Be Prepared To Catch the Moment
Be Prepared To Catch the Moment avatar

On a late June day as I rode my bicycle past a local pond, a Great Blue Heron leaped out of a patch of reeds near the shore with a fish in his beak. I had a small DSLR with an 18-70mm zoom attached in my handlebar bag. I knew I couldn’t get close enough but followed the bird around the end of the pond. He took off for less pressured waters. A couple of local kids were fishing in the pond and told me that the Heron was at the pond every day. So the next day with a higher resolution camera, a tripod, a 150-500mm zoom, and a radio remote release I headed back to the pond. The pond is roughly 150 yards long and 30 yards wide. I set up near the middle of one side, perhaps 10 to 15 yards back from the edge of the pond. I had a clear view of the entire shore line. I set the camera to aperture preferred automatic with the ISO set to 200 and the lens set to f 11. I zoomed all the way to the maximum of 500mm. With these settings a quick pan around the shore showed that the darkest areas would give me shutter speed as slow as 1/45th second while the brighter spots would be around 1/200th second. I could have stepped the ISO up or opened the lens an f stop but decided to stay with my initial settings. Even though I could not approach within 50 yards of the Heron without spooking it into flight, by setting up where I did and remaining fairly still, the bird actually walked past me coming within 15 yards. Lesson 1 – even without a blind, being still can reduce the likelihood of scaring off the subject.

Once set up I scanned the pond and spotted the Heron at the far end. I took my first frame at 11:06:18 am, according to the time stamp included by the camera. I stood with my eye looking through the view finder, left hand using the tripod pan head arm to track the bird and the radio release in the right hand. I followed the bird for one hour 37 minutes and 34 seconds. I made 169 images in that time span.

When the¬†heron stood with its long neck in a slight “s” bend, it was not ready to catch a fish, but when it suddenly stiffened, stretched it’s neck perfectly straight, it was¬†thinking about grabbing a fish. As I watched and photographed, the bird slowly walked along the shore with water to its knees. It was in the middle of the second lap of the pond when I saw it stiffen and turn its head sharply a quarter turn to its left. I fired the camera. Seventeen seconds later I fired again catching the heron with its head under water and water splashing up around its neck. One second later I got it, head back up and a carp in its beak. It turned back toward shore adjusting the position of the fish and I fired off 5 frames in 9 seconds. Two seconds later I fired with the fish now in the heron’s throat, making a large bulge. Over the next 9 seconds I fired off an additional 6 frames as the Heron bobbed its head up and down trying to force the fish down its throat. From the moment the Heron stiffened to strike to having the fish in its throat was 29 seconds. I picked five of the nine frames made during that short stretch and combined them into a single image called, “Gone in 29 Seconds.”

I called this post, “Be Prepared To Catch the Moment.” Being prepared includes spending some time studying what you want to shoot, either through careful observation, or by reading what experts on the subject have written about it. It includes knowing what equipment you need to catch the moment. From past experience I knew I could not follow a Heron around staying close – it would just fly away and go fishing somewhere else. This knowledge dictated bringing the longest telephoto I had at my disposal. I knew the lens was big and heavy. I knew I could not hold it up and follow the Heron for extended periods of time. I also knew I could not hold such a focal length still. So a tripod was a must. I knew that even on a tripod, pushing the shutter release could cause the camera to move enough to slightly blur the images so the radio release was called for. I wanted a bit of depth of field so f 11 was a reasonable compromise on f stop. I knew that most of the motion would be fairly slow so I could reasonably risk the relatively slow shutter speeds that f 11 and ISO 200 would require. The rest was patience. The only bit of real luck was that the Heron made his catch in one of the more brightly lit stretches of the shore.