Introduction and Warning

I've set up this area to isolate a number of topics where I hold strong opinions that may differ greatly from most other people. I have argued most of these positions on public forums, where such discussions usually escalate and cause many bad feelings. These topics are most likely to grate against things you've read or heard elsewhere, and may make you uncomfortable. You may want to tell me I'm all wrong. But since you've come here, all I ask is that you keep an open mind and actually think about what you've learned elsewhere or hold as "truth" without ever examining the issues before.

(download complete article with larger images as 716KB pdf file)

The Natural Look

As far as I'm concerned, nature photos should look natural. I want a photo of a bird to look like the bird appears when I see it in the wild: proper color; proper light; proper habitat. This is my guiding principle for all my bird photos.

I see birds as part of nature, and want to photograph them as part of nature, and show them as part of nature. A bird removed from its natural environment is somehow and artificial in my view, so I try to show the habitat and environment that is so much a part of the evolution of that species.

I don't want distorted colors from high saturation films; I don't want colors grossly distorted because they are taken so early or so late in the day that the color temperature of the light and of the film are vastly different. I don't want a warming filter used on the lens to simulate this early or late light. I don't want color enhancing filters used. I don't want the image underexposed to increase the saturation.

I don't want the bird to look like a subject in a museum diorama, where the background looks fake. I don't want the bird isolated against a pure color background on a bare stick if that's not the way it occurs in the wild. I don't want the bird to look dead or mounted.

Natural Light

Natural light is a major contributor to a natural looking bird image. Natural light comes from one direction for the most part, and creates shadows on a rounded subject that give it a three-dimensional look.

Fill flash is recommended widely to reduce or eliminate shadows, but I find it is often overused so that it over powers the natural light. It often makes a bird look pasted onto a separate background, kills the 3D look, and makes it look very artificial.

Fill flash can work wonders in competent hands, but it takes lots of practice and skill to pull it off. If it is obvious to the viewer that it was used, it was too strong. I use fill flash sparingly.

Saturation

High saturation is popular with many photographers: it makes an image more vibrant and such images are more likely to be selected by magazine editors and attractive to the general viewing public.

To me, high saturation often makes the birds look wrong. After nearly 40 years of seeing thousands of real birds in real world situations, I have a good impression of what they should look like, and seeing birds with highly saturated colors is disturbing.

In the days of film this style became the norm when photographers switched from fairly accurate Kodachrome to super saturated Fuji Velvia. It now lives on in the days of digital with "vibrant" settings on camera menus and through the over use of the saturation slider in PhotoShop.

When I worked on film I preferred Kodachrome, then switched to Fujichrome Sensia when reliable processing of Kodachrome became an issue. Now that I work in digital I no longer have my slide to help keep me honest when working in PhotoShop. And now I fear I'm slipping and using the saturation slider more than I should.

Natural Subjects

Nature photos should be of true nature subjects - wild birds that are part of the avifauna and found in the wild. No zoo shots; no game farm shots; no feral ducks; no hybrid park mallards.

Calling a photo a "nature shot" of a released bird that isn't part of the established ecosystem is just like calling photos of farm animals or household pets "nature" shots. Someone who considers themselves a "nature photographer" should be able to tell a natural subject from a non natural one when encountering it in the wild.

There are a few species that aren't easy to classify, that fall into a gray area. These are the introduced species that have been around long enough to establish stable (or growing) populations. The three ubiquitous introduced species in the U.S. are the Rock Pigeon, the European Starling, and the House Sparrow. All three have been here so long and established such large and vibrant populations that they have become part of the ecology, for better or for worse. Some game species have become established, like the Ring-necked Pheasant (although it only persists in some areas from constant restocking by the hunting industry).



European Starling on cactus, Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, AZ

Recent introductions that might be here to stay are the Eurasian Collared Dove (apparently on its own), and the Peach-faced Lovebird (almost certainly from escaped cage birds).



Peach-faced Lovebirds, the Water Ranch, Gilbert, AZ

Hand of Man

There is a school of thought (perhaps stemming from the ancient contest rules of the Photographic Society of America) that believes that a nature photograph must not show the "hand of man" (HOM) in the composition. This means that the obvious buildings, automobiles, ships, machinery, etc. should not be shown in the frame. It also prohibits fence posts, utility poles and lines, barbed wire, man made bird houses, etc. It makes grudging allowance for bands (rings) on the legs of banded birds, but only for endangered species (at least, that's how I remember the exception).

