What's your approach to Bird Photography?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about bird photography and it has struck me that there are a number of different ways or perspectives that people use to approach the genre. These tend to result in different views of what makes a good bird photograph. I thought it might be useful to lay out some of the ways in which people have approached bird photography and generate some discussion and thoughts on what most motivates each of us.

Oliver Pike in Britain and Keithley Job in the United States, writing around 1900 were touting bird photography as a substitute for hunting. While they were interested in the artistic aspect, they seem to have gotten their reward more from the pursuit of the bird and getting close enough to obtain acceptable images than from the image itself. The image was more a trophy of the hunt than an end in itself. This rationale, whether it was their actual motivation, was proposed by many later photographers, largely, I suspect, in hopes that more hunters would substitute the camera for the gun. This attitude has carried on and is still followed by many bird photographers or birder/photographers. I have seen very good modern bird photographers say that it’s the stalking that’s important.

Other photographers, such as Art Morris, author of “Birds as Art” and its successor digital edition and Alan Murphy, author of “The Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography” approach the craft more from the point of view of an artist. The composition and image quality then become dominant. While I’m sure they still enjoy the hunt and the thrill of getting the shot, there is much more emphasis on the final image as an end in itself.

Some photographers, such as Mathew Tekulsky, author of “Backyard Bird Photography”, 2014, and countless others, just like to take pictures of birds, and are quite satisfied if that bird happens to be perched on their feeder. In fact there is a bit of pride in the idea that they have attracted this bird and it has come to them. I do confess myself to having leanings in this direction, though I rarely photograph birds on the actual feeder, I have no such qualms about photographing them in my water features, which is much the same thing. I think that this group is actually much like the hunters discussed above and the photograph is again more of a trophy than an end in itself.

Then there are the ornithologists, such as Frank Chapman, curator of ornithology for the American Museum of Natural History for many years and editor of Bird Lore as well as author of “Bird Study with a Camera” and Arthur A. Allen, the founder of the ornithology department at Cornell and author of “Stalking Birds with Color Camera” for whom photography had a two-fold purpose. Firstly in their work as professional ornithologists, it was a tool used to document the existence, habitat and behavior of species. Technically, as long as the species and behavior and habitat are identifiable and portrayed accurately, the image quality and certainly the composition are largely irrelevant, though Chapman also used photography to help document habitat groups for the museum so that artists could create the proper backgrounds and the foregrounds could be accurately laid out.

Secondly, both men were actively involved in the popularization of bird watching and bird study, Chapman through Bird Lore and Allen through a large number of articles in the National Geographic magazine and others. These required high quality and artistic images to appeal to a wider audience than their fellow ornithologists. This duality exists to this day in the ornithological world. Good images are necessary to keep public interest and public interest is necessary to fund the research which generates the images as a byproduct.

All of the above approaches seem to me to be completely valid and I suspect that most of us approach our photography as a mix of these ways. I know that I do.

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Hi Dennis,

A nice review of bird photography. I recently listened to a podcast from the American Birding Association discussing that there is a trend in birding to bird with a camera. I think I fit into that category. I started bird photography as a way to “focus” my interest in photography, but in doing so I’ve become a fairly avid birder, keeping lists , etc. But, I usually go out with my camera, sometimes binoculars or even a scope, but always the camera-I’d hate to miss that special shot or not be able to document a new bird.

That’s a good overview and summary of bird photography, Dennis.

I suspect that many/most of us follow more than one of these approaches. For me, bird photography was an inevitable combination of two interests - birding, and photography. They both started about the same time and for a few years I could keep them separate. But as birding began taking over a larger portion of my free time I ended up abandoning my darkroom, giving up on B&W, and shooting only color slides. Then I ended up abandoning purely photo outings and only pursued non bird photography in the gaps between chasing birds.

The first goal of my bird photography was simply to document what I seeing. And before the explosion of digital cameras and computer processing there was an abundance of really bad bird photos - just look through American Birds and its various forms from the '60’s and '70’s to see how bad things were.

A few things happened to move me more towards artistic shooting:

  1. Digital cameras
  2. Auto focus
  3. Finding the right places to photograph
  4. Worrying less about Listing and taking a more relaxed approach

My strong preference is to just walk around a place that has lots of bird activity and take whatever photos opportunity presents to me. I rarely go out with a specific goal or species in mind, and it is not uncommon to come home after a couple hours out walking and looking with zero good photos. Once a year I try to get to Bosque del Apache for a couple days of random driving around the loop road and working with whatever I find there.

I take photos in my yard as opportunities arise, but I do not have an outdoor “studio” set up as some people do. That doesn’t give me as much of a feeling of success - probably that ancient need to hunt. But as increasing age and arthritis take their toll and I can’t walk around as much as I used to I wonder if I’ll finally go the set-up route.

And while my time spent outside in random walks for bird photos declines I find my dormant photographic impulses returning. I’m taking a lot more non bird photos of a lot of subjects I’ve been ignoring for 30+ years.

You left out Eliot Porter ( http://www.cartermuseum.org/collections/porter/about.php ). The interesting thing about Porter is that he found the biology and ecology of his subjects to be more interesting than the actual photograph. As a biologist, I agree that without the biology, its just another pretty picture of a bird. I read most of his books and believe in his approach by knowing everything about the bird that is going to be photographed.

My philosophy on bird photography is that if the bird comes within range, I will take its picture. I do not specialize on birds, but am known mostly for macro-photography. Most of my bird photos are far from perfect as I am only able to spend a short period of time on photography as I still have to go to work and earn a wage.

Last night while trying to get the last hummingbird shot of the season, a very young downy woodpecker chewed me out because I was setup under its seed and mealworm cake feeder. Needless to say, the hummers never showed up, but I made friends with the downy woodpecker by allowing it to partake in a pre-darkness snack. That’s the fun stuff of photography!

I left out a ton of people, Jim. There was an explosion of bird photography starting about 1900 and I haven’t seen any time since when it really slowed down.

Thanks for the tip on Eliot Porter. He’s on my list, but I haven’t gotten any of his books yet.

For me the photograph is actually a byproduct of the more important aspect of simply being with the birds and exploring their lives. From the standpoint of images, I have to report that many of my favorite experiences with birds don’t involve a camera at all. Nice to have the camera and I’d treasure the photo, but too often the camera would in fact distract from the larger experience. If that makes any sense at all.

Seen another way, by not making photography the “focus” of my bird experiences, I’m a lot more alert to birds at other times. Like the time we had let our bonefish skiff drift up to a little oyster bar against the mangroves while we enjoyed a lunch and a respite in the shade. Lazing as we were, we were still and quiet. And a tricolor heron landed mere feet from the boat, then proceeded to scamper around picking small crabs from among the oysters. It stayed for the better part of an hour, often so close I was looking down over its shoulders as it fed. No camera, no photos, but vivid memories.

I’m also crowd averse. Isolated and compacted spots such as the Venice FL rookery being the exception, you’re not likely to find me hotspotting the popular bird destinations. If I’m in the neighborhood at all, I’m that guy you might see off in the distance doing who knows what.

Florida has opened our eyes to another venue for bird photography which fits well into our crowd avoidance scheme. Kayaking! Talk about a great way to get away from folks while quietly getting close to birds… Whether to photograph them or simply to sit and enjoy.

I am in the Birds are Art camp- or at least I try to be. I did not do birds at all until I visited Florida and fell in love with the big waders. They reminded me of dancers and I try to portray them that way , though sometimes I do portraits. Once I started with the waders, I found that other birds began to catch my eye, but none are quite as exciting as the waders to me.