Photographing San Diego with BIRDS AS ART by Todd Gustafson

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Todd is highly skilled with fast reflexes and a great eye for composition and image design. Here his strength allowed him to hand hold the Nikon 200-400 and create this image of a Brown Pelican head throw.

Photographing San Diego with BIRDS AS ART by Todd Gustafson

All images copyright 2009 and courtesy of Todd Gustafson. (Thanks to Todd for writing this guest blog post for me; photo captions written by Arthur Morris.)

As nature photographers we sometimes get trapped in the mindset of “I need to travel to an exotic location for great photographs.” San Diego is an easily accessible location that disproves the myth.

Traveling there and photographing with Arthur Morris in January of 2010 was an exhilarating, rewarding and educational experience. It is one of Arthur’s favorite locations and offers bird photographers new species in a wide variety of habitats every day. Five species of gulls, Redhead, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Surf Scoter, lots and lots of Wood Ducks, while beautiful and fun to photograph, were merely the supporting cast. The stars of the show were the California race of Brown Pelicans (most in stunning breeding plumage). The cliffs of La Jolla cliffs were the stage and the blue Pacific Ocean the back drop. Arthur and his intimate knowledge of the area, the species that live there and his understanding of their natural history allowed us to be in the right place at exactly the right time for dramatic photography.

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I will admit to pointing out the black reflections to the group and explaining the need to be working in Manual mode to avoid any exposure nightmares. As expected, Todd executed everything perfectly in order to create this spectacular Wood Duck image.

Santee Lakes offers so many waterfowl species that it would seem that anyone with a camera could make great photos there. The reality is that there are many decisions that need to be made in a split second in order to capture a dramatic subject at just the right moment. Art’s expertise and teaching skills help IPT participants choose the best subjects and situations, the correct light angle, and the best backgrounds.

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Here again Todd’s quick thinking and reflexes paid off. I saw this Wood Duck looking up into an oak tree that hung over the pond. I had no idea what is was doing so I called it out the the group. I was much too close with my 800 but Todd and others got some great images. I am hoping to see that behavior again this year!

Artie knows a beautiful stretch of beach where tall buff-colored stand above wide, glistening, wet sand beaches and reflect golden afternoon light providing a magnificent setting for the shorebirds and gulls. Advance research gets us to the gently sloping beach as the low tides coincide with the setting sun for perfect light on the Marbled Godwits hunting for invertebrates in reflections of liquid gold.

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This winter Black-bellied Plover fed on a small rock for more than 20 minutes giving everyone lots of excellent chances.

When you approach the La Jolla cliffs for the first time there is a dreamlike feeling of unreality. There are pelicans–usually dozens–roosting on a promontory overlooking the Pacific. Moat are in breeding plumage with each individual sporting a different combination of colors. The birds are approachable and it becomes an exercise in choosing your favorite bird and getting into position to make the photo that you envision. It doesn’t take long to get a cardful of beautiful portraits. The next realization is that these birds exhibit dramatic behaviors that would make great photographs. The massive birds fly from cliff to cliff and ride the updrafts as they search for a landing spot. This is the perfect time to practice flight photography. I especially like the spread wing position as they hover for a moment before touchdown. A unique and even more difficult shot is the “head throw.” The pelicans throw their heads back and point the bills up in the air, sometimes completely over their backs all the while with their bill pouches extended. The action is so fleeting that it is difficult to choose the right bird out of so many. Most times the head toss is completed before you can frame and focus on the subject. What makes La Jolla a great place to photograph is that the behaviors are repetitive; you will have lots of chances to hone your reactions capture the action!

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Here Todd opted to work a bit wider to include some habitat in the background. Again, his timing was impeccable.

The chance to photograph lots of intriguing subjects, in great settings, exhibiting dramatic behaviors, and in great light are four reasons that i’ll be back in San Diego with Artie this year.

To learn more about Todd and his trips, check out the video here.

Get a copy of Todd’s great safari photo guide here: The Photographers Guide to the Safari Experience

Both Todd and Photoshop guru Tim Grey will be leading the San Diego IPT with me this January.

SAN DIEGO IPT: JAN 19-23, 2011. Mention the BAA Blog when you call to leave your deposit and and we will be glad to apply a $300 discount to your balance!

Slide program on the evening of JAN 18. 5 Full Days: $2399 (Limit 8/Openings 3) Co-leaders: Tim Grey & Todd Gustafson. Brown Pelicans in spectacular breeding plumage with their bright red bill pouches, Wood and Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Western, California, and Heerman’s Gulls, Marbled Godwit, and lots, lots more. Please see terms and deposit info below.

Terms and deposit info:

A non-refundable deposit of $500 is required to hold a spot on the above IPTs. Deposits may be paid by check, PayPal, or credit card. Payment in full (by check or money order only) is due four months before the start of each trip and is non-refundable unless the IPT sells out. You will be required to sign a statement of understanding to this effect. Travel insurance is of course highly recommended. Travel Insurance Services offers a variety of plans and options. Included with the Elite Option or available as an upgrade to the Basic & Plus Options is Cancel for Any Reason Coverage that expands the list of reasons for your canceling to an infinite list from a sudden work or family obligation to a simple change of mind. My family and I use and depend on the great policies offered by TIS whenever we travel. You can learn more here. Do note that many plans require that you purchase your travel insurance within 14 days of our cashing your deposit check or running your credit card. Travel insurance protects you against unexpected developments, injuries, or illnesses. We regret that we must implement this new policy but we have been plagued by last minute cancellations that make it impossible for others to participate and deprive us of essential income.

Shopper’s Guide

Here is a list of the gear that Todd used in San Diego:

Nikon D3S Digital SLR camera body
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens
Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR Autofocus lens
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Wimberley V2 tripod head
Gitzo GT3541XLS Tripod Todd is 6′ 8″ tall! This is the only tripod that works for him.

If you are considering the purchase of a major piece of photographic gear be it a new camera, a long lens, a tripod or a head, or some accessories be sure to check out our complete Shopper’s Guide.

3 comments to Photographing San Diego with BIRDS AS ART by Todd Gustafson

  • avatar Al Efron

    Hi Art,
    Am I behind the times?
    One of the camers I use is the Nikon D3s with the Nikon 80/400 and a 1.4x tc.
    I remember that any Teleconcerter above 1.4 cannot be used with Auto Focus.
    My question, Does the 2×11 that you are using work with Auto Focus?
    Al

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Al, Does the D3s focus with the 1.4 TCE and the Nikon 80-400? Do you have the old 80-400 or the new one? There are no general rules about TCs and autofocus–whether the rig will focus depends on the camera, the lens, and the TC. As my 70-200 is an f/2.8 lens the 2X II TC brings it to f/5.6. All Canon cameras focus at effective apertures of f/5.6 or larger so yes, my new favorite rig not only autofocuses with the 2X TC but all of my AF sensors are selectable. See you in San Diego in JAN. It should be a great year.

  • avatar Esther Corley

    I got some fairly good baby seagulls between La Jolla Cove & the Children’s Pool last April, FYI

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