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jumpstarting my brain

Hey, how was your weekend? Did you do anything fun? Get work done? Sleep in? Enjoy the weather? Learn something new?

I did all of that and more except for the sleeping in part (of course). A few weeks ago, Jason invited me and others along for a photo road trip down to the San Luis Valley to catch the Sandhill Crane migration. As an extra (and boy do I mean extra) bonus, we brought lenses provided by Pro Photo Rental (one of our sponsors for the food photography workshop in June!) like the Nikon 200-400mm f4 and the Nikon 500mm f4. We had similarly intimidating and amazing lenses for the Canon shooters (Stepan and his dad Oleg). So none – NONE – of my fellow photog pals were able to come! That’s really too bad because they missed out on stuff like this:

sunset over the sangre de cristo mountains and the great sand dunes (at base of mountains)

a pair of sandhill cranes squaring off

The trip wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. It’s work. We woke up at 4:30 am (the guys got up at 5am) to scope out and shoot before morning twilight. We stood in 4°F temperatures for hours waiting for the sun, waiting for the birds, waiting… There is no running around to warm yourself up – you’ll scare all the birds away! I probably sent about 2 dozen flying off prematurely as I took 10 minutes to slowly walk 20 feet in the snow toward my setup point. Did I mention that I can’t operate my camera with gloved fingers and that the bodies and lenses are all metal – in 4°F weather? And then there was the bland Mexican food. Seriously, we weren’t that far from the border with New Mexico, but yeah – something is fundamentally flawed with the Mexican food in Colorado.

jason looks on as the sun lights up the distant mountains

flying to feed in the rye fields at sunrise

The upside is that my biceps are bigger from hoisting the big glass around and more importantly, my knowledge and appreciation of another form of photography has increased. Wildlife photography is not the same as landscape photography. I ate through a thousand exposures in one day (and I was shooting conservatively) – over two thousand for the weekend in total. I’ll be happy if I can come away with a couple dozen keepers, but I haven’t sifted through all of the shots yet.

plenty of ducks and geese around too

i could watch them for hours (oh wait, i did…)

Unlike the men I know, who love to jump into big expensive toys right away, I approach fancy toys with caution because I have a fear of big expensive glass (aka OMGlass!). I have a fear that I will fall in love with it and begin obsessing about needing something that I don’t really need. Besides, I was still getting acquainted with my 70-200mm (which is pure joy, I might add). I thought my lens was big, but after a weekend of shooting with that and the 200-400mm, my lens feels like the baby lens. I didn’t even touch the 500mm f4 – fear ;)

in flight

on take off

Jason and I drove down early and per my request, we went to explore Great Sand Dunes National Park on our way to our destination. Since we both shoot Nikon, we traveled together during the weekend and called ours the Nikon car. I figured even if I botched every single bird photo, I could at least grab a few landscapes to have something to show for the effort.

dunes in late day

sand and wind

So it’s Monday morning, gray and snowing outside my window at home – but I feel supercharged for spring, for my next shoot, for my new friends, for all of what I learned. I learned so much. Hopefully, that will make me a better photographer.

old cattails – it’s not spring yet

on the drive home

Thank you to Jared of Pro Photo Rental for the use of the phenomenal glass and thanks to my fellow photogs, Stepan and Oleg. I have to express my heartfelt gratitude to Jason for the invitation, the logistics, the car ride down (LICENSE PLAAATE!), great conversation, letting me use the 200-400mm when I got over my fear issues, and for being super awesome to work with.

63 nibbles at “jumpstarting my brain”

  1. Manggy says:

    I’ll say it again – those are majestic. Add phenomenal now. Beautiful. Inspiring.

    I won’t be a very good addition to this excursion. Besides the obvious handicap of my “photography”, there is that aspect of frightening the birds away with my screaming at the inhuman temperatures.

  2. Dragana says:

    Jen, you have inspired me to improve my photography. Your work is beautiful and captivating. Thanks for sharing this challenging and wonderful experience.

  3. barbara says:

    An amazing collection of scenes Jen. It makes me think of the documentary, Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration. What a wonderful weekend and I’m so glad to get to share your experiences.

  4. Valérie says:

    This is so inspiring and spectacular. You never cease to amaze me!

  5. maninas says:


  6. Kathy says:

    Totally awesome – no words can express the beauty you captured, and your talent!

  7. danny says:

    You know how to make a Colorado boy home sick….wish you were here with Helen. Having fun! See you soon

  8. Fiona says:

    Really beautiful. I especially like the flying shots and the birds fighting (courting? Talking smack? Discussing football?).

    This weekend I sold my house. Top that!

