Sunday, December 16, 2012

Other Kinds of Bird Photography?

When we birders talk about "bird photography" we are talking really about two - and only two - types of photographs: the ID and the behavior.

"ID photos" cover the vast amount of photographs taken by birders - including me.  The idea here is to get a photo of the birds you've seen in the field with enough detail so that you know what it is.  Ideally, the shot is full-frame, bright and sharp.  This type of photo is why millions of us spend big bucks on huge lenses and tripods and bodies and whatnot.  ID photos are the logical extension of all our searching: proof of what we saw and how well we saw it.

There is a lot of overlap, but "behavior photos" are a slightly different beast.  Here, the focus isn't the acknowledgement of the species, but the bird in it's habitat - a better phrase might be "documentary" or "lifestyle" shots.  These are the kind that win photo contests - the kinds of photos birders would like to take if they could sit down and take a bunch of pictures instead of rushing to the next twitch all the time.

The goal of each of these types of bird photography is realism.  We're looking for clarity, brightness, proximity and true color to create images as vivid and honest as possible.  The only trouble is in our quest for the best bird photo we ignore an entire other world of photography equipment, techniques and goals.  Is there a place for some of these things in bird photography?

Would it be worth taking bird photos with a fisheye lens, or a wide-angle?  What about with a Polaroid?  What about photo editing software that makes the image look less realistic instead of more?

One reason for doing this is "art."   I have strong feelings about art (and a lot trouble articulating them) but I do feel that, in general, the types of photographs birders take are not art.  Because the idea behind most bird photography - especially "ID" - is to generate an as-realistic-as-possible result, the photograph lacks the forethought required to make a piece of "art" (which is different from "decoration").

However, traditional bird photography with a different approach could create art in the traditional sense.  Art progresses when artists have new ideas on old subjects (it's why everyone still gets away with painting a bowl of apples), and using a Holga camera to take traditional ID shots would, I feel, be "art" in that it would be so clearly defined against traditional bird photography.  It would also, if done by a good artist, have things to say about things greater than birds and birding.  Todd R. Forsgren's photographs of birds in mist nets are the best example I know of this.  While the first thing birders like me do when seeing these shots is try to ID the species, the emotional depth of these images qualifies them for a museum, not a field guide.

Another, less complicated reason for using different techniques for bird photography is that it might shed light onto certain aspects of a bird's ID that more realistic photography doesn't.  For example, we know that birds can see light in the UV spectrum, unlike humans.  The "realistic" photographs we take do not represent what the birds themselves see.  UV photography is difficult in the field, but there are other ways - Photoshop for example - that we can alter photographs to show birds differently.

I've been messing around a little bit with Instagram, which allows the user to overlay photographs with his choice of filter.  The filters are typically retro-themed, and are delightfully effective in creating emotion and drama in an otherwise-normal picture.  I like seeing these birds pics in a new way.  Here are some from my account @thebirdist

Anyone else trying a different approach to bird photography?  Other birders on Instagram?  Let me know.


Lawrie said...

I really like the sentiment of the post, I'm just not a fan of instagram and that holga look (although I do like the coldness of the robin in your shot), I think it's probably because everyone in my social media circles have subscribed to it and I've been over exposed ;-)
I've been experimenting with birds in black and white, a deliberate choice at the time of shooting for ones that were in the hand. Now I've read your post I'm thinking about revisiting some of my more ID and behaviour shots and going back into the 'dark room'.
I agree with you on the mistnet shots btw, a fantastic body of work.

Lidia Gamboc said...

These are excellent shots and I guess the color is just wonderful. I don't have that much know how when it comes to photo technicalities but I surely know a good picture when I see one.

Elijah Coull said...

I find bird photography complicated. One, they fly a lot which makes me a but hard to capture them moving, and two, the most beautiful ones are hard to find. But a friend of mine said that to capture these awesome birds, you should be able to acquire a lens for your camera to give your shot a wider angle and a more closer look even if you're far from your subject.

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