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Anticipation, Patience and Study Leads to Opportunity

I sometimes get asked why I keep going back to photograph some of the same places year after year. Comments range from:

  • Don't you get bored?

  • How many times can you shoot the same thing?

  • Why not look for other places to shoot?

For me, the answer is pretty simple. It takes a while to really get to know a location. I like to try and understand the light, the environment, and the activity. For me this is the key to being able to capture the images that I want.

I recently returned from my annual trip to Florida. One of the places that I enjoy shooting is the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach. March and April are fantastic times to visit as birds are nesting, and the height of the boardwalk allows you to see the chicks in the nest.

I have found that when trying to photograph white birds in Florida time is pretty limited. The times that work best is just after sunrise for about an hour, and the hour just before sunset. It also helps is the sky is slightly overcast. For some reason, morning light in Florida is amazingly warm. This really adds to the overall image.

My goal on this trip was to capture nesting behavior. I was after all the different types of birds at the wetlands, but decided that I would work primarily with cattle egrets. The biggest challenge was to get birds in flight with nesting materials.

You see several people constantly looking in all directions and then when they see a bird flying in, point their camera in the direction of the bird and start firing away. You hear comments like:

  • I missed it.

  • Camera didn't focus on the bird.

  • Couldn't find the bird in the viewfinder.

  • Comments not suitable for posting.

Autofocus is a great innovation, and the technology has been around for a long time. The camera still needs to "lock on" to the subject, and with everything moving you need to give it some help. This is where the study part comes into play.

Watching the birds fly from and to the nest, patterns start to emerge. Different birds will display different behavior when they are looking to fly away. Let's use the cattle egret as an example. Cattle egret nests tend to be a little deeper in foliage. One of the things that I learned is that they will hop out to an outer branch before taking off. Here are a few shots of the take off sequence.

Cattle egret preparing for take off

Cattle Egret Take Off

Cattle Egret Flying Away

Of course, the shot I am after is not the bird flying away, but instead the bird coming back to the nest with nesting materials. The above sequence is important not so much for shooting the birds, but for getting set up for the return trip.

Watch the direction that the bird flies off. It will most likely return from the same location. This is where the anticipation, and the patience comes into play. At the wetlands, there will be a lot of other activity going on, and it may be tempting to try and shoot some of the other action. If you give in and start shooting other subjects, you will most likely miss the shot that you are after.

Find a spot where the bird disappeared from view. Focus your camera on an object where you last saw the bird. Keep the camera focused on that spot. Wait. When the bird emerges, pan with the bird taking bursts of shots all the way back to the nest.

Some other technical points. To give my equipment the best shot at getting the image, I have my Camera set up as follows:

  • Continous Auto-focus

  • Back button focus

  • Shutter speed of 1/1000 or faster

  • Aperture wide open

The rest comes down to practice. Not all shots will be good. In fact, even with this approach, you will throw out more images than you will keep, but you will be rewarded with some fantastic images. Here are a few more from that same morning.

Cattle Egret Cruising

Cattle Egret in Flight

Cattle Egret with stick

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