the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Birdwatching



ANYONE LUCKY ENOUGH TO TAP INTO THE NATURAL PAIRING BETWEEN PHOTOGRAPHY and birdwatching will be humbled by observing the raw courage of winged creatures to survive despite humanity’s best efforts to the contrary. Even in rural settings, one cannot help but be struck by the numbing crush of obstacles mankind has left for the natural world to stumble over; how our habitat is so tilted in our own heedless favor that nature must live, not with us, but in spite of us.

Within cities, the horror is even greater, as our life crowds out any and everything that does not directly redound to our needs. In such tableaux, it is incumbent on the photographer to become a journalist, a chronicler of what needs to happen if we are to carry on sharing the planet with, well, anything. And, as an amateur birdwatcher, I am reminded by what bad earth citizens we have always been when my eye is drawn to what, to my mind, is one of the most elegant and misunderstood birds in our nature: the starling.


Introduced forcibly to North America in 1890 by a fanatical Shakespeare aficionado from Britain, who believed that his new home should feature literally every species of bird mentioned in the Bard’s works, the first stateside starlings originally numbered only about one hundred birds in all. Predictably, those have since become millions, earning not praise for the bird’s adaptability and intelligence, but scorn from those who regard them as invasive pests or worse. These gorgeous creatures, whose plumage, in the changing light of the full day, literally contains the rainbow, have made the best of their fate over the centuries, much like any other erstwhile immigrant. Sadly, they are often hunted and hated as if they themselves had decided to invade our shores just for the fun of it. And so it goes with scores of other creature; untold species of animals, plants and birds have been forcibly introduced onto the continent by the most predatory pests ever unleashed on the planet; humans.

Starlings are plentiful nearly everywhere, but the intense sunlight of the American southwest can highlight their hues in spectacular fashion, something I never would have slowed down to notice were it not for the birding buddies my wife has generously shared with me. My initial interest was boosted in intensity during Lockdown, mainly because being outside was one of the only essentially safe ways to pass the time, speeding up my bird learning curve a bit (although I am still barely able to hobble along in the “beginner” division). It has produced a kind of evangelism in me, and I can never again see a bird without wondering to what extent my fellow humans have complicated or compromised its existence.  If we can muster shame about anything, it should be our hideous habit, going back over our entire history as a species, of fouling our own nests.



Superstarling, 2020.


I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER WHO MAKES PICTURES OF BIRDS, but I cannot rightly be called a bird photographer. This is not cute double-talk: there is a mile of difference between a generalist, who occasionally shoots a lot of specific things every once in a while, and a dedicated artist who shoots those same things almost exclusively. One person is a dabbler who occasionally makes a few cookies from a mix. The other is a master chef. That said, then, what follows is both a love letter to the chefs and bit of a starter’s guide for the dabblers.

The fact is that, in more recently coordinating my shoots with birders who really know a budgie from a boomerang ( I assume there is one), I am in the field trying my luck to a far greater degree than I ever have been before. Essentially, this means speeding up my learning curve by taking a whole bunch of bad pictures in a shorter space of time. The bad pictures have to be a part of any serious new shooting discipline, and so I am at least getting them out of the way in a few years’ time instead of a few decades. Deliberately throwing yourself into a decidedly uncomfortable place (.i.e., not knowing what you’re doing) is good from several standpoints. First, it’s humbling, and a photographer without humility has stopped learning and has slid into mere habit. Second of all, uncertainty slows you down, meaning that there is both contemplation and planning in every shot. You might still get stinkeroo pictures, but at least you know why they happened.

A big part of the uncertainty in shooting birds is that you are either using your familiar equipment in unfamiliar ways, or using unfamiliar equipment, meaning you’re actually on two parallel learning tracks, one for figuring out what to shoot and the other determining how you’re going to do it. Your knowledge of composition, autofocus, and exposure rate will all be called into question and re-combined in ways that may seem strange. Warning: if you do need to re-tool, there will be a strong urge to go full tilt boogie and break the bank on state-of-the-art lenses. This could entail several thousands of dollars, and, since you will still have to go through the all-my-pictures-came-out-lousy phase, it will make you angry, and then it will make you quit. Do what you did during the first phase of your photographic career. Buy the simplest, easiest-to-use gear that gets the job done and work it to death until you actually outgrow everything it can do, and then upgrade to the bazillion-MM howitzers.

But let’s get back to humility, which will serve you better than all the gear in the world. In bird photography, you’re working with subjects that are more uncooperative than the grouchiest portrait subject you’ve ever faced. You must be okay with it when Plans A, B, C, and D go awry. You may not be shooting fast, but you must shoot with a fluid state of mind. And then there is patience: if waiting for a traffic light to change gets on your last nerve, you might want to stick to still life. Wildlife don’t care if you’re having a day, and part of the fun is sweating out an entire outing and coming home empty. So, yeah, there’s that.

And even though we’re primarily talking here about shooting birds, the same concept applies in any fresh area of photography, anytime you become, in effect a fledgling, allowing yourself to be kicked out of the nest of your accumulated comforts. Because, in making yourself do something so very different in its approach, asking something undiscovered within yourself, all of your other photographic instincts will widen as well. Sure, “winging it” can look like desperate flapping. But sometimes it can look like soaring.


(Michael Perkins’ new collection of images, Fiat Lux: Illuminations In Available Light, is available through NormalEye Books.)