish the night with a couple dozen killer shots than to review you work the next day and see that you got 200 frames, but they are all mediocre.


I shot with an ISO of 800 on my Nikon D700, which has very good high ISO resolution.  This is one of those settings you will want to experiment with during those first 15 minutes to see how low you can keep your camera’s ISO and still have good exposure on the mantas.


Looks like one of those old WW2 movies with the British bomber caught in the spotlights above Berlin!

Shoot in RAW

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW (as opposed to JPEGs), do it.   There can be a substantial dynamic range between the areas illuminated by the spotlights and the shadows and manipulating a raw file in photoshop will give you the best chance of coaxing those details out of the shadows and avoiding the ‘blow-outs” in the highlights.

Use Shutter Priority

The Mantas move slowly and I found that a shutter speed of 1/250 successfully froze their motion.  In retrospect, I think you could probably get away with as low as 1/100th.

Use a fast Wide Angle Lens

The Mantas will get close.  By close I mean that they bumped my underwater camera housing a couple times!  Coupled with the fact that they are huge, a wide angle lens will be ideal.  And since there isn’t much light, the faster a lens you have, the better.  I used a f2.8 15mm Sigma Fisheye and it did a tremendous job.20130912_Hawaii_3537 crop

Try a Video

The Mantas  perform what you would swear is an underwater ballet…it is incredible (and I’m not even a fan of the REAL ballet).  Still photos are great, but they fail to capture the grace and fluid movement of the Mantas.  If your camera has the ability to record video, you might want to give it a try.

Post Processing

Since your shots are taken at night with limited lighting, you will have to invest a significant amount of time in photoshop to develop high quality prints.  A full review of processing underwater night photos is beyond the grasp of this post, but here are some guidelines:

Adjust your white balance.  Fortunately, mantas are white on the bottom, so you have something on which to click your white balance tool and get an initial setting.  I found that a color temp of 11,ooo or so was close to correct if the manta was close to the dive platform, but I had to increase the setting up to 30,000 if it was near the sea floor and away from the lights.

Then use your Fill Light tool to reveal some of the details lost in the shadows and also adjust your Exposure as needed.

You will likely spend some time with noise control.  I had to move the Luminance slider all the way up to 50 or so to get the noise level down to an acceptable level…far more than you would dream of doing with a typical daylight shot.  I also found it helpful to cut the manta out and put it on a separate layer, which allowed me to use even more drastic noise control on the background while maintaining detail on the ray.



Here’s a good view of a Manta starting its “roll” below the floating light platform…you can also barely see some snorkelers holding onto the platform.

Capture ALL of the Manta

Don’t come home with shots only of the bottom of the Mantas.  I say this because if you are not careful, you will end up with most of your shots showing something similar to the photo above.  The reason is because the Mantas have a particular ‘dance’ they will perform for you repeatedly.  They swoop in along the sea floor until they are right below the lighted platforms. They then swoop straight up scooping up plankton (you will be shocked how big their mouths are…and you will see ALL the way down into them).  Just before they get to the surface (and you), they flip upside down (exposing their bottom side to you) and spin away.

After my first ten minutes I reviewed the shots I had taken and saw that 90% of then showed the bottom of the rays.  After that I concentrated on getting shots of them during their ‘approach’ BEFORE they did their flip.

One last thing

Don’t get so wrapped up in taking photos that you fail to take a moment to appreciate just how magnificent this experience is.  About 50 minutes into our swim, I heard some folks shouting and hollering loudly so I popped my head up to see a new group of snorkelers that just joined in the fun.  These folks were so excited that they literally couldn’t restrain themselves.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that I was raised with the old-fashioned ‘real men don’t show emotion’ mindset…but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I put my camera aside for a couple moments and let go of a couple little ‘woops’ myself!

I really hope you get swim with the Mantas someday.  If so, I know you will find the experience to be as mind-blowing as I did!


Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide















Also posted in Hawaii, Photo Tips and Guides, Underwater Photography Tagged , , , , , |

Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Hummingbirds are one of those incredible marvels of nature that seem to make everyone smile in wonder. These amazing flying jewels zip and dart around like god’s own miniature UFOs leaving a trail of excited and happy people behind them.  Being a shutterbug, I had occasionally tried to photograph them over the years… but with less than impressive results.   One spring day a hummer flew up to me while I was in the backyard, hovered 3 feet in front of my nose and took a good long look at me before she scooted off.  Right then I decided that my next goal in photography would be to learn how to take a decent photo of these little marvels.  It turned out to be more challenging than anticipated, but I’ve come up with a system that works for me.   I’ll share what I’ve learned with you in this article.

First of all, there are two basic ways you can try to photograph hummingbirds.

The first method is to get a chair, set it up near a Hummingbird feeder or flowering plant, put on a long telephoto lens on your camera and go for it.  This is how I started out and it can get nice results, especially if you like to shoot perched birds (this link will take you to great article that has tips on how to use this system). 

Handheld shots of perched hummers can yield beautiful results. I shot this Antillean Crested Hummingbird on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia with a Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 with a 1.4 tele-converter mounted on a Nikon D500

However, if you want to shoot hummingbirds in flight, then it is difficult to get full frame, well exposed, perfectly focused shots this way.  Not impossible, but my success rate was pretty pathetic…which motivated me to develop the system described below. 

My 6 step system for photographing hummingbirds in flight:

STEP 1:  Come to America 🙂

The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species I usually see at my home in Florida, but I’m lucky that it is a beautiful photographic subject!

First of all, you have to be where the Hummingbirds are. If you are in Europe, Asia, Africa, or Australia, then sorry, but you are out of luck.  Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere.  Their range extends from Alaska to the tip of Chile during the summer but they do migrate to warmer locations during winter.

Central America is ‘ground-zero’ for hummingbird photography.  Some countries, like Costa Rica have over 50 species of hummers.  The further from Central America you travel, the fewer species you will find.   

But the good news is that if you live nearly anywhere in the western hemisphere, hummers are probably nearby.  Even if you live in an urban area and have never seen a hummingbird near your home, I’ll bet you can attract them with a tad of effort.

STEP 2:  Invite the Hummingbirds to your party (Make them come to you!)

You can grab your camera, put on your hat and hike around gardens looking for hummingbirds…but I’ve found that it is a lot more productive to set out a feeder and simply let them come to you.

There are dozens of feeders available and the article attached to this link provides an excellent recap of features you should look for in a feeder as well as what type of nectar you will want to have.  You can also plant hummingbird attracting flowers in your yard…but if you really just want to take photos, a feeder will likely bring in all the hummers you need.  My favorite feeder is inexpensive, easy to clean and its low silhouette doesn’t block the birds when photographing.

An important note:  Keep the feeder clean and replace the nectar every few days!  You also need to wash the feeder at least a couple times per week (more often if it is in direct sun).  The nectar can breed bacteria quickly and if it does, the hummers will know and they will avoid your feeder like the plague.  Seriously…you can waste a lot of time watching a feeder that hummers have no interest in because they know the nectar is spoiled. Also, once you mix up a batch of sugar water, use it within a couple of weeks…even if refrigerated, it can go bad that quickly (I learned this one the hard way).

STEP 3: Get the right Equipment

There is no way around it…to take world class hummingbird photos, you have to have the right tools.  Fortunately, some of the stuff is cheap and there’s a good chance that you already have some of the more expensive items.


