Photographing Wading Birds
Like most wildlife photographers, one of my first subjects was a Great Blue Heron. That pathetic image of a lone GBH, dead centered, perched on a boat buoy a thousand miles away still resides in my files as a reminder of my beginnings. One of North America’s most common and recognizable birds, the Great Blue Heron is also one of the most poorly photographed birds over and over again. The very nature of the heron, tall, vertical, living in a watery world and in many locations, incredibly shy, all lend themselves to poor results. Regrettably the time I have with these beautiful birds is limited, they just don’t haunt my typical locales. But over the decades, I‘ve gotten my feet wet more than once, photographing the Great Blue Heron and other members of the wading bird family. The successes I’ve had and my switch to all digital combined with my desire to improve all my conventional files in digital, keep me striving to improve my wading bird files. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned in my quest to capture these elegant birds on film that I’d like to share with you!
Just how do you get close?
As with any subject, getting close is the name of the game. There are a number of techniques available to solve this problem. Quite often, we’ll commonly combine a couple of these techniques to get the shot. Some of the techniques are obvious, others may not be. Common sense like most things in photography wins out and captures the best image.
You probably can already think through our first option, biology. One reason why I love to photograph wading birds in Florida in February is because biology is thick in the air at that time of year; it’s the birds and the bees time of year. It seems that the bigger the subject, the larger the libido and the greater the distraction sex brings. You’ll find this is true for wading birds. Another great advantage to photographing wading birds this time of year is that they are all in their breeding plumes. Their beautiful breeding plumes, which was the cause of their near extinction in the early 1800’s is still a powerful magnet for the wildlife photographer.
Using breeding biology to get close physically can best be explained by closely looking at the common Great Blue Heron. Anyone who has been to Florida in the late winter months has most assuredly been to the Venice Rookery (a scenic locale behind the local highway patrol office). This is a hot bed of breeding especially considering the rookery is smaller than a tennis court. It’s here that you can see all cycles of the nesting biology of the Great Blue Heron in one day! Understanding their story pretty well explains what’s up with all wading birds when it comes to the birds and the bees.
Courtship rituals start and continue on through the nesting process for GBH. A big part of it has to do with the presentation of a stick/twig by the male to the female. If you want to mess with the mind of a male GBH, collect a ton of small twigs and make a pile of them. The male GBH’s first thoughts are, “Wow, I’ve died and gone to heaven!” Next, it’s “Man, am I going to score!” And lastly, “which one to select first?” The male GBH goes through testing a lot of different twigs before he selects the one he wants to present to his mate. The twigs eventually get used in nest construction so I’m sure the stage the nest is in construction determines the twig he selects.
How does this help your photography and getting close physically? Find the twig source and stake it out! All you really have to do is watch because very quickly you’ll see where the birds are gathering their twigs. You set yourself up with the right lighting, background and start shooting. Now you don’t start ten feet away but rather farther than you want to be for the image size desired. You slowly work your way in as the birds come back to get more twigs. This is just one biological technique you can use to get close. (A very important photographic technique at Venice Rookery is simply moving. Too many folks set up their tripod and never move all morning long. Your tripod has legs, so do you, so use them!)
When the GBH takes the twig back to the nest, he presents it to the female. More often than not early in the season, copulation occurs. Here’s another biological event you can use to get close physically. And don’t forget that anywhere during all of this are other great photographic opportunities you can capture on film, like the male flying back to the nest with the twig. If you keep your mind open and don’t drink too much coffee early in the morning, you can score too!
Another year round biological event you can use to get close physically is when the birds are feeding. Whether feeding alone or in a mass, food usually keeps wading birds’ attention pretty well focused (get it? focused, photography – hah, bad pun!). You normally know when wading birds are foraging because they are frozen in some sort of funny pose, staring off into the water. This is not a guaranteed way of getting close physically though compared to sex.
When using food/feeding as a distraction to your approach, you need to watch for a couple of things. While it’s not life threatening, you want to avoid causing the subject to miss its opportunity to eat, so here’s the game plan I use. I start the approach so that the background I want is the one that is always behind the subject as I move closer. I don’t want to even do any fine-tuning of the background if at all possible so as not to disturb the subject. My camera is set before I approach: f/stop, film counter, everything. And quite often I will have a teleconverter attached so I don’t have to get as close physically compared to shooting without one.
I watch the eyes! The subject typically isn’t making much if any body movement, but it will be moving its eyes as it tracks its prey. By watching the eyes, you’ll know things like if the food source is moving, how close it is to the bird and if it’s close enough to be caught. You’ll also know if the subject is being bothered by your approach. Don’t be in a hurry to get nothing! Move slowly, ever so slowly to get close physically.
