October 29th, 2011



  • The 2012 Southwest Florida Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT)

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Below is an e-mail conversation that I had recently with Bosque del Apache NWR biologist John Vradenburg (JV). His letter detailing the current conditions a the refuge was sent to me by refuge manager Tom Melanson and is reprinted here with his permission.

AM: Hi John, re:

JV: Hope all is well.

AM: Is thanks and ditto. How is the family? Didn’t you have a new addition not too long ago???

JV: Things are looking fair at this time but is has been a rough year for Bosque. I will try and discuss each of the areas where your workshops focus and give you the good and the bad as well as things that have been done to help the Refuge visitors.

AM: Thank you much.

JV: As you have likely heard this is predicted to be one of the biggest fall flights of waterfowl in recorded history. In any year this would translate into high numbers at Bosque however this year this will likely be compounded by drought conditions throughout much of the southwest and Playa Lakes area pushing large numbers of those birds west towards the Middle Rio Grande Valley. We are planning for record populations this fall and winter and are hoping they arrive. Cranes are moving along the river as I write this now.

AM: All good I assume.

JV: The drought that has persisted over the past 2 years compromised our water availability this spring and summer. By mid-June the Refuge was receiving little water and this hit the farmers pretty hard. Early corn growth was stunted so crop height is lower than most years. This places us in a pinch when we try and manage where the birds feed. Compounding this problem one of our cooperative farmers experienced an almost complete failure of corn. We disked in all failed fields and had milo planted which did well in some areas and not good in others. This crop should help us reduce the food deficit due to the corn failure but how the birds will use it is up in the air.

One of the more difficult issues with the corn failure is that these are the fields on the tour loop so at this time there is little food on the loop. We have taken a few measures that we hope will help provide a quality experience but I will go into that later. Our second cooperative farmer did much better but did suffer high loss/damage from elk and trespass cattle. This is likely going to be a long term problem so were are looking into management alternatives to address it. At this time I suspect the corn yield will be around 500,000 lbs (a little more than ½ what we need), milo should add another 2 – 300,000 lbs so there will be enough food for the birds but we need to get creative in how we provide Refuge visitors an opportunity to get around the birds. We have developed a couple ideas that will help visitors have a quality experience during this tough year without causing increased stress to the wildlife. 1. We are developing a temporary alternate tour route which will take the visitor further north of the existing farm loop where crops did better.

AM: I was once in that area as a guest.

JV: We will provide this alternate route for short periods (2-3 weeks) throughout the winter. The first opportunity will likely occur the week after Festival.

AM: That may work out well for me as IPT is scheduled for SAT 19 NOV through FRI 25 NOV. I would love it if you could confirm that the alternate route would be open from MON NOV 21 through at least FRI 25 NOV. Would that be possible? In addition if you could come up with a firm schedule I could publish it in a variety of spots so that folks could plan their trips from out of state to coincide with the times that the alternate route is open.

JV: 2. We will flood the corn/milo fields that have been mowed. We anticipate that this will create another feeding opportunity for the birds which should in turn create a unique visitor opportunity.

AM: Good for the birds and the visitors.

JV: Outside of the Refuge this was one of the biggest corn production years in a long time with over 1,500 acres in corn.

AM: That does seem to give credence to the theory that since the big fiasco several years ago when the excellent farmers who had been working with the refuge for many, many years were betrayed by a regional higher-up from the FW&S that they chose to stop working with the refuge. My understanding is that that now only the worst area farmers are willing to work with the refuge because the excellent farmers lost trust with the refuge folks. In the good old days of Bosque (mid-1990s to the early 2000s) there was tons of corn by the road no matter drought or blight or elk or cattle….

JV: Most has been cut for silage but there will be some late harvest. Waste grain will be great for the birds so I am hopeful we still get the numbers of birds roosting in the traditional ponds which make for a great morning lift off and evening fly in but may reduce bird numbers during the day.

