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The Cons and Pros of Digital “Photos”: Flyingfish, Jaegers, and Other Thoughts

At the Mic: Steve N.G. Howell

Steve is a senior international bird tour leader for WINGS and has written several books including A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Gulls of the Americas (with Jon Dunn), and the recently released Petrels, Shearwaters, and Albatrosses of North America.  He lives near Point Reyes, California.


If you’re a birder and you don’t own a digital camera, congratulations. But even if you haven’t become digitally entranced, some of the following may be of relevance. And the pictures might be fun.

In the same way that guns themselves aren’t dangerous, so digital cameras aren’t dangerous. It’s more about how they are used. These days, seemingly everyone and their dog has a digital camera. So when somebody finds an “odd” bird, they often simply snap a few images (directly or digiscoped) and move on. Later they can post the images online, and expect somebody else to identify the bird for them, be it a weird gull in California or an Old World vagrant in Alaska. If the images aren’t sufficient, however, and there are no supporting observational field notes, then the “record” goes nowhere. That’s fine with me, but some of the “observers” involved, and some records committee members I talk with, find it annoying. Obviously, none of us knows the field marks of every vagrant, so getting some pictures seems like a good thing. And it is. But in many cases, a few minutes of careful observation could preempt the puzzle that a photo without context may become.

Digital cameras may make us lazy, less patient, and less observant. And I’m not pointing fingers here, as I include myself among the victims of this trend. I won’t belabor the point with examples of a possible woodswallow in Alaska a few years ago (supposedly just a regular swallow looking funny in the photos, but who really knows), or a recent swift in Minnesota (looked to me like simply a Chimney Swift, but some good birders were waffling about White-collared and even White-naped), or a putative Common Redshank in Alaska (was it some cool hybrid, or maybe even a redshank?—we’ll never know). Oh, right, I wasn’t going to do this. So what about some pros of digital?

Well, courtesy of digital images, I believe that the percentage of correctly identified jaegers on pelagic trips has increased in recent years, at least retrospectively. In the “good old days,” a jaeger might approach the boat on a pelagic trip to the cry of “Jaeger! Incoming at 5 o’clock,” and we’d all watch it, search for features the field guides told us about (in other words, good luck if it wasn’t a breeding adult or a classic juvenile), hope to see something to key in on, and watch it fly away. People would look at one another, some bold soul would call out a name, and if nobody disagreed then it would get logged as Species X. If you (as a participant or even another leader) didn’t think it was Species X, there wasn’t much you could do (well, you could be honest and write “jaeger sp.” in your notes). Or perhaps you could wait a week or two for some film to be developed—if anyone had taken a photo. And then you would have to go to the photographer’s house, or ask for dupes to be made and sent to you via the postal system. And so on.

Fast-forward to today: “Jaeger! Incoming at 5 o’clock,” and many people reach for their cameras, clicking away as the bird passes by. This is followed by “chimping,” which for the digitally innocent means hunching over the camera screen like a chimp with a banana (Fig. 1): peering, turning your head, and zooming and flipping between images in search of something that can nail the ID. (While everyone is doing this, a Bermuda Petrel or Streaked Shearwater flies by unnoticed, but we won’t go there…)

Fig 01 [Chimping]
Fig. 1. “Chimping” to check an ID. Does this look familiar? Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Leaders look at each other, nod, come to an agreement, and pronounce it was Species X; and this time the ID can be supported (or contested) if desired. The three images of jaegers shown here (Figs. 2–4) involve birds that might have been contentious ID problems without digital images. They can be identified when we have something to evaluate, something that isn’t flying away. But have we actually become any better at identifying jaegers in the field, in life? I’m not so sure. So is that a pro or a con? Neutral, perhaps, with pro potential.

Fig 02 [Long-tailed Jaeger]
Fig. 2. First-summer Long-tailed Jaeger; mid-August. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 03 [Pomarine Jaeger]
Fig. 3. Immature Pomarine Jaeger, age uncertain; mid-August. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 04 [Pomarine Jaeger

Fig. 4. Adult Pomarine Jaeger, with old tail projections abraded to a point; mid-October. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

But isn’t digital photography just great in everyday birding? I mean, as well as being able to take hundreds of images in a few minutes and check them as we go for correct camera settings, we can also stop shooting when we have the image we’ve been aiming to get. How cool is that? Then we smile and move on, excited to go download the images and see them on a computer screen.