The photo of the Reddish Egret with the flying fish (right in front of its breast) is a great example of this technique in use, with a twist. This Reddish Egret was photographed at Ft Myers Beach while it was foraging. What was unique about the situation is that I’m standing in water, the same as the subject. In approaching a subject while walking in water, you must make real sure you don’t disturb the water! This means that you walk by shuffling your feet along the bottom, not picking them up out of the water and then setting them back in and splashing. This is essential and in the natural process of doing this makes you walk slower! At the same time, when you pick up your tripod to move forward, you want to bring it up slowly and set it down slowly so it doesn’t splash as well. Once you’re in place, be sure to push the front tripod leg in the mud a ways for a stable platform to shoot from.
With all of those beautiful long feathers, preening is a common activity of wading birds. This is something you can take advantage of to get close physically! While they can preen anytime of the day, it is most common in the early morning before they head out foraging and in the late evening before they go to roost. You must be slow in approaching a bird that is preening because even though they might have their mind on straightening their feathers, they are also on guard for predators. And as far as they are concerned, photographers are predators.
Another excellent opportunity to photograph wading birds is when they are asleep! This is something you might want to tackle only if you have patience. Obviously getting close physically isn’t a challenged as long as you’re quite. This means that you’re all set to shoot prior to setting down the tripod to fire. If the bird is a little ways out in the water or up in a branch above eyelevel, you’ll have the best opportunity to find a bird that is deep asleep.
The patience part comes in as you wait for the bird to wake up. You naturally take a couple shots of the bird asleep with its eye’s closed, but that’s not the most desired of posses. The last thing I want you to do is cough or slam a car door (yes, I’ve seen this done) in an attempt to wake the bird either. You just wait because unless it’s standing dead, it will wake up. Most of the time when they awake and they find your standing there, they will perform rather than take flight. So waiting can pay big dividends!
With wading birds all being big or bigger than most birds, watching them to learn their biology is really simple. Unless they have been bothered in the past by humans, they are generally on the friendly side. If you find a place in Florida where fishermen are cleaning their catch, you’re sure to find at least one wading bird you could probably pet! Learn their biology and you’ll get close physically!
You’re probably saying, “Well yeah…duh, go buy a big lens and you’ll solve all of your problems.” Well I hate to say it, but in some sense that is the truth! For an excellent example of how and why this is so, I turn again to the Venice Rookery. When it comes to getting physically close to the action on the island, you can only get as close to the island as the edge of the lagoon (unless you can walk on the backs of alligators!). This means that optics are required to get the image size desired.
I see lots of folks at the rookery, shooting with 300mm lenses while I’m shooting at 840mm and I’m wishing at times I had more. What are they seeing I’m not, or, what am I capturing that they aren’t? Wading birds in general live in a watery world, typically a large body of water. All it takes for them to move out of camera range is to walk 50+ feet away, further out into the water and we’re out of business! While it’s true in some locations that you can proceed right out into the water as well, more often than not you’re going to need more glass.
So, what’ the minimum? If we’re photographing birds in every situation except flight, I can’t imagine shooting with anything shorter than 600mm. Can you reach 600mm with a 300mm and 2x teleconverter? Sure, but then you’re battling the fact that you can’t go any longer, two stops of light loss and an incredibly shallow depth of field. For myself, I can’t start with anything less than 600mm, but I typically don’t stop there. More often than not, the 1.4x teleconverter is attached to the 600mm. This gives me 840mm to work with, the focal length I most prefer to photograph birds, any bird.
There is another HUGE benefit to the longer glass that you’ll come across at places like Ding Darling NWR in Florida. Wading birds live in a rather busy world, one with sticks, grasses, roots and the like all around them. All of this living matter can really ruin a great photograph! There is nothing worse than having a Green Heron in gorgeous light at Alligator Alley with a background of roots going every which way! Not that a long lens will make all of the roots go away, but the longer the lens, the narrower the angle of view, which means the less background you’ll see.
Where this is truly effective is when you have just one twig, one other bird or some small thing in the background you want to disappear. With the long lens and its narrow angle of view, moving slightly to the left, right, up or down can make it disappear.
Perhaps you don’t have money for a long lens, I can understand that. You have an option open to you that you might not have considered, going digital. How does this gain you greater optical reach? Because digital cameras only capture half of a lens’ optical path, the result is an increase in focal length by 50%. You can pick up a used D1 for around $2500 and when married to an 80-400VR, you have a 120-600mm lens! This combo is a lot less than a new 600f4AFS II. Something to consider!
