How I Made The Most Important Photograph Of My Career
It’s been more than 10 years since that special day when I captured Cranes in the Fire Mist. My audience has grown significantly since then and/or turned over, and this story no longer lives on the Photofocus site, so for those who occasionally ask me about the picture or those who do NOT know the story, here it is.
Many years ago, I saw an image by famous bird photographer. It contained a pond full of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese, all backlit by a blazing, golden sun. The image struck me to the point that I spent more than 12 years trying to re-create my own version of it.
In the image that I wanted to make, there would be one or two birds flying into the pond while the others waited to take off. The image that inspired me was static. I wanted to add movement to my version. It’s an almost impossible scenario because a number of factors have to converge in a perfect storm for it to work. Unfortunately, once I pre-visualize something, it’s hard for me to let go of it.
First, I knew it would probably have to be made at Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the few places where that particular combination of birds occurs in large quantities.
Second, it would have to be made in the winter when both the birds, and the weather conditions would provide the chance for the visuals to work.
Third, I knew I would have to find a pond that the birds like, which offers a good view to the east so that the sunrise will backlight the pond.
Fourth, in this improbable scenario – I needed the fog and/or mist. This occurs when the ground temperature is cold, around freezing, and warm humid air collides causing the temperature of the air to lower to the point that you get fog. In other words, if it’s too dry, too warm, or too cold, you don’t get mist.
Fifth, I had to hope that the birds show up at all. There’s never any guarantee when dealing with wildlife.
Sixth, on the list, I knew I needed a cloudless day. This is important because that produces a golden sunset. If there are lots of clouds, you’ll get different colors, which might be nice, but in my mind, I wanted a golden hue to be the basis for the image. So no clouds.
Seventh, I needed the birds to wait for the sunrise before they take off. You never know when they’ll take off for the day. The two days previous to making this shot, the birds flew out before dawn – in the dark – so when the sun rose, there were no birds in the scene.
Eighth, I had to hope for a moment when one or two birds were isolated enough to fly into the pond before the rest of the flock took off. I thought this was important for balance. I knew this last bit would involve the most luck, but I really wanted it.
Ninth, I had to hope for a west or northwest wind. There is only a 25% chance of this happening on any given day. It is important because birds fly into and land into the wind. If everything else was perfect but the wind was in my face, all I would have photographed was bird butt.
If you’re following along thus far, you should have the following requirements on your list.
- Travel to New Mexico
- Be there in the winter
- Find the right pond one that allows an eastern exposure
- Hope for fog/mist
- Make sure that you get the right mixture of birds
- Hope for no clouds
- The birds have to wait for the sunrise before they fly-out
- Wait for birds to fly into the scene before the others leave
- The winds have to come from the west or northwest
On the fateful day when I finally got the shot, I found myself faced with the perfect conditions. For years I had been traveling to find this image, with no luck. This time would be different. The day had come.
I was leading a photo workshop that kicked off later that morning. A few of the students asked if they could tag along on my morning shoot before the workshop. I was happy to share the moment with them.
As we drove to the refuge that morning, my heart started to beat a little more quickly than usual. I saw the bald, blue sky that I had bemoaned the night before, since it kept me from making the sunset shot I wanted. On THIS morning it’s exactly what I needed.
I looked at the thermometer on my truck and saw that the temperature was exactly 32 degrees the freezing point. That’s perfect for mist. My pulse began to race even more quickly.
I saw the golden glow of the sun starting to creep up over the far eastern mountain range. I had my camera already set up and ready to go, mounted with to a Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 zoom lens mounted to a Nikon digital camera. I had preset my ISO to 800 and my shooting mode to Aperture-priority. Usually I shoot in manual mode, but was so excited I forgot to change. It didn’t matter as long as I was at f/5.6. I wanted to make sure I was wide open to keep the background from becoming too prominent against the foreground birds.
Because fog and backlit subjects often confuse camera meters, I dialed in plus two stops (+2) of exposure compensation to allow a little more light into the shot. I sat the big lens on a gimbal, mounted atop a beefy tripod. I made double sure to tighten, and re-tighten the tripod legs to get a sturdy mount. I also made sure the lens plate was securely affixed to the head. I didn’t want any accidents.
I extended the big zoom lens out to 800mm, took a deep breath, tried to steady myself, assumed the best shooting posture I could, and said a quick prayer to the photo-Gods, reminding them of all the time I put into getting this shot over the years, asking that this time, THIS time, all things could come together for that perfect moment.
I saw the sun coming up. The mist began to glow. For a moment I was fearful that the birds were about to blast off before the time was perfect. I knew I’d only have about a two-minute window to get the perfect shot.
I made a quick test exposure and checked my histogram. Fortunately, I had it right. The shot was at 1/4000th of a second. I set my camera to burst mode.
As the sun came over the mountain I began to fire. Out of excitement, I was shooting a little too carelessly. Part of me was thinking safety shot. After 12 years I wanted to get SOMETHING! Then, I guess my experience and training took over. I started being more deliberate. But despite that fact, the next two minutes were a blur. I later realized that I made 43 exposures in short bursts, at nine frames per second.
In that two-minute window, it dawned on me that the perfect storm of circumstances was upon me. Then the truly improbable happened. I spotted two lone Snow Geese just out of my field of vision on the right. They were headed straight for the pond. This was the perfect moment. As Bresson called it, “The Decisive Moment.” Time sort of stood still. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Now that I look back on it, the whole thing was surreal.
I took a deep breath, lined up the angle of the geese on approach, guessed at their flight path, and let go with a nine-shot burst. That was it – my final chance.
The birds landed. The rest of the flock took off. The sun rose so high the color left the scene. The wind changed direction. The mist burned off and all of that happened in mere seconds. The decisive moment had passed. There would be no second chance. And it didn’t matter, the buffer was full anyway. I breathlessly waited for the image to appear on the back of the camera. It seemed to take forever.
I almost yelled like a little kid when I saw it! You can’t really tell if something is sharp on the DSLR LCD but I knew it. I knew that I had it. I am not sure, but I think I let out a little woot. Some photographers standing a few yards looked in my direction.
I immediately left the field, took that flash card out of the camera, and safely put it into my card carrier.
The remainder of the morning I busied myself helping workshop participants make great images. But the hours that ensued were agonizing. I couldn’t wait until the lunch break so I could get back to the hotel room, offload the card, back it up and then check the image on my computer.
When I first saw it full screen on the laptop I knew I had it. A few minutes of clean up, cropping and levels adjustment, aided by some slight tweaking of the existing color all gave me the prize.
The image I pre-visualized was very strong in my mind. I credit the success of the final shot to having such a strong idea of what I wanted to create. I am very grateful for the result, and hope that by talking about this experience here with everyone else, you’ll see that pre-visualization and patience can pay off. Regardless of whether or not you like my image, I hope you can see that never giving up can give YOU the chance you need to make YOUR dream photograph.
Thanks for indulging me and letting me share this personal experience with you.
P.S. I forgot to mention that for some strange, weird reason that I can’t articulate, I was hearing the score to Jurassic Park (the closing credits) in my mind as I made the final shot. Imagine that!
On Wednesday, I am going to post a follow-up to this article, including a photo I have never shared before that relates to this image. Stay tuned.