While at the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary yesterday, I had the opportunity to capture a continuous auto-focus (AF-C) run of a Great Blue Heron appearing to walk on water. This article shares a selection of 18 images and provides insights into the thought process that led to the creation of these photographs.
The juvenile Great Blue Heron featured in these images had been perched on the limb of a dead tree situated reasonably close to the road bridge at the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary. The close proximity of the bird naturally drew the attention of a number of photographers and about a half dozen of us were on the bridge capturing various images of the perched bird.
There was a dead fish floating in the water closer in toward the bridge. The fish was about 6 metres (~ 20 feet) away from the heron. The bird began to study the dead fish intently, locking its gaze on it. I took this as a signal that the heron would eventually get into the water to investigate the dead fish more closely. I thought that this would likely lead to an opportunity to capture some photographs of the Great Blue Heron exiting the water.
If I stayed at the same position on the bridge I would have been faced with a potentially unusable shooting angle, looking almost straight down onto the heron while it was in the water next to the floating, dead fish.
Choice of Shooting Angle
I decided that I needed to change my shooting angle significantly if I was to have any hope of getting some decent images of the heron leaving the water. Shooting from my original position on the bridge would have put my camera about 3.5 metres (~ 11.5 feet) directly above the heron and potentially looking almost straight down at it, if the bird was in the water next to the dead fish.
I decided to move further along the bridge to my left. This brought me down closer to the surface of the water. From that vantage point I was about 2 metres (~ 6.5 feet) above the water, with my camera at about a 75-degree angle to the floating, dead fish.
Choice of Frame Rate
While on the bridge I had my Nikon 1 V3 set to 60 frames per second as I was anticipating that the juvenile Great Blue Heron may fly from its perched position.
The bird was perched in an area that suggested to me that the most logical flight path for the heron would be to fly from my right to left, parallel to the bridge. I was standing in a position on the bridge that would have given me a good 90-degree angle to capture a burst of images, if the heron behaved as I anticipated. I knew from experience when using this very fast frame rate, my buffer would fill in only 2/3 of a second. I had decided on this frame rate selection and my shooting position before the heron had noticed the floating, dead fish.
As I moved to my new shooting position I changed the frame rate on my V3 to 20 frames per second. I did this for a couple of reasons. The first was that the bird’s choice of flight direction (once it left the water next to the floating, dead fish) was more variable. It could fly straight towards me (i.e. parallel to the bridge). Or, under the best case scenario, it could fly at roughly a 75-degree angle to me if it decided to return to its last perching position. At 20 frames per second I could shoot in full continuous auto-focus (AF-C) which would give me the best chance of success, regardless of the flight path that the heron chose.
The second reason that I selected a frame rate of 20 frames per second was to allow more time for my buffer to fill. At 60 frames per second I would have had only 2/3 of a second before my buffer filled, compared to the 2 seconds it would take for my buffer to fill when shooting at 20 frames per second. This additional time was important as I was unsure how difficult it would be for the heron to leave the water since it was likely a bit deeper compared to what the heron may have been accustomed. I didn’t want to shoot at 10 frames per second as I didn’t feel I would get a sufficient number of frames given the short distance that the heron was likely to travel if it decided to return to its last perching position.
Behaviour of the Heron
As I was hoping, the heron did fly towards the dead fish to investigate, ending up in the water with its belly touching the surface. It did this in two stages which I did not expect, landing first on a tree branch that was only about 3 metres (~ 10 feet) from the floating fish. Then it quickly departed that vantage point and entered the water next to the fish. The heron momentarily poked at the fish as the other photographers started their AF-C runs. The heron made a fast 180-degree turn, facing back towards its most recent landing point. With a few strong wing beats, it rose up out of the water and returned to its most recent perching position. I suspect that the noise from the five other photographers’ cameras clicking off their AF-C runs may have unnerved the juvenile bird.
I shot an initial AF-C burst, which filled my buffer, as the heron flew from its original perch and landed momentarily on the interim perch. While my buffer was clearing, the bird entered the water then quickly exited after briefly poking at the dead fish. I shot a second, shorter AF-C burst as the heron left the water next to the dead fish.
What follows is the complete second burst of images that I captured. These are shown as 100% captures without any cropping at all, as I felt it was important in the context of the article to show complete image captures. All photographs were taken hand-held using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. I shot in Manual mode using Matrix metering, at 20 frames per second as noted earlier. I used AF-C with subject tracking along with Auto-ISO 160-6400, which allowed my ISO to ‘float’ during the AF-C run.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
As soon as the juvenile heron raised its wings completely out of the water (as you can see in the image above) I began my second AF-C run. The dead fish can be see floating in the water just behind the heron’s left wing.
In Frame 2 the heron begins raising its wings further in preparation for its first down stroke.
The heron’s wings are almost in their full upright position in Frame 3, signalling that the first down stroke will soon begin.
Flight feathers fully extended, the heron is set for its take-off attempt.
In Frame 5 the heron’s first down stroke is in progress. As is often the case when photographing birds in flight, this image would not typically be usable as the bird’s head and eye are hidden behind its wing, although it is passable given the context of this article.
The first down stroke is underway with the heron beginning to pull forward and rising up out of the water.
The heron’s first down stroke has been completed, with its wings in a thrust forward position.
The heron is very quickly retracting its wings to begin its second wing down stroke. You can see that the bird is rising up slightly from the surface of the water.
The rapid draw back of the heron’s wings continues in Frame 9. Its belly is clearly up and out of the water.
With its wings fully extended to their upright position the heron is set to begin its second wing down stroke.
In Frame 11 you can see that the heron is lifting more out of the water as the second wing down stroke is in progress.
As the down stroke continues, the heron lifts further out of the water.
With its wings in a full forward position the heron’s second full down stroke has been completed.
As the heron moves forward towards its last perching position, it begins to ‘walk’ on the surface of the water.
Fully up and out of the water the heron’s legs are now visible, helping to create the ‘walking on water’ view.
The heron significantly shortened the length of its wing beats as it drew closer to its last perching position, now doing another short down stroke as we can see in Frame 16.
The heron is now approaching its last perching position as its short down stroke continues.
Almost back to its most recent perch, the heron’s wings are in a full forward position. At this point, my buffer filled again as it had not yet completely cleared the burst I had taken previously of the heron flying from its original perch to the interim one. I would have kept shooting if my Nikon 1 V3 had a deeper buffer!
It is important to ‘use your feet’ when deciding how to compose an image and how to best capture photographs using productive shooting angles. Remember to reconsider your selection of frame rate, shooting angle, and exposure settings if you think your subject bird may alter the behaviour you are anticipating.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.
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