AM: Me too. Bosque without pre-dawn blast offs would not really be Bosque…. And yes, two years ago things were dismal after the cranes left the crane ponds as there was pretty much nothing to photograph. The situation is even worse for visiting photo groups like mine because it is impossible for a group to photograph hard to approach subjects from a vehicle. This is a great strategy for folks visiting on their own.

JV: The wetlands did really well this year despite the drought. We had one of the highest food production years on record which will translate into great duck use. The downside is due to drought our mowing/irrigation for non-desirable plants was not effective which means more fall mowing. The positive side to this, for the visitor, is more open wetlands than in the past. The downside is we must flood these mowed units slower so the up close experience that visitors enjoy may be delayed by as much as 2 weeks to allow the birds to maximize their feeding on the seeds. I know you will be excited to hear that the flight deck pond has been opened up and very little standing vegetation is out there. Again, the downside will be slower flooding but we started flooding today so the wetland should be at full pool by Festival.

AM: That will be great assuming that there are birds .

JV: As in most years we have had a slew of projects that needed to get accomplished so we had to prioritize and do less in other areas. One noticeable area is the mowing of ditch banks. We are starting to catch up but we will likely still be behind in November. To offset this we are trying to make sure popular viewing sites are done now and we will go back later and catch up with those we have had to skip earlier. We have a good amount of the windows completed, I would say more than in the past in some locations but we are still trying to catch up. We never heard from the volunteer windows crew so Refuge staff has been trying to get this accomplished.

AM: My bad; I forgot completely about the Open Windows Volunteer Program this year and I think that they expected to hear from you. If you get in touch with me next summer we I am pretty sure that I can get a crew together.

JV: We have a new wetland that you might be excited about. On the south end of the Marsh Loop the new John Taylor Trail leads to an overlook that gives a good view of the south farm and some of the restored habitat. To the south of that we have been working on a small wetland. I do not imagine it will be a great bird area this year but anticipate in the next few years this will be a location that will provide great birding and photography.

AM: I will take a look at it this year. It is important to realize that for the most part locations where viewing only to the south is possible are generally very poor for photography on clear days as when you are looking south you are pretty much looking into the sun. I would be glad to let you know my thoughts.

One final thought: if there is any way to have the alternate route open full time after MON 21 NOV at least until the corn is all knocked down it would likely go a long way to ease the disappointment and frustration felt by folks who bought their plane tickets far in advance and find few if any birds along the tour route during daylight hours. For me those 9am blast offs from the corn are the epitome of the Bosque experience.

May I have your permission to publish your letter?

Thanks and later and love, artie

cc: Tom Melanson, Phil Norton, Gary Ruoleau

Though I never heard from John Vradenburg I did receive the following e-mail from refuge manager Tom Melanson:

Artie, The extended alternate tour route will be open November 21 – December 11, 2011 and then again January 14 through February 20 2012. We will not be opening this extended route in future years. You may forward/reprint John’s habitat summary. Tom Melanson

It remains to be seen how productive the alternate route will be. Great, I hope. Folks choosing to visit refuge this year will likely be best trying to time their visits with the periods that the extended alternate tour route will be open. I am unsure as to why opening the extended route has been ruled out in future years especially in view of the fact that the 2010-2011 season will be the second year in the past three with no corn by the tour route. Assuming that there will be large numbers of geese roosting in the refuge ponds there will be many great opportunities for pre-dawn blast-offs and fly-outs and many great opportunities at the crane pools in both early morning and very late afternoon.

Whatever the conditions you can maximize your Bosque experience by purchasing a copy of our Bosque del Apache Site Guide.


If you have anything to say about Bosque or if you have any questions about John Vrandenburg’s letter or the the current conditions at the refuge, please click here and scroll down to speak or ask.

