Birds are one of the things I love most about Florida photography, and my favorite birds are the herons. I commonly see six varieties of herons in the Tampa Bay area: great blue heron are the largest, little blue herons, tri-color herons, yellow crowned and black crowned night herons and green backed herons, the smallest variety. All of these birds are commonly seen throughout much of Florida and many varieties are spread throughout North America. Florida, though, is the only place I have been where I can usually get within twenty feet of these great birds.
Immature(top) and mature(bottom) green backed herons
The best places to get great photos of the herons are where two things occur together: water and a steady stream of people. Water is important because these birds live mostly on fish and people are important so the birds are acclimated and allow a close approach. I seldom want more than a 200mm lens on an APS-sensor DSLR(300mm full-frame equivalent). For the best photos it is best to be out when most of the other people are not-the birds are used to people but are more relaxed when there is just one or two instead of a crowd.
The great blue heron has many color variations
I like to get to know an area very well by going back repeatedly, at different times of the day and different seasons. This adds variety to the photos(differing plumage and stages of development, different foliage and backgrounds) and greater depth of knowledge about the habits of the herons. Going back again and again also makes luck for the photographer, greatly increasing the chances of getting that certain shot.
Immature(top) and mature(bottom) black crowned night herons
I strive for as much variety in my photos of each species as possible. For instance, I will make an effort over the course of several years to get great blue heron photos wading in a pond, on a beach, perched in a tree, flying, in adult mating plumage, in immature plumage, with a fish in beak, etc… For those with only a few days for photography while visiting Florida, such in-depth coverage will not be possible. But it can still be achieved during the course of two or three trips, with careful planning, at different times of the year. But even setting aside a half day for heron photography will pretty much guarantee at least a few good shots in most areas of the state.
Immature(top) and mature(bottom) yellow crowned night herons
My favorite time for bird photography of all kinds is early morning, starting about a half hour before sunrise. The early dawn light is quite flat and even(very low contrast) and is great for color saturation and showing fine detail. A tripod is essential for the longer exposure times required, even if a fast lens is used. Except for flight shots, subject motion is not usually a problem with herons-they are used to standing quite motionless for long periods of time waiting for fish to come to them.
Little blue heron
The night herons tend to be the most shy. Patience by the photographer taking a slow approach will be rewarded with better photos. Sometimes the night herons make a habit of using the same perches at certain times of the day and this knowledge can also be used to advantage.