This is the one area where most folks will have to shell out some money because the most important equipment for killer hummingbird shots are your flashes (yes, plural).   Two flashes are really the absolute minimum for good shots and three flashes will allow you to take best-in-class photos.  Some folks use as many as eight flashes, but there are diminishing returns once you get past three.

So, why so many flashes?

  1. Two distinguishing hummingbird characteristics are that they are small and they are fast.  If you shoot without flash, you can compensate for one or the other of these characteristics, but rarely for both.
    • Unless you are satisfied with shots that show the wings as a total blur, you are going to need exposures that are between 1/1000 sec to 1/10,000 of a sec (yes…that is one ten thousandth of a second!). The problem is that if you set your shutter speed that high, you will have to open your lens aperture up wide…which unfortunately will minimize your depth of field (DOF) resulting in most of the hummer being out of focus.
    • On the other hand, if you reduce your aperture (to increase your DOF and keep the whole bird in focus), you will have to reduce your shutter speed to the point that the wings will seem to nearly disappear, which isn’t an attractive look to many folks.
  2. You want the hummer to ‘sparkle.’   Hummingbirds get their ‘jewel-like” quality from the iridescence in their feathers.  If you use only a single source of light, then the iridescent effect can appear flat or irregular.  For an in-depth review of this topic you can see this link, otherwise, just trust me that a second flash will put your hummer photos into a whole new category.
  3. Hummingbird Heaven: A 5 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

    Without a flash dedicated to the background, your hummer will look like she was out after curfew!

    If your flashes are all pointed directly at the hummer, you will notice that your photos look like they were taken at night (see photo to the right).  It actually looks pretty neat but if you want photos that look like they were taken during the day, you will need at least one more flash specifically to illuminate the background.

Hummingbird Heaven: Six Step Guide to Hummingbird Photography: Hummingbird Photo tips

Now, isn’t that better?! A background flash will allow your hummer to look like she is out enjoying a sunny day! (Click on photo to see it in full resolution)

How should I set up my flashes?

This aspect of hummingbird photography can get very technical and frankly, there are multiple systems and techniques you can use to successfully illuminate your photo.  I’ve tried most of them and I’m going to tell you the system I use.  It is relatively inexpensive, it is simple and it works.

  • Commander/Slave
    • More than likely, your DSLR’s pop-up flash (or an external flash mounted to your camera’s hot shoe) can be set up so it will wirelessly and automatically trigger your other, off-camera flashes (the flash on the camera is called the ‘master’ (Canon) or the ‘commander’ (Nikon) and the other flashes are called ‘slaves’).  I have a Nikon and this system works flawlessly (I’m going to assume that the similar systems used by other major manufacturers are also effective).
    • It seems every camera/flash combo is different, so I’d suggest you do a quick google search (or, God-forbid, read your manual:) to see how to set up your particular system.  If you own a Nikon system, take a look at this article by Ken Rockwell which clearly explains how to use a Commander/Slave set-up.
    • Important Point:  If your camera’s pop-up flash isn’t able to be used as a ‘commander’ you will have to buy a separate flash for that purpose.
    • NOT ALL EXTERNAL FLASHES HAVE THE ABILITY TO BE A COMMANDER…so you need to confirm this before you buy one.
    • A money saving hint:  Your ‘slave’ flashes do not have to be top-of-the-line models made by the same company that made your camera.  I picked up my slaves second hand on eBay.
  • High Speed Sync Mode
    • Another thing you are going to want to do is set up your camera on auto high speed flash sync.  This is because most cameras are limited to a max sync flash speed of 1/250 (which is way too slow for most hummer shots).  By using the high speed flash sync mode, you will be able to use much faster shutter speeds.  Personally, I found this topic very confusing until I read a great blog by Darrell Young.  This link will take you to this insightful article.
    • To be honest, mastering High Speed Sync was the single most frustrating technical issue I had.  I seemed that sometimes I could get the Commander/Slave system to work, but then I couldn’t take shots faster than 1/320th.  Other times, it was just the opposite!  It wasn’t until I read this article by John Adkins, that I understood the problem.  Here is the solution (for Nikon anyway)
      • On the back of your Nikon, hit the
        • Mode button, then arrow down to the
        • Custom Setting Menu then arrow down to and select
        • e Bracketing/flash  then scroll down to and select
        • e3 Flash control for built-in Flash  then scroll down and select
        • Commander Mode the under the
        • Built-in flash, change the output mode to “–”   then
          • Change the Mode under Group A to “TTL”
            • Your speedlights will also need to be set on Group A
          • Finally, change Channel to “3” and set your speedlights to channel “3” also.
      • After I did this, I had no more problems.

Flash Stands

1/8000 sec, ISO 140/ f/29, Nikon D800E/Nikkor 105 Macro lens

Flash stands will allow you to precisely position your speedlites/strobes.  I got a couple of these inexpensive stands  from Amazon for less than $30 each that get the job done just fine.  Just make sure that your stand will allow you to get the flash at least 6 feet off the ground and have wide, stable bases..

Wireless Remote Shutter Release

For me personally, a wireless shutter release is the second most important piece of equipment for taking quality hummingbird shots.  The use of a wireless remote allows you to set your camera up very close to the feeder and trigger the shutter from far enough away that small movements on your part won’t scare the hummers

Initially I used a remote shutter unit that connected to my camera with a cable, but my cable was only 3 feet long, so I still needed to stay pretty close to the camera.   That meant I had to sit perfectly still or shoot hummers from a blind.  You might be able to find a remote with a long cord but trust me, a wireless shutter release for photographing hummers is a godsend.  Most of them are cheap (Amazon has a couple units for less than 20 bucks that fit many cameras).

I’ve taken most of my hummingbird photos while comfortably seated in my air-conditioned office about 15 feet from the feeder.  Usually I just glance thru my window every couple of minutes to see if a hummer is visiting  (who says you can’t do two things at once?). This sure beats hiding in a cramped blind in the Florida heat fighting off mosquitoes!


One of my biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments was realising that you don’t need a telephoto lens to take great hummingbird shots.  If you have a $10K 600mm 2.8 lens, then by all means, use it.  However hummers quickly grow tolerant of tripods and cameras placed close to the feeder.

Ideally, you want a lens that is fast, sharp and can focus close to the camera.  My best shots have been taken with a 105mm Nikon Micro lens…which is fast (f2.8), insanely sharp and can focus at subjects within a couple feet.  However,  I’ve also used much cheaper ‘prosumer’ lenses and gotten fine results.   The bottom line is that the ability to shoot very close to hummingbirds means that you can get pro quality results without pro quality glass.

A huge challenge is depth of field (DOF).  Hummers are only about 3 inches long, so we aren’t talking about a huge amount of space…but you might be surprised how shallow your depth of field is, even when using your smallest aperture. For example, the DOF for my 105mm is only about 3 inches deep when set up 30″ away with the aperture set at f25! Since most hummers are only a few inches long, keeping the whole bird in focus takes some practice.

Important Tip:   You can waste a LOT of time taking photos that have only part of the hummer focused unless you take the time to figure out your DOF ahead of time.  If you don’t have a DOF calculator, there are a couple great ones available for your smartphone.  The app I use cost $2 and is easy to operate and understand.

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird with ant in beak

Harriett’s Breakfast (click for full resolution)


Some folks photograph hummers hand-held.  God bless them…those folks must have incredible patience.  But for me, hand-held hummingbird photography is often frustrating and unproductive.

