Subtlety in Composition

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White Morph Reddish Egret #1
For wildlife photography, I've had to become accustomed to taking many photographs of the same subject.  If I see a scene I like, I  shoot it at 6.5 frames per second.  I'm often struck by how often very subtle differences between photographs can have very significant effects on the overall feel of the photograph.  Even photographs taken a fraction of a second apart can have a very different feel.

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White Morph Reddish Egret #2
Yesterday I was at Fort De Soto, and a white morph Reddish Egret decided to walk right by me.  I had just under two minutes with this magnificent bird, and I took 77 photographs.  That of course is the fun part.  The challenge is going through all 77 of them to select a few that I think are the best.  All the photographs were exposed properly, and they were all sharp.  The sun was casting pretty light on the egret, and the egret is one of my favorite birds. But slight variations between photographs can help the selection process of selecting photographs along.

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White Morph Reddish Egret #3
Notice how the following kinds of differences can impact a photograph:
  1. The Angle of the egret's head: Even slight changes can affect whether you perceive the egret to be looking toward you or away, and along with that, can allow you to capture the all important "catch light" in the eye.  This is probably my primary concern.
  2. The Curve in the egret's neck:  When egrets walk their, necks change position, and a photograph freezes the position of the neck.  Sometimes it's frozen in a more elongated position, which to me is less attractive than with a more pronounced curve (compare photos 1 and 3). 
  3. Facial Expression:  In some ways, birds have facial expressions like us. Sometimes they look stern and angry, and sometimes they may even look playful. The angle of the bill, whether it is open or shut, and many other factors contribute to the overall impression.
  4. The Visibility of the egret's feet: When both feet of the egret are in the water, reflections of the legs on the water can obscure where the legs end and the reflection begins.  When at least one foot is out of the water, the distinction becomes more clear.  I don't necessarily prefer one over the other as a general rule, but for any particular scene, it does make two photographs different (compare photos 3 and 4).
  5. Action: Thankfully, egrets usually let you know ahead of time when they are going to spring into action.  Reddish Egrets are particularly adept at this. They dart around and spread their wings out as they strike at their prey.  Sadly, yesterday my Reddish Egret was mostly concerned with walking, but it's important to be ready for action if it comes.
  6. Environmental Changes:  Sometimes lighting conditions can change extremely quickly--a cloud can pass over the sun, the bird can move into shadow, etc.  The wind and waves can also be factors.  In the top photograph above, the wind blew its feathers so that you could see them more clearly on the back of the neck.  In the second photograph above, the wave was in just the right place to show the egret's legs and feet in the water.  For me, these factors set apart those photos from the others. 
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White Morph Reddish Egret #4
Given that all these subtle differences can make a substantial impact on our impression of an image, I take lots of photos.  Since my camera can record only about 7 RAW photographs at 6.5 frames per second, I also try to time my bursts when it looks like the bird's head is angled the right way to give me "catch light."  And I try not to use all 7 at once, just in case the bird does something unexpected.  Too many times I finish a 7 frame burst and then the bird flies away while I'm waiting for my buffer to empty.  So I take a couple at a time, pausing to let the buffer empty, so that if the bird does something spectacular, I'll hopefully be able to capture it.


  1. Great series, and advice, as always. Seeing the legs underwater adds a new layer of awesomeness...

  2. Great article Scott! It's amazing how much can change in such a short time! Great capture!

    1. Thanks, Tammy! Yes, tt still surprises me how much actually does change.


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