My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Anatomy of a murder, almost

One of the blogs I follow regularly is Galen Leeds Photography, and he runs a series of posts entitled “Anatomy of a photo” where he explains where and how he got the shot that he did. I like that idea, I was doing something similar in some of my posts like “Stalking the stalker“, so this post is a take off on those, and also a take off on the book and movie “Anatomy of a Murder”. The book was written by John Voelker who was a Upper Peninsula lawyer, judge, fly fisherman, and author under the pen name Robert Traver. He wrote several books on fly fishing under his real name, but didn’t think it was appropriate for a sitting judge to also be a crime novelist. The movie was directed by Otto Preminger and starred Jimmie Stewart, and is a terrific movie. I didn’t murder any one, but I had the urge to kill my camera, which I’ll explain in a few.

I did my daily hike as usual, taking a few fall foliage photos as I walked along, until I got to one of my favorite ponds around here.


Blue skies, yellow leaves

As you can see, it is a beautiful day here in lower Michigan, and I was hoping for some good action shots of birds. I had taken a few photos of geese landing in the pond yesterday, but it was a horrible day for photography, dark, cloudy, with spits of rain.

Geese landing in pond

With the blue sky and lots of sunlight, when a flock of geese approached, I was ready.

Geese in flight

I was hoping they would land in the pond where I was standing, but no such luck, they veered off to land in one of the other ponds around here.

I was a bit bummed about that, but then I noticed a dark form in the tall weeds surround the pond, way over on the other side of it.

Great blue heron hiding

OK, I’ll work my way around the pond and see what that form in the weeds is. I took a few other photos on the way over there, like these.

Milkweed seeds against the pond

And this one.


I stuck my head over the hill to see if I could identify the form in the weeds, it was a great blue heron.

Great blue heron

I ducked back behind the hill to remain hidden, and worked my way around the heron so that the sun was behind me, hoping for a great shot. I have many close ups of herons sitting still, I was after an action shot, the heron in flight. I walked over the hill, and everything was going according to plan. I was close to the heron, the sun was right, the heron lept into the air, and I snapped this photo.

Great blue heron on take off.

By the way, they may look ungainly, but herons can really jump! This one cleared the weeds when it jumped, I guess they have to in order to get enough altitude for those long wings to have room to flap. And that’s when I wanted to kill my camera!

It was perfect, the heron had dropped down a little as it began the first downstroke of its wings. I was slightly above the heron so the sunlight was shining off its wings, body and head, lighting the heron perfectly. I was all set to shoot again, and was timing the herons wings, and just as its wingtips touched the water on the first downstroke, I pressed the shutter, and the camera decided it was time to run through the full range of the auto focus a couple of times before it would fire again. I was ticked off big time! I had the perfect shot of a great blue heron in the viewfinder, and once again my Nikon failed me. I suppose I should have known better and been using manual focus for those shots. You don’t have a lot of time in that situation though, split seconds make all the difference, and I was hoping for the best, and didn’t get it.

It seems with the onset of cooler weather that the auto focus of the Nikon is not working as well as it did late in summer.

Anyway, by the time the camera finished fooling around, this was the second shot I got.

Great blue heron in flight

Good, but hardly like I would have gotten if the camera had done what it was supposed to when it was supposed to. At the time, I wanted to pitch the thing in the pond, but I calmed down and chalked it up as a lesson learned, next time the camera will be set to manual focus.

Thanks for stopping by!


7 responses

  1. First I would like to say that I am familiar with the “Anatomy of a Murder”. I was living in Muskegon, Michigan at that time.

    Now about your heron in flight photo. Actually, you were right to use auto-focus. It just takes practice. Using manual-focus would have been very, very difficult to catch the shot, as you would be trying to that and trying to keep the bird in the viewfinder, too. I know from experience.

    I don’t know what brand of camera you use. But usually if you can get that initial view locked on in focus, it should track and stay in focus as long as you have the shutter pressed down.

    I have a Canon 7D, and I have many photos of herons in flight. I use the center focus point, put that on the bird, press the shutter down and rattle off as many shots as I can. I set the camera to multiple exposure shooting, of course.

    P.S. that shot that you got isn’t all that bad. And aren’t those herons noisy? I was surprised the first time I heard one squawk.

    November 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    • Thanks for the tips Bob! I have a Nikon D 50, and the auto focus has been a sore spot since day one. I do have it set about as close to you suggest, the Nikon has two modes, well, really three. One is focus on the closest object, the second is to focus on movement, and the third is to focus on nothing, which seems to be what the camera defaults to all the time. I have it set to focus on movement in the center of the frame, but way too often when I press the shutter release, it runs through the entire range of focus twice, and never focuses on anything. If I press the release again, it may or may not do the same thing again. If I press the release enough times, it may eventually focus on something, not necessarily what I want it to. Most of the time I give up and switch to manual, get the shot, and move on. I’ve been told that it is due to the lens I have, a Nikor 70-300mm zoom, but I can’t test that theory, an ex has all the other lenses I bought that would fit it. ;( I have tried every combination of settings and get the same crappy performance, when I get rich again, I am going to trade it for a Canon DSLR.

      November 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm

  2. Beautiful autumn photos! I have a friend whose son bought John Voelker’s Ishpeming house.

    November 5, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    • Thank you. If I remember correctly, the movie was filmed in the UP, and the only one of the actors who enjoyed it was Jimmie Stewart, the rest of them hated being in the sticks. 🙂

      November 5, 2011 at 7:34 pm

  3. Great photos and a solid blog post as usual!

    I find that the best luck I have with manual focus is when there are twigs or grass in between be and the subject- my cameras like to focus on what I don;t want them to focus on in those situations. Manual focusing is good odds in these situations. When there’s no intervening obstacles, I have the best luck with autofocus. Manual focus is a great tool in specific instances. Autofocus can let us down at times, but overall it works out more often than not.

    November 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    • Thank you!

      I learned yet another lesson about my Nikon, just because you set the auto focus to function in the center of the frame using the menu does not mean that the auto focus actually functions in the middle of the frame. There is a manual override and I must have bumped it at sometime, because the camera was trying to auto focus on the far right side of the frame instead of in the center. Why it doesn’t go back to the default setting when the camera is turned off and then back on again, I have no idea. It’s driving me crazy, the settings I want the camera to remember, it doesn’t, and the settings I want the camera to default to, it doesn’t. Poor design, at least in my opinion.

      November 8, 2011 at 3:13 am

      • I know what you mean on the camera settings- they ought to strongly default to center focus unless you give it a couple of commands to override that. Very odd that those settings can change too easily.

        November 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm