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Expert Advice for All Levels of Bird Photography

A review by Bill Schmoker

Mastering Bird Photography: The Art, Craft, and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior by Marie Read

Rocky Nook, 2019

340 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14938

Given the explosive growth of digital bird photography in the last decade or so, there have been surprisingly few titles devoted to the topic despite the proliferation of birding books in the same time span. In her ambitious new Mastering Bird Photography: The Art, Craft, and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior, Marie Read has distilled decades of experience into a beautiful, well-organized reference on the topic. As more birders count their camera along with binoculars and scope as essential field gear, many begin by grabbing shots without much thought other than centering the bird as best they can and pushing the shutter, often using the camera’s auto mode. Shots obtained this way are great for ID reference, documentation, gripping off your buddies, etc. These are perfectly fine and fun reasons to employ photography in your bag of birding tricks (and I think it is important to remember that there’s no “right” way to do any art form as long as you enjoy yourself). There are bound to be some gems in the mix, but many bird photos taken without planning and technical consideration are disappointing or just so-so for a variety of reasons. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to push the easy button ad infinitum, but for those who want to step up their photography game this book presents a trove of practical advice for making wonderful images of birds and undoubtedly improving one’s percentage of winners from each day’s photographic haul.

The book’s 16 well-organized and illustrated chapters comprehensively cover nearly every consideration of bird photography. Included are treatments of suggested equipment, settings for said equipment, field craft, composition, editing, and ideas for using your photos once acquired and processed. I think the first chapter, “Getting Started in Bird Photography,” could stand by itself as a thorough article full of ideas for laying a solid foundation for pursuing this most difficult of photographic subjects. In fact, much of the solid advice in this chapter can apply to improving one’s birding skills in general.

Read’s chapter on “Equipment Essentials” has lots of good advice as well but veers slightly toward tricky ground. I love her opening statement that she considers “field craft, creative vision, and determination as contributing far more… than having the newest camera or biggest lens.” Read then states, and I fully agree, that photographers often want to talk about gear or get advice on what equipment to buy. The challenge here is that the landscape of camera models, lenses, tripods, and the like will inevitably evolve while the rest of the book’s information is essentially timeless. So I think the best parts of this chapter are the big ideas of what to look for in camera gear rather than the specific models given as examples.

Additionally, Read focuses on Digital Single-Lens Reflex (AKA DSLR) rigs, which even someone unfamiliar with the jargon would recognize as a large camera body with separate interchangeable (and usually big) lenses. While I think that DSLRs indeed still offer the greatest photographic potential, new formats such as mirrorless interchangeable lens systems are fast approaching DLSR performance in a smaller package. Many birders opt for even simpler, smaller, and more affordable all-in-one super zooms (or “bridge” cameras, that bridge the gap from small, cheap point-and-shoots to DSLRs). Digiscoping or phonescoping are also powerful and effective ways to capture compelling bird photos. So the takeaway from the book is to pursue DSLR photography if you have the budget, strength, and desire, but I would add that most of what this chapter and the rest of the book suggest applies to these other types of photo gear as well! For example, bridge cameras have most (if not all) of the shooting modes and options that DSLRs have, even if many folks don’t commonly access them. To sum up, this book will have ample ideas for getting the most out of any photo gear you choose.

Besides questions about gear, I also get frequent inquiries about difficulties with bird photography such as blurriness, being too light or too dark, not capturing enough detail and/or compelling behavior, or trouble tracking flying birds. Read has chapters to address these areas, including “Focusing and Image Sharpness,” “Seeing the Light,” “Exposure,” “Composition Basics,” as well as chapters on “The Big Picture,” “Weather, Water, and Mood,” “Shooting Outside the Box,” and “On the Wing” (flight shots). Each are loaded with gems of knowledge, practical ideas, and teeming with images to illustrate her points on these subjects. Often, simply getting close to a subject addresses many of these challenges, and sure enough Read includes a fantastic chapter on the subject. Her suggestions of choosing locations where birds are used to people, moving carefully and blending in, using hides (portable blinds, vehicles, and boats), and attracting birds all can contribute to ethically narrowing the distance to your subject. Getting close also helps to even the playing field between more modest camera rigs and big guns.

Complementing the “Getting Close” chapter is “Beauty Close to Home,” which promotes staying home in a bird-friendly backyard to get great photos. Recognizing that not everyone has a back yard, I suppose most of these ideas could also apply to patronizing your local patch. Some of my favorite photos are in this chapter, paired with a wide shot of the feeder, perch, and sometimes the blind setup used to get them. There are some great ideas here for setting up what amounts to a wild bird photography studio right out the back door, and even though the examples may be specific to Read’s property, I’m sure folks’ minds will envision adapting the ideas to their situations. Essentially, Read pulls back the curtain on some really cool tricks of the trade here, which I think nicely illustrates the sharing nature of birding (versus, say, the mystery of a magic trick and taboo of sharing the secret behind it). As a contrast with backyard bird photography, we also find a chapter on “Bird Photography Hotspots,” with 11 famous sites in North America detailed as well as a handful of briefer suggestions for well-known bird photography destinations and tips for finding your own target-rich hot spots.

As if all of this wasn’t comprehensive enough, Read includes chapters on “Basic Image Editing” and “What’s Next” (ideas for using your photos). Her image processing workflow is laid out in a well-organized sequence, with well-chosen photos showing key steps along the way. The focus here is on using Adobe Photoshop, while Adobe Lightroom also gets an endorsement (though no specific treatment). I slightly fear that beginning photographers may be a little daunted by this chapter, which to my eye jumps in at an intermediate level of editing software comfort and competency. As potential relief there are three excellent suggestions included for books to get novices up to speed on these two Adobe products. If someone is using different editing software, including one of the many free online options, I would suggest paying attention to the big picture here instead of the exact tools and commands tailored to the Photoshop world. Getting to the reasons and results of her steps here may be more important than the specifics, especially as one develops their own workflow with their software of preference.

The last chapter has lots of creative ideas for what to do with one’s photos now that all of the other steps from gear selection through editing have been thoroughly addressed. Ranging from online sharing and making cards or calendars to entering contests and giving talks, I quite enjoyed this section as a beautiful way to wrap up the whole package presented in this book. It is rewarding to see your photos doing something besides languishing on a hard drive somewhere, so I applaud Read’s choice to finish with this topic and appreciate her concrete tips to put photos to use.

I’d have no hesitation recommending this book to anyone heading out birding with camera in hand. It offers plenty of takeaways for the casual photographer, even if they don’t find every chapter or suggestion applicable. But I think its real strength is having the comprehensive expert advice to give someone the tools to make the transition from being a birder with a camera to becoming a serious bird photographer (or to just progress anywhere along that continuum). Even experienced photographers will gain nuggets of wisdom and validation from a master of Marie Read’s caliber, not to mention enjoying the inspiring selection of photos and easy-to-follow prose. The well-organized chapters and detailed table of contents will make this a useful reference to go back to repeatedly for tune-ups or to refresh one’s memory on a topic as well—I envision my copy becoming dog-eared over the years. Thank you, Marie Read, for distilling your expertise and vision into such an accessible form in this terrific book.

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Bill Schmoker is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Bill is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA’s Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor. He teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado.

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