Seldom is there any concern for the other obvious signs of the HOM: multiple catch lights in the eye of the subject from flash set ups; hand painted poster board backgrounds for hummingbirds at controlled outdoor studios, birds over lit from the front when the light clearly is coming from behind.

I seldom take photos of birds where a car or building appears in the image - these just don't appeal to me. But I take plenty of images of birds on wires, posts, fences, or poles. These have become such a part of the real world landscape that they are hard to avoid. Also, the birds themselves have been quick to take advantage of them. If a wild bird chooses to sit on a pole or a barbed wired fence, I consider it reasonable to include it in the image of that bird. When a photographer is using thousands of dollars of large heavy equipment to record an image of a bird on a piece of film or a digital array, it seems rather silly to pretend that the HOM is not involved somehow in creating the image.



Black Phoebe on water level sign at the Water Ranch, Gilbert, AZ.



Black-throated Sparrows on water feature at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.



Cliff Swallows at nests under concrete bridge, Tempe, AZ.

Choice of Subject

There is a strong tendency for photographers to stick to the obvious: large, slow, or bright subjects that are abundant. This is most often seen with photos of herons or egrets, Canada Geese, and backyard birds like Northern Cardinal and House Finch. These "beginner birds" can all make good subjects, and are fine while learning the basics of bird photography.

But there are many other possible subjects out there. Don't overlook the less glamorous female birds. Learn about all the species that occur in your area and try to get good images of the more difficult and less often seen species like the native sparrows.



Juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum.



Lesser Goldfinch, female, Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Habitat or "Blown" Background?

I have little interest in taking "pretty bird on a stick" shots. These are usually made in a backyard "studio" set-up, where the photographer puts up a stick near a feeder, positioned so the view from the camera isolates the bird against a background of a single color. With the background far enough away and a large aperture optic, the depth of field is so shallow that the background is completely out of focus and lacks all detail. To get the bird to land on the stick all other nearby perches are removed and food or water is placed near the carefully positioned perch. To get some species to land in "just the right spot" a recorded call of the species is sometimes played to attract it.

For my tastes, this is little different from placing a captive bird in a studio. My preferences are for images that show birds as part of their natural surroundings. Set-ups are all about controlling the subject; I prefer more random encounters with birds where they choose to be and not where I engineer them to appear.

Okay, I do take such blown background shots on occasion but only when I find the bird in such a natural habitat or location of its choice.





Great-tailed Grackle on bare branch against plain sky, the Water Ranch, Gilbert, AZ.

Set ups, Baiting, and Natural Images

What is a “set up?”

Let me be very clear about what I call a set up: a branch or other perch placed specifically in a carefully selected location to which a bird or other subject is baited so that the subject can be photographed in a very controlled manner.

It says nothing at all if this is in your own backyard, your neighbor’s yard, the woodlot down the street, the wildlife management area across town, or a state or national park. It is not about where a subject is photographed, but about the conditions under which the photograph is made.

Placing a stick beside a feeder in front of the camera and waiting for a bird to land on the stick is a set up in my view. Making your backyard more attractive to wildlife by adding native plants and a pond is not baiting in my opinion.

What is “baiting?”

“Baiting” is the use of food or water or taped calls for the explicit purpose of luring the subject to the staged location (i.e. the perch) for the controlled photo.

What is “Natural?”

A very small number of people have said that the Gilbert Water Ranch, where I take a lot of my photos, is actually a baited situation because it is not natural and supposedly has been created and maintained to attract birds.

I’ve never claimed that the Water Ranch is anything but a manmade wastewater recharge facility with easy public access. Is it wilderness? Of course not. Is it natural? Probably more so than any urban backyard; more than any agricultural operation; at least as natural as Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico or Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Definitely more natural than a baited perch set up.

The real point is that the birds don’t care if it is pristine habitat untouched by mankind, a managed refuge like Bosque del Apache, a National Park like Grand Canyon, or trackless wilderness in a remote mountain range that has never experienced the boots of hikers or their tents. Birds visit each of these places by their own choice because they find food, water, shelter, and whatever else they need to survive. And in any of these locations, they behave naturally unless baited, selecting what they eat where they find it, and where they perch because of the habitat they encounter. It is the bird’s behavior, more than the management of the location, that is the meaning of “Natural” to me.

Composition

The Rules of Composition are a fabrication for people who want the artistic part of photography reduced to a formula that can be applied to any situation, just as exposure compensation is applied. they'd rather not think for themselves. There is some basis for some of the rules, and it doesn't hurt to learn about them and try them out. But composition should come from the photographer's vision and passion for the subject; not from an arbitrary formula that says there are four "power" points in a frame that must be used, or that birds shouldn't be taken head-on from the front. As Edward Weston once said: "Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk."