But wait, what happened to watching birds? Isn’t (wasn’t?) it called bird-watching? These days, it seems more and more like bird processing. Perhaps I’m the only person out there who has been seduced by digital photography at the cost of observation—but I’m guessing not. The habit really can become addictive. Then again, I have learned a vast amount from being able to study digital images. Now I’d like time to test that knowledge, to see if it’s made me a better birder in the field. If only I could stop taking photos and find out!

Will there one day be Digiholics Anonymous? “Hi, my name is Steve H., and I haven’t taken a digital photo for 3 weeks now… It’s not so difficult. I just go birding without a camera and have to simply look, to observe, to pay attention. And I’ve seen so much more. It’s wonderful. One day at a time I can do this.” Or not, as I don’t think you could get me on a boat and leave my camera on shore—just in case.

Because it’s not only birds…

Have you ever tried taking pictures of flyingfish? That’s something where digital photography has really made a difference. Many birders on land have gone over to the “dark side”—watching insects, such as butterflies, dragonflies, and so on. There aren’t so many pelagic insects out there, but flyingfish are a worthy pelagic counterpart to butterflies. Without digital photography, however, it would be difficult to appreciate them. Taking pictures of these subjects with film was just not feasible. At least, I didn’t have the money to spend on tens or hundreds of rolls of film to get one or two decent images. The hit rate for reasonable flyingfish images is perhaps 1 in 20. Which means my current digital photo file of 556 images of flyingfish (50+ “types”) translates to some 11,000 images taken. Let’s see, that would be more than 300 rolls of film. Younger readers: Look up “roll of film” on Wikipedia.

There’s no formal field guide to flyingfish—yet. But watch this space… Below are some images of flyingfish (Figs. 5–17), mainly from the tropical western Pacific, but also a few from the Atlantic, off Cape Hatteras. Some of these animals are small, with a “wingspan” of about six inches, whereas others, like the Solomon Cerulean, with its blue-morpho–blue coloration, may have close to a three-foot “wingspan”!

Fig 05 [Yellow Bandwing]
Fig. 5. Yellow Bandwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 06 [Thrushwing]
Fig. 6. Thrushwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 07 [Oddspot Midget]
Fig. 7. Oddspot Midget. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 08 [Leopardwing]
Fig. 8. Leopardwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 09 [Fenestrated Naffwing]
Fig. 9. Fenestrated Naffwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 10 [Violaceous Rainmaker]
Fig. 10. Violaceous Rainmaker. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 11 [Ornate Goldwing]
Fig. 11. Ornate Goldwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 12 [Big Raspberry]
Fig. 12. Big Raspberry. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 13 [Solomon Cerulean]
Fig. 13. Solomon Cerulean. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 14 [Fenestrated Naffwing]
Fig. 14. Fenestrated Naffwing chased by Red-footed Booby. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 15 [flyingsquid]
Fig. 15. Flying squid, species unknown. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 16 [Atlantic Necromancer]
Fig. 16. Atlantic Necromancer. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Fig 17 [Blue Bandwing]
Fig. 17. Blue Bandwing. Photo by © Steve N. G. Howell.

Note: English names have been created by field observers because matching color images to descriptions of pickled specimens isn’t easy.

So next time you’re on a warm-water pelagic and the birding is slow, watch for flyingfish. And, if you’re really lucky, flying squid… Remember, there’s more to pelagic trips than seabirds and those large, swimming and spouting things people get excited about.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
  • Steve- great musings on digital bird photography. But mainly I wanted to say WOW- love the flying fish snaps!! Jaw is still on my chest.

  • Great stuff Steve. I have to agree with Bill, the flying fish shots were an unexpected and pleasant surprise. It must be like trying to get shots of Vaux’s Swifts. I would add my voice to yours in reiterating that observation ceases as soon as you put a camera in front of your face. If you want to really learn birds and become proficient at identifying them for yourself, you need to leave the camera at home. That said, I have a one hell of a time getting myself to follow my own advice. Needless to say, I learn the most on the days when the light is crap.

  • Clay Taylor

    Steve – as always, highly entertaining and enlightening. I am totally enthralled with the flying fish photos, but I have a sneaking suspicion that my Digiscoping rig will be useless for them. If I really want to get FF photos, I might have to break down and actually buy an AF 300 mm lens (sigh…)

  • Firstly, the fish photos are extraordinary – thanks for posting them!

