Photographing Great Blue Herons is both challenging and rewarding. To find them, scan shorelines, riverbanks, and the edges of marshes, estuaries, and ponds. The Great Blue Heron is a solitary hunter like many other wading birds. Once I have identified a location where the heron frequents, I can return to the same spot at different times of the day. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time for good lighting. You will want the sun behind you to get the best light on the heron. Backlit silhouettes can also be dramatic. You are more likely to find calm wind and still waters in the early morning which is wonderful for capturing reflections.
I prefer to shoot with the camera in manual mode. I frequently need to adjust exposure to compensate for bright sky or water surrounding the bird. A tripod is useful to reduce camera shake, particularly when the heron is standing motionless or moving slowly. Hand holding the camera may be best for birds in flight. When I’m watching a heron standing or wading, I prefer to have the camera on the tripod. It can be very tiring to hold 500mm telephoto lens for a long period. I have camera focused and the exposure set so I can quickly snap the image when the heron catches a fish or spreads its wings to fly away.
It can be difficult to balance ISO, shutter speed and lens aperture. I try to use the lowest ISO possible to minimize grain. At the same time, a high-speed shutter is important to stop action.
Patience and persistence are required to build a portfolio. If the image is too busy, the bird can get lost in the weeds. By returning again and again, I have been able to assemble a collection of images. With persistence and patience, one can find times and locations where the heron is isolated from busy surroundings. Many times, you will find Great Blue Herons standing motionless, in lonely dignity. Great Blue Herons hunt by wading slowly or standing statue-like as they are stalking fish and other prey in shallow water or open fields. They catch their prey with their strong bill with a lightning-fast thrust of the neck. This can happen in a blink of the eye. If one isn’t ready, they will miss the moment. Waiting long periods for the heron to turn, strike or fly takes tenacity and determination. If you are lucky enough to be there when the heron strikes its prey, you can capture some dramatic images.
Great Blue Herons collect into groups for nesting but are territorial and solitary hunters. You might say they maintain appropriate ‘social distancing.’ When one is hunting and another heron invades the space, the first one will challenge and chase the intruder away while creating a raucous sound. With outstretched wings flapping and powerful bill open, the heron rushes with the fury on its foe. This conflict can be quite a show.
The heron’s slow wingbeats, tucked-in neck and trailing legs create an unmistakable image in flight. With the narrow field of vision of a long telephoto lens, it is not easy find and focus the camera in the short time available. Persistence has its rewards.
I have purchased a portable camp chair which I can easily carry to the best locations. This allows me to set up the camera and tripod and then be able to sit quietly and wait for just the right moment. I’m able to enjoy the serenity of the peaceful environment as I’m waiting for that once in a lifetime image to capture and record.
The Great Blue Heron is poised, dignified and graceful. If you are searching for existing photographs of this artistic feature of our landscape, you can find many examples on my Shutterstock collection.