Mounting your camera on a tripod will dramatically increase your percentage of great photos:

1)  You will able to pre-calculate your DOF and prefocus your lens on the EXACT spot where the bird will be.  Which means that many/most of your shots will be perfectly focused and the entire hummer will be sharp.

2)  You can set up your camera very close to the hummers.  This will allow you avoid cropping.  In other words, you will maximize your resolution and sharpness by using nearly all of your sensor.

3)  Hummers, are usually not very tolerant of movement close to their feeder.  Even the slight movement of lifting your camera a couple inches while you are seated ten feet away will often scare them off.  However, if your camera is on a tripod and you are using a remote shutter release, they won’t see any motion.


As long as your camera has a ‘hot shoe” or has a pop-up flash that can serve as a commander, then you should be good to go.  Nearly any high quality DSLR should work.


You will want to set up a backdrop behind your feeder to avoid the ‘night-time’ look I mentioned before.  I use a piece of posterboard that I painted a nice sky blue.  You can also try spray-painting hazy patterns that imitate an attractive bokeh in the background of your shot.

Your backdrop won’t have to be very large.  For my current set-up, a 24″ x 12″ backdrop completely fills up the background in my photos.  Yours will likely need a somewhat different size depending on your camera/lens combo.

Flower Props

Shots of hummers flying with nothing else in the frame start looking kind of stark, so I like to include some flowers in the same plane of focus as the hummer.  Use local plants, especially ones the hummers feed on if possible.   If you don’t have some in your yard you can cut, just pick up some at your local nursery or home improvement store.

STEP 4:  Set the Stage.

A 4 Step Guide with Hummingbird photo tips

Diagram 1: Hummingbird Photo Studio

Basically, you are going to set up an outdoor photo studio in which you control all aspects of the photograph.

A 5 step buide with Hummingbird photo tips

Diagram 2: Photo of my Hummingbird Studio

The Feeder

Hummingbird Photo tips

Diagram 3: Feeder detail

Hummingbirds really don’t care where you put the feeder, they will find it and flock to it.  So, find a location that is perfect for YOU.

  • I like to put my feeder on the porch, that way my camera won’t get wet when it rains (happens a lot here during Florida summers).  
  • Put the feeder in a shady location.  This way the food won’t spoil quickly and and it will ensure that you control the light (with your flashes)
  • Attach cut flowers (I particularly like orchids) to the feeder so they will appear in the photo.
  • You can also put potted plants and/or flowers on a stand slightly behind the feeder out of the prefocus area…they will be a bit blurry which will add a nice sense of depth.
  • Put masking tape over all the feeding holes except the one you want the birds to use.  This ensures that when they come to feed, they will do so at exactly the location you want them to (more about this later).
  • Next modify your feeder by removing the ‘foot rests’ in front of the hole you left open (this way you get shots of hummers flying, not standing on the plastic foot rests.)
  • When I’m not photographing, I leave my feeder hanging by the supplied hook .  However, when it is time to photograph, I place the feeder on a piece of PCV and remove the hook (see Diagram 3).  This way there is nothing over the feeder that will be in the photo except the hummer and any flowers that I might be using as props.
  • One last thing, if you have multiple feeders, take down all of them except the one you are actually photographing.  Why give your models any reason to go anywhere else?
  • A sneaky trick:  Put the stem of a flower of your choice in the feeding hole you left open and then put a bit of nectar into the flower with an eyedropper or a syringe.  Since the hummers will become conditioned to come to that particular feeding hole, the next time they come back, they usually adapt quickly and try the flower.  Now you will be able to get killer shots of a hummer feeding from a flower, rather than from your feeder.

The Flashes

Positioning of your flashes is one of most critical decisions you will make.  Trial and error is the key, but my preference is to set up two flashes about 45 degrees from one another with one flash shooting up at the hummer and the other shooting down.  I also set  these two flashes so that neither one of them is pointing directly at the posterboard background …this will prevent them from throwing shadows from the bird or flower props onto the posterboard (See diagram 1).

The flashes need to be CLOSE to the feeder.  I often set them up within two feet of the feeder.  This is necessary because as you increase your shutter speed, the amount of illumination in your shots will be progressively reduced.

Some hummingbird species (like the Ruby-Thoated I often photograph) have white underbellies so I typically use a diffuser on the flash shooting from below the bird…this helps soften the flash so the highlights don’t get  ‘blown-out.’  However, I usually don’t use a diffuser on the flash that is shooting down..this helps make the iridescent feathers on top of the hummer ‘sparkle.’  

The third flash will be positioned close to the posterboard shooting from the side.  By placing the flash off to the side, the backboard will be more illuminated on one side than the other…I find this to be an attractive look since it simulates the effect of the ‘sun’ brightening part of the ‘sky.’  However, if this isn’t appealing to you, adding another flash on the other side of your backdrop will even out illumination (but now you are up to 4 flashes!)


The backdrop/posterboard

1/8000 sec, ISO 200/ f/22, Nikon D800E/Nikkor 105 Macro lens

You want to position the posterboard far enough behind the feeder so that it is completely out-of-focus, but not so far that it is too dark in your photograph.  I typically set it about 30″ behind the feeder but your distance will depend on your lens and the aperture you select.

The Camera

  • I position my camera tripod at about a 90 degree angle from the flashes (see diagram 1).
  • Shoot in Raw, not jpeg.  Often I have to underexpose my shots because of the combination of a fast shutter but small aperture.  Shooting in Raw will allow you to boost the exposure in postprocessing.
  • Switch off the Vibration Reduction
  • Turn off the autofocus.
  • Select Manual Mode on the camera
  • Prefocus.  In the diagrams in this blog, I use the spot where the hummer usually ‘hovers’ after taking a sip but you can also select the feeding hole.
    • I just hold my hand in the exact spot I want to photograph the hummer and manually focus on it using Live View.
    • If you want to learn more about using your camera’s Live View function, this article by Ian Plant is a great start.
  • Play with your ISO to find the lowest setting you can use and still be able to increase the exposure in post production without excessive noise.  With my current Nikon full frame camera, I use an ISO 2oo or so.
  • Set your aperture to the setting you selected after reviewing your DOF (see Lens section above)
  • Set your camera speed.  I can tell you that even at 1/5000 of a second, you will still see movement in the wings (you need nearly 1/10,000 of a second to totally freeze those little wings).  However, I actually like to see some wing blur, so I usually select either 1/3200 or 1/4000.
  • If you camera has one of those little pre-focus or ‘red-eye’ lamps that illuminate the subject, turn it off.

STEP 4:  Trial Shots

I am always anxious to start shooting in the morning…especially if hummers are already stopping by while I am setting up.   But I’ve learned that it pays to take your time in the morning and take trial shots after you set up to make sure that everything is perfect.  I review the first trial shot for focus, evenness of flash coverage, how my flower ‘props’ look in the frame and then make adjustments and shoot again.  I continue until I can get an absolutely perfect photo.  Then I go and get my coffee, sit in my chair, put my thumb on the remote shuttle release and wait for the party to start!

STEP 5:  Party Time!

  • Hummers have a predictable pattern when dining at your server…Zip In…Slurp…Back Away…Hover…Repeat.   Once you know this pattern, you simply wait for them to fly into the spot you prefocused on and trip the shutter.

