Gatorland – Kissimmee, Florida – Part 1

I have a few posts on birds coming your way. I tell all of my friends that I’m certainly not a bird photographer. Although, I never met a bird that was breaded and deep fried that I didn’t like. Many of my photo buddies are great bird photographers and they keep working on me. In return I pull out my flash and I hear the restless groan so I’m still working on them too.

I had the opportunity to go on a weekend shoot with my high school teacher that got me in this mess along time ago. I like to blame him every chance I get. All of the long hours working in Photoshop 3(!) many years ago have paid off. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life until I took his class. I thought I was going to be a computer programmer, but a classmate introduced me to desktop publishing and it’s all history from there. We are still in contact to this day as I still live in the same town and he is still teaching photography and desktop publishing at the high school. Hopefully another student will be able to blame him as well.

He asked if I would like to go to Gatorland in Kissimmee, Florida and photograph some birds at their rookery. I haven’t been to Gatorland in about 30 years. I had some preconceived ideas of what we were going to run into, but I have heard many folks who are bird photographers talk about this place. I’m always up for a challenge so why not. Seeing how I was going to be going computerless, I wanted to make sure that ALL of my camera cards were empty. I like to shoot 4 gig cards and this works since my Nikon is an old 12.5mp. This way when one of them crashes, I haven’t lost the whole trip. By the way, I have had ALL of the major brands crash at one time or another. This being a birding trip I knew that I was going to want some focal length. I made sure that I cleaned my 80mm-400mm, 18mm-200mm and 50mm f/1.4 lenses. It’s quite easy to bring everything and look like the Hunch Back of Notre Dame trying to carry all of your gear. I also shoot JPG when I’m photographing birds in flight as I get 10 frames a second and this allows me to get more photos per card. I also made sure that both batteries were charged in the camera and that should complete the list. I had to laugh, I was loading my photo bag in the trunk of his car and he gave me a smart ass grin and said, “Ugh, you remembered clothes didn’t you?” I replied, “You mean I can’t wear the same set of clothes each day?” This was a boys weekend out so anything was a go. (Yes, I brought clothes too, even in a suitcase. When I was single I used to use a grocery bag. I figured by the time I put them on, my body heat would get the wrinkles out!) We headed up to Orlando to the resort that he had reserved for us. We stayed at Bonnet Creek by Wyndham, I have to tell you I now know how the “other half” lives. What a nice resort. We also had dinner at Charlie’s steakhouse. This was the first time I had seen a 16oz. filet mignon! This place was built for fat people! I was finally home.

OK, time to get serious. The next day we made our way over to Gatorland. Not having been there in quite some time, I wasn’t sure what I was going to run into. Let me say this about this post, I will focus just on the birds that I took at Gatorland. Next week I will post some of the other photos that I took including a handler keeping a gator’s mouth shut with his head. Yea, you might want to read that one. Since, my teacher knew the lay of the land, I followed his lead. I was just as bad as any tourist walking by some of the attractions. My shutter finger was going just as fast as it could possibly go; there were photos ops everywhere. The rookery is located at the back of the park next to a lake. During our discussions, I was told that there are birds within five feet of the boardwalk. He was right, it wasn’t rooking season but the usual birds that you see out this time of year were all over the place. They were pretty tame and were used to cameras. I was fitted up with a 80mm-400mm lens with the other two lenses in my pocket just in case. I found that I was using less than 400mm most of the time.

As I go through these photos, I’ll explain where they were and some of the tricks that I used to handle the really harsh lighting conditions that we were in.

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida red parrotWelcome to Gatorland! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

They had a parrot display set up with rainbow parrots and blue and gold parrots. I like to photograph parrots, as their expressions are quite humorous. I was photographing this rainbow parrot and he kept tilting his head like he was telling me to get his good side. They were under shade so lighting wise this was a slam dunk. The light was nice, even and soft. It doesn’t get better than this.

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida crowThe little pissed off bird. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

If you didn’t know by now, I’m horrible at bird names. So if it has feathers, beak and flies, it’s a bird. What can I tell you? This guy was having some kind of drama moment and was letting everyone know it. He was just sitting there right off the boardwalk in the shade and was squawking. After I got past the noise I noticed his blueish/purplish color. He was actually quite beautiful. Again, he was in the shade, so another slam dunk in the can.

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida snow egretSnow Egret out for a walk. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Now it’s going to get interesting. It’s in the middle of the afternoon and the light is just horrible. I now have a white bird in front of my lens. I have a couple of choices, I can shoot for the highlights and have the background go dark or I can split the difference and let some of the highlights go and get some background. But, being a mental broken grasshopper I came up with a third option…bracketing. This guy was standing still so I set my camera to auto exposure bracketing (AEB) and set it up for nine frames that were one stop apart. I also choose continuous shooting and switched to JPG to get my frame rate up. Now, I had the upper hand. I really liked how the light hit the bird’s eye and lit it up that vibrant yellow.

