A Lesson In Tracking A Bird In Flight – Great Blue Heron


In November 2015 I was in Miami for a week. One afternoon I went with friends on an airboat through a section of the Everglades. Periodically the boat would stop so that we could look at and, for those who desired, photograph things in the water or in the vegetation.

During one of the stops I noticed a great blue heron about a hundred or more yards from the boat. The great blue heron is one of my favorite birds, so all my attention was on it, while my boat mates looked down into the water at baby alligators. I was hoping the heron would fly so that I could track it with my camera (Nikon D3200) and, with any luck, get some nice images in a stunning setting.

Here’s what the bird looked like when I first saw it through my lens which was set at full focal length – 300mm, which is a fairly powerful zoom. The heron was not close to me. With my eyes only, I couldn’t even tell if it were a bird. I was thrilled when my camera showed that it was a heron.
great-blue-heron-in-evergladesFor me, tracking a bird in flight takes an enormous amount of calm focus, concentration and control – all of which requires total relaxation. Seriously. You have to be in a Zen-like state, with complete absorption on what the lens is showing you. It’s almost as if you are inside the lens itself – the lens has to be an extension of your eyes, which means that you become one with your camera. The camera and lens must move as your eyes move to keep the bird in focused view.

As you shoot, you must breathe – though slowly. Holding your breath (which is a natural inclination) will ultimately lead to loss of concentration and an unsteady camera as your arms and hands won’t be getting the oxygen they need for optimal performance.

My camera is set on automatic focus when I track and I don’t use continuous shooting because I want full control over the shutter. Often when tracking a bird (or other animal) it establishes a rhythm, in the beating of the wings for instance. I want to be able to anticipate the upstroke or the downstroke and time the shutter release for maximum image results.

Additionally, contrary to what we all seem to learn when using a camera casually, it helps tremendously if you keep both eyes open. I have no idea how to explain why this works, or when I came to this conclusion, but it does work, especially when your subject is far away. Two eyes open makes it easier to hold the subject in view, even as you and the subject are moving, which results in a steadier camera.

None of the above comes naturally when you are excited to see the bird and you are also trying to make your camera perform perfectly. And for me on this day in the Everglades, I had the added distraction of being in a group of people (who were potential obstructions to my view of the bird) and on a boat that was not as steady as terra firma!

But my love (obsession?!) for the great blue heron is so great that, almost without will, I stood (on my seat of the airboat if I remember correctly!) and got the bird into focus. When tracking a bird, this is probably the most important moment – getting the bird in focus before it begins to fly. You can get it in focus once it’s airborne, but it’s much more difficult as it’s moving continuously and so must you!

What I’m explaining here has taken me about eight years of practice to learn. And still, good results are never fully guaranteed. (I should mention that I’m a completely self-taught photographer. So, a more learned photographer might explain all this better than I can!)

The photo at the start of this article (which I’m putting directly below this paragraph so that you don’t have to scroll to reference it) was about the twelfth shot of approximately 60 – all taken in about 45 seconds that day. The bird took off, flew a short distance, landed, then took off again. This was the third shot of the second take off. Notice the water droplets on its feet and in the air behind it. My camera and lens were doing a great job.

When you are able to achieve perfect focus at 300mm, then  you can crop the image after downloading all the images to your computer and choosing which are the best. You can crop in quite close to the bird without losing resolution if all variables have played out well and the image is in perfect focus. I think that when I crop, I come pretty close to what might be seen through a 400mm lens. (Those with a 400mm lens can crop even closer!)
great-blue-heron-in-flight-mary-mcavoyThings that can go wrong as you are tracking a bird in flight include obstruction of view (below you see that the bird has flown behind grasses) which led to another frustration of tracking – when you lose focus on the bird. The camera focussed on the grasses so the next few shots were totally out of focus.
great-blue-heron-obstructed-by-grassesYou might ask why I shot that image when the grasses were in the way. Well, this shoot was happening so fast, my brain didn’t have time to realize the grasses were there. Also, this shot is cropped, so the grasses are far more obvious than they were through my lens in the moment. The photo below is how the next few photos looked after I lost focus because of the grass. I regained focus after a few more shots. Regaining focus as the subject is in motion is really difficult, since now both you and the subject are moving as you try to regain it!
out-of-focus-image-of-great-blue-heronWith a large bird, the bird itself can be an obstruction to itself. In bird photography, you want to get the eye(s) and head in focus. Below you can see how the wing of the bird obstructed the view of the head. On rare occasion, you can use one of these images for dramatic effect – second image below is an example. The head is completely out of view – but the lines of the wings and the bird’s body give the viewer plenty to look at and to contemplate.wing-obstructs-head-of-great-blue-heron

wing-span-great-blue-heronBelow are more shots from the tracking of this heron. Of the 60 images, perhaps five achieved my level of perfection. Another 15+- are okay.

Bird facts: The great blue heron is 3-4 feet tall, has a wing-span of 5-6 feet and weighs about 7 pounds. It’s in my list of top-five favorite birds. Click on any of the images below for better viewing.

Note: The 55-300mm (Nikor) lens is my absolute favorite. In a situation like the one I’ve described here, I can get pretty good results using it hand-held, that is, without a tripod. Tripods are a burden when you are a nature photographer. Things happen in nature that require quick response and ease of motion. Nothing is orchestrated as it might be in a studio. So, the ability to be immediately flexible in movement is essential. This is especially true when tracking a bird – or any other animal. Once you get into the 400mm range in lenses, your hands and arms tire under the weight of the lens (which leads to shaking), and the need for complete stability to achieve good focus make it a poor choice for hand-held work. Really, you need to attach anything over 300mm to a tripod or other stabilizing surface.

I’ve practiced tracking for years. I must say that the day I tracked this heron was one of my best experiences with tracking. Despite the obstacles in the setting, the success is due in large part to the most important aspect of photography – lighting…a lesson for another day!

PS  The airboat and the baby alligators!

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