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For the past ten years or so I have hosted a Thanksgiving Day midday meal, in part to honor the memory of my late-wife, Elaine Belsky Morris, and in part because I love meeting others who love Bosque as I do. At first it was held at the wonderful and relatively elegant Val Verde Steak House in Socorro, now defunct. Then it was held at the lovely and historic Luna Mansion. Luna Mansion closed a few years ago and recently re-opened but will no longer serves Thanksgiving Day. In 2009 we had fun and a fine meal at the Stage Door Grill but that wonderful little joint recently bit the dust also. Socorro is a tough place for businesses to survive. In 2010 we went a bit upscale and dined in the New Mexico Ballroom at the Hilton Albuquerque hotel. There was tons of food and it was all delicious.

The Hilton is now a Crowne Plaza and the good news is that they are having the buffet again this year. I will be picking up the tab for the IPT group, but as always, all visiting birders and photographers are invited to join us. If you would like to take part in the fun and camaraderie this year please send a check for $40.00 per person made out to “”Arthur Morris”” to cover the cost of the buffet that will include all the traditional items plus lots more as well as tax and tip. Drinks are on you. Please mark ““Thanksgiving Buffet” on your check and mail it to; BIRDS AS ART, PO Box 4041, Indian Lake Estates, FL 33855. Be sure to include your e-mail address on your check and in a short note. Sorry, no PayPals or credit cards. I do hope that you can join us.

I have group reservations for Thanksgiving Day (of course). Those joining us will need to be at the hotel at 11:30 am sharp. It is located at 1901 University Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87102, about an hour up I-25 from the Super 8 Motel in Socorro where I have stayed happily with my groups for well more than a decade. I do hope that you can join us.

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This image was created on the afternoon of October 28, 2011 on the Homer IPT that I am co-leading with Robert O’Toole. I used the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens and the 1.4X III TC (hand held at 205mm) with the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV . ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1/3 stop off the low blue sky: 1/3200 sec. at f/4.5 in Manual mode. Central Sensor/Rear-focus AI Servo AF active at the moment of exposure. If you missed the Rear Focus Tutorial, you can access it here.

Lens/camera body Micro-adjustment: -8.

For a greater appreciation of the image above, click on the photo to view a larger version. Click on the enlarged version to close it.


I continue to put in 20+ hours a week towards making the blog informative, timely, and beautiful. Most of the educational features that formerly appeared in BAA Bulletins now grace the BAA Blog. If you have a problem subscribing, please contact us via e-mail. If you are not subscribed, you are missing a ton of great stuff almost daily. You can subscribe to the blog posts by clicking here. Below are links to recent posts of interest.

Tired of underexposing your dreary day, white sky flight images? Click here.

Learn more about Canon’s recently announced full frame professional digital camera body in “EOS-1D X Revelations” here.

The 2011 Veolia (BBC) Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition results announced here.

For Your Critique Image #11, Image #12, and Image #13.

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This calling adult Bald Eagle was photographed on the morning of October 28 on the Homer IPT that I am co-leading with Robert O’Toole. I used the tripod-mounted Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering -1/3 stop (as framed): 1/1600 sec. at f/5.6 in Manual mode. Central Sensor/Rear Focus AI Servo tracking AF active at the moment of exposure. If you missed the Rear Focus Tutorial, you can access it here. Cropped from above and from our left.

Lens/Camera Body Micro-Adjustment: +2. (Note: after my lens was tuned up by Canon the micro-adjustment for the lens alone changed from -4 to +2. I align my lenses about once a month or so.)

There will be lots more on Bald Eagles and the Homer IPT in the BAA Blog and the next BAA Bulletin.

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Leopard, Serengeti,Tanzania. Image copyright 2011/Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari.


Gustafson Photo Safari 14-day Tanzania Safari: leave the US January 25, 2012 return February 10, 2012: $11,999 double occupancy.