    1/8000 sec, ISO 100/ f/29, Nikon D800E/Nikkor 105 Macro lens

  • Take the feeder down at night and don’t set it back out until you are ready to photograph the next morning. The hummers will know when the food is back and you will likely get a rush of activity.  In addition, the first feedings in the morning will be long.  This first rush in the morning is my most productive time for photography.
  • Don’t photograph your hummingbird the first time it hits your feeder.  This way they get a taste of the nectar before you surprise them with the flash.  They may not like the flash, but once they have a taste of that nectar, they will probably put up with it without taking off.
  • As I mentioned hummers don’t like sudden movements, so even if you are a good distance away, move slowly.

STEP 6:  Postproduction

Once I import my shots into Photoshop, I open them in the RAW format and use the following workflow:

  1. Adjust exposure.  Don’t be surprised that the raw, unprocessed images may look quite dark.   That is due to the high shutter speed, low ISO and small aperture.  So the first thing I have to do is increase the exposure (sometimes by nearly 4 stops)

    BEFORE: This is what your raw shot will often look like right out of your camera.


    AFTER: A little work in Photoshop and here is what you will have!


  2. Adjust the shadow slider as needed
  3. Tweak sharpness and luminance to reduce noise
  4. If the background is still too dark, I will put the targeted adjustment cursor on the background and adjust the luminance slider up.  This will lighten the ‘sky’ but not colors in the bird or the flower props (unless they are the same color as your background).

Once I’ve completed the Raw adjustments, I save the file and reopen in regular Photoshop, then:

  1. If there is residual noise in the background of the shot, I cut out the hummingbird and put it on it’s own layer.  I then use the noise filter to clean-up the background layer.  You can also add some Gaussian blur to the background.
  2. I often change the color of the white orchids attached to my feeder to a subtle hue.  Select a hue that contrasts and compliments the color of the sky and the hummer (like in the photo below).

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Hummingbird Photo Tips

Final thoughts:

Although this article is a lot longer than your average blog, it certainly isn’t an exhaustive review of the subject…that would take a full book!  Actually, my goal was pretty modest:   I simply hoped to inspire you to give hummingbird photography a try and explain the basic techniques that would give you a good, solid start.   With a bit of practice and patience you will soon be showing your friends photos that will amaze them.

As your hummingbird photography skills improve and you learn techniques and tips that are not covered in this article, please share your learnings with me by noting them in the comments section at the end of this article (I reserve the right to get better!)

Thanks…now get out there and photograph some hummers!

PS:  A note about the photos you see on this blog:

Unfortunately, I have to reduce the resolution of my photos by 80% when I insert them in this blog.  If you would like to see them in their full glory and resolution, check out my Flickr Hummingbird album.

PSS:  If you want to see great hand-held shots:

Checkout these photos by Dan Ripplinger.   You will be impressed!

PSSS:  Hummingbird Trivia  (Source: Wikipedia, etc.)

  • Hummers get their name because of the humming sound created by their beating wings, which sometimes sounds like bees or other insects.
  • Hummers can fly at speeds exceeding 15 m/s (54 km/h; 34 mph);
  • Hummers are the fastest animal on the planet (if you measure speed in body lengths per second).
  • Hummers are the only group of birds with the ability to fly backwards
  • Hummers have the largest brain, proportionate to their size, of any animal.
  • Hummers in flight have the highest metabolism of all animals (excepting insects), a necessity in order to support the rapid beating of their wings. Their heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute.
  • Hummers hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings 12–80 times per second (depending on the species).
  • Hummers consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they must visit hundreds of flowers daily.
  • Hummers are continuously hours away from starving to death, and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight.
  • Hummers are capable of slowing down their metabolism at night or any other time food is not readily available. They enter a hibernation-like state known as torpor.
  • When the nights get colder, their body temperature can drop significantly which slows down their heart and breathing rate, thus burning much less energy overnight. As the day heats back up, the hummingbird’s body temperature will come back up and they resume their normal activity
  • Hummers are among the smallest of birds, most species measuring in the 7.5–13 cm (3–5 in) range. Indeed, the smallest extant bird species is a hummingbird, the 5-cm Bee Hummingbird.
  • Individuals from some species of hummingbirds weigh less than a penny
  • A group of hummingbirds is called a “choir.”

    Purple-throated Carib Hummingbird photographed in the Caribbean


Hummingbird Photo tips

Hummingbird Photography:  A 6 Step Guide with Photo Tips



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“Hey Dad, guess what’s in the basketball Court?!”

Gators are to Floridians like chickens are to poultry farmers…we pretty much take them for granted because they are just everywhere.  Honestly, there seems to be a gator in every body of water larger than a puddle and the natives here get pretty blasé about them.

Even so, sometimes they manage to get our attention:  Check this out!

Gator trapped in neighborhood Basketball court in Florida

Who has Dibs on the Court?

My son Ryan (on right) and his cousin Jonathan, had walked down to the end of our street to play some basketball.  Ryan had just entered the court when it noticed it was already occupied!  He quickly decided that the gator had dibs on the court and made the understandable decision to high-tail it out of there.

This gator had entered the caged court the night before thru a door that had been left open.  The door shut automatically trapping it inside.  Apparently it had been trying to get out for a while…it was exhausted and its snout was bloody from slamming against the cage.

Gator trapped in neighborhood Basketball court in FloridaGator trapped in neighborhood Basketball court in FloridaGator trapped in neighborhood Basketball court in Florida

Ryan called me and I hustled down (with my camera of course).  We propped the door to the court open and then spent about 40 minutes trying to encourage the gator to leave the court.  He (she?) crawled all over the court but wouldn’t go out the open door.    We couldn’t just go home and leave the gator there…a caged seven foot gator can be pretty ornery and if some kids walked into the court unaware it could be a close encounter of the unpleasant kind.

Gator trapped in neighborhood Basketball court in Florida

“Hell No…I Won’t Go!”

Once it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to convince it to leave, I called the Sheriff’s Department hoping a Deputy might have an idea or two.  A couple officers came by twenty minutes later but they had no more luck than we had.

After another half hour it became clear that we had no choice but to call a Gator Trapper.   It was a last resort and something none of us truly really wanted to do because it was a death sentence for the gator (Gator Trappers are contractors licensed by the state of Florida who are ‘paid’ by selling the hide and meat of the gators they catch…in other words, they don’t ‘catch and release.’)

The trapper and a helper arrived 40 minutes later…we spent that time becoming increasing frustrated by our inability to get the darn gator to save itself and head out the door and back to the lake.  I was sure the trapper would be ticked off if he showed up and the gator was gone, but just the same we did everything we could short of actually enter the court and push it out the door!


Florida Alligator Trapper removed gator from neighborhood basketball courtFlorida Alligator Trapper removed gator from neighborhood basketball courtFlorida Alligator Trapper removed gator from neighborhood basketball court

I’ll tell you, the trapper sure knew his business.  In five minutes he had grabbed the gator, taped its mouth shut, trussed it up and carried it off the court.

Florida Alligator Trapper removed gator from neighborhood basketball court

Later Gator…

I’ve often been ticked off at folks who call to report gators that aren’t doing anything more than basking next to one of our ponds or streams…so for me to have to call a trapper was ironic and disheartening.  Still the right decision but not one that I enjoyed making.

Only in Florida….

Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun & Cozumel’s Best Photo Op

If you are a photographer who happens to have a cruise or trip to Cancun / Cozumel in your future, then read on for my guide and photo tips for a great photo op I recently found there: Xcaret.

