During a recent trip to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, I had the pleasure of witnessing an incredible mass wildlife event seemingly straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Hundreds of snowy and great egrets massed around a small tidal creek to chase a spawn of minnows, a raucous cacophony which lasted for several hours. The snowy egrets in particular put on a great show, each in turn flying over the water with its talons raking the surface to stir up the minnows, and then dropping its head in for a split second to emerge with a tasty snack firmly grasped within its beak. The action was fast and furious, and it was difficult to focus attention on any one bird, let alone to put together a meaningful composition.
While trying to get some shots of the snowy egrets flying over the water, I spied a group of egrets arrayed on a dead tree sticking out above the waterline. Their arrangement immediately attracted my eye, as did their reflection in the water. I immediately sensed I had something special, and some quick repositioning led me to the composition I present below. The abstract circle created by the arrangement of egrets and their reflections, which frame the egret near the middle of the image, is exactly the sort of composition I enjoy making—something which is intricate and unexpected.
Coaxing coherence from our chaotic, complex world is of course the objective of composition. This is something I discuss in great length in my eBook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition. One of the simplest strategies of effective composing is to look for implied shapes, such as the circle in the image below. Simple shapes help impose order and compositional structure, giving the viewer a clearer sense of your artistic vision, and reducing the visual clutter that is our natural world.
The perfect arrangement of egrets, and the relative stillness of their reflection, only lasted for a fleeting moment. This is the unique challenge of nature photography, and what makes it unique among other art form—searching for that perfect moment when random elements suddenly come together in a pleasing way. When this happens, the photographer must act decisively, or lose the magic of the moment forever. So be patient, with your finger at the ready on the shutter button—and strike without hesitation when the moment arises.