In nature photography timing is everything! Being in the right place at the right time is crucial as is the choice of photo safari tour leader. Let Gustafson Photo Safari put you in the best position to photograph all that East Africa has to offer! We have the right vehicles, stay in the best lodges and work with expert guides who’s goal is to find great wildlife situations for you to photograph. For our safari the story begins in Tanzania’s Serengeti eco system in February when an estimated 2.5 million wildebeest and zebras arrive in the southern Serengeti to give birth. The grass is green and the time is right for new calves to be born. We will also visit Lake Manyara, Ndutu, and the world famous Ngorongoro Crater. With no shortage of subjects to choose from; including the “Big Five, plains animals and 1,500 species of birds to chase, this is a trip of a lifetime!

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Wildebeest herd, Tanzania. Image copyright 2010: Todd Gustafson

Todd Tips: Pack the right equipment. A common problem on safari is when a photographer has too much camera gear. They are prepared for every photo situation. Their equipment list includes super telephoto, macro, wide angle zoom, mid telephoto, fisheye, four camera bodies, two flash units (plus a macro flash) as well as Quantum batteries, two computers, four extra hard drives and battery chargers for everything. I’m out of breath just thinking about getting all that gear from my room to the safari vehicle much less getting it though airport security and onto the airplane. More importantly, there is so much equipment to sort through that by the time you have decided what equipment will suit your vision of a scene, the moment is past. I have found over the years that you can use fewer lenses, shape your photographic vision to that set of optics, do less equipment juggling and make a higher percentage of dramatic images. My lens of choice is a 600 mm f/4 lens and a 1.7 teleconverter.

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Wildebeest birth, Tanzania. Image copyright 2010: Todd Gustafson

Gustafson Photo Safari 11 day Migration Safari Option: leave the US January 25, 2012 return February 6, 2012: $9,600 double occupancy.

Over the years Gustafson Photo Safari has had requests for a shorter safari; a version that fits people’s increasingly busy schedules; they are listening!

Following the proven model of our classic 15 day safari GPS is now offering the “Migration Safari”. We have carefully selected 10 days that exemplify what an East African photo safari should be. These days coincide seamlessly with the full length Migration Safari. Fewer days doesn’t translate into fewer photo opportunities! The locations and timing were specifically chosen to minimize travel, thereby maximizing photography time in the field and relaxing time at the beautiful lodges. Those who choose this safari will transfer directly from Arusha to Ndutu, center of the Great Migration’s birthing season. Photo ops abound as we spend 6 nights at the classic Ndutu Lodge. From Ndutu we transfer to Ngorongoro Crater, one of Africa’s premier game parks and a World Heritage Site. Experience 10 days of action packed safari photography in the most dramatic locations at the exact right time of year.

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African Lion and cub, Ndutu, Tanzania. Image copyright 2010: Todd Gustafson

Request the 17-page full color PDF by e-mail.

Click here for more info on Todd and Gustafson Photo Safaris. And all who have been to or are considering going to Africa should be sure to get a copy of Todd’s great safari photo guide: The Photographer’s Guide to the Safari Experience.

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Mother and Baby Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Image copyright 2012/Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari

Rwanda Gorilla Trek 2011: leave the US January 20, 2012, return February 26, 2012: $7495.00 double occupancy. The dates of this trek fit seamlessly with either of the Tanzania Safaris above.

The scenic beauty of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, our home base, is the backdrop for this gorilla photo adventure. Trekking through the lush, mountainside forests is the only way to see these gentle primates. Last year’s trekking photography was so spectacular that his year we are doing three gorilla treks again! Every day is a chance to photograph different family groups in diverse habitats displaying intriguing behaviors. Join Gustafson Photo Safari to Rwanda, Land of 1,000 Hills for the trek of a lifetime. The dates of this trek fit seamlessly with the Tanzania Safari.

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Mother and Baby Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Image copyright 2012/Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari

Read a new interview with Todd here. Watch our 2009 HD trip video here to see what is waiting for you in Tanzania and Rwanda.

