Heron Dance

Wouldn’t it be great if every time we headed out on a photo safari everything magically fell into place? If only the weather was always perfect, and the animals showed up in the right light, at the perfect angle, and on schedule! Great nature photographers make it seem like they have fairy godmother’s resting on their shoulders, but what you don’t see are thousands of images that were deleted or gathering dust on the floor in some digital corner.

When I wake up from the demands I’m placing on any given moment I become fascinated at how I dared to expect the weather and the animals to give a flip about me or my photographs! Although I can do my fair share of grumbling about inopportune circumstances, I figured out a long time ago that it’s best to relate to wildlife and the weather like temperamental traveling companions. Both my subjects and the elements they move through are co-creators in the art that moves through me. It’s their dance, really. And I’m lucky to be granted permission to join them on their journey.

Which brings me to this picture. Depending on how you look at it, the conditions the heron and I were working with last weekend were pretty horrible. Just minutes before taking this shot, she was sitting sulkily in the dense mid-morning fog. So foggy, in fact, it seemed to me that the birds kept missing their targets, stabbing their beaks into the water and then walking around pretending they meant to miss that one.

“Join the club!” is what I kept thinking as time after time the advanced focusing system in my camera missed locking onto my subjects. There just wasn’t enough contrast in the tonalities of the birds and their surroundings. My dad, who is 84 years old, kept complaining from his spot in the front seat. “What in the world are you taking pictures of? I can’t see anything! There’s nothing out there. Can we go home?”

Can you blame him?

To make matters worse, it was dark! To stop the action of a dancing bird requires at least a shutter speed of 1/900 of a second. To achieve this I had to crank up the ISO setting waaaaay up to 10,000.

Although 10k ISO isn’t the fastest or grainiest setting on my camera, shooting that high in daylight isn’t, shall we say, ideal in the mind of most photographers. Clearly, I was not most photographers that morning. We spotted just two other tourists with professional gear on the four loops we drove around Black Point Road that morning compared with dozens just a few days later. (The smart guys with their big lenses who probably slept in well past dawn were home drinking hot coffee while post-processing brightly lit award-winning images. Maybe they knew something I didn’t know?)

But I figured it was worth a card full of crappy images because… who can ever tell? Maybe some magic would occur over the life span of one of these dreary shots, I thought to myself. And besides, it’s really about just being in nature. Maybe, I told myself, some blur or a bit of soft focus and hard grain will spark something I end up loving?

And so it went with my Dancing Heron. When I found her while tabbing through hundreds of shots in post-processing a part of me thought, “Oh shit!  I wish the light had been better!” I easily could have kept tabbing along, but I decided to experiment and find some semblance of a pulse deep within this sweet shot.

Regardless of what anyone thinks I love it. And that’s exactly what art is about – dancing with the fear that inevitably arises when you finally start listening to the sweet syncopation in your own tender heart.

The color was so bad I just drained it all out and converted over to black and white. The next step was a gentle boost in contrast to the washed out fog. I loved the grain – so much so, I enhanced it to the point it almost looks like it came off a roll of push-processed TRI-X 35mm roll film. (Can you tell I studied photography in college back in the 80’s?)

In the writing of this post I’ve discovered that post-processing is a whole dance in itself. As someone who sits in front of a computer most days working on design projects, I often think of post-processing as yet another task that keeps my tookus from moving. (It does.) But framing it as a dance? That’s something I believe will fuel my motivation to share my musings and deep love for this art form.

No one has ever learned or achieved anything worthwhile without persevering in the midst of difficulty. Don’t give up when the conditions aren’t perfect and don’t throw out an image because the bird has its back to you. Instead, strengthen your work with frequent doses of emotional labor.

Who cares if a herd of photographers think it’s a bad day to shoot? You just might discover a new way of seeing, thinking, and feeling – or awaken a new personal style in your artwork. Trust your own gut and risk reaping your own unique rewards or consequences. Shooting in a variety of conditions, even though the odds are low will help you discover the presence (or absence) of limitations in both yourself and your equipment.

Art isn’t safe and taking risks is the only path toward finding your own unique voice in a world filled with imitators.

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Feel free to leave a comment below.

Photo Credits: Heron Dance by Susan J. Preston, Black Point Road, Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, Florida © 2019, all rights reserved
Technical: Fuji XT-3 | 386mm (XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR) | 1/900 sec | f5.6 | ISO 10,000


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