Xcaret is a ‘target rich environment’ for any photographer…if you enjoy wildlife, architecture, native culture or even underwater photography, then Xcaret  will keep you busy!  Even better, if you happen to be traveling with kids and/or a spouse/friend who isn’t a photo nut, they will find plenty to do here.  Check out the link to the Xcaret website  for a full listing of all their activities and I think you be able to convince your traveling companions that this park will interest them as well (while you go off on your own for a full day of wide-ranging photography).

Parrots at Xcaret, NexicoOverview

  1. Xcaret is a huge (200 acre) Disney quality park located on the coast near Cozumel and Cancun.
  2. Just about everyone speaks English, the place is clean and organized.
  3.  There was plenty of security on site and I was never got concerned or uncomfortable about my safety.
  4. If you are on a cruise, they usually have this park listed as one of their shore excursions with a cost of about $110 for adults and $60 for kids.  If you are at the port of Cozumel, the tour takes a 45 minute ferry to Playa del Carmen and then a 20 minute bus ride to the park.
  5. The cruise shore excursion was a full day…about seven hours. I could have spent twice as much time there and still had lots more to photograph.
  6. If you aren’t on a cruise, it is about an hour from Cancun by Taxi (approx. $80-$100) and entrance tickets are around $79 (you can pick them up for $71 on their website) . However Xcaret recently starting offering a bus service from Cancun for $125 (includes admission) which seems like a great deal. This link will give you details.
  7. Lots of restaurants and drink stands.  Prices are reasonable.
  8. Lockers are available
  9. Some of the things available for non-photographers include an underground “Lazy River” (pretty cool),  horse shows, shopping, swimming with dolphins (there is an extra fee for this activity), beach area for sunbathing, and lots more.
  10. Google Map link:
  11. For more info, I recommend you check out the Tripadvisor Site…don’t just take my word for it!

Tips for Non-Photographers:

  1. Pick up a map of the park when you enter, it will help you plan your day and find yourself around.

    "Native" canoes in the lagoon at Xcaret Park Mexico

    “Native” canoes in the lagoon at Xcaret Park Mexico

  2. The underground river is neat, so bring a pair of trunks and a towel.  If you want to hit the beach, these will come in handy also.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes…this place is BIG and the walkways are concrete.
  4. There are a lot of trees, but Mexico is hot, so a hat and cool clothes will be nice to have.

Hints and Suggestions for my fellow Photographers:

  1. You will want a long lens (at least 300mm) for the wildlife and a wide angle lens for the architecture and landscapes
  2. If you want to try and get some photos of the underground river (I didn’t get a chance) a waterproof camera would be good to have (if you go on the river, you can lock up your equipment in lockers…but do so at your own risk).
  3. For non-wildlife shots, a polarizing filter will help ensure those rich blue skies in your shots.
  4. I didn’t see the need for a tripod.   If you are going to be there in the evening or if it is a cloudy day it might be a different story, but it was a bright beautiful day during my visit.
  5. Don’t overload yourself.  You will walk a lot and the extra weight will punish you.
  6. There are a number of ‘shows’ during the day.  Get a schedule when you first enter the park so you can plan to be at the events that interest you.

Specific subjects and venues I found to have Photographic interest:

  • Jaguars!  The Jaguar and Pumaexhibit was the highlight of my day.  It is a modern-style enclosure surrounded by a moat with no cages.  They had two jaguars (one was all black!) and a puma whichwas located on an adjacent but separateexhibit.
    • The first thing you want to do when you get to the park is ask an employee near this exhibit when they are going to feed the cats!  As you might know, big cats sleep most the day which can result in some boring shots, but if you are there when they toss scraps of meat to the Jaguars, you can get shots like this:

      Jaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun Mexico

      Is this jaguar giving me the Evil Eye or what?

    • When I first got there, the Jaguars were dozing in the shade…they seemed to be determined not to be interesting photo subjects.  Then I noticed a couple of the park’s employees holding some zip-locked bags of meat heading toward the other side of the Jaguar enclosure.  Well I darn near knocked over some other tourists as I hustled over to get closer.  Sure enough, the employees starting tossing scraps of meat over the moat to the now very awake and active big cats!  The distance is less than 70′ and with a 300mm lens, you will be able to get some great shots.
    • One last hint…try to position yourself RIGHT NEXT to the guys throwing the scraps.  The Jaguars stare intently at the food as it flies toward them and if you are close to the spot where the food is launched, your photos will appear as if the cats are looking right at you.  I only figured this out at the end of their meal, but the shot above was the result.  It was a gas!

Jaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoJaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoJaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoJaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun Mexico

  • There are a number of other animal exhibits that have good photographic potential, including:  monkeys, tapirs, deer, flamingos, a HUGE butterfly pavilion, scarlet macaws, etc .  Trust me, if you love to photograph wildlife, you will be happily busy all day.

Flamingo at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoButterflies at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoMonkey at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun Mexico

  • There is some non-caged wildlife as well!  This is Mexico and you will certainly see iguanas.  I don’t know why I like photographing these mini-dinosaurs so much, but I do!
  • Iguana at Xcaret Park Mexico

    The Iguanas are not skittish around people. This guy let me set up a flash on the rock two feet from him so I could get good fill flash!

  • The park also has a recreation of a Mayan ball court and a pyramid.  You will also find full sized reproductions of Mayan sculpture.  Granted, this isn’t as cool as photographing the real thing at Tulum or Lamani, but it is fun nonetheless!

  • Xcaret also has a full sized recreation of a Mexican Hacienda, a primitive Catholic church, Mayan village and a wild Mexican graveyard.

  • There is a full orchid greenhouse as well as a botanical garden if photographing flowers is one of your interests.
  • One last thing, if you’ve never seen Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) ,  it is worth your time.  Unfortunately, I got to the show late and my view was pretty limited so I only got a few shots.  Show times are listed on the flyer you get when you enter the park.  Seating is limited, so get there early for a good spot.

    Danza de_los Voladore,s Dance of the Flyers, Pole Dance at Xcaret Park Mexico Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun and Cozumel's Best Photo Opportunity

    Danza de_los Voladore is an exciting ancient Meso-American ceremony

I’ve been to Cozumel/Cancun a number of times and there is nothing else I’ve seen there that has the intense, varied Danza de_los Voladore,s Dance of the Flyers, Pole Dance at Xcaret Park Mexico and consolidated photographic potential as Xcaret.  Of course, if you have more than a day, then you might be able to find similar subjects, but it would probably take you the full week to do so.  Plus, the rest of the family can have a fun day while you get to indulge your hobby!

Have fun!


The shore at Xcaret

View of the Gulf from the park.


Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun and Cozumel’s Best Photo Op


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Easter Sushi

One of the things I love about living next to a State Park is that wildlife is right outside my door.  Yesterday for example, the family had a Easter celebration at a outdoor pavilion in my neighborhood.  I had been drafted to be the photographer for the event…you know how that goes:)  While the whole clan arrived and as my wife rushed off to kiss the latest bumper crop of babies, I noticed a Blue Heron patiently fishing in the stream next to us.

I kept my eye on the Heron while I filled my memory card with shots of the family…and then WHAM!  The Heron jammed its bill into the water like a spear and skewered a small brim (we called them blue-gills up north).

Fortunately, I had recognized that the Heron was about to strike and ripped off about 30 frames as he struck:










Even with a 300mm zoom at 200% crop, I was delighted with the detail my Nikon 800E was able to deliver. Check out this shot below:

You know, I had concerns that my 800E might not work out well as a wildlife camera (due to the fact that the huge files fill up the buffer much quicker than my old D700)…but, the detail this camera delivers is really astounding.  I mean, sometimes I bring the shots up on Photoshop and I just start laughing in amazement.  Just incredible.