And be sure to get a copy of Todd’s great safari photo guide: The Photographer’s Guide to the Safari Experience.

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Left to right and top to bottom: Brown Pelican at sea level, Little Estero Lagoon. Red Knot flock in flight at sunset: film!, Little Estero Lagoon. American Oystercatcher in condo reflections, Little Estero Lagoon. Brown Pelican silhouette–I was up to my neck in the Gulf!, Little Estero Lagoon. Great Egret with pinfish, Sanibel Causeway. Snowy Egret landing in early morning light, Little Estero Lagoon. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with fiddler crab, Ding Darling NWR, Sanibel. Snowy Egret swallowing baitfish, Sanibel fishing pier. White morph Reddish Egret in mega breeding plumage, Little Estero Lagoon, Turkey Vulture, flash flight, Sanibel Causeway.

The Southwest Florida Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT)

The SW FLA IPT: FEB 8-13, 2012. Introductory Slide program: 7pm on 2/7/12. Six Full Days: $2899. Limit: 10/Openings:7). Mention the BAA Blog and we will gladly apply a $200 discount to your balance.

Most folks from the north and those visiting from overseas are often stunned by the tameness of the birds that we encounter on the Southwest Florida IPTs. Great Blue Herons land at our feet in search of nesting material. Both Brown and White Pelicans enticed by fish fly to and fro and pose for head portraits even with short telephoto lenses. And the same goes for Great and Snowy Egret and White Ibis among others. Burrowing Owls, tiny and too- cute, stand at their nest entrances posing for us. In recent years we have even found a dependable location for Black-bellied Whistling Duck. We have great chances with a variety of birds capturing and holding fish or other prey items; subjects with prey might include Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, several shorebird species, and all the regular heron, egret, and other wading bird species. On the 2010 IPT we had great chances at Ding Darling NWR with both Pied-billed Grebe and Double-crested Cormorant holding pretty big fish. Though the glory days of Ding Darling are long gone there is always a chance of getting to photograph Roseate Spoonbill on our visits.

Barring unforeseen circumstances we should get to photograph Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Reddish Egret (both white and dark morphs), Tricolored Heron, Little-blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White Ibis, Wood Stork, Anhinga, Brown Pelican, White Pelican, Mottled Duck, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Royal Tern, Forster’s Tern, Ring-billed Gull, Laughing Gull, Osprey, and Burrowing Owl. Likely shorebird subjects include Black-bellied Plover, Wilson’s Plover, Snowy Plover, Piping Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Red Knot, and Western Sandpiper.

The following species range from probable to how-lucky-can-you–get?: Roseate Spoonbill, Great White Heron (the white form of Great Blue Heron), Black-Crowned Night-heron, Green Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Great-horned Owl, Short-billed Dowitcher, American Oystercatcher, Sandwich Tern, Black Skimmer, Herring Gull, Lesser-black-backed Gull, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Palm Warbler, Fish Crow, and American Alligator.

Though there is never a formal itinerary on this IPT (or most others for that matter) we usually visit the following spots: Venice Rookery, Placida/Boca Grande, Little Estero Lagoon—which has been great in recent years, Cape Coral, and several locations on Sanibel including Ding Darling NWR, Blind Pass, the East Gulf beaches, and the fishing pier. If the forecast is for fog and drizzle forecast we will likely head to Corkscrew Swamp & Sanctuary.

Our tentative plan from the prior evening is always subject to change as are the afternoon plans that we make in the am; the weatherman in not always right. Ensuring that the group is in a location that will maximize the photographic opportunities is much more important to me than sticking to a plan…. Having visited each of these sites many times over the past two decades I know where to be when and in what weather. I know the light and the winds and the affect that each will have on our chances. On all IPTs we think out loud. When we choose a location or opt to make a move we will let you know why. That way when you get back to your home patch you will be able to apply the lessons learned on the IPT so that you too wind up in the right place at the right time.