    It’s true that all these electronic tools in the field can serve to distract, and to *detract* in some ways. To me it’s really just a question of what proportion of one’s time is spent fiddling with the tools versus doing actual observation. For me, I am not at the point where I feel like I can leave the tools behind altogether and still catch up to the knowledge level of those who I want to interact with, either here online or in my local birding communities. I use my photos and sound recordings to enhance my knowledge and my recollection of what I did observe in the field, so off-handedly suggesting that I abandon those things is not really an option. Leaving them behind sounds more like a luxury for those who have already logged so much time and experience in the field.

    That said, I do agree that good judgment needs to be employed, and that it is too easy to become a slave to the camera or the recorder at the expense of personally and directly experiencing the nature and the animals being photographed or recorded. This applies also not just to birds, but to any kind of travel photography. Last year while on an overflight of the Nazca Lines in Peru, I had to remind myself several times to put the camera down for a moment and just marvel at the lines themselves, as I was seeing them out the plane window. Otherwise, I would have only seen them through the viewfinder, and I agree that that kind of experience is really just shortchanging yourself and, well, not seeing the big picture, so to speak.

  • Shannon Dart

    Makes me feel good I stopped taking my camera with me on many of my naturalist outings for just the reasons outlined. I really felt I was missing something in the experience – so now I plan ahead on which times I want to even think about photos. My daughter often comes with me and she always has her little digital with her so I know in an “emergency” I can always steal it. I have loved flying fish ever since living in Hawaii! The photos are so amazing – now when I ever get to go out on a boat again in appropriate waters I will have a hard time not looking down!

  • I love having my camera with me when I’m out and about but I wholeheartedly agree. When I need a break from the city on short notice I’ll ride my bike to some of the better birding spots in Seattle, which necessitates not having a big load. Bringing at long lens, body, flash, etc doesn’t fit the weight bill. I bring a notebook, a pen, and binoculars and that’s it. When I started birding at age 8 I didn’t have all the gadgetry and that was the best time I can remember birding.

    I most certainly notice more of everything when I’m not playing with my ISO or changing lenses. Earlier this year I saw my first Virginia Rail fight because I just stopped to watch a Green Heron hunting. If I’d had my camera I’d have been peering through my viewfinder.

    Thanks Steve for the thoughtful words and photos.

  • Hmm… I had no idea there were so many varieties and patterns of flying fish. Without your camera I would never have known.

    Thus it is with processing bird photos–I’ve never spent so much time looking at plumage features as I do when preparing a photo on my computer.

    Rather than rushing through birding as fast as I can trying to get a big list for the day, when I have my camera I slow way down and spend more time observing birds and their behavior. It takes me an hour and a half, now, to walk the mile around the wetlands. It used to take only 20 minutes.

    I’ve missed photographing a rare bird because I was observing it, the 7 pounds of camera gear hanging from my sore neck.

    Of course, my purpose for bird photography is to show others what I see and explain ID on my blog. I already know what the bird is when I take its photo. But I realize that is not the case with many.

    However, I can no longer take my camera and my scope. So I have to make a choice. Usually the camera wins….

  • love, Love, LOVE the photos of the flying fish. My husband and I saw tons on our cruise last December. We’re not cruisers, really b/c it doesn’t allow for much birding. So the flying fish were a treat.

  • I don’t see why everyone is going on about the fish, I think the picture of Todd “chimping” is the highlight here, hehe.

    I agree with much of what you say, although people miss seeing birds from boats so much, for so many different reasons, that its a pretty big stretch to say chimping is much of a factor there. A better example would be getting your chimp on in a cloud forest while some massive mixed flock barrels by.

    I often spend way more time looking closely at common birds when I have my camera than when I dont, but at the same time its easy to disregard birds that are neither rare or easily photographed. Birding with a camera is a mixed bag, for sure.

    Oh, thanks for pointing out the trend of people taking pictures of birds just so others can identify them, I was going to write a blog post on that myself (I still might).

  • Kurt Radamaker

    Loved the photos of the Flying fish, wow. Although, how many Streaked Shearwaters and Bermuda Petrels flew by undetected while trying to photograph flying fish. I agree that photography can detract from really observing details in the field, but sometimes a bird in the hand may be better than one in the bush. I have no idea who coined the phrase chimping, but I find it a bit sad. Why is documenting, learning and sharing knowledge in the field with other experienced observers, by reviewing digital details derogatory. I suppose photographing whales and orcas on a pelagic birding trip while a White-chinned Petrel flys by undetected could be coined as “fluking”

  • Robb Hamilton

    Thanks a jillion for the flying fish fotos, Steve! They are fantastic — I can only guess who coined my favorite common name, “Fenestrated Naffwing.” And I, for one, find nothing derogatory about the term “chimping.”