The most popular style of bird photography for many photographers and viewers has the bird occupying almost the entire image area. This can be good, especially where the image must be viewed in small scale as on a web page, or when the objective is to study some aspect of plumage.

But, a bird doesn't have to dominate the image: I enjoy making photos in which the bird compliments the overall composition and acts almost as an accent to the habitat comprising the bulk of the image.



Ruddy Duck, head on. Gilbert Water Ranch, AZ.



Ruby-crowned Kinglet, small in the frame. Gilbert Water Ranch, AZ.

Know Your Subject

It surprises me when people who express a passion for bird photography to the extent of investing many thousands of dollars in photo gear don't have a clue about what birds are in their area, what birds are likely to be seen in the places they visit, or what the name of the bird is they have already photographed.

If you really have a passion for birds, then take the time and effort to learn about them. There are many excellent field guides available for bird identification. Local bird clubs or Audubon chapters run field trips for all people so they can learn to identify the birds and learn what species are locally common. There are numerous site guides published for most of the major locations that tell precisely what species are likely to be seen by month. The most common field guides can be found at most bookstores, but you'll find a better selection of field guides and numerous site guides for many distant locations at specialty stores or at the American Birding Association web site.

I don't expect every photographer to know the proper identification of every bird encountered - we all start out knowing little about the subject. But I expect a self-described nature photographer to recognize the importance of this aspect of nature photography and to attempt to determine the species identity. For many of the potential viewers of the image the correct name is at least as important as proper focus and exposure. And viewers who are birders or scientists will also be interested in the when and where of the photo, as age and molt of a bird can determine its looks, and birds found out of normal time and place are always of great interest. If a photographer can master the complications of exposure compensation needed for a Canon camera, then that photographer can master the basics of what makes a sparrow different from a warbler. If a photographer can learn how to get close to a shorebird by doing a belly crawl, then that photographer can learn to separate species.

Invest a little money and sufficient time to learn your subject. You'll know what to expect, what the habitat preferences are, what is typical behavior, when the birds are likely to be seen, etc. You'll know what is not expected and can then concentrate on that species should you encounter it. You'll learn that the "funny" duck you see at the local park but can't find in your field guide is really a hybrid mallard and of no real interest to other birders or competent publishers. And your viewers will have more respect for you and your images if you exclude non native subjects and have put the correct name to them.

To help novices get better at identification I've put together a lot of advice in my Birding 101 tutorial.



Bid finding (site) Guide to central Arizona, with bar charts showing seasonal occurrence.

Brinkley Field Guide

A modern field guide.

Excessive Cropping

I see a lot of beginning bird photographers resorting to massive cropping to get tight compositions on their subjects. This causes a serious loss in image quality (IQ) - the crop reveals the lack of fine detail and texture in the subject; and any noise in the image is emphasized as well.

I think a lot of the motivation for this is from the popularity of tightly framed "bird on a stick" shots that get posted on photo critique web sites that always get plenty of praise.

What the beginner doesn't realize is that such images require having enough optical power and being close enough to the subject to deliver a large size image that does not rely on extensive cropping.

The real answer for beginners is at least one of these options:
  • Get a longer focal length lens. And wait until a quality optic fits within the budget rather than trying to get professional results from a cheap lens.
  • Learn how to get close to the subject. Find the places where subjects are more tolerant of close approach, learn how to approach a wild subject (slowly and quietly) without scaring it away, or fake it with a set up or trip to the zoo if really desperate.
  • Learn to compose images with the subject smaller in the frame using the setting as part of the overall shot.
I know it is a difficult lesson to accept, but every pixel is precious to image quality and shouldn't be discarded unless absolutely necessary.

Unnecessary Cloning

Another shortcut I see employed too much by beginners is the use of extensive cloning to turn the image they actually took into something they wish they had taken.

Don't get me wrong: cloning is a valuable and powerful tool in Photoshop, and there are times when it can help an image. I used to employ it on almost every image to remove the dust bunnies that are the bane of digital photography. But I more often use the quick healing tools in PS CS3 than the clone stamp for this chore.

If you are serious about taking Nature photos, then you should embrace Nature and not try to remove it from your images. If the image you took is too cluttered and you can't accept it as it is, then let it go and try to take a better image the next time you are out shooting. Since the incremental cost of a digital frame is essentially zero there's no excuse not to take lots of shots when the opportunity exists and then select the best from them later at your leisure. Spend your time shooting in nature, and don't waste it trying to "save" a bad image with cloning.