Blastoff at Bosque del Apache – Must Know Info for Wildlife Photographers

by Rick Sammon | December 12, 2008

© Rick Sammon“Amazing!” “Stunning!” “Breathtaking!” “Awesome!” “Freezing!”

These were some of the comments that were shared at the two sunrise shoots during NatureScapes’ first annual event this past December in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. The site, around 80 miles from Albuquerque, is situated at an elevation about 4,500 feet above sea level.

The “freezing” comment referred to the temperature: 2° F. The other comments referred to the sight before our eyes: thousands of Snow Geese “blasting off,” silhouetted against a spectacular sunrise. As an added attraction, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes swooped over our heads, some flying solo, some flying in formation—eventually landing in nearby shallow pools of water, posing for wildlife photographers with a special love for birds.

Bosque at sunset © Rick Sammon

I echoed all these comments. I was here in Bosque del Apache to witness the “blastoff,” so called due to the sight and sound of the awe-inspiring, daily event at this time of year. It exceeded all my expectations, including when it came to the low temperatures. One other comment I heard more than a few times—Thanks, Greg. It came from the novice bird photographers, as well as from some of the pros (including yours truly), who were thanking Greg Downing, Publisher of NatureScapes, for his expert advice on photographing birds.

Truth is, before this event, I had only taken a few photographs of birds for my books and magazine articles. However, I did spend years photographing fast moving subjects – butterflies for my book, Flying Flowers, and fish for my six underwater books. So, I applied the same principles and techniques to my bird photography.

Simply put, you gotta go to Bosque del Apache. If you want to travel and shoot (and have happy hour and enjoy a fun group dinner) with like-minded photographers, NatureScapes is putting on the event, which also includes seminars, in December 2009. I’m going to be there! Would not miss it for the world.

If you plan on attending, I’d like to give you an idea of the set-up, as well as a few general guidelines, and, of course, some photo tips!

Bosque bird and landscape photography © Rick Sammon

The Settings

Shooting the “blastoff” is a blast. Know that you will be shooting along with dozens of other photographers – all wanting to get the best position. However, there are hundreds of best spots for great shots. You and the other shooters line up along the shore of a lake and shoot toward the sunrise.

The “blastoff” happens every day precisely at 6:43 a.m. Only kidding, of course! You don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen, although an increase in bird chatter is the prelude to “blastoff.”

You must be patient – and you must try to stay warm because you will be hovering over your tripod like a bird protecting its eggs in a nest. You can park your car a few feet behind you on the road that runs along the edge of the lake, so you can use it to warm up from time to time.

After the “blastoff” there are more photo opportunities by nearby ponds. Be there or be square.

Bosque flock of birds © Rick Sammon

Dress for Success

Pack a winter coat, wool hat and good gloves for shooting. Also stock up on hand warmers if you want to keep your fingers toasty so that you can operate your camera controls. You’ll be on site from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.—after which is when the action begins to slow. (Some folks stay longer, and return at sunset, when it’s much warmer.)

You’ll want to dress in layers, as the rising sun welcomingly warms you up as the day progresses.

You’ll also want to bring a flashlight so you can see what the heck you are doing while you are setting up in total darkness. Head mounted flashlights are recommended. Hey, as long as I am offering non-photo tips, here are two more general guidelines: use lip balm and sun/windscreen. You’ll be glad you did.

Bosque sunrise © Rick Sammon

Tote a Tripod

You’ll be able to get some beautiful pre-blastoff shots before sunrise. For those shots, you’ll need a tripod. Need advice on which one to get? Talk to my pal (and fellow green chili cheeseburger lover) Chris Klapheke. For surely steady shots, use a cable release or your camera’s self-timer. Once the birds took off, most of the photographers took their cameras off their tripods for hand-held shooting – which made following the fast-paced action in the sky much easier than composing with a camera locked on a tripod.

Bosque bird photography © Rick Sammon

ISO Info

Before sunrise, when there is beautiful light in the sky, I suggest using an ISO setting of 400, if your camera is on a tripod. If you want to stop the action of some of the birds that are moving on the water and flying through the air, you’ll want to choose a higher ISO setting. As the light level increases, you can reduce your ISO setting. Just keep in mind that you want to choose a fast enough ISO that will give you a fast enough shutter speed to stop action—if that is your goal. I usually shoot birds in flight with my camera set to the Tv mode and with my shutter speed set at 1/500th sec. If you want to blur action for perhaps a more creative effect, choose a slower ISO setting. Also keep in mind that as the ISO setting increases so does the digital noise in a picture.

Bosque © Rick Sammon

Check Your Histogram

As always, you need to check your histogram (as well as your overexposure warning on your camera’s LCD monitor). Don’t follow this advice and your highlights may be washed out and your shadows might be blocked up—even if you shoot RAW files, which I strongly recommend.

Bird in flight © Rick Sammon

Lens Suggestions

Some of the heavy-duty pros showed up with heavy-duty lenses: 500mm and even 800mm. You’ll need lenses like that if you want super close-ups of the birds. Me? I took my landscape and “big view” photographs with my Canon 24-105mm lens, and my birds-in-flight pictures with my Canon 400mm DO IS lens and 70-200mm f/4 IS lens. I was thrilled with my shots, and did not miss having the longer glass. When it comes to filters, Greg sometimes used his blue-gold polarizing filter, which enhanced the color in his already colorful images. Some folks used standard polarizing filters. Me? I shot without any filters and boosted the color in Photoshop (which I also taught during the wonderful weekend).

Birds in flight with blue sky © Rick Sammon

Focus Up

As far as focus is concerned, I used the AI Servo mode on my Canon 1D Mark II. And to help ensure getting a shot, I set my frame rate to H.

Bird pair in flight © Rick Sammon

Framing Tip

You can have a great shot of a bird in flight, but if the tip of its wing or tip of it talon is cropped out of the frame, your great shot becomes an outtake. To help reduce the chance of these “amputations,” leave some dead space around your subject when composing your shot.

Composition tips © Rick Sammon

Basic Composition Tips

Watch the background and crop creatively. Top photo: good. Bottom photo: a mess. ‘Nuf said.

Socorro New Mexico © Rick Sammon

Explore Socorro

You’ll be staying in the quaint town of Socorro, about a half-hour ride from Bosque del Apache. Take some time to explore this town with your camera. Here are two of my favorite images.

Well, that’s it for now. I wrote this on the plane going home, where I’ll get to work processing my RAW files.

See you at “blastoff” in 2009.

Bosque del Apache with Rick Sammon © Rick Sammon

P.S. I’ll be teaching a Photoshop class at the 2009 NatureScapes event. I can show you how to do stuff like this. Great fun!

About the Author

Rick Sammon is the best-selling author of 31 books, including three published in 2008: Exploring the Light, Face to Face and Rick Sammon’s Digital Photography Secrets. Check out his books and his work, including his on-line Photoshop lessons, at

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