Anyway, I went back to the Easter egg hunt while the Heron enjoyed his Easter lunch.  Small moments like these truly are the spice of life!

Have a great Easter!










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Photo Tips: How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River, King’s Bay and Homosassa

I’ve lived in Florida 40 years and visitors often ask me what they should do when they visit.   At the top of my list is swimming with the Manatees at Crystal River and King’s Bay.  I’ve done it a number of times and I’d like to share with you my learnings and photo tips to help you make the most of this incredible experience.

Manatee surfacing for a breath at sunrise.

Manatees are large, gentle creatures that seem to touch an emotional chord in most people that encounter them. They live in the coastal areas of the southern US and through-out the Caribbean.  Being mammals, they are sensitive to the cold.  As a result, every Florida winter they return from the ocean and head for the rivers that have underwater springs which pump out relatively warm 72 degree water.

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

“Just Chillin’

Although there are a lot of springs that attract manatees, there two locations where you can readily swim with them:  Crystal River/King’s Bay and Homosassa Springs.  

Of the two, Crystal River usually has the highest concentration of Manatees.  As a result, it is the most popular and an entire industry has been built around this fact.  Crystal River is on the west coast of Florida about 70 miles north of Tampa (100 miles west of Orlando).  There are a bunch of small tour companies there that will take you on a pontoon boat directly to the manatees so you can snorkel with them for a couple hours.  The cost is about $75 per person and includes snorkeling gear and a wetsuit (you will need it…72 might be warm to a manatee but I guarantee you will find it chilly!)  If you haven’t done much snorkeling, don’t let that stop you… most of the places the tours hit are shallow enough that you can simply walk on the bottom rather than swim.

On the other hand, Crystal River’s very popularity has resulted in a number of rules and regulations to ensure that overly enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) don’t harass the manatees.  As a result, if your primary interest is in photographing manatees (rather than just snorkeling with them), then you might prefer Homosassa Springs.  For example, you are not allowed to use underwater flash/strobes anymore in Crystal River, but there are no such restrictions in Homosassa.  These regulations seem to change yearly as the government attempts to balance the best interests of the manatees and the public’s desire to swim with these wonderful creatures.  Please check online here and here  to ensure that you have the latest info.  If you book a tour, your boat captain will know the regulations…just ask. 

My photo tips for Manatees:


  • Obviously you will need a waterproof camera. Fortunately, this isn’t like photographing 60′ below the surface inside a wreck…you are shooting in 5 feet of water (freshwater at that)   I’ve used everything from a high-end DSLR in an expensive underwater housing to $300 waterproof point-n-shoots.
  • A DSLR can certainly provide better quality and if you are trying to produce world-class work, then it is the way to go.  However, if the shots are just for your own use and you aren’t going to try to print anything larger than 8×10,  then a high-end waterproof point-n-shoot is a lot easier to use and will give you adequate quality.
  • If you know how to use Photoshop, you will want to shoot in RAW.  This will help to avoid blown-out highlights plus you can adjust the white balance in post processing to account for the shift into the blue spectrum.
  • Whatever camera you are using, practice using it in the water until you instinctively know how to adjust the controls.  I stress this because most of us don’t use underwater cameras often and even if you are using your regular camera in a waterproof housing, you will be surprised how difficult this can be in the water.  For example, the last time I was photographing manatees I was using my Canon S 100 in an Inklite housing.  I practiced using the camera in the housing for an hour the day before the dive.  But…almost as soon as I got in the water I noticed the camera had started a video recording.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in the housing.  Sixty seconds later the memory card was full and that camera was done for that dive.  Fortunately I had taken a backup camera with me.
  • An underwater flash can dramatically enhance your photos.  The water is often murky and fill-flash is helpful. 
    • However, as noted above, using flash when photographing Manatees is no longer allowed in the Crystal River/King’s Bay area 
    • This regulation only applies to the Manatee Refuge area.  So you might want to consider a tour in the Homosassa River where flashes are still allowed.
  • Take a roomy backpack or duffel bag with you on the boat and load it with a warm change of clothes (including socks), a towel and Thermos with hot coffee or chocolate (some tours have hot beverages on board).
  • If you have your own wetsuit (full wetsuit, not a ‘shorty’) mask and snorkel, bring them as well.  Bring water shoes and wear them when you are in the water. You probably won’t need fins and many tours won’t let you use them anyway (so they won’t inadvertently bother the manatees or stir up silt)
  • The boat ride to the dive site can take up to a half hour (depending which marina you start from).  There is often a lot of wildlife on the way, so I always bring my best DSLR with a long lens (300mm or more).  Eagles, osprey, herons and other birds will keep you busy.

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

When to Go

  • Manatees can be found in Crystal River year-round and the dive companies will tell you you can see them any day of the year.  However, you really want to come during the winter and if possible during a cold snap.  You can see literally dozens of Manatees on a one hour dive during the winter while you might only see a couple during a full day in the summer.
  • Most tour companies have two or three tours a day.  The dawn tour day used to be my favorite.  However, now that flash photography is prohibited the early tour isn’t a good choice for photographers due to the lack light around sunrise.
  • The least busy and therefore the best days of the week are Tuesday thru Thursday (unless one of these days is a holiday).
  • The two weeks before Christmas are excellent since most folks are focused on the holidays and don’t plan a manatee trip.  As a result, you will have the manatees almost to yourselves.Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

What company to Use

  • I’ve used a number of different companies and they all were all adequate.  I’d suggest using Tripadvisor  to check out reviews of potential companies.  Here is a link:  
    • Be sure that a wetsuit rental is included in the price…otherwise you might be hit with a surprise extra charge.
    • The water is about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, so you might get chilly.  Some companies have heated boats which might be something you want to consider.
  • Personally, in Crystal River, I prefer a company by the name of Bird’s Underwater.  Their captains know their stuff and their price is very competitive (and no, they don’t compensate me for this recommendation).
  • In Homosassa, I’ve had great experiences with  Wyn Walker of Blue Heaven River Tours.  Wyn actually has an enclosed and heated boat, which is quite appreciated when climbing out of the chilly water.  His Trip Advisor rating is also excellent and he is passionate about the manatees..and his customers.  And again…no kickbacks…darn it.


  • 2015 Manatees 08 January 09922_1

    If you do have a DSLR in an underwater housing, then Over/Under shots can be a lot of fun.


