Let me set the scene. The morning was perfect for photography. It was almost 60 degrees at dawn, and a light, high marine layer of diffuse clouds blocked the sun. The birds were plentiful and tame. I smelled the tang of seaweed mingled with salt in the crisp air. The humidity left my shirt damp. At that time of day, all we could hear were the waves lapping against the beach, and the call of a gull.
I was co-leading a workshop with my pal Artie Morris in Southwest Florida. We had gathered at a well-known birding hotspot called the Estero Lagoon on Fort Myers Beach, Fla.. Our mission was to photograph birds in flight and bird portraits. We were setting up when we suddenly realized we had a Reddish Egret (white phase morph) in our midst. There are only 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs of Reddish Egrets in the United States and most of these are in Texas. So it was rare for me to see one, let alone have a chance to photograph it.
Once the thrill of seeing the Reddish Egret subsided, I noticed something. Three other species and four other birds had joined the Reddish Egret — a Snowy Egret, two Great Egrets and a White Ibis. They stood in the shallow, calm water of the lagoon, their reflection reasonably smooth and visually soothing. I was struck by the serenity of the scene.
For a few minutes, I stopped thinking like a photographer. I don’t know why it moved me so much, but the notion that four different species could commune so well together in harmony became the thing I was thinking about. Our planet thrums with strife and war, often over issues of mere perceived differences. But here, there were four different species, represented by five different birds, all standing together. All were calm. They weren’t fighting or squabbling as birds often do. They were milling around, but for some reason, staying close to each other. They were peaceful. This was the story I wanted to tell.
I decided to do a group shot. I started thinking like a photographer again for a minute and I realized that capturing this quiet moment in a compelling way would be challenging. When you photograph groups of birds, you generally get a more pleasing composition by capturing separation – distance between each bird. These birds were so chummy that they often walked so close to each other I couldn’t get separation.
I had my Nikon D3 mounted to the Sig-monster on the tripod. I realized my tripod was too high. When you shoot down on birds, you alter the perspective. I lowered my tripod all the way as far as it would go. I thought about lying down in the water, but was afraid I’d spook the birds. I also decided the 300-800mm was too much lens and went with my backup D90 which I always wear around my neck. I handheld it to get just a bit lower. I was using the D90 with a Sigma 100-300 F/4 lens set to f/8, ISO 200 at 1/500th of a second. I had to pull back all the way to 100mm to get the birds in the frame. I thought about adding more depth-of-field and shooting at f/11, but decided this was going to be a more artistic than technical shot, and front-to-back sharpness wasn’t as important as the overall impact of the photo. In ancient Persian art and culture, if a rug is coming out too perfect, the maker will usually introduce a slight imperfection. If I had shot this at f/11, the image may have been too technically perfect and the ethereal quality of the image reduced.
It seemed like it took a lifetime (it was only five minutes) but the birds finally separated. I made a test exposure right before they split up to make sure I held the highlights. I looked at my histogram and realized I was right on for exposure. I held my breath, fired off three shots in burst mode (I usually do this expecting the second shot to be the best), and then I relaxed. The birds hung out for a few more moments but after my shot, they split up. Two of the birds flew away and the others turned away. I know it’s crazy, but it seems like they waited for me to get the shot before they left.
I was pretty sure I had a good image before looking at the LCD. But I didn’t see the full impact until I returned to the hotel room and uploaded to my MacBook Pro.
I was tempted to dissect the imperfections of the image. But its peacefulness and beauty overtook my usual notion that all my photos had to look a certain technical way.
I think the image was primarily possible because I was NOT thinking like a photographer, but more like a philosopher and artist. Besides being impressed that four species and five birds could get along, I was moved by the feeling of the image. It brought to mind a quote from an art book I studied years ago by Marie-Luise Gothein, who advocated creating gardens as art.
“Rhythm, symmetry, and a happy combination of elegance and utility – a blend often desired in later days of hope and struggle – these have been fully attained, and with them a delight in quiet communion with Nature, expressing as she does the sense of beauty in orderliness,” Gothein said.
I think that as photographers, we create art and can learn how to better do this by studying other forms of art. Gothein’s book helped me see this shot. By studying art that is not our own we shape our subconscious and build the instinct to notice when opportunities arise.
Consider thinking about outside forces in your life that can positively influence your photography. Go to museums, read, watch plays, listen to music, and study the masters. All these things can work to help you see photographic opportunities, without first worrying about f/stops and shutter speeds.
I’m now offering limited edition canvas gallery prints of “Four Species – Five Birds,” see the order page for more information.