Egret in Black


Last month I stopped by the egret rookery in St. Augustine Florida for a morning while on my way down to Sarasota for my Florida Bird Photography Workshop. As is typically the case this time of year, there were probably close to a hundred photographers there shooting madly at the chaos that was unfolding all around.  Snowy egrets, little blue herons, tricolored herons, cattle egrets, roseate spoonbills, and wood storks were everywhere. And the great egrets is were in basically every stage of the breeding process from courtship displays to the rearing of chicks.

If you have never been to an egret rookery, these places are basically swirling vortexes of entropy. Nests, chicks, flying, perching, mating, feeding, pooping, squawking, etc. . . The activity levels are overwhelming. So many birds. So many possibilities.

For me, visiting a rookery is not so much about all of this action, or the incredible number of birds, so much as it is that the presence of these birds is guaranteed. Numbers mean little except for the fact that my chances of finding a photograph increase with opportunity. Out of all of this chaos though, I would contend that there may only be 3 or 4 really great photographs to be created.

This is how I break it down in my head. . .

When I approach the St. Augustine rookery, I know that there will be a thousand or more birds to work with. But not all of these birds are shootable. So the first thing I do when I arrive is scout out the place to see what is going on. By this, I mean I simply walk around and observe. Be a tourist for a moment. Enjoy the place. Let yourself get past the insanity of the rookery. Let’s face it, rookeries are the definition of stimulus overload. Once I have spent time kind of soaking it all in, I go to work mentally. I begin asking myself questions. I size the place up that morning and take note. Which species are at what stage in breeding? Who is displaying and who is sitting? Where are the possible opportunities?

Say you have 1,000 birds here. A quick walk around the place may reveal that the vast majority of these birds are stuffed in the trees in such a way that you cannot photograph them. Maybe there is too much contrast given the light and shadows fall across faces. Maybe sticks and twigs obscure views. Maybe the backgrounds are too cluttered. There are a seemingly infinite number of reasons that a particular bird or nest wont make the first cut. So we go from 1,000 birds down to maybe 50 birds just like that.

Of these 100 birds some may be sitting on eggs (boring), some maybe guarding chicks (boring after you have shot this before), and some maybe in courtship display (awesome). Courtship displays are not the only thing I’m looking for of course, but another bird sitting on a nest, or just another bird feeding chicks doesn’t cut it for me. These are documentary photographs. If you haven’t done this before, shoot it. But once you have, you will find that these situations very quickly lose appeal after the first time. So from 50 birds we now have maybe 10.

Now that we have boiled things down to just 10 birds, I start getting picky. What is the light like? What is the background like? What is the nest or perch like? Most of the time just a quick glance will tell me if it works or doesn’t. Sometimes you just “know.” You know? And with this next cut, very quickly my 10 birds become 1 or 2 that I really like.

From 1,000+ birds down to just two. Two is manageable. Two allows me to create a plan of action. Two birds let’s me focus and begin to visualize the possibilities (one of the most extraordinarily important skills you MUST develop if you are going to be a visual artist).

The other 8 birds may still have merit. Maybe they will make good fodder for the stock files. But for me, I want to create art. I want something that says something. I don’t need just another photograph of a white bird in a tree.

With this particular trip to the rookery, I chose one single bird to concentrate on. Ironically, it was right where the bulk of the photographers were, only I was facing the polar opposite direction from everyone else. Forty five big telephoto lenses all aimed one way, and mine was the exact opposite direction. Let’s just say that I received more than a few strange looks from folks. This is typical for me though. More often than not in my life, I find myself going against the grain.

To be continued. . .

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