  • When you first get in the water, scout around a bit to see where the manatees are.  Don’t necessarily stop at the first manatee you see one.  What you are ideally looking for is:
    • A Manatee that is in relatively shallow water (less than 5 feet)
    • A Manatee that is close to and downstream from one of springs (this will ensure that your shots won’t show much suspended silt).
    • A Manatee that isn’t surrounded by a horde of snorkelers.
  • Often the manatees are resting on the bottom.  If see this, position yourself about ten feet in front of the manatee.  Try to find a spot that has a darker background behind the manatee (ideally, you want to get the dark blue water of the spring behind it).  Now… you….wait.  Usually it will come up to breath every 3 or 4 minutes rising slowly to the surface and back to the bottom.  If so, you should be able to get a number of shots every time it does this.
  • If the manatees are moving, you just have to try to anticipate where they are going and position yourself accordingly  Keep in mind that you are not allowed to harass them…which basically means that you shouldn’t do anything that makes them change their behavior.  In other words, if a manatee swims right up to you and rolls over, you can rub her belly (this really happens..and it is just incredibly cool when it does), but you can’t swim up to a stationary manatee and try to climb on it’s back.  Please review the official  regulations on the attached link:
  • I’ve never had a captain rush me back to the boat, even when I was the last one from our boat in the water (actually, I’m always the last one in the water).  However, be aware of the time and the fact that unless you hired the boat for the entire day, that the captain does have another boatload of folks waiting back at the dock.Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River


  • Your primary task will be re-adjusting the white balance.  Manatees are grey, so you can usually just touch your Photoshop white-point stylus to their skin and get close to the right colors.
  • It can be challenging to get a shot that has the right exposure.  If you were able to shoot raw, then you should be able to recover most, if not all of the blown-out highlights that often result from the sun reflections off the surface of the water.
  • No matter how careful you set up your shot, you will probably see some suspended silt (backscatter) in your shots.  You can try using the dust filter in Photoshop but if that is a bit too severe you can just take a deep breath and take the time to use your clone tool systematically thru the frame and remove the ‘backscatter’.


  • I’ve added a number of new techniques and suggestions in a more recent blog.  Click on this link to see more!

Final thoughts

If you want to photograph more after your tour, then take the time to hit some of the numerous parks located right on the water in Crystal River (none of them are more than ten minutes away).  I’ve gotten some incredible bird shots here…two weeks ago I watched (thru my viewfinder) an osprey desperately trying to steal a fish from another osprey that had just snatched it from the river.  Just another boring day in Florida!


PS:  After completing this blog, I was referred to an excellent photo guide by John Ares.  Check out the attached link:

Good luck and good shooting!

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River




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It’s a Jungle out there! Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom Photo Tips

Animal Kingdom is, by far, my favorite theme park in Florida.  If you are one of the thousands of folks that will visit Central Florida this year and if you are a photographer, then this is one of the places you DON”T want to miss.   The stars of this park are in a beautifully natural 500 acre preserve that make this place a joy for the photographer.  Fortunately (for me)  I’m a local, so I’ve been able to visit it a number of times.   Even better (for you) is that this article was written to share the photo tips that I’ve learned the hard way over the years.

photo tips for Disney's Animal Kingdom

Lion on the Kilimanjaro Safari. Nikon 800e 28-300zoom @300 f/11 ISO 400 1/200sec


Cost?  Well, no one ever said Disney was cheap…tickets are $89 and you will end up paying for some incidentals as well.  However, I’ve paid a lot more and gotten a lot fewer good shots in other places.  Not only that, but at the end of the day I was actually smiling…for lack of a better word, there is a unique ‘vibe’ at Animal Kingdom that I don’t get at the other area parks.

Here are my photo tips for Disney’s Animal Kingdom


  • Be at the park at opening (usually 9am), in fact be there at least 20 minutes early, they sometimes open the gates before 9am.  The animals are the most active in the morning…they have a tendency to find shady spots to relax in as the day goes on and temperatures rise.
  • The park opens at 8am one or two days a week for people that are staying at a Disney hotel.  If you are traveling to Orlando, I’d make sure that your hotel qualifies and schedule your trip to Animal Kingdom on one of the early days.
  • You will need a 300mm or longer lens for many of your shots.  A zoom is an excellent choice here because of the varying focal lengths you will need.
  • Don’t bother with a tripod.  Few of the animals stay still long enough for a tripod to be helpful.
  • Like any wildlife photography, you need a camera that can take a lot of shots quickly and has a buffer big enough to store them.  When you are on the Kilimanjaro Safari, for example, you don’t have much time to take your shots…your best bet is to focus on your subject, hold down the shutter and take as many shots as you can.
  • Unlike the other Disney parks, Animal Kingdom has a lot of trees and the canopy reduces the heat, just the same, this is Florida and you want a good hat, comfortable clothes and sunscreen.
  • You do a lot of walking…all of it on concrete, so keep that in mind when you decide what shoes and how much equipment to bring with you.  You can bring a backpack into the park (it will be searched) but don’t load it up too heavy.

Here are some hints to help you once you are in the Park:

Kilimanjaro Safari

Cheetahs on the Kilimanjaro Safari

Cheetahs on the Kilimanjaro Safari

The Safari consists of an open air vehicle which drives around a series of wildlife areas.  You sit on a bench seat as the driver provides a running monologue about the numerous animals you see (hippos, Lions, leopards, giraffes, etc).  The vehicle rarely stops and will not deviate from the “set” track, so you have to take your shots quickly and don’t expect the driver to stop so you can get the perfect shot.  Just keep shooting! I’ve never timed it, but it is about a ten minute trip.

  • Make this your first stop when you get to Animal Kingdom.  If you are there when they open the gates at 9am, you will see people actually running to get to the Safari first (I kid you not!).  Get a map ahead of time and know which direction to go when you get into the park at opening  (It is in the “Africa” section of the park).  Here is a link for a map of the park:
  • When you get to the front of the line where you board the vehicle, try your best to get on one of the ends of the bench seat (personally, I think the LEFT side is the best for photography).  The benches hold 3-5 folks.
  • Set your camera to shutter priority and select 1/320 or faster…this will help freeze the shots even though the vehicle is bouncing around.
  • You might have to set your ISO to a higher setting than normal in order to shoot at this higher shutter speed.
  • If your lens has Vibration Reduction, use it.
  • Use a 300mm or longer lens, you will need that reach.
  • GO ON THE SAFARI MULTIPLE TIMES!!!  Although the safari is on a set track,  your photos will be different EVERY time..even if it has only been 20 minutes since your last one.
    • As soon as you finish one safari, go get a FAST PASS for your next one (you can get a FastPass at automated kiosks near the entry of the Kilmanjaro Safari…just look for the signs).
    • Your FastPass appointment will be in about an hour, so you can go hit another area in the meantime.  I’ve gone 4 times in a single day and each trip was unique (as were the photos).  For example, the shot above of the three Cheetahs was the only time I saw them awake on the day I was there…although it was my third safari of the day.

Pangani Forest Trail

Gorilla on Pangani Trail at Wild Kingdom/ Nikon 800E 300mm 400 ISO 1/500sec f/5.6

Gorilla on Pangani Trail at Wild Kingdom/ Nikon 800E 300mm 400 ISO 1/500sec f/5.6

  • When the Kilimanjaro Safari is over, you exit right at the entrance of the Pangani Forest trail.  Personally, I think this is even better than the Safari.
    • The trail takes you by two separate gorilla areas.  They are most active in the morning and since you are not on a ride, you can spend as much time here as you want.
    • One gorilla enclosure is on the west side of the trail, the other is on the east…so you can photograph all day since you will always have good sun for one side or the other.
    • There is a viewing area behind a large glass wall when you first get to the gorilla area.  Lighting is a bit dim and you have to be careful of reflections, but if you are patient (or simply stop by a few different times the day you are there) you may get the chance to photo a gorilla family (including their three year old) from less than 10′!  This is the only place I’ve ever been able to get a full frame gorilla head shot…an incredible experience.
    • I have had vastly different experiences with the gorillas during the same day.  It is never the same twice.  If you just spend 20 minutes here you are cheating yourself.  I’ve photographed here a dozen times and each time I thought I’d seen and photographed it all…and every time I was wrong!
  • Again, a 300mm lens will help you get close.
  • For you birders, there is a large walk-thru aviary featuring birds from Africa including some gorgeous Taveta Golden Weavers.20130306_AK_1342
    • This area is heavily shaded but you can get good shots all day
    • The smaller birds may require 1/500 or faster shutter speed to totally avoid motion blur.
  • There is also an underwater hippo viewing area as well as monkey exhibits.
  • I usually spend longer on the Pangani Trail that the rest of the park combined.  It is a ‘target rich environment’!

