A Mew Gull set against a background of a rocky intertidal area.

Photographing birds is challenging and fun. I have had the pleasure of chasing after them for years. The images I get can show the bird as a specimen and, if I try hard, are aesthetically pleasing.  But at some point they seem to run together and start to feel almost redundant. I find it quickly becomes a challenge to do make an image that is exciting to me. This brings me to creative bird photography.


I can create an image like the one above of  a Mew Gull. It is fairly straight forward and somewhat pleasing. Then I can create one of a Western Gull that also shows the bird in great detail. But all I have done is to change out the bird, and in this case the background is even less interesting. It is a “specimen shot.” There is little creative or artistic interest and it feels like just one more bird shot.

Western Gull in flight.

Many people consider the bird in flight the ultimate bird image. This would seem natural given flight is one of the characteristics about birds that sets them apart, makes them special. And, these images can be very challenging to make. However, I find the end result is all to often an almost static image with little interest. It is what I call “bird-on-blue.” I make these shots for fun and for the challenge but rarely do I share them as I find them to be very lacking.


Over the years, as I continued to photograph, I have found myself trying more and more varied things in an effort to make my images something more than just another bird shot. Some of the techniques I have tried include shooting with a gorgeous background, shooting to add a reflection, shooting with some action (always a favorite), shooting very close, shooting in groups and even shooting in black and white.

The colorful background and reflection add a lot of aesthetic interest to this image.

Perhaps a more interesting variety of gull but less interesting background. Is it redundant?

A little added action adds a little interest. The dramatic lighting doesn’t hurt either. 

The shallow depth of field and large group of Western Gulls helps this image tell a story.

With this image I have left the color only in the eye of the bird and shot at a very close range.

I have used all the above techniques with a variety of birds. Still I find myself wondering about what else can be done. One option that I have used is slow shutter speeds to blur the birds. This is something that is often done with large flocks of geese taking flight and can be fabulous fun. Susan and I have practiced this quite a few times with Snow Geese on the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and at Bosque Del Apache. However, until this month, I had not thought about it being used in other settings. Then I found myself sitting with a flock of gulls and feeling like what i was getting was rather redundant. I switch to slow shutter speeds and played around.

An in camera blur of a Glaucus Gull bathing.

The result of slow shutter speed on a bathing bird is definitely promising. I am not sure if I like this particular image but there is lots of potential for further experimentation.

I thought about how we shoot soft water and wondered if I could get a sharp bird with soft water. The gulls were not the most cooperative, often moving before the exposure was done but, again, the results are promising.

Another Glaucus Gull but sharp with soft water. 

A Western Gull with soft water and chaos in the back. 

I have chosen to use only gull images in this text for a couple reasons. First, it was with gulls that I decided to try soft water. I am not sure another bird would sit stationary long enough and even the gulls were not cooperative. But the decision was also because I did not want to introduce a factor of changed subject into the process.

I think the same redundancy comes into play if one is shooting shorebirds, hummingbirds or raptors. Too many images and soon they start to feel the same.

It would seem that a truly creative, artistic expression should be separate from the subject, at least in part. Which is to say that the beauty of an image should not be derived simply of the beauty of the subject. If it is, than one could say the subject is beautiful and not the “artistic expression.” It is my hope that through further experimentation I can arrive at images that are beautiful in and of themselves.

After years of photographing birds I can say that moving toward creative bird photography is a process and there is great potential yet to be developed.

Happy shooting.

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