I can honestly say that on my last trip to Florida when I shot with the D1, 600f4 AFS and TC-14e at 1260mm, it was really fun and incredibly productive. And in a pinch I could use the TC-20e 2x and have 1800mm! When I first used this combo for photographing wading birds at the Venice Rookery, man was it ever fun. Getting up close and personal with some of the subjects was killer, incredibly easy and most of all, yielded marvelous quality.
What about flight shots? Photographing their massive wings is too way cool to describe in words, so by all means you want to go after flight shots. Whenever I’m in Florida photographing wading birds, I always have a second body on my side with a lens attached just for flight photography. Last year when I was in Florida I used the 80-400VR. This lens is tack sharp but when it comes to focus acquisition from a dead stop, you might as well go for a cup of coffee (unless you prefocus but that’s hard to do from a dead stop). I did come back with some marvelous flight shots, but it was more work than fun.
If I were to be shooting right this moment I would have the 300f4 AFS. When attached to the D1/X/H, this is a 450f4 AFS lens, it screams! While this can be too much lens at times for photographing a six foot wing span in flight, the speed of acquisition is just too good to be true!
I don’t want you to think that flight photography is for handheld glass! Photographing birds in flight is a no-brainer using the Wimberley Head and a long lens. The only real trick is to be sure you use proper long lens technique and stand between the legs of your tripod when shooting. Looking at my files, I figure that it’s 50/50 the number of flight images of wading birds I capture handheld versus tripod bound.
The best of all worlds is to get close physically with long glass. You’ll find the vast majority of great wading bird images were taken in that manner. But that’s just the start to photographing wading birds successfully!
Hey, aren’t these white birds on blue water?
Of course they are, so we automatically dial in +1 stop compensation so we can shoot. NOT! The old “white bird on blue water” let’s get rich articles really should be retired, along with those writing them. There is no such thing as a subject that requires automatic compensation and white birds are no exception. Actually, photographing white birds on blue water is a no-brainer if you use your brains!
What’s the key to this, a gray card? NO, not that either!!!! The key to getting the exposure correct is the light. You must shoot within the three-stop range of light that the film can hold if you want perfect white bird on blue water exposure. You can get it when the light is not within three stops, but your birds are going to be dark or your water is going to be dark; you can’t have both.
Probably more than most birds, these graceful creatures require an eloquent light to be shown off at their best. When a soft breeze off the Gulf of Mexico is fluffing those breeding plumes, I can’t think of any other lighting than less than two stops of early morning or late evening light. When you work within this range not only will you have ZERO metering problems, you’ll have captured in my opinion the essence of the wading bird.
Can I tell you one time not to photograph white birds on blue water, that’s when the water is gray! Any bird, wading bird or not should not be photographed on water when there is overcast skies in my opinion. I don’t think there is anything worse than this type of images! Yeah, you can dial in plus compensation to brighten up the image, but it will now just be a brighter shade of gray.
This pertains to flight shots as well. DON’T DO IT on overcast days! The other giant problem besides the horrible gray background is exposure. Shooting up on a bird with a gray background is a no win situation when it comes to metering. The underside of the bird that you are photographing is going to be dark to black while the sky is gray. This will well beyond the three stops of light you want for the best images.Wait for the blue and three stops of light, you and your images will be much happier!
Which way do I turn the camera?
Do I shoot these critters horizontally or vertically? This is a very common question in which you might not find a comfortable answer for yourself for some time. Do I have my own personal set of guidelines for shooting one way or the other? I sure don’t. When deciding which format to shoot a subject, vertical or horizontal, I ask myself (in a heartbeat in reality) a couple of questions. First and foremost what does my gut say? If I don’t have a firm feeling one way or the other, I ask myself other questions.
With my main focus always being the background, I wonder if I can remove unwanted elements in the background by going either vertically or horizontally. There are times that a smaller subject can be made to appear larger by going vertical, so I ask myself this question. Going through this very informal checklist which at times I might not be able to do at all because time doesn’t permit is simply my own requirements of what I’m looking for in my images.
I wonder for example if there are elements in the subject itself that one format over the other will emphasize or de-emphasize. At the same time I look at the watery background and see it’s really cool. Will one format or the other emphasize it? These are not rules you need to commit to memory; they are just questions I ask myself in deciding if I’m going vertical or horizontal.
