My introduction to the world of birds occurred in the aridlands of south-western Queensland. As part of my job for Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, I was to accompany avian researchers and photograph as many species of birds as possible. It was 1975 and I quickly learnt that these animals were considerably harder to get close to than fish were! Their “circle of comfort” was much larger, so they would simply take flight if nervous, making them very difficult to photograph. Yes, birds were creatures of intense frustration — but also of great fascination.
Apart from the need to find them in the first place, I also had to carry a thumping big telescopic lens attached to my camera, and get within a viable distance so that my pictures wouldn’t become “find the bird” exercises. I soon mastered the crow and the magpie, the pigeons poking around our campsites, and the apostlebirds roosting in groups after a cold night. I even learnt how to use the car as a mobile hide and to drive close to emus and bustards, but I needed to do much better. There were hundreds of species yet to be photographed, including spectacular raptors, which I wanted to film on the wing, filling my frame and in focus.
The first raptors I practised on were black kites. These small birds of prey, also known as fork-tailed kites, fly in groups, scavenging whatever they can find — not exactly romantic stuff! To increase my frustration, the kites I did manage to photograph were mostly hopelessly out of focus. I recall lying in my swag thinking, They’re going to give me the sack if I don’t get my act together. I needed to regroup, refocus, and look at what the nation’s leading bird photographers were doing (and how they were doing it).
The first avian expert I encountered was Peter Slater, a renowned photographer, artist and author of many books on Australian birds. He was also a close friend of other experts, such as illustrator and birdwatcher Michael Morcombe. These men had perfected the art of large-format, multiple-flash bird photography. They photographed birds coming and going from nests, pin sharp, beautifully exposed and dramatically composed. Remember, this was 1976, and computers were still a long way off; most tasks were done the hard way — manually and with great effort and patience.
I first met Peter at a slide night in Brisbane. Having him in my audience will be a great opportunity to get some positive feedback, I thought, because by then I had accumulated some “top shots” (or at least I thought so). My ego was quite fragile then and Peter was well known (to all but me) as a man of few words; when he did speak he spoke his mind — an admirable quality. Also admirable is that when he spots a bit of talent, he goes out of his way to encourage it. So there was Peter, this famous “birdman”, captive in my audience. I made my presentation and, for the last image, screened a shot of a group of terns taking flight (left). It was very blurry and my reason for showing it was to explain to my audience the difficulties of photographing birds and how important it was to have a fast shutter speed to “freeze” birds’ action. After the show, I questioned Peter in private. “How did you like my bird photographs?” “Well,” he said, “I loved the last photograph.” He paused. I waited for more feedback. None came! That was it? I loved the last shot! I thought to myself. Peter then skilfully went on to change the subject. I have to tell you, it took me at least three years to figure out what on Earth the man was on about. When I did, I thought, You old bugger, how right you are!
What I discovered, with Peter’s help, was quite simple — birds, like all living things, have a spirit; photographers, like all human beings, have emotions. A good bird photograph firstly captures the essence of the bird in that moment, and secondly blends the photographer’s emotion into the image. Did I proceed to be a master bird photographer after that lesson? No. But this was the most important event in my lifelong passion for photographing these wonderful airborne creatures. I embraced Peter’s lesson and accepted that this rule must be applied to every photograph I take of a wild animal.
Blog entries, Nature connection, Personal journeys | 1 Comment