Over the weekend, I took 3,000+ photos of birds in Liberty State Park, ending up with a handful I was really happy about. This one might be my favorite – a Great blue heron that speared a small fish, with the water dripping below tinged pink from its blood.

I used to see photos like this and think the photographer got lucky, was in the right place at the right time, and snapped the shutter at just the right moment. And I still think getting a shot like this is part luck – but now I see that’s only part of it. You have to get all the other parts right so you can be ready for that lucky moment.

Location and timing

First, it was learning where to even find the birds, with different parts of the park attracting different species at different times. Next, it was learning *when* to find them. I’ve gone to this same spot at different times – sometimes seeing almost no birds and coming home empty handed – and eventually learned that a certain point in the tide creates optimal fishing conditions and attracts a *lot* of herons. There’s a sweet spot where it’s practically shooting fish in a barrel for them.

Getting close

To get a close-up shot, a long lens is only part of it. These birds are pretty skittish and you can’t just walk up to them. They’ll fly off while you’re a good distance away. Notice the right side of the photo is tinged green – from the tall grasses I was hiding behind so I could get the shot. This heron definitely saw me, but I was crouched down, wearing drab colors, tried to keep a low profile without making direct eye contact, and moved very slowly.

Lighting and composition

You also have to think about positioning yourself so the lighting works and so the subject has a nice, non-distracting background behind it. In this case, the light was a little harsh, and I wish I had taken it at a lower exposure because I blew out some highlights, but I was able to get somewhat of a bokeh effect with the water in the background by getting pretty low to the ground. 

Camera settings

Finally, you need the right camera settings. I shot this in manual with Auto ISO. Knowing these birds move slowly and then strike fast, I went with a very fast shutter speed of 1/4000 sec to freeze the motion. To create the out of focus background and let in more light, I went with the lowest aperture I had of f/6.3. The camera picked an ISO of 800; perfectly sufficient for the job.


Still, all of those things were just a prerequisite to getting the shot. Then it *was* a game of luck and patience, hoping the bird did something interesting at the right time while still in a position that worked in terms of lighting and background, holding down the shutter as the bird repeatedly plunged into the water, snapping a bunch of shots, and hoping a few of them worked. I have about 2,990 less than great photos as a reminder that even with a lot of prep, there’s still a good amount of luck involved.

Below are a few more photos from Liberty State Park. You can see my full gallery of Liberty State Park photos here.