I have a good friend who is emphatic about framing in regards to the bird’s feet. Whether you can actually see the feet or not (hidden below the water’s surface) you need to leave space for them to be present. In other words if you can’t actually see the feet, leave room in the photo for them anyways, don’t crop them out. As you can see from my images, I don’t hold to this rule myself. My point is that each one of us must find the style that we like from our own vision to make the images magical!
I’m fortunate that now after two decades much of this is so second nature that I really don’t rationalize through the decision process when I’m actually shooting. What’s right for me might either be right or wrong for you, and that’s perfectly fine! Photography has lots of variables built into it, use them to your advantage and you’ll come out a winner!
I’ve included two images here, both of the same Snowy Egret shot late one afternoon at Ft Myers Beach. Both shots were taken just seconds apart of the exact same bird. The subject size is nearly the same in both frames. The natural orientation of the Snowy Egret is horizontal. It’s strolling along, shifting its feet in the mud trying to scare up a Goby to eat. Its very intent stare into the water and the lighting on its breeding plumes is what caught my attention. Instead of my having to move closer to the egret, I let its foraging path bring it to me.
You’ll notice there is nothing in the background that needs to be removed. The water itself is nothing special and there is no reflection. Of the two formats, which do I prefer? I like the vertical because for me, it captures what it was that moment to be a Snowy Egret. There is no right or wrong answer, but perhaps one that is simply better for you and what you want to communicate!
One exception to V or H
There is one thing that when I see it, I automatically go vertical and that’s reflections. When the air is still and the water like a mirror, my mind starts looking for reflections, which means I turn my camera vertically. If I have one rule, that’s got to be it.
There are actually times you can plan for reflections and make them happen. The best example is pre-dawn at Ft Myers Beach and post-sunset at Ding Darling. The first obvious thing here is, there is no one else around at these times which can really help you succeed! This is essential because I find myself often in the water at Ft Myers Beach in the early am. And at Ding Darling, most folks pack their bags and fold their tents and go home once the sun sets which to me is when some of the best photography is just beginning. In either case, it’s the weaning light levels that I’m looking for as well as certain biology.
It’s at these hours that wading birds preen. I’ve already discussed how we can use this activity to get close physically, but I didn’t mention the other really great part of preening. When birds preen, they open up their feathers and show them off for all of their magnificence! In spring that means breeding plumes and I can’t think of anything better to show twice in a photograph than breeding plumes all fanned out!
This activity is a two edge sword though when it comes to photography. It lends itself to some of the best poses of wading birds to be captured in a reflection. At the same time, this activity involves movement as the bird cleans each bard on each feather. This is something you don’t want when there is no light (no, VR or IS will not help in low light when the subject is moving!) and of course, no shutter speed. One of my favorite ways to photograph wading birds then is one of the trickiest!
After getting up early or staying late, after finding the subject on a mirror surface, after turning the camera vertically, there is one other very important thing to do. That’s dial in exposure compensation! We’re working in basically no light and while our meter will deliver the right exposure, who wants the right metering reading for dark! I generally start by dialing in +2 stops and work my way down to 0 from there. How do you know how much is enough compensation? If you’re shooting conventional, you bracket for effect and if you’re shooting digital, you check your monitor and histograms. Bracketing for effect means just that, you have no idea what effect the plus compensation is going to render so you bracket and make your selection once you have your film back. With digital, you simply view your image and information and compensate accordingly.
Most importantly your exposing for personal preference! There is no really right or wrong but rather, personal taste in what you want to or not to communicate in your image. I can guarantee you that the viewer of your image will have no clue how you exposed for the scene, let alone the time of day you actually took the photo. If you thought you had enough on your mind selecting vertical or horizontal, you ain’t seen nothing until you get into these unique scenarios where the truly spectacular images are captured!
One last tidbit on photographing the reflections of wading birds that are preening. Quite often they will flare out their wing, turn their head upside down and preen away. This is an awesome photographic opportunity if you’re ready for it. Besides all that I’ve already written above, to capture this shot, you need to wait for peak of action. In this case, the peak of action is when the bird has finished running a feather through its bill and stops for just a heartbeat before grabbing the next feather. You either need to have a lightning fast trigger finger or no problem depressing the shutter release and letting the captures fly! Of all my wading bird images, it’s this pose in this type of light that I love the most!
There are some photographers out there that I’ve met who do nothing but photograph wading birds. Who can blame them? Waders are both eloquent and challenging! I know that if they were where I am, I sure would spend one heck of a lot more time photographing them. For beginner to experienced alike, they make for great subjects to learn from and photograph. I’m still learning after twenty years and I hope you too have just as long a time learning from these beautiful members of our avian world!