  9. Phoo-D says:

    Incredible shots. We’ve always wanted to drive out to watch the crane migration. Now I really want to do that once in my life! Absolutely gorgeous.

  10. Whitney says:

    I absolutely love the last picture! And the one with the tons of birds flying. You are just so, so very talented.

  11. Sarah says:

    Beautiful pics! I love to photograph birds! I have a question for you….since you took 2000 pics over the weekend. How do you decided which ones to keep? I know that the blurry ones, uninteresting ones and overall don’t like ones will get deleted. How do you pare down the rest? Something I struggle with – deleting a great or good photo but I don’t really need 5 of basically the same thing. Thanks!

  12. Astrid says:

    What a joy to look at your photos! Amazing! I especially like the one of the two birds on take off. Was there any color adjusting done on the first photo? The sunset tones are beautiful.

  13. Lisa@ The Cutting Edge of Ordinary says:

    That take off photo looks like a painting. Amazing.

  14. Nicole says:

    Ahhhh!! I love the cranes fighting (mating ritual?), and the last shot of the tree iwth the mountains. Looks like a successful trip!

  15. Caitlin says:

    Wow, those are some absolutely gorgeous shots! So cool that you got to stretch your photog comfort zone and play with fun lenses.

  16. Manisha says:

    Gorgeous pics, Jen! And lots of poop, too, I’m sure!
    I wish we hadn’t been celebrating Holi this weekend. :-(

  17. Mary says:

    Beautiful pictures! I love looking at your photos and just daydreaming about moving out west one day. I live in Florida and have my whole life. There is nothing more beautiful to me then snow capped mountains and some amazing scenery!

  18. Rosa says:

    I am speechless in front of such beautiful pictures. All I can say is “WOW”!!!



  19. Kristina says:

    Fantastic pictures! You have such patience.

    On the note of Mexican food in CO, I’ve heard good things about a small place in North Boulder called Pupusa’s.

  20. E. Thai says:

    Wow, that must have been an incredible sight. The only time I saw migration like that is on Nat Geo. I live in Florida, where sandhill cranes actually live in my neighborhood and sometimes visit my backyard. This inspires me to post a video I took of these gracious birds. Thanks for sharing all the beautiful pictures!

    By the way, I made Kung Pao Chicken (your recipe adapted from Bee) the other day, and it came out delicious!

  21. Lis says:

    Holy crap, Jen.. those photos are gorgeous! I love the landscapes and am glad you got to shoot a few (1000)! The birds are great as well.. I hope you post more after you sift through them all! :) Hugs! xoxoxox

  22. Hilary says:

    I’ve driven on Hwy 160 past those sand dunes but never got that close. Beautiful pictures of a beautiful place!

  23. SallyBR says:

    Amazing photos, don’t know what else to say…. Some of your shots are National Geographic quality – cover photo, that is…

  24. marianne says:

    Just awesome – beautiful, crisp shots. I am anxiously awaiting the rest!

  25. Krissy says:


    you are too talented for words.

  26. Kirsa says:

    those birds in flight. amazing. pure. bliss.

    I simply adore the one you quoted “in flight”

  27. Collette says:

    Those photos are crazy beautiful.

  28. Lori says:

    Seriously though, your life is my dream.

  29. Mrs Ergül says:

    Every single photo is stunning! The dunes are gorgeous! Great effort there Jen!

  30. Kath says:

    Stunning. Jen!

    Glad you had an awesome adventure while some of us (raises hand) slept in :-)

  31. Kelley says:

    You’re so good! You make me want to practice more. Thanks for sharing your photos.

  32. Skye says:

    Your photography goes from strength to strength. Amazing.

  33. kathy b says:

    Thanks for the amazing pictures. I’m from nebraska and watched the cranes every spring for years. This brought back such great memories.


  34. caroline says:

    These are beautiful! I love the photos with teh birds. So pretty!

  35. Ellen Yu says:

    I have tears in my eyes. Simply amazing pictures.

  36. Kristin says:

    Truly stunning. Can’t wait til you sort thru them all & post them on the photoblog.

  37. TheKitchenWitch says:

    Jen, the picture of those cranes kung-fu-fighting is awesome! Thanks for the morning giggle!

  38. Ronine says:

    Absolutely awesome photos!!

  39. Lisa says:

    What gorgeous photos.

  40. Denise says:

    Jenn, amazing photos. You really caught the moment. I love the one of them squaring it off – spectacular!!!

  41. Jared says:

    Hi Jen-

    Wow. Your shots are crazy amazing! My favorite is the one of the dunes with the rock in the foreground. Excellent use of leading lines and fore/mid/background.