  • Michael Perrien

    Creation is only from above-GREAT Things for our viewing enjoyment

  • For the most part, I think one just has to accept that photography and birding are different endeavors, each with their own benefits. That said, yes, please continue to bring the camera out to sea and dare I say spend more time focusing on flying fish (and airborne squid) because those images are breathtaking! Thanks for sharing them, I hope you do a book on those butterflies of the oceans.

  • Point well taken, Greg.

    Something that’s been lost in this, though, is the negative effect of digital photography on field notes. Sorry to sound like a grumpy old man, but, back in the old days, before every kid had a $12,000 digital camera, we actually took the time to write down what we saw.

    Wanna be a good birder? A great birder, even? Then get in the habit of taking notes (and rendering field sketches). There’s no better way. The best birders are the ones who write stuff down, and make sketches. Period.

    Here’s a pair of marvelous short essays on the topic, by Rick Wright:

  • That said, I agree w/Greg (and others) that digital cameras (and cheap voice recorders; see are great–as long as you also bring paper and pencil in the field w/you.

    And then write birding essays and paint birds when you get home… 🙂

  • Maybe we birders need a new rule. You are not allowed a digital camera in the field until you can ID at least 500 birds by sight and sound and have at least one rare bird report turned into your state or national committee. ;o)

    I’ve been birding outside my backyard since 2012 and have yet to breakdown and purchase a big, hunky camera. I know there are things I’m missing by not doing that. I also know that even with my point & shoot digital I cut off the heads of folks many times. I can’t even imagine how long it would take me to get good at bird shots.

    Nick, thanks for the post and sharing Steve’s pictures. Seeing these flying fish aren’t all just silver and shiny makes me want to go on another pelagic!

  • oops, sorry, Nate, I called you Nick. My bad.

  • Here’s a recent case of chimping:


  • No worries. You’re not the first. 😉

  • Bill Pranty

    Steve’s post is as always thought-provoking — and always plain provoking. And yes, the flying fish — and the flying squid! — photos are surreal (and the English names are as good if not better than the fish themselves). But I think Steve misses one of the primary points of photographing rarities: that verifiable documentation can now easily be obtained and vetted by others. We’re approaching the period where perhaps a majority of regional records committees are now or soon will be requiring “tangible proof” or “verifiable evidence” to accept a first-state or first-provincial record. (The two continental records committees for North America already have reached this point). And, no offense to Steve intended, but not even the best, most thorough written documentation coupled with the most exquisite field sketches are now sufficient to add a new bird to, for instance, the Florida or Texas state list, nor to the ABA Checklist or the AOU Check-list. While I too bemoan the loss of careful written field notes, I literally have never met a birder (other than those mentioned ahead) who takes the scrumptious field notes that the likes of Howell, Kaufman, Parker, and Sibley are/were known for. So rather than bemoan the distraction that digital photography might cause to these superb field observers — who probably constitute 0.001% of the North American birding/bird-watching/bird processing community — I’d prefer to salute the contributions to science that are now possible from any birder with a $250 digital point-and-shoot. It may seem unfair to those who have honed their observational skills over hundreds of days in the field with a notebook and binocular, but from a documentation perspective, a “backyard bird-watcher” with a digital point-and-shoot can now attain what the most careful field notes cannot ever attain — adding a species to a regional bird list.

  • chris

    Photographs !! That is so old school ! ( I’m smiling ) Now we can do high def video right from our digital SLR. Just blast a few minutes of video and then pick out a frame later. This birding stuff is so easy !!!

    Having said that I must say I was floored by the flying fish and the squid. The best pic, I think was the fish flying from the booby.

  • Kevin Karlson

    Steve makes some good points, but what he does not touch upon is that when I am photographing birds as a birder/photographer, I often spend an hour or more with the bird trying to get better photos, and during that time I evaluate its shape, structure and behavior, and compare it to other members of the same species and other nearby similar species to see what similarities or differences exist. The time I spend studying the birds while taking photos is way longer than most birders spend identifying birds and then moving on. I have often seen birders come and go while I am shooting and studying birds, and wonder how much natural history information and behavior they are missing,not to mention the comparative study that is possible over an hour or so watching a particular bird(s). I agree that laziness is a by-product of some of the new birder/photographers, but many of these birders are just employing the same listing mentality that many birders use, and would not take the time to study birds further anyway.

