The sign on the boardwalk at Wakodahatchee Wetlands advertised a Nature Photography Workshop in just two days. What an opportunity! Well, it was vacation, so we decided to skip the 6:30 am session, and called to sign up for the 8:30 am class instead. Claudine Laabs, a veteran nature photographer of some 20 years, was our guide and inspiration. The class included a range of photographers from very experienced to one person who didn't understand what an f-stop is, or that she couldn't zoom her point and shoot camera. Many of the things Claudine said were just common sense -- understand how your camera works and how to change the settings, be ready with extra memory and and another charged battery, and the mid-day sun isn't as good as early morning or evening sun angles. Going for action shots, she recommended a shutter speed of at least 1/500.
The key phrase of the day was "Wait for it..." Patience, of course, is a given among nature photographers, whether going for action shots or just a good pose. However, Claudine emphasized that you need to know the behavior of your subject. What will that Great Blue Heron do as it's ready to spear a fish or take off into the air? If you are going for courting behavior, what do you look for? How do the parents feed their young? Does the baby stick its head down the parent's throat or does the parent just drop a fish on the baby's head? Know that the Purple Gallinule will slide down to the end of a slender branch to eat the flowers and has a tendency to fall in the water. Some ducks have to run on the water before taking flight.
Her advice was "I know you are worn out from the excitement, but let's wait 10 more minutes," and 10 more would stretch out to 25 more. Focus where you expect something to happen, and hold your finger down on the shutter until the golden moment occurs. Oh, and while you are doing that, compose your picture to be sure to avoid a building or person in the shot, while insuring that the bird's natural environment is included. Wading birds are patient by nature, and the casual photographer can get pretty bored waiting for them to make a move!
To catch a bird in flight, you have to see it coming, and be ready before it gets too close. I got lucky when we saw a Belted Kingfisher hovering over one spot for some time, and burst mode captured it in several wing positions. Lead the flying subject, because you won't be able to see through the view finder as you are actually taking the shot. Be prepared to discard lots of empty sky shots. These Snowy Egrets were so fast, they swooped out, dipped in the water, and landed on the perch again before I could press the shutter.
Florida has lots of white birds, and getting a good light exposure on them is a challenge. The white tends to get washed out by most automatic settings, which give an average reading - good enough for all the other things, but too much for the white bird - and you lose the definition in the feathers. She talked about meter settings and I had to look it up again online when I got home. Apparently you need to set the camera for spot metering, and aim it at the white bird. We looked at some shots she had of Great Egrets, and her feathers were very distinct. My question now is, if you use that setting, what will it do to non-white birds? I'm not comfortable yet with changing the setting fast enough for a white bird here and something else in the next shot. Oh well, next time I go to Florida, I'll have to experiment with it.The final factor is luck. No matter how well prepared you are, some days you just won't get that outstanding shot, no matter how long you wait. Other times, you may catch that hovering Kingfisher or the Red Shouldered Hawk catching something in the marsh, and actually get the focus perfect. Persistence, patience, and lucky timing make all the difference.