Bird Photography, Part II

An Example of How to Do It from On Feathered Wings

An Example of How to Do It (from On Feathered Wings)

We have complained in this space before about the documentary nature of most bird photographs.  Taken with lenses longer than your arm, the birds, sharply in focus, inhabit an blurred universe.  Those gargantuan telephoto lens you see some birders lugging around must obey the laws of physics; laws which require those lens to convert the background of the photo, which is the world in which the birds and we live, into a blurry oatmeal of pastel color unlike anything the birds’ eyes or ours ever see.

Let’s face it, not many photographers can take an extreme telephoto shot like the Snowy Owl above and cause you a moment of what James Joyce called “aesthetic arrest”; what people feel in the presence of great art.

Here, for example, is a photo we took of Chuck, our injured neighborhood Greater Roadrunner. Notice the green oatmeal in the background.  Those are trees and a bit of sky back there, but you can’t tell that from the photo, which really is only a documentary photo of Chuck’s injured lower beak.
Don’t get us wrong.  There is nothing wrong with this kind of documentary photography; it just isn’t art.  Some documentary photography is. Think of Robert Capra’s shot of the soldier at the moment of his death in the Spanish Civil War, or the shot of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square at the end of WWII, or the photo of the naked Vietnamese girl running down the road toward the photographer, screaming as napalm explodes behind her.  Interesting, isn’t it, that much documentary photography that stands the test of time — and that is the true test of any work of art — comes from wars or other tragedies?

Because both the laws of physics and the flighty behavior of birds prevent getting close enough to the bird to enable a photographer with a normal lens on the camera to keep the background as well as the bird in focus, we see nice photographs of birds, but not much fine art.

Don’t get us wrong.  It is possible to create art with a telephoto lens, it just isn’t easy.  Here, for example, is a photo from a great new book, On Feathered Wings. As is the case for many of the photos in the book, this one moves us beyond telephoto documentary photography.

Published by Abrams, a fine-art publishing house, On Feathered Wings, consists of photographs of birds in flight, taken by four photographers from around the world.  And while many of the photographs contain unfocused backgrounds, the background in often the sky and so does not distract from the photo.  The other thing to notice about the photos is that they consist of something more than a static bird in the exact center of the photograph.  (More on composition of your photographs is coming in a subsequent post.)

Two more examples from the book follow.  To be clear, all the photos I am using in this post are actually photos of the photos in the book.  To see the real thing — and to feel its aesthetic effect, you’ll have to buy the book. Here is the Amazon link. We don’t have it listed on our web site yet, but you can buy it from our new physical store. Just call 1-505-898-8900. Truly, it is a fine book and well worth the money.  ($40.00 before any discount) Below are links to the photographers’ web sites, all worth a few minutes of your time.


Still, many of the photographs in the book were taken with telephoto lens which limited the ability of the photographer to create a photo of the birds as they exist in their environment.

We’ll discuss how you can do that, and show you some examples,  in our next installment, “10 Things You Can Do to Take Great Bird Photos.”


Here are the websites of the photographers of On Feathered wingsRichard Ettlinger Rob PalmerMiguel Lasa, and K.K. Hui.

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