The Art, Craft and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behaviour
Wildlife photographer and author Marie Read is renowned for images of birds that combine beauty with storytelling. With a career spanning over 30 years, Marie is among a handful of women who chose to become professional nature photographers at a time when the industry was very much dominated by men.
Her book, Mastering Bird Photography (Rocky Nook) is a beautifully illustrated guide to photographing birds and the stories they tell. With over 400 pictures of birds throughout the seasons, showing behaviour, life histories and portraits, this book is a combination of instruction, art and inspiration.
“I’ve always loved birds. The photography began in the 1980s while I was part of a research team studying avian social behavior in East Africa. I am pretty much self-taught, although a spell interacting with a BBC film team during that time really lit a fire under me! I soon specialized on birds, especially their behavior, and made it my life’s goal to be a professional wildlife photographer and writer; a career that would fit well with my biologist husband’s world travels.”
On why there are comparatively few successful female bird photographers…
“It’s a generational issue and it’s already changing. Baby-boomer-generation women such as myself were rarely encouraged to develop outdoor skills, or the strength and stamina to lug round the heavy gear that bird photography requires, or the technical mastery of camera equipment.
Then there’s the conflict that a career in wildlife photography inevitably has with traditional family life. Of all genres of nature photography, bird photography has always been the most competitive. It takes an enormous time commitment to build large photo files and create the standout images a professional needs to survive. You also need a flexible schedule: when the light’s right, you go…where your subjects live, you go. That certainly doesn’t fit with the traditional maternal role. I’m child free by choice. I never could have put the necessary time and energy into my photography if I’d had a family. Women are still society’s primary child-raisers but young women today have more options. Parenting is more likely to be shared by both partners. And remaining child free is a more accepted option now.”
“The thing that keeps me motivated in a world saturated with gorgeous bird portraits is to always strive to be different. With this mindset there are endless images that could be made, even of common species. I rarely take static shots any more, preferring to try for action and behavior, or composing with the bird small in the frame and letting the environment take prominence, or alternatively trying something completely abstract. I let myself take photographic risks…even if they don’t work out much of the time! That keeps the creative juices flowing.”
“One group of birds I’ve never photographed is penguins, but I plan to remedy that when I travel to Antarctica this November. As well as land-based penguin shots, I’m planning to take a GoPro for underwater video.
So many birds…so little time!”
Marie’s 3 tips for taking successful bird photographs
- Check the background! Before you click the shutter button, look around and past the bird to check for distractions, especially bold lines going through the bird’s head. Move position slightly to avoid distractions or wait until the bird moves into cleaner surroundings.
- Include the habitat in the image. Not only does this allow you to tell stories with your images, but it also gives you more options for interesting compositions.
- Learn all you can about bird life history and behavior, both by reading books and online content about the species and by observing individuals closely and at length in the field. Notice repeated patterns of activity. Knowledge of your subject will pay off in spades, especially if you aspire to capture behavior and action.
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