A short narrative of thoughts on photography
A cold front blew in. It’s not uncommon to get freezing weather in March in north Texas, but we’re closer to the inevitable descent to Hades than we are to the outdoor air conditioning we enjoy in the too-short winter season.
I had arranged with a local friend to meet with her for a photo shoot. Even though it was below freezing and the wind was blowing she suggested we gather ourselves and our gear to meet at a trailhead for the Trinity Trails system in Fort Worth. She had participated in the Cowtown 10k the previous week and on that same part of the trail was delighted to discover a nesting site for Great Blue Herons. The big birds, with a wingspan of six feet, and standing nearly four feet tall, are supposed to be good luck when you happen to see one. I was all for it. Plus, she is fun to hang out with.
We delayed our rendezvous until the next day, and Sunday started out freezing but turned into a gorgeous day with little wind. We didn’t have far to walk. Herons nest in colonies, sometimes more than a hundred pairs if the ecosystem can support them. This herony, as it’s called, was much smaller. There were a dozen or so nests at the tops of the pin oaks and cottonwoods.
They’re not clever nest builders, instead opting for function over form in the large stick platforms. It’s amazing that the fledglings can maintain their balance on such a humble home, especially when the parents come to feed the huge babies and compete in the seemingly too small square footage.
The shot above was taken from a distance of about 100 yards to illustrate a couple of points. It’s not a terrific photo—but you can get an overall sense of what we came to see. The deciduous oaks had not yet leafed out, though there’s a pretty redbud in the lower left that has begun to bloom. The herons build their nests at the top of the trees for easier takeoffs and landings, especially when the foliage is complete, thus they’re somewhat vulnerable to predators as illustrated in the next two shots.
You’d think that a bird that large, with an obvious deadly weapon in their dagger-like beak, wouldn’t have to worry about predators, but they do have to be careful. Red-tailed hawks are a particular menace. The hawks break the eggs and also raid nests for the chicks when the parents are away.
We saw this fellow strafe the nests. He flew well above the tree line, but once he hunched his shoulders and drew in his wings in that classic preparation for dive bombing, the herons also recognized that threat and they scattered. Two of the herons remained, which indicated that they were guarding their clutches of eggs. The hawk bumped the head of one heron, and simply flew off, unable to unseat the protective mother.
A good lesson I’ve learned is a process called “Edit To One.” I think the process helps all photographers regardless of the skill or artistic level. In my previous post On Photography, I mentioned that we can never be that other person—that other photographer. And we shouldn’t try to be. In the same vein, the Edit to One lesson is all about comparing yourself to yourself.
This process applies to those occasions when we are “out on a shoot.” We have a project or destination in mind and we end up with a lot of photos within a fairly narrow time frame or subject matter. It occurs when you get back to the place where you can look at all the photos from that shoot.
Edit to One means that we must choose just one photo that is the best one in that project. It’s hard. Don’t ask anyone else what they think, because they don’t think like you do. The other person is not the one composing or framing or any of the other myriad choices you make. It’s you. Select just one photo. One.
You might say to yourself, “Oh, but this one and this one are worthy of display, if not to the accolades of those who might view it, at least I like that one and that one and that one.” It’s hard to release your favorites into that category of “also ran.”
But really, there is always one photo that is just a little, or even much better than all the others in the shoot. On our Great Blue Heron excursion, I took 140 photos. That’s not really a lot. It would have been easy to take 500. Part of the result in this process is that you’re taking fewer photos. That’s ok. It means you’re making deliberative, thoughtful decisions. The one at the top of this post is the one I selected for my Edit To One choice.
The process is this: after you’ve selected that one photo, why did the others not make that coveted designation? What about each of those other shots, looking at them one by one, that made them fall short of the mark. Is the focus off just a bit? Could the composition have been better? Did you make the right choice on depth of field, f/stop, speed, ISO, light direction, etc., etc.
