Heron Before Sunrise

Sometimes when a person doesn’t get much sleep they have been known to do the occasional odd thing… like trying to photograph a heron before sunrise. This article features a couple of handheld images which are firmly in the experimental category.

Yesterday I arrived at Hendrie Valley quite early. By that I mean it was still ‘dark o’clock’… before sunrise. I walked down to the pond area with the intent of doing some early morning handheld landscape photography┬á during the ‘blue hour’.

As I got half-way across the bridge I could barely make out what I thought was a Great Blue Heron standing in the shallows. Not wanting to scare it off, I approached very slowly, and confirmed the species.

My brain immediately went into experimental mode. I wondered if there was any way that I could actually capture some photographs of the heron under such poor lighting. It was something that I had never tried before.

So, I quickly changed lenses and fitted my Olympus OM-D E-M1X with an M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom along with the M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter. I decided to push my E-M1X and set my camera to ISO-12800.

I adjusted my shutter speed until I was able to arrive at a decent exposure… 1/25th of a second with an aperture of f/5.6.

I new from previous experience that my E-M1X could auto-focus under dark conditions, but I wasn’t sure what would happen with this particular opportunity.

I placed a single auto-focus point on the bird. My E-M1X locked on quickly without any focus hunting at all.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 164 mm, efov 328 mm, f/5.6, 1/25, ISO-12800

As I was photographing the heron, it began to move slowly around the pond, so I had to time my image captures when the bird was motionless. It was actually fishing before sunrise! How it could see any fish under such dim light amazed me.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/5.6, 1/25, ISO-12800

The point of this article is not to suggest that people rush out to photograph a heron before sunrise at high ISO. The photographs in this article are simply examples of experimenting with camera gear to better understand its capabilities.

Never accept what other people say are the limitations of any camera at face value. Put it to the test yourself. Just because someone else can’t use a camera within certain parameters doesn’t mean that you will not be successful under the same conditions.

Learning how you can work with your camera in a range of difficult situations are valuable lessons. This is something that each of us can do regardless of the make and model of camera that we may own.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Photographs were cropped to taste, then resized for web use.

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8 thoughts on “Heron Before Sunrise”

  1. Tom,

    The very early photographer catches the truly early bird ­čśÇ

    The eyeonevironment.com site says “…its (blue heron) eyesight is about three times more detailed than ours, and its binocular vision gives very good depth perception. It also has a built in “zoom lens” — allowing the bird to switch instantaneously between telescopic and macro vision…” Explains the heron’s good vision even in tricky/low lighting conditions.

    Great catch and really worth the lack of sleep to catch this gem. And handheld too, at such high ISO


    1. Hi Oggie,

      Thanks for adding the information on the blue heron’s eyesight! I find this fascinating!

      I went to Hendrie quite early that morning with the intent of doing some ‘blue hour’ handheld landscape images. Finding the blue heron fishing in the shallows was an unexpected gift from Mother Nature.


      1. Tom,

        I forgot to add that the same site noted that “to reduce the glare and distortion by extending its neck and tilting its head to bring its bill almost straight down…” the blue heron manages to precisely locate swimming fish by correcting for water refraction. Nature is indeed fascinating. Just as your Olympus lens has tech for correcting aberrations as well as zooming capabilities, your subject also boasts of telescopic to macro vision plus correction for refracted images because of the water.


    1. Thanks Joni… I appreciate your supportive comment! We really never know how experimenting with our camera gear will work until we try something new and different… and push our gear to see what will happen.


  2. Amazing how well these came out having hand held and 1/25 sec at that very high ISO. I would assume you use of the AI software helped on noise in a big way.

    Good news from Olympus this morning affirming that the bird detection capability for the M1X will definitely be available this winter. That has the potential to be a huge win for us bird shooters.

    1. Hi Joel,

      I really didn’t know what to expect with this experiment… but was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

      Post processing was also a learning experience as I found out I needed to make a number of significant changes with how I would typically process an image. I obviously don’t shoot many photographs at ISO-12800 so I didn’t have an experience base from which to draw.

      There’s no doubt that Topaz Denoise AI was helpful, but probably not to the extent to which you may be assuming. Taking a different route with DxO PhotoLab 2 and CS6, as well as using functions such as Detail Extractor in the Nik Collection had a bigger impact on overall file quality. I’m starting to better understand how a file needs to look before I apply Denoise AI in order for the software to have a good amount of impact. While applying Denoise AI would normally be the last adjustment I would now typically make with a file, it wasn’t with these high ISO images. Brightening in CS6 was my final adjustment as I purposely kept my files dark all the way through the process in post until the very end.

      I agree that Bird Recognition AI will be a huge advantage for M1X owners. I anticipate that this will be a game changer for bird photography.

      Another very big piece of news from Olympus this morning is that software is being developed with Atomos which will allow owners of E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III cameras to shoot video in RAW. This will take these cameras into professional/cinematic territory.


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