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida great blue heronHeron fishing for dinner. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

This was another lighting train wreck. The body of the heron was in direct sunlight and his feet were in shade. Since he was standing there so still, I bracketed this shot as well. If you look at his feet, you will notice that there is plenty of detail. This was masked in with a lighter exposure from the series that I took. Think about this, I’m hand holding a 400mm lens and the camera is choosing different shutter speed for me. How am I able to make all of these come together? If your thinking HDR…..BUZZZ…WRONG! I loaded all of the frames into Photoshop CS5 and used the “align layers” function. Photoshop aligns the layers based on the content and all that is needed is to mask in the parts that you want to reveal. Just like magic I tell you! This works great for white feathered birds in the middle of the day. People ask me how I have done this with other white objects and I just look at them and say, “Huh, it must be a Nikon thing!”

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida cockatooI feel pretty. – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I looked this one up and I think it’s a cockatoo. He didn’t have the yellow hairdo that stands up that I have seen, his or hers was white. He was bent around and pruning his feathers. When I take something like this or anything that has eyes I make sure to put my focus point on the eyes. If the eyes aren’t sharp, pitch the photo, it’s not gonna, no way, no how, going to work. He was under shade so this is a straight shot. I was glad that there was nice soft lighting, as I wanted the pink color of his soft feathers to come out. BAM, in the can!

spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida flamingo “Everyone has a flamingo in their yard in Florida.” – Spencer Pullen © 2012

I’m still a northern person at heart. I love cold weather and enjoying hiking and drinking fine wine from the Finger Lakes from upstate New York. This is one of the things that drive me crazy from folks up north that have never been south. “It’s neat that you all have those plastic flamingos out in your front yard.” I also go to Disney World everyday too, oh I wish. Anyway, they had an area for flamingos and fish (I’ll show that photo next week.) This was another one of those harsh lighting conditions. However, since they were in the water, I got lucky. The water acted as my reflector and lit the dark side of the flamingo. This was a single exposure with a slight contrast adjustment.

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida brown birdGive me your damn hot dog! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

After a hard day of shooting and calculating f stops in the hot sun, all you want to do is find some shade and have a hot dog and a cool drink and enjoy light conversation with your photo buddy. That wasn’t going to happen. If you have been a long time reader of this blog you know what is going to happen next. I took a couple of bites of my footlong hot dog and I was starting to relax it was then I realized that I had a bull’s-eye on my back. Hopping around was this little brown bird. Again, I don’t know what kind of bird it was except it was a pain in the ass bird! I watched him get closer and closer with every bite that I took. I saw my friend reaching for his camera and I asked him what he was doing. He replied, “I want to get a photo of the bird attacking you for your hot dog!” This is the sign of a true friend that will take one for the team. Needless to say, I won’t forget this friendly gesture and the next time a bird is bothering his hot dog, I’ll gingerly take a photo! At this point I’m eye to eye with this bird like some of the intensity of a college chess match. Almost laughing out of control at this point, I had to take a photo myself as I had found the mafia bird. I got the photo and ate the last bite of the hot dog as to give him the “bird”.

 spencer pullen photography gatorland kissimmee florida green parrotGather your children and GET OUT! – Spencer Pullen © 2012

It was nearing the end of our day and there were some of these vibrant green feathered friends with red eyes that caught my eye. I wanted to take a couple as he was already tucked in for his afternoon nap. He was in shade so this was a straight shot out of the camera. I think he was trying to tell us that it was time for us to go.

It was a great visit and there were lots to see and photograph. If you live in the Florida area, they are centrally located. If you ever visit Florida, this might be worth stopping by. The kids seem to love seeing all of the alligators and other attractions that they have. It’s very reasonably price for a day. If you are really daring, try the zip line where you can zip over a lake full of alligators. Hummm, I might sign my friend up for that and reach for the camera for that Kodak moment for the hot dog incident.

Check next week’s post as I will have other photos that I took of gator handlers and gators getting hand fed chicken.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. way to go Spencer Nice shots , a day trip sounds good.

    good luck… antonio

  2. I’m green with envy. Been wanting to get up there for ages. Sounds like a great field trip. Pix and lighting tips are great and sounds like you and your high school teacher had a great time. Thanks for sharing the fun!


  1. Gatorland - Kissimmee, Florida - Part 2 - [...] post is a continuation of last week’s post: Gatorland – Kissimmee, Florida – Part 1. Last week I focused…

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