  • Liz Deluna Gordon

    Hi Gail..

    I have been birding for 25 years. I still don’t carry a camera. Well, my cell phone.

    Not my thing! >wink<

  • Sorry, I’m not getting the point of the article.

    I think it started out condemning the negative influence of digital cameras and I was kind of nodding in agreement as DSLRs can really suck the joy out of any situation.

    But then all these utterly fantastic pictures of flying fish appeared and the end result is that I am sold on the idea that digital cameras are the best thing ever.

    What did I miss?

  • Paudin

    Digital photography is one of the greatest contributions to bird ID and distribution of all time (along with eBird and other citizen science projects). I am biased because all the photographers I know are super excellent birders who can identify almost anything by gestalt, fleeting field marks, voice, a spot on the 4th lesser primary covert… They use photos only for the trickiest ID and for objective documentation of unexpected occurrences.

    Field guides do not show all angles or all plumages. The proliferation of shared photos available online adds greatly to our information base.

    One of my greatest frustrations of learning birds, especially those that zoom flash past never to be seen again, has been that couldn’t tell whether my visual ID was correct or not. Having a photo gives me that feedback. If beginners want to post photos of birds they can’t identify, what harm? Either they are not interested enough to ever have developed into expert birders or they are using the help of others to help them learn.

    Finally, photos capture details that happen too fast for my visual perception system to process- like underwing patterns or those amazing flying fish!

  • Sandra Keller

    I have witnessed an overall increase in birder knowledge of what field marks to look for as they are birding out in the field. And I think digital pictures have contributed to that overall increase. I lead field trips locally – southern New Jersey – for various organizations and local nature clubs – quite a few times – beginning birders have said to me “Why aren’t we seeing the pretty colors like I see on all the pictures posted online?” A valid question! Digital photography has opened up the joys of the sheer beauty of nature to many. On the id front – I think the pics and questions posted to birding id frontiers have been the most helpful to me in increasing my birding skills. I have enough experience in the field to realize when a field mark that shows up in a posted pic will be useful out on some mud flat, etc. And, no, I don’t take pictures often – I don’t have the equipment and don’t really want to lug that stuff into the field with me! Thank you all for your pics!

  • Y’know, it ought to be pointed out that Steve Howell’s “Cons and Pros…” is only half the story. This online piece is a companion to something that appears in the print version of the July 2012 issue of Birding. And the ABA has recently posted a PDF of the print piece. It’s great fun, weird and witty, opinionated and fun, full of insight.



  • Don Margeson

    I mainly do birding for research and data collection, and because I love birds. Digital images are a bonus and can be used for documentation to support conservation issues. The abilty to capture digital images has turned many a Florida nature Photog or hobbyist into a scientific contributor, so I’m all in favor of this. Personally, I usually lose the good pic because I’m so interested in watching the bird’s behaviour through the binos. I recently purchased a point and click digital ( a Nikon P510 ) to lighten my load during beach nesting bird surveys, where a scope and in Florida a lot of water are essential. This has eliminated 9lbs from the load I used to carry ( a D200 with 1.7 tele and a 300mm F2.8 VR ) but I will still take the big guns out to photograph warblers. The lack of a hotshoe for a flash has limited most point and shoot cameras. I will be carrying the P510 on the numerous CBC’s I do as 12-16 hours with a 9+ pound camera rig can make for a long day.

    Don Margeson

  • Like many things, proper “balance” should be the approach. In birding, four eyes are better than two (for non-experts), and an image with field notes are better than just one or the other when it is a “can’t confirm”.

    I think images are very important but newer birders should be encouraged to also submit at least some basic field notes if only to help them learn field observation. One postive about digital images is it may encourage a whole new group of camera-loving people to become birders or involved in other science interests.

    Here I thought dragonflies and butterflies were my only eye candy alternatives. My jaw-dropping reaction to the flying fish is like these astrophysicists looking at the latest Mars rover images. That is a new world I never thought of exploring until now.

    Bob Stalnaker

  • thedude

    The Yellow Bandwing reminds me of a giant-skipper butterfly!

  • leesf

    When is the field guide to flying fish coming out? Don’t see it in the Golden Guides;^)

  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s a more sanguine take on how digital photography has affected birding:

  • Katherine Lewis

    Dear Steve,
    I would like to buy one of your flying fish pictures poster size for my condo (48 in x 60in). I particularly like the flying fish with the purple hue in the water. Is it possible to have an electronic copy that I can take in locally to have it printed? Big fan of your work. Thank you.

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