Kinds of Bird Photography

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Ring-Necked Duck
Although I deeply enjoy birding, I still consider myself first and foremost a photographer.  As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see on  As a photographer, I want to find the birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all I want to come home with good photographs.  At the same time, I've noticed that the more I've come to enjoy birding, my photographic goals have changed and expanded as well.  In a very real sense, the more I know about birds and birding, the more challenging and rewarding photography has become for me.  I'm no longer fully satisfied if I come home with pretty pictures of pretty birds.  Of course, I want that, but now I want more too.  I want to come home with photos of birds that express something about who they are and how they behave.  I want my photographs to be interpretive of the birds, their behavior and their environment.  So I'm now convinced that the more I become skilled as a birder, I will also become a better photographer of birds.

I now take photos of birds for four different purposes.  I think of them as levels of photographs; there's a great deal of overlap here, and in fact it would be good to think of this as a continuum, and higher levels may include everything in the levels below them.


Short-Tailed Hawk
(This is my only photograph of this bird.
I'd love to take a better one and throw this one away)
I don't usually carry binoculars with me.  If I had a nice expensive pair, that might change (hint, hint to my wife for Christmas!).  I have a decent pair, but I have found that I can more quickly find a bird and observe it with my camera.  And I can always take a picture and zoom in on it to see what I have, if I have any doubts.  Unless my photo is of a bird I've never photographed before, if all I get out of a photo is the identification of a bird, it's going to get thrown into the trash.  At the same time, I'm very happy to use my camera to help me identify birds.

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(This photo comes from my first time seeing a Veery.
Normally I would want to get down low to the ground for this, but I didn't want to scare it away
and miss having this shot.  Of course, it flew away when I tried)
In a step beyond taking a photograph that simply allows you to identify the bird, photographs can also document the presence of a bird in a location, as well as the behavior of a bird.  If I photographed a living Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, I really wouldn't care too much if it had a cluttered background.  If I photographed a Steller's Jay in Florida, I wouldn't mind so much if I over exposed it.  I would be glad simply to document its presence so I could figure out what happened to bring the bird so far east.  Comparing photographs of a Western Scrub Jay to photographs of a Florida Scrub Jay would also be beneficial.  Likewise, I like to have photographs of common birds in various behaviors--a snowy egret preening, stalking, eating, flying, etc.  I also want to have photographs in birds in their various plumages--a Yellow-Rumped Warbler looks very different in its breeding plumage than in its "winter" plumage.

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Snail Kite
(this photo goes beyond documentation to express something about the Snail Kite and its behavior.
He's flying low to the ground with the apple snail in his bill and the white rump is visible.
I went home happy with this photo)
Beyond documenting the presence and behaviors of birds, I want photographs to be interpretive. That is, I'd love to have photographs that not just document, but reflect an understanding of a bird's identity and behavior.  I want the photograph to tell a story, and I want photographs that evoke some emotion or reaction so that the viewer can enter into a message that the photograph makes visible.

Artistic Expression
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Tricolored Heron
Beyond all these (and including them), I want photographs that are artistic.  I want to pay attention to form and composition, sharpness and exposure.  I want to be able avoid compositions where the background will compete with the foreground for attention.  I want to observe the rule of thirds when appropriate and "break" it for good reasons.  What makes art "art" is a difficult question to answer, and I don't think we can distinguish a photograph that's not artistic with one that is here.  But at the very least, we can say that art is concerned with aesthetics--a beautiful and interpretive representation in photographic form.  And that's what gives me the greatest joy in photography and in birding


  1. Ah Scott, you are the master. I have learned a lot about birds, while trying to photograph them..behavior identification fine points etc. Too bad birders and photographers often mistrust each other. Great explication of the interrelationship between the two.

  2. Thanks so much, Cindy, you're way too kind.

  3. Great post Scott. I've found myself categorizing photo-ops in a similar way, but you just put it to word very well, and helped me better organize the sometimes competing philosophies behind my photographic endeavors. Of course, I;m still at the point where I'm just happy to come away with some in-focus, well lit birds, but I certainly appreciate the artistic eye you bring and share with your photography.


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