Learn Your Subject

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The single best way to learn about your subject is to observe them for yourself.  Books and articles are a great start and help a bunch, but nothing takes the place of experiential learning - it tends to "stick" better this way, at least for me. Now, you may ask, "I'm a photographer, here to take a picture, why do I need to learn about . . . drag racing, birds, airplanes, etc?"  Well, first off, it can be a lot of fun - but from the photographer's perspective it can keep you from missing "the shot".  Let's take a look at an example.

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Consider the Egret above.  As I've mentioned before, action photography can be boring - and the morning watching this egret was no different.  Now, having observed these animals before, I knew the following points (which helped me find a egret in the first place)

  • It is common for these animals to hang out for long periods of time at sources of moving water, where it is shallow enough for them to walk.  Gently moving water at the edge of a river or stream is another favorite place (as it was for the egret in the vanity image at the beginning of this article)
  • When they lock in on a breakfast target, they move very fast.  If your camera isn't already at your eye, it's easy to miss most of the action.

This fellow stood in the same spot for a good 40 minutes, moving his head around, but not much else.  Now, since I was hand holding, keeping the camera at my eye was a non-starter.  Heck, even with a tripod I probably wouldn't be scoping him out every minute.  Ok, so we're faced with a conundrum . . . we know these guys move fast when the time comes, but it can take 40 minutes or longer before something happens - how do we know when to get the shot?


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He's where the benefits of observation come in.  Notice in the image above that the egret has leaned his head slightly forward and is looking down - something has caught his attention.  It's a subtle move, but I knew from observation that it indicated a "target" was located. (Hint, bring your camera to your eye now).  At this point, one of three things is likely to happen:

  • It could be a false alarm or the fish moved away
    • The egret's head will move back to a more straightened posture
  • The target is close, and within reach of a strike
    • Thrusting his head in the water, a fish becomes breakfast
  • It's a good target, but requires repositioning.  With the head still focused down, a step or two is taken before a strike.
    • Example in the image below.

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If you've been paying attention (and not watching the ducks take a bath), you'll have enough time to deliberately bring the camera to your eye, focus and check your settings.  You're ready if a strike happens.

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From strike, until the fish slides down the throat, can take only seconds.  So if you're not ready, chances are you'll miss the shot all together - or get a shot off - but it's out of focus as you had to move too fast.

So take some time and get to know your animal subjects (same thing goes for any other subject, really).  It's a great thing to do later in the day when you've lost the light anyway.  And here's another tip, what you learn about one subject can usually benefit you with others.  As the shot below indicates, Great Blue Herons hunt in a very similar fashion, long periods of standing around looking, and about 10 seconds of pure action.

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I've noticed that Blue Herons will strike more quickly (you don't usually have a bent neck as a tip off) and more aggressively - often spearing the target with their beaks.  What an amazing thing to watch!