I was in Galveston, Texas last month as a photography leader at their yearly Featherfest Birding Festival.  Although Featherfest is a birding festival, I led a morning workshop on beach landscapes and abstracts. 

You see, I think way too many wildlife photographers get stuck in a rut. They get obsessed with tight close ups or action shots, master those, then end up taking the same types of images over and over. That just seems sort of limiting to me. And lord knows I chafe at limits, even the reasonable ones. Just ask my mother. Or my wife.

That is why I like to urge photographers to expose themselves to all kinds of art, approaches, and shooting styles. (If you were expecting something kinky, you can stop reading and move on). I have a one hour presentation on that very subject I just gave to the Gulf States Camera Clubs annual convention a couple of weeks ago, so the topic is fresh in my mind.

I love imagery that is surreal and abstract, and I love images that tell stories. That is why I look for opportunities to take even mundane subjects in a more surreal or abstract way, or as part of a story within a larger landscape. I find those kind of wildlife images to be more interesting and unique, and they hold my attention longer.

At my Galveston workshop, I had a perfect chance to prove my point.

Cormorant and shore-birds on beach on Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas, USA

As the light turned softer and the Gulf of Mexico became more pastel, I start playing with longer exposures to blur the waves.  I noticed a cormorant drying its wings and tried some longer exposures there, which worked ok but were not particularly abstract.

A couple of hours later in the dusk light, I got a better chance – a great blue heron appeared flew down the beach, toward me.

After landing, he stood still for a moment and I was able to take a couple of pics before he flew again.

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias) on beach at pastel-colored sunset on Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Island State Park, Galveston, Texas, USA

The blue heron landed on the other side of one of my workshop participants, still very close to me.

I moved a bit closer, and realized that the heron was just standing there, almost motionless. That is where the “abstract photographer” part of my brain kicked in. Rather than jack up my ISO and shoot with as fast a shutter speed as possible, why not try to get the water to blur with a longer exposure yet keep the heron sharp?

I went from ISO 250 to ISO 125o and a faster 1/5 second shutter speed and got this image.

I like it! But I wonder what a longer exposure might look like? Could I push my shutter speed longer so that the waves turn to a soft pastel mist while still keeping the heron sharp? Probably not, but why not try? I adjust my settings to provide a slow, 2 second shutter speed.

What do you know. It worked! The heron is sharp and the 2 second exposure really turned the whole image into a lovely abstract. I took 14 images of this scene with a 2-2.5 second exposure, and the heron is reasonably sharp in 3 of the 14 images. (But all I needed was one image, and i got it!) .

Now if I had not approached this image like an abstract landscape photographer, I would just have a nice photo of the heron in the waves. But this is so much more surreal and abstract, and I like it a whole lot more.

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Take a Chance!

To get great shots, sometimes you have to take a chance that you will fail, and come away with nothing. That’s ok!

I use this little trick. I get my safe shot quickly, then spend most of my time trying for that more difficult, great shot!

I would rather have one great image than 100 average images, all things considered.

Tech Tips

An image like this is not easy. Here are a few tips:

  • Use a tripod.
  • Trigger live view, zoom onto the subject's eyes, then tweak focus precisely.
  • Use a cable release to trigger the camera.
  • Shoot a bunch, and hope one came out with the subject sharp!