Follow My Trail To The Valley’s Photo Hotspots

Hi Folks,

Orange Marigold After Rain

Have you ever wondered where to go in the Valley for great nature photos? Many people have no idea that there are plenty of photo hotspots right under our noses…so to speak. Others know of, and have visited a great location, but come home with only so-so images? Their pictures lack that “wow” or “awe” factor. When you are shooting at a location, there are certain vantage points that are better to shoot from than others but how do you know where these points are the first time you visit some location?

I’m currently working on a series of articles on places to shoot in the Rio Grande Valley. You have already read the first two articles on my favorite private ranches. I’ll be adding a third in the coming days and then I’m going to turn my attention to some of the great public places to photograph. So what can you expect to see in upcoming articles?

* Knowledge of where these photo hotspots are in the Valley

* Knowledge of the common subjects to be photographed at each location

* Equipment and technique needed to capture the image

* Knowledge of where to go once on the premises (some vantage points really are better than others)

* Tips on getting that special image

There is nothing like discovering a place on your own but it’s always great to have a little direction from someone who has already been down that trail. I think you are going to really enjoy this series of articles and my hope is that the next time you visit one of these locations, you’ll be saying “wow” when you view your images.

Until then, may the good light shine down upon you….


Campos Viejos-The Ultimate Hunter/Photographer Locale

Campos Viejos is located about 15 miles North of Rio Grande City, Texas and is the ultimate destination for someone interested in a combined hunting/photography experience. Owned and operated by Hardy Jackson and family, they offer some of the finest hunting (deer, dove, exotics) in the state. Additionally, the ranch also offers birding and photographic opportunities. Hardy and his father have been committed to developing the ranch as a premier hunting destination and if you visit the Campos Viejos homepage, you will see that there are some quality whitetail bucks roaming their property.

While I love to hunt, it is the photography opportunities at Campos Viejos that I want to share with you in this log. I have taken photos on the ranch about a half-dozen times over the past few years and I absolutely enjoy shooting there. The ranch is over 1,000 acres in size and Hardy has approximately 6 photo blinds overlooking dedicated ponds, including one raptor blind. Two of the blinds are very spacious and can fit 4-5 photographers comfortably. The others are one-man blinds that have been placed in dug-out pits to give the photographer a low-angle perspective.

The ranch is equipped with a lodge, complete with wide screen HDTV, wifi, and pool table. It’s a nice place to spend the hottest part of the day, downloading/editing the images photographed that day. In 2006, Hardy participated in the Valley Land Fund wildlife photo contest. Shooting entirely on his own ranch, Hardy was the First Grand Prize winner which is a testament not only of Hardy’s skills, but also of the abundance of bird, mammal, and reptile species that inhabit the ranch. Below are only a few of the images that I have captured at Campos Viejos. Click on any of the pictures for a higher-resolution image.

For additional images, and to setup a photographic safari at the Campos Viejos ranch, you can contact Hardy through the Campos Viejos homepage.

Crested Caracara. Sometimes referred to as the "Mexican Eagle" it is actually in the falcon family.

Northern Cardinal.

Common Ground Dove.

Bobcat. Active primarily during twilight hours. Your best bet of photographing these animals is at dusk from a blind overlooking a watering hole, particularly during the hot summer months.

Scaled Quail. Named for obvious reasons looking at it's breast feathers, it is also known as "Cottontop" and "Blue Quail".

Harris's Hawk. Capable of hunting alone, these hawks prefer to hunt in groups.

Equipment:  Like most South Texas ranches with photographic blinds, you will need a long telephoto lens for birds (500-600mm). However, these long focal lengths can present a problem when mammals appear and you’ll be left with the dilemma of taking a close portrait, or switching to a second lens.

The tight bobcat portrait above is an example of what I’m referring to. I had been shooting dove and quail with a 500mm lens when the bobcat suddenly appeared. At the time I had only one camera body and I knew I had to make a fast decision. I opted for the tight portrait rather than risk losing any shot by switching lenses. After I was convinced I had a good portrait, I quickly and quietly changed to my 70-200/2.8 lens. I had to shoot handheld and I was able to get some decent shots this way, but I preferred the portrait as I loved the trickle of water from the bobcat’s mouth.

I highly recommend a two-camera setup. One with the long telephoto and the other with a high quality zoom. If you are going to shoot with only one camera body, I think the ideal setup for this type of shooting is a high quality zoom on a crop-factor camera (e.g. Canon 7D and 100-400; Nikon D300s and 200-400/4).

That’s all for now folks and remember, spend some quality time with your kids outdoors, they’ll thank you for it someday…

Santa Clara Ranch-South Texas’ Premier Photography Destination

Looking for a great place to photograph in the brush country? The Santa Clara Ranch may just be South Texas’ finest ranch to do that very thing. Owned and operated by Dr. Beto Gutierrez, the Santa Clara is located about 9 miles West of McCook and is comprised of 300 acres of virgin habitat. By virgin habitat, I mean that this piece of South Texas has never seen the blade of a plow and that means you get to experience what South Texas was like in its earliest history.

Dr. Gutierrez is an award-winning photographer driven by a passion to develop the ranch as a premier photographic destination. I think it’s safe to say that he has more than accomplished that objective and may just have bragging rights to South Texas’ best photographic hotspot. The ranch has four sunken blinds, each overlooking its own pond, two dedicated morning blinds and two dedicated evening blinds.

