Perfect Light

As the graceful white bird lifts its head, water droplets fall from its bill in an arc of sparkling gems lit by the mid-morning sun. The bird - a great egret - has just caught a minnow in a water-filled ditch.

Jim Rathert, Conservationist photographer, pulls his car off the pavement and aims his window-mounted camera toward the bird. The egret's fishing success means it may remain long enough to allow a series of photographs. The bird is, by Rathert's definition, a cooperative wildlife subject, as opposed to one that immediately takes flight.

Cooperative to a point, that is. "They're plastic," he says of egrets, referring to the action of the bird's long neck, stretched straight up one moment and forward the next. "They can go from vertical to horizontal in an instant, ducking their heads out of the picture."

Rathert waits for the moment the bird's bright bill is isolated against the dark bank behind it. The water it stands in reflects golden grasses and blue sky. As the egret, backlit by the sun, gobbles a minnow, a breeze stirs the plume feathers on its breast. "Perfect light," says Rathert, "and I'm shooting the finest grain film I've got."

He's collecting "definitive" photos that clearly show what the bird looks like. He also captures its movement and behavior, as it wades on long dark legs, peers intently into the water and plunges its bill for the catch. The bird, evidently accustomed to this fishing place and passing vehicles, doesn't seem to notice Rathert's car. As the egret moves along the ditch, Rathert starts the engine, moves a few feet, stops, turns off the engine. He wants to keep within a distance that allows him to "fill up the frame" of film with his subject.

"I don't end a photo session," he says, shooting away. "I let the subject end it." He makes an attempt to get closer to the egret on foot, but when he starts to open the car door, the bird spreads its impressive wings like a splendid white cape and takes off. The egret has ended the session, but Rathert has plenty of potentially wonderful shots tucked away on film. "That made the trip," he says as he drives on.

In 10 minutes, Rathert has taught me a kazillion lessons in wildlife photography, including:

Be mobile. Circumstance dictates where you shoot wildlife photos from. Often it's on foot or from a blind, but occasionally