Maharajah Jungle Trek

  • This should be your next stop after the Pangani Trail…it is located in ‘Asia’.
  • Similar to the Pangani Trail, the Maharajah Trek is a trail that leads you by different animal environments.
  • The main attraction are the tigers.
    photo tips Animal Kingdom Asian Tiger photo Maharajah Trek

    Tiger shaking off the cold // Nikon 800E 1/320sec f5.6 ISO560 300mm

    • The tigers sleep about 20 hours a day (seriously).  So you have to have a strategy to catch them active.
    • If you are here on one of our rare chilly days, you have an excellent chance of seeing them moving around to keep warm.
    • They are very active at feeding times.  Ask the Cast Members (Disney employees) when that is.
    • They also tend to move around first thing in the morning  and late toward the end of the day before the park closes.
  • Other exhibits include Komodo dragons and giant fruit bats.
  • The Avairy is a great location for close up shots of exotic Asian birds.20130211_WDW_0741

Discovery Island

  1. This is toward the entrance of the park…just look for the giant “Tree of Life”
  2. There are a number of short trails on Discovery island that have Galapagos tortoises, monkeys and porcupines.
  3. This area is much smaller and less productive than the ones listed above.
  4. I’d suggest hitting this area on your way OUT of the park.


  1. This is at the very entrance of the park.
  2. The exhibits here have giant anteaters, boar and other animals
  3. Like Discovery Island, this area is a series of small trails with small animal exhibits.
  4. Make this your last stop.

Rafiki’s Plant Watch & Camp Minnie-Mickey

  1. Not a lot for photographers at these locations.

Final thoughts

  1. If you need a break from the heat (or your spouse is sick of 5 straight hours of photography), go to the Finding Nemo show in DinoLand.  Honestly, it is Broadway quality and not just for kids.
  2. Plan on at least a half day for your photo shoot at Animal Kingdom and if you become fascinated by the gorillas (like I did) you can keep your camera busy until the park closes.
  3. There is also a 3 hour Wild Africa Trek available for an additional $189.  I’m thinking this might be like a private version of the Kilimanjaro Safari, I’m going to do some more research and see if it is worth the cost for a photographer.  If so, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Hope you find these photo tips helpful, feel free to let me know your thoughts and share your learnings about this great photo location!

Take care!




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Rocky Raccoon

This little fellow visited our home today looking for a Thanksgiving handout.


He certainly wasn’t as shy as he might look.  In fact,  he patiently waited for me to run in the house and grab my Nikon.

I have much to be thankful for on this holiday.   My wife, family, health and a multitude of other blessings.  Some are large, others like the visit from this cute guy, might not be as important, but moments even as small as these should be treasured.

Have a great holiday!





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Where Eagles Dare: Eagles, Sunrises and Wildflowers at Lake Jesup 2012

I am a planner.  I won’t deny it.  Always been that way, always will.  Even so, it’s funny to me when a perfectly planned photo trip gets high-jacked by something I never anticipated.  It happened to me again this week.

I was out at Lake Jessup to see if the sunflowers were still peaking.  Although some areas were a bit past their best I was able to find whole fields that still look as good as ever. The fields were serene and peaceful…didn’t see another person the whole day.

What I did see though, were eagles.

Eagle at Lake Jesup Marl Burl Flats sunflower fields

“Silly photographer…why are you standing in the middle of that swamp with wet feet?”

I saw at least two pair of eagles and they visited me a number of times throughout the morning. This was be best frame of the morning and  I’m tickled-pink with it!  It’s not perfect, but it is as nice a shot of an eagle that I’ve ever gotten in Florida (Alaska is another story…eagles there were as common as pigeons).   I was working with my new D800E (more about my baby on a later post).  I had it set on the DX mode, which effectively made my 300mm lens a 450mm, which was more ‘reach’ than I’ve ever had before and it really made a difference.

What really makes me happy is though the wildflowers will be gone soon, I’m betting the eagles will be around awhile.  So I can go back again and again and practice improving my technique (and hopefully getting even better eagle portraits)!

lake jessup marl burl flats sunflowers

“Heh, heh….they won’t see me now!”

I know that eagles have incredible eyesight, so I thought I should try some camouflage. What do you think?






 Oh, yeah..almost forgot about the reason I drove out there in the first place…the wildflowers!  I’ll be making some big panoramas by stitching shots together (see my last post about Jessup) but the last image I’d like to share with you was the sunrise.  It was one of those mornings that make you appreciate the beauty of this rock we call earth.

Central Florida's best landscape photo location

Dawn breaks over the endless fields of wild sunflowers at Lake Jesup’s Marl Burl Flats

I’ve also published a how-to guide of everything you need to know about photographing this location, just click on the following link

Good Luck and Good Shooting!

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Yabba-Dabba-Do!…Is that you Yogi?!

One of the main reasons we bought our house is because it backs up to Wekiva Springs State Park ( I would have killed to have grown up here as a kid!)  As a result, our backyard is basically nothing but woods.  And those woods are full of critters!  Turkeys, deer, gators, otters, possums, foxes, bears..heck, once we even saw a monkey  (I kid you not).

So, anyway….yesterday, I had opened the garage so I could do some repairs around the back of the house.  Ten minutes later when I was ambling back up the pathway to the garage, guess who I ran into?

Finders Keepers!

This big fella had gone into my garage, knocked over the trash can and dragged the bag into the backyard for a nice little picnic!  So being the photography nut that I am, my first reaction was to grab my camera and rip off some shots.  But within a minute or two my ‘good citizenship’ instinct kicked-in and I scared him away to discourage him from getting used to people and associating them with food.


It’s funny, during the minute or two I was photographing him, I was a calm as I could be…just figuring out what the best settings should be, what angle would work well, etc.  But after I chased him off  my pulse rate shot up a bit..I mean, I know that Black Bears aren’t very aggressive, but how often do you walk up on something that could do you some serious damage if it had a mind to?

Anyway, it was pretty neat and something I won’t forget anytime soon!


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Bambi and Friends

This morning my beautiful wife Anita called on her cell right after she left the house to tell me that a 6-point buck was standing at the end of our street.  I grabbed the Nikon and managed to get this shot as he shot by me heading for the woods:

“I’m outta here man!”

  • Well, it wasn’t a bad shot, but a faster shutter speed would have completely frozen the action.  Still, I was happy with it…I mean we see female deer all the time, but stags are a much more infrequent occurence.  So, I went off tracking the buck  into the woods hoping I might get lucky and get a second shot.  I practiced my stalking:

No sudden movements

No direct eye contact

Never moving directly at him, only diagonally.

  • And you know what?   It worked!  This guy started getting used to me and let me approach to within 2o feet when I was able to pop off this frame.

In a few minutes, he headed out to a clearing and posed for me in front of a little pond.  He decided to take his leave of me then, so I headed back to the house for some breakfast.  On the way, I came upon a small field and surprised this doe.

As I turned to leave, her fawn darted across the field to join her.

All in all, not a bad way to start a day.  Sometimes that saying on the t-shirts is true:  ‘Life is Good.!’




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