That said it is nature photography and sometimes the birds do not read the book. I often tell my groups, “Don’t praise me too highly when the birds are great or trash me on the rare day when they do not cooperate. All that I can do is put you in the right place every morning and every afternoon; if the birds do not show up look forward to the next day. And the same goes for the weather. Over the decades I have enjoyed the best weather karma of anyone I know of . We do love Happy Campers and all are required to pass the Happy Camper test before we cash their deposit check.

Yikes. Did I mention the great leader and co-leaders? Folk are usually amazed at the effort that we put in to ensure the success of a given IPT and that goes double for SW FLA. And it goes without saying that I can teach….. This year I will be joined for part of the trip by skilled photographer, BBC-honored, digital imaging expert and all around technical whiz-kid, Robert O’Toole for the first few days.. For the third year running he will be joined skilled photographer and crack-BPN Avian Moderator Randy Stout. And Peter Kes, BPN gear forum Moderator will be with us for the whole trip–all the way from Switzerland!

I hope that you can join me on the upcoming SW Florida IPT. It is for good reason my bread and butter/can’t miss trip: folks just starting out can learn the basics from the best while advanced folks will pick up the fine points that you just will not find in any book; escape winter’s icy grip and come on down to photograph lots and lots of tame birds!

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Left to right and top to bottom: Great Blue Heron, Venice Rookery. Roseate Spoonbill, Little Estero Lagoon. Burrowing Owl, Cape Coral. Great Egret with baby blowfish, Little Estero Lagoon. Wood Stork and Great Egret, pleasing blur, Little Estero Lagoon. Back of American Alligator, Ding Darling NWR, Sanibel. Brown Pelican–in the water up to my neck again!, Placida. Gulf sunrise feeding spree silhouette, Little Estero Lagoon. White Pelican face portrait, Placida.

I do hope that you can join us for this great Instructional Photo-Tour.

For additional details or for more information, please e-mail. If you are good to go send your $500 non-refundable deposit check (made out to “Arthur Morris”) along with the completed paperwork that you find here to us as follows: Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART, PO Box 7245, Indian Lake Estates, FL, 33855. Or call us at 863-692-0906 with your credit card in hand. (Note: we prefer a check for deposits; IPT balances must be paid by check.)

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Left to right and top to bottom: Great Blue Heron squawking, Little Estero Lagoon. Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Venice. Mark Hardymon and Great Egret, Little Estero Lagoon. Great Egret in mega-breeding plumage, Little Estero Lagoon. Tricolored Heron, high key, Little Estero Lagoon. Burrowing Owl, Cape Coral. Great Blue Heron in breeding plumage, Venice Rookery. Brown Pelican swallowing fish, Placida. Pied-billed Grebe with fish, Ding Darling NWR, Sanibel.

Earn Free Contest Entries and Support both the Bulletins and the Blog by making all of your B & H purchases here.

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Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear used to create the images in today’s blog post. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Man, I am loving this lens on my shoulder with the 2X III teleconverter. I also use it a lot–as I did for the image of the eagle with fish–with the 1.4X III TC.
Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My two Mark IVs are my workhorse digital camera bodies.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

LensCoats. I have a LensCoat on each of my big lenses to protect them from nicks and thus increase their re-sales value. All my big lens LensCoat stuff is in Hardwood Snow pattern.
LegCoat Tripod Leg Covers. I have four tripods active and each has a Hardwood Snow LegCoat on it to help prevent further damage to my tender shoulders 🙂
Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
CR-80 Replacement Foot for Canon 800. When using the 800 on a Mongoose as I do, replacing the lens foot with this accessory lets the lens sit like a dog whether pointed up or down and prevents wind-blown spinning of your lens on breezy days by centering the lens directly over the tripod.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
Be sure to check out our camera body User’s Guides here.
The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV User’s Guide. Learn to use your Mark IV the way that I use mine. Also available for the 7D and the Mark III here.

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