When the Sun Ignites the Steam

July 23, 2010

Learning, Travel Photography

Hey Gang,

I first met Chris Klapheke, founder/owner/operator of Outdoor Photo Gear, during a workshop I was co-leading in December 2008, in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. We met during the event that Chris eloquently describes below, and exquisitely illustrates above.

I was new to the area, but Chris had been there several times before.

Day one of the workshop: Not only was I freezing, but I needed some help with finding the best shooting locations. Chris took me under his wing, so to speak, and helped me, and all the members of the group, get some knockout images.

Chris is a humble dude. You never hear him brag about his photographs, yet he is one of the best outdoor photographers I know. Recently, I asked him to jot down a caption for the image you see here. Well, Chris is the kind of guy who goes above and beyond in everything he does (most recently when it comes to customer service at Outdoor Photo Gear). Below is the “caption” that Chris sent me.

But first, Chris, Juan Pons and I may be leading a semi-private workshop in Bosque in early December. If you are interested, shoot me a note at: email hidden; JavaScript is required. If you join the photo fun, Chris, Juan and I will also take you for the best green chili cheeseburger you’ve ever had.

• • •

My alarm clock went off at 4:30 am in the Super 8 motel in Socorro, New Mexico. A sleepy little town about an hour south of Albuquerque, Socorro is the gateway town to the Bosque del Apache national wildlife refuge.

At 4:30 in the morning in Socorro in December, it’s darn cold. Fumbling awake, I checked the temperature:  12 below zero. Great. No, wait a minute—Great! Yesterday was a nice warm day in Bosque, with plenty of sun. That means, with this brutally cold morning, that any water that was shallow enough to warm up would be emitting a rare substance in the desert winter—steam.

When you get a nice warm day and a shivering cold morning, you can have steam rising from some of the ponds in Bosque. And when you get that steam and a clear sunrise, you have a chance to capture one of the “holy grail” shots from Bosque —birds in a golden mist of light.

Bosque del Apache has an avian cycle that repeats itself daily during the winter. Tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes spend the winter in Bosque. Each night, all those birds seek out water as a resting place for the night, where they are safe from predators such as the coyote. In the morning, through some hidden communication, the birds will start taking off out of the lakes and ponds. If you’re lucky, they will all take off at once, in what is called a “blastoff”. The sky becomes so thick with birds that sometimes the sky is nearly blocked out.  It’s noisy, and you better wear a hat.

To experience this blastoff, and to get some fantastic images, photographers start setting up and jockeying for position in the cold dark. Depending on the wind and the light conditions, photographers scramble for the best views. You can glance down the road and it looks like the Olympics or a Space Shuttle launch—hundreds of long lenses pointed in the same direction.

But that’s not the shot I was after. Soliciting a few hardy members of our workshop, we were going to gamble. In trying for the golden mist shot, you are far away from the action of the refuge blastoff. Many conditions have to fall in place: a warm previous day, a cold cold morning, a clear sunrise, and of course, birds have to be in your chosen pond. You either get the shot, or you come away with a big fat nothing.

To have a chance at this shot, we would have to get off the road and crunch across frozen swampy grass to get close enough to a small pond. Leaving the road is strictly forbidden in the refuge. So, we scraped our windows, cracked open our chemical hand warmers, grabbed some coffee and headed in the dark to a pond along the road just outside the park.

Pulling off at the exit for the pond, we knew two of our four conditions—the warm day and the cold morning.  Now we had to check the other two conditions in the pitch dark.  Looking up, we could see the Milky Way spill across the sky. Good. A clear sunrise. As to the birds, it was too dark to see them. So we stood still and listened.  We could hear their honks and grunts. The birds were there. All the conditions were in place, so if the birds hung around for sunrise, we’d have about a 60 second window, when the sunrise was just right, to try for the shot.

With hikers’ headlamps on, we carried our gear across the frozen ground toward the pond. We did not want to get too close, for fear of spooking the birds. Enough other things could do that, like coyote, leaving us with nice steam and no subjects. We used a compass to point where the sun would rise. Then we waited in silence (except for chattering teeth) for the sun to rise.

As the eastern sky lightened, our main concern was for the birds to stay put. They like to fly off at sunrise, and we needed them to stay long enough for the sun to pour over the hills and rushes to light the steam coming from the water.

The steam slowly gained color. In looking at my images in sequence, you can see:

Black gray gray gray gold gold GOLD! gold gray gray gray, all in a small amount of time.

Happily, the birds stayed, and the sun lit up the steam like flames. We snapped like maniacs. And only a minute later, it was over. Lots of LCD checks confirmed that we indeed had some good chances. We headed back to the hotel, freezing on the outside, but excited and warm on the inside.

This post was written by:

- who has written 171 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Canon Explorer of Light Rick Sammon has published 36 books, including Exploring the Light and Digital Photography Secrets.

When asked about his photo specialty, Rick says, “My specialty is not specializing.”

You can follow Rick on twitter at http://twitter.com/RickSammon and visit his website at http://www.ricksammon.com

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4 Responses to “When the Sun Ignites the Steam”

  1. Jason Perdue Says:

    The image is stunning and the telling makes me feel like I was there with you four. I have heard Bosque del Apache is an amazing place to photograph and hope to make it out there in the near future.


  2. Greg Hinze Says:

    Isnt New Mexico just magical the whole state is just full of wonders


  3. darrin Says:

    That was a great read.


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