Here’s one that I liked a lot:
It’s a nice shot. The framing and composition are what I wanted, and actually follows the Rule of Thirds in a way that is more than subliminally pleasing—there’s something about negative space that enhances the focal point even further. But there were some choices I could have made that would have made the picture just a little better. There’s a setting on the lens I was using, the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 zoom with the TC1.7 telecoverter attached to get a little further reach. The actual focal length was 340mm. There’s a setting on the lens to allow for vibration reduction—VR—and it has a specific capability for panning. That means that it compensates when you have to move the camera and lens in either a horizontal or vertical pan and makes the image tack sharp if you’ve made the right decision on all the other variables. Taking photos of birds in flight is fairly difficult to get razor sharp focusing. And since I was using a monopod, it’s common practice to turn off the VR setting, that’s especially so if you’re using a tripod. When using a monopod or tripod the lens tries to compensate where none is needed and it actually makes for some fuzzy edges at times when VR is on and it’s not necessary.
But in the excitement of having the heron fly near us, close enough to be able to get a decent shot, I just didn’t think to turn on the VR and then turn on Active VR, which is the setting that helps with panning. There’s also a setting on the camera body for Continuous Shooting, instead of Single. That setting allows for much more motion to be taking place and the computers inside the camera adjust to keep the main component in the framing choice always in focus.
What I learned from that is to try to be a bit more anticipatory. I need to look at the settings on the camera and on the lens given where I’m standing and what might reasonably be expected to happen. In the next photoshoot that is similar, I need to spend a few minutes preparing the camera, but also preparing my brain to accommodate those expectations.
The reason the image at the top of the post is the selected favorite can be summed up quickly. The heron’s serpentine neck is nicely spaced between the branches, which didn’t occur on the other shots that were similar. The focus is tack sharp. My stance location was good to get the light slanting in from the side to show off the shoulder and leg coloring. The bird’s head was positioned just right to see the rat tail plumes that come off the top. And finally, it shows a quirkiness of the bird’s morphology. The eyes are positioned on its head so that it can see forward and downward at the same time—I think that’s an evolution that enables better hunting results when they’re wading in creeks and swamps. All of those elements combined, and especially it being a well focused shot, to make it the Edit To One choice.
Here are three similar shots that were close, but didn’t make the top shot:
That’s it for this chapter in what might be a continuing series On Photography. The purpose of Edit To One is to get you thinking, and to get you thinking before you head out for the next shoot. If it means you take fewer photos, don’t worry. I think you’ll find that the ones you do take you’ll find that you’re happier with the results.
I’m sure when I’m out and about I’ll see or do something that will smack me in the head so that I’ll think “Oh, I need to explore this further” or it’s something that I can share. My inspiration for Edit To One comes from my most trusted resource on the web for photography—Thom Hogan. As far as I know, he coined the phrase, though he could have learned it from his mentor, the great wildlife and nature photographer Galen Rowell.
Before we leave the Great Blue Herons, here’s a link for you birders out there. John James Audubon illustrated the New World birds in his epic Birds of America. His rendition of the Great Blue can be found here. If you move your cursor over the image, you’ll see details that are just amazing.
I did have another favorite, but it was not a heron shot. I included it in the Edit To One process, and I still think I made the right choice with the image at the top. Yeah, yeah, there’s some poetry.
weightless in wind
with no control
pierced by a thorn
body and soul
pining for winds
a freshened air
and off it goes
through new layers
the forest grows
all photos copyright © 2011 by barry b. doyle · all rights reserved
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Really good advice, Barry. I struggle to whittle down my shots, but yes, ruthlessness and perfectionism is definitely required. I do love your last shot of the single leaf as well though xxx
Hi Sally! Thank you so much for response and thinking. Yes, I too love that leaf photo, and saw it as a personal metaphor in many ways. xo
How did a heron get to be so .. COLOURFUL? They are white and grey over here, and nothing wrong with that but I have never seen such a colourful one before!
The Great Blue Herons in the northern western hemisphere (Ardea herodias) have that tricolor look. The Grey Herons in Europe, Asia, and Africa (Ardea cinerea) have less color and usually show just grey and white on plumage with a pale yellow/orange beak.