The Art of Bird Photography:
The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques

Arthur Morris

Amphoto Books 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
In The Art of Bird Photography famous bird photographer Arthur Morris shares some of his hard-won experience, explaining techniques for getting great photographs of birds. Some of it is technical or aimed at professionals, but most of it is pitched at a level suitable for amateurs. With the warning that it may make you want to rush off and buy extremely expensive camera equipment, I highly recommend it.

Morris begins The Art of Bird Photography with equipment, discussing cameras but mostly lenses, and with a separate chapter on autofocus and autofocus lenses. Much of this is dated — and probably esoteric for many readers anyway — but there are some useful general tips:

"As a general rule for bird photography, I recommend choosing a longer, slower lens over a faster, shorter one."

Turning to exposure, Morris explains the differences between centre-weighted, evaluative, and spot metering and gives some of the general rules he uses for exposure compensation with different bird colours, backgrounds, and lighting.

A chapter on light considers times of day and angles, but devotes most attention to shooting silhouettes, a topic I hadn't thought much about and found particularly inspiring, even with the technical details.

"Using multi-segmented metering patterns for shooting silhouettes can be even trickier than using spot or center-weighted average metering, especially when the sun appears in the frame. Multi-segmented metering patterns vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so giving general advice is difficult. When light levels are low, however, it becomes necessary to add 1/2 to 1 stop of light, just as you would when using center-weighted average metering."
Morris also touches briefly here on the use of flash.

A brief look at film choice includes one comment I found surprising:

"For bird photography, I find that ISO 100 film (in my case Fuji Velvia pushed one stop) is fast enough in all but extremely low-light situations."

Morris covers six different factors in achieving sharp images: lens quality, focusing accuracy, shutter speed, subject movement, aperture and depth of field, and camera shake. Ways of avoiding the latter get the most attention, with detailed consideration of tripods, tripod heads, plates, and bubble levels and the use of cable releases.

A chapter on composition is fairly basic, covering the rule of thirds for horizontal and vertical shots, the choice of background and perspective, and consideration of bird plumage quality. Morris is minimalist in approach, preferring plain backgrounds and simple compositions.

"Interesting and significant photographs can be made if an object that is included in the frame relates to some aspect of the bird's natural history. Consider, for example, a dunlin standing next to a horseshoe crab, a crossbill on a pine cone, or a warbler drinking from freshly dug sapsucker wells."

Morris was not keen on "spending hours, even days, in cramped blinds", so he had to learn other ways of getting close to birds. He stresses the importance of approaching slowly and keeping low, and describes the use of portable blinds or a car, but above all emphasizes understanding bird behaviour and thinking creatively. He also touches on ways of attracting birds and photographing birds in your own backyard.

Capturing bird action and behavior requires anticipation and the choice of shutter speeds to either freeze action or produce deliberate blur. Morris suggests keeping some distance will help capture rapid or violent behaviours.

A final chapter covers evaluating and selling one's work, with some advice on cleaning and editing slides. And an appendix offers a guide to North American hotspots; this looks like a useful guide for people on the right continent.

Though this paperback edition is as recent as 2003, The Art of Bird Photography was originally published in 1998 and some of it is dated. Digital photography isn't covered at all, autofocus is mainstream but not ubiquitous, image stabilisation is just appearing, and so forth. But Morris is not a "real photographers do everything manually" old-timer and he uses and discusses autofocus, TTL metering, and other camera features that haven't changed much. And of course the more general photography advice hasn't dated at all.

Morris has since switched to digital and has a web site with lots of information, which is obviously a better source for up to date information about equipment. The Art of Bird Photography is still worth having, however, as it has material not on the web site and is much easier to use.

Some people complain about Morris' Canon bias, but that seems silly to me, even as an Olympus Four Thirds user myself: I'd rather he wrote about what he knows than providing secondhand information. He also seems quite willing to praise Nikon where their technology is better, and throughout he acknowledges that there are different approaches and that what works for him may not work for everyone else.

About half of The Art of Bird Photography is devoted to photographs, with a mix of full page stunners and smaller images. These have double captions, the first describing the location and the technical details, the second providing more background and general commentary.

"HUDSONIAN GODWIT, Churchill, Manitoba. Canon EF 600mm F4L lens and EOS 1N body, Fuji Velvia pushed one stop, evaluative metering at zero: 1/640 sec. at f/5.6"
"I was eventually able to make large-in-the-frame photographs of this bird. However, it was the wider shot shown here — taken while I approached — that proved to be the most artistic, because it included a good portion of the lichen-covered boulder."

The Art of Bird Photography has everything. Great photos. Useful information. Clear organisation and elegant layout. It's a must read for anyone keen on photographing birds, even if they're never going to buy a super-telephoto lens, spend hours waiting for a rare bird to show up, or sell a photo.

November 2005

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%T The Art of Bird Photography
%S The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques
%A Morris, Arthur
%I Amphoto Books
%D 1998
%O paperback, colour photos, index
%G ISBN 0817435425
%P 160pp