    Keep up the great work!

    –Jared @ PPR

  42. Ruth Ann says:

    Jen, amazing photographs! I can’t wait till you filter through the 2000 pics that you took. Have you ever been on a photo safari in Africa? I bet that you would go nuts.
    Thanks for sharing!

  43. Sarka says:

    Wow, wow! Your photos are spectacular! Looks like you really had an amazing weekend! A bit chill though :)

  44. Donna says:

    Breathtaking. Thank you.

  45. Fran says:

    Wow, I’m not a fan of birds, but what you captured has changed my mind. These are beautiful, majestic animals. Thanks for sharing!

  46. Margie says:

    Oh my gosh, I am now OFFICIALLY homesick!



  47. Kim says:

    These are so beautiful. Making me homesick for my days living in CA’s central valley, and the crane migrations there.

  48. Tamar@StarvingofftheLand says:

    OK, so what CAN’T you do?

  49. Monique says:

    Those are amazing. Amazing.

  50. LilBiker » 2nd Annual Sandhill Crane Trip says:

    […] in the park and then drove out to the outer edge to shoot the dunes and Mount Herald at sunset. Jen has an amazing shot on her blog of this. Saturday morning all four of us, bleary eyed and caffeine deprived, drove out to the Monte Vista […]

  51. Shannon says:

    those are some stunning photos! love them :)

  52. Maryann says:

    Love the sandhills! We get them in Florida and they are so magnificent. Thanks for the pics.

  53. Tokyo Terrace says:

    Wow. These photos are breathtakingly beautiful- I am in total awe! Thanks for the great images to start off my day.

  54. jo says:

    I am so envious and wish we had scenes like this here. I too could have stood for hours just absorbing the nature and surroundings. Gorgeous beyond description.

  55. Loan says:


    Is it too late to still go see them??? I would love to go see them, I live in Denver and have yet to visit the dunes. Would you have any information/directions for me?

  56. Kelly says:

    Those pictures are absolutely fantastic!

  57. emhuze says:

    Totally nailed it Jen… right out of National Geo fer cryin’ out loud!!

  58. jenyu says:

    Hey all, so glad everyone enjoyed the photos! At least the trip wasn’t a complete bust, right? :) Thank you for your very kind comments. I’m so happy I could share this with you.

    Manggy – you are hilarious.

    Danny – it’s my ploy to convince you, Shauna, and Lu to come and visit!

    Fiona – I can’t tell if they are fighting or mating (maybe it’s the same thing?!?) Congrats on selling your house! I hope you have another one to move into.

    Sarah – I answered your question in my latest post. Hope it helps!

    Astrid – because of the nature of shooting RAW and the fact that Nikon RAW format is proprietary and Adobe CS4 can’t read all of it, I have to adjust pretty much all of my captures (that and I always underexpose by a stop or two, intentionally). That means bumping contrast, adjusting exposure, and adjusting color. Due to the nature of landscape photography, I am covering huge distances in my photos which means the amount of particulate matter in the air diminishes the colors the further away they are. I try to capture what I see and what is there and represent it as such. The setting sun does amazing things to colors.

    Manisha – I’m sad you weren’t with us too!

    Kristina – yeah, I’ve eaten at Papusa’s before. It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t really call it Mexican food per se. More Central American? It didn’t make me say WOW.

    Lori – that’s nice to hear :) However, what you guys don’t see is all of the hard work that goes into this sort of trip. The shooting is intense – your hands cramp (and freeze), your muscles hurt, your head hurts, your body starts to ache, you get tired, but… you have to be ON for hours ready for anything. It’s awesome, but it’s work (and don’t even get me started when it’s mosquito season!)

    Jared – thank you so much for supplying the lenses. I am in love!! :)

    Ruth Ann – thank you. I’ve never been on safari in Africa. I think I might go insane. I hate the heat ;)

    Tamar – there is so much I can’t do that it’s not worth starting the list! ha ha!!

    Loan – no!! It’s not too late! They are still flying through. In fact, Monte Vista is hosting their Sandhill Crane Migration Festival this weekend. I believe the refuge will be closed though and you can only go on a tour during the festival (we went in at sunrise when they open). You can google it online, but Monte Vista is probably a 4 hour drive from Denver (depending on where you are). Don’t bother with the Alamosa Refuge, it looked like they had a controlled burn (to clear the vegetation). Good luck!

  59. Thip says:

    I love all these shots, thanks for sharing.

  60. Loan says:

    Thanks a bundle your the best =)

  61. Patty says:

    Your pictures are gorgeous, keep up the good work!

  62. Anita Turner says:

    Amazing photos, they are fantastic.

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