Typical Blind Setup At Santa Clara Ranch

The blinds are very spacious and can fit four to five photographers comfortably. You may be able to notice in the image above that the lens is right at ground level. This produces some outstanding perspectives of the animals/birds being photographed.

Mexican Ground Squirrel

Greater Roadrunner

Javelina Baby Inspecting the Waterhole

Northern Bobwhite Quail

The action at the photo blinds is non-stop and you will need plenty of memory cards, particularly if you own one of the higher megapixel cameras on the market. For birds, a focal distance of 400mm on a crop-factor camera is probably a minimum focal length needed. If using a full frame camera then 500 or 600mm is ideal for birds.

You will want a zoom on a second body to photograph the larger mammals. Many photographers shoot with a fixed focal length mounted on their tripod and and then a versatile zoom such as the Canon 100-400mm or Nikon 70-300mm at the ready on a second camera. Many Nikon shooters often use the excellent 200-400/f4 lens on a crop factor camera as their primary lens and that zoom range offers excellent convenience in a one-camera setup that delivers outstanding results. If you do not own these lenses, don’t despair, my good friend Hector Astorga uses Sigma’s Bigma (50-500mm) on his Sony full-frame camera body and produces images typically exceeding the more expensive prime lenses. So, it’s not necessarily the equipment that matters as much as it is the photographer behind it.

All of the images in this post were taken with a Canon 1Ds MkII and a 500mm lens with the exception of the dueling javelinas. That image was taken handheld with a Canon 1D MkII and a 70-200/2.8 with 1.4x extender attached.


Dueling Javelinas

In addition to these fantastic blinds, Dr. Gutierrez has recently developed a two-tier raptor-blind so photographers have the choice of blue sky or green/brown backgrounds. The trees in the background are at a sufficient distance from the perch and this helps produce creamy-licious bokeh, making those raptors really pop in the image.

Harris' Hawk From Upper Raptor Blind

As if all of that wasn’t good enough, there is a plush four bedroom air-conditioned (a luxury you will more than welcome in the summer), two-bath home equipped with a full kitchen, washer/dryer, BBQ pit outdoors, and wi-fi so it really is a home away from home. In fact, it may be too comfortable, tempting you to stay in and relax but don’t do it, the action at the photo blinds is hotter than a South Texas summer, and that’s saying quite a lot.

Santa Clara will present you with opportunities to create unique, once-in-a-lifetime images. Whether you are visiting South Texas for the first time or are native to the area and simply looking for access to the private ranch lands, Santa Clara is a must-visit ranch.

For information on the Santa Clara Ranch you may contact Dr. Beto Gutierrez at: telephone (956)-787-6808 or email

So, until next time, remember to spend some quality time with your kids outdoors, they’ll thank you for it someday…

They Think We’re Just Taking Pictures

I have not competed in a wildlife photo contest since 2008 as I’ve simply been too busy pursuing my doctoral studies. This year, my two children and one of my nieces have decided to participate in the 2011 Valley Land Fund Youth Photo Contest. I’m excited and more nervous for them than I have ever been for myself in any competition.

Both of my children have been in front of, or behind the camera since their toddler years and with this competition they have received more fundamental instructions about things like composition. My niece has always expressed an interest in photography and since she’s older, she’s able to take in the instructions quickly. She’s pretty motivated and I think her portfolio will be a tough one when she is done. A great thing about the digital format is that they can immediately see the results of any in-field instructions and this is helping them capture some very special images.

The contest, which runs from June 6 to August 1, consists of a portfolio of up to 8 images in any single or combination of categories listed below

  • Mammals
  • Birds
  • Other Wildlife (reptiles, insects, spiders, etc)
  • Connecting People to Nature
  • Landscapes & Plant Life
  • Water Features for Wildlife
  • Humor
  • Digital Art

There is a lot of walking, sweating, waiting, and hoping that our subjects will give us a shot when the light is just right. There’s also a lot of laughing, learning, and complaining (dad it’s hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, are we there yet, are we almost done?), and finally some praying going on in search of that special image. Then suddenly, something unusual, or simply “cool” as they like to say, will happen before us and their little fingers quickly reach for the shutter, firing away in rapid succession…with me behind them reminding them to press the focus button.

When the action stops we quickly start viewing their images and I can detect a little extra excitement in their tone of voice when I hear them say, “I think I got a good one.” Then as I scroll through their images, I have to try and contain my excitement when I see that the photo was not good but great. I don’t know how the judges will see it, but some of their images are simply fantastic. Win, lose, or draw, I’m very proud of their efforts.

The whole experience reminds me of Trace Adkins’ song “She Thinks We’re Just Fishing”. They may think we’re just out taking pictures, but I know we are doing so much more than that.  The time spent in the field enjoying photography and the great outdoors together…these are memories that will last a lifetime.

Well I’ll Be Blogged!

Having a blog to share my photographic experiences with others has long been on my list of things to do. Inspired by my friend’s blogs (Hector Astorga, Larry Ditto), I finally decided to jump on the band-wagon. While most of my posts will be photography related, I’ll occasionally post other things pertaining to matters of a personal nature. I’m excited about this blog and hope that everyone will enjoy keeping up with what I am doing, seeing, and sharing. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so come experience the beauty that I beheld on my outdoor adventures and let me hear from you.  I’d love to know what you think.

Feel free to visit my nature website to view other images not found on this blog.