THE ART OF BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY II By Arthur Morris, 2006
The Art of Bird Photography II (ABP II), a 918-page $40.00 self-published CD book, is available from Arthur Morris’s website: www.birdsasart.net. Although “Preface I” of ABP II (there are 4 Prefaces) states Morris’s intent to not wholesale this item, I have seen it for sale elsewhere. “Preface I” also states that ABP II is intended as a companion to Morris’s 1998 traditionally formatted book The Art of Bird Photography, and will cover only material not presented in it. (The Art of Bird Photography is available as a package with ABP II or by itself at www.birdsasart.net.) ABP II is well worth its cost if for no other reason than the many images that are an integral part of this product.
Arthur Morris is one of today’s most accomplished wildlife photographers, and is well known for his willingness to share his knowledge and techniques via his books, programs, and Instructional Photography Tours (IPTs). His knowledge and willingness to share are both evident in ABP II, as is his willingness to give credit to others and refer his readers to websites that provide more up-to-date information than a work such as this can offer. For example, Chapter I discusses equipment. Obviously, much has changed since 2006 and, unlike web sent digital products, CDs are not easily updated, especially given that Morris has no way of knowing who has purchased ABP II if not done via his website. Thus, Morris’s reference to sites such as www.dpreview.com is a realistic way of mitigating this inherent issue.
Chapter II addresses visual composition and design, and nicely does so by discussing specific compositional and design guidelines as well as what to do in various combinations of wind and sun directions. The usefulness of this chapter is all the more significant given that very few of the many digital photography guides address these issues in other than a superficial manner. Chapter III, on the other hand, is essentially a reprint of Morris’s Digital Basics, before its 2009 update.
I found Chapter IV, entitled “Practicalities,” quite interesting because it addresses, in part, the realities of traveling on commercial airlines with the large, expensive, delicate equipment required for wildlife photography in general and bird photography in particular. I still prefer driving, even thousands of miles, to avoid the risks and hassles that are part of today’s air travel, but it is good to see how someone as experienced as Morris deals with this. Also covered in this chapter is how to create pleasing wildlife setups. In reality, much of wildlife photography today is studio photography. This is not to say that animals are captured, taken to a studio, and then photographed. Rather, the photographer sets up feeding situations (outdoor studios) with artistic perches and pleasing backgrounds that entice the subjects into range of his/her camera. Obviously, no reference could have been made to Linda Robbins’s 2007 The Hummingbird Guide: How to Photograph Hummingbirds Using High-Speed Multiple Flash or to Alan Murphy’s 2009 The Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography as neither existed when ABP II was produced. Regardless, both of these works cover various types of setups in greater detail than ABP II is in a position to do, and are available at www.birdsasart.net.
Chapter V covers two topics, one of which I have not seen addressed in detail before: advanced sharpness techniques. I know a number of photographers who feel that with image stabilization (Canon’s term), vibration reduction (Nikon’s term), or any similar function, sharpness concerns are a thing of the past. In reality, as is true with so much of digital photography; these technical advances make it easy to create decent images. However, all one has to do is look at Morris’s images to realize that far better ones can be created. Thus, for a long time I have wondered how he did it using the same equipment I use. The sharpness techniques he discusses in this chapter (along with his instructions on camera/lens calibration in his camera specific user guides) may be a significant part of the answer. The rest of this chapter briefly addresses creating pleasing blurs, which opens an entirely new area for many of us to explore.
Chapter VI provides an overview of exposure theory, flash photography, and autofocus tips. Morris refers readers who lack a basic understanding of exposure theory to his 1998 book The Art of Bird Photography. (John Shaw’s Nature Photography Field Guide, published in 2000, is another good source on this subject). Morris also notes “if you underexpose considerably…you…greatly reduce the amount of color information contained in your files.” (p. 502) While I certainly agree with this statement, I believe an explanation as to why this is true would have been helpful. For example:
Most modern digital cameras can handle about 6 stops of exposure. Unfortunately, many photographers I have encountered assume this means that each stop contains 1/6 of the image’s data. In reality, ½ of the data are contained in the brightest stop, ¼ the data in the second brightest stop, 1/8 the data in the third brightest stop, and so on until the darkest stop which contains only 1/64 of the image’s data. For example, many of today’s digital cameras capture 14 bits of data per image. This means that each RAW image contains 2 to the 14th power (fourteen 2s multiplied together) which equals 16,384 bits of data. (Keep in mind, the more data you record, the greater will be the detail in your image.) Thus, the brightest stop has the capacity to contain 8,192 bits of data while the darkest stop can only contain 256 bits of data. In other words, if you underexpose by 1 stop, your 16 megapixel camera will be functionally reduced to an 8 megapixel camera. If you under expose by 2 stops, it will be functionally a 4 megapixel camera. Hence, one should strive to create images as bright as possible without blowing out any meaningful (non-specular) highlights. For a more thorough explanation of this topic I suggest the 2005 book Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS2 by Bruce Fraser. (I assume the 2010 version: Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS5 by Jeff Schewe and Bruce Fraser contains essentially the same information but I have not read it.)
The material on autofocus should be very helpful for those who do not appreciate the differences among the various autofocus patterns available in modern dSLRs. These are camera specific, so you may want to consider detailed guides for your camera(s). Morris offers three on his website: Canon’s 7D, 1D Mark III, and 1D Mark IV.
Morris has long been a bird photographer but has now expanded his subjects to include most of natural history. Chapter VII explores these subjects. Chapter VIII offers a brief look at some of Morris’s favorite places to practice his craft. Chapter IX is an overview of Morris’s more recent work (up until 2006 when ABP II was published).
Many of Morris’s fine images are an integral part of each chapter. Each image is accompanied by a caption, its relevant technical details, and an explanation of how and why it was created. Again, ABP II would be well worth its cost of $40.00 for these images alone. On a scale of 0 (not worth accepting as a gift) to 10 (perfect and thus beyond the scope of human creation), I rate ABP II a 9 and highly recommend it. Indeed, it is the best guide to nature photography I have seen to date.