Bird Photography Naturally

by David Lilly
February 23, 2016

Natural Environment - White-winged Crossbill (Male) by David Lilly ©

Natural Environment  - White-winged Crossbill (Male)

There is a trend in Bird photography today for the perfect bird photograph. Some photographers will go to extremes to get the perfect photograph. Setting up and controlling a bird photograph down to the smallest details, the result excellent bird photographs. However, what has this done to bird photography?

Pine Grosbeak (Male) by David Lilly ©

Staged photo, perch was used for bird to land on. Natural light with natural background  - Pine Grosbeak (Male)

Let me add a disclaimer at this point so has not make anyone delusional. I have photographed at bird feeders and I have been in the presence of other bird photographers as they tossed mice to a Owl. I have photographed from blinds.

Pine Grosbeak (Female) by David Lilly ©

Staged photo perch was used for bird to land on. Natural light with natural background - Pine Grosbeak (Female)


The first question I ask myself as a bird photographer is why do I photograph birds in the first place? The answer is simple foe me. I love birds and want to photograph them in their natural environment. For me it is the thrill of getting an excellent bird photograph with the bird in it's natural environment. I photograph birds because I like being in the fresh air and watching the birds as they go about their daily activities.  Some bird photographers have gone beyond natural photography to get the perfect photograph.

Nothing staged, Hairy Woodpecker with food that he found in the log.

As I said at the beginning some bird photographers go to extremes to get the perfect bird photograph. They set up flashes, motion triggers, backdrops and perches for the birds to land on. Some photographers will use sounds and food to get the bird to land on their setup perch. Using these elaborate setups photographers are able to get excellent photographs.

Hairy Woodpecker by David Lilly ©

Staged photo, perch was used for bird to land on. Natural light with natural background – Hairy Woodpecker

As I see it there is the issue of not being honest and a little bit of deception in the type of bird photography. The general public is not being told the complete story. They are led to believe that the photographer must have spent hours and hours waiting for the perfect bird photograph. However, the photograph was completely controlled in every way. A false misrepresentation of how the photograph was actually photographed where every photograph is exactly the same, perfect in every way.

Nelson's sparrow and Savanah Sparrow by David Lilly ©

Left -  Nothing staged, Natural light with natural background - Nelson's Sparrow. Right -  Nothing staged, Natural light with natural background – Savanah Sparrow

As I have already stated I have stepped over the line as far as ethics goes myself, however this is not about me. All of the Code of Ethics for bird photographers disallows the above behaviours. The question bird photographers have to ask themselves is, How far will I go to get the perfect photograph? Eric Hoskins, the father of modern bird photography most daring setup was a blind. He believed you should photograph the bird in its natural environment.

Unstaged photos - Left Peregrine falcon Right - Northern Shrike

As a matter of fact a bird photographed in its natural environment tells a story that cannot be told in a controlled situation. In fact, if you look closely at a controlled bird photograph you will see that the bird is stressed in some way, the bird is most likely looking at the photographer because the photographer is too close or has fired a flash more than once. Just a note, as per humans a flash will temporally blind a bird and prevent it from being able to hunt for at least 30 mins at night.

Raven and three toed woodpeciker by David Lilly ©

Unstaged photos - Raven and Three toed woodpecker

Controlled bird photography is not new. Is this the trend in bird photography? Get the photograph at all cause, no matter what. Or will it evolve to a more natural uncontrolled photography? Only we as bird photographers can reverse this trend and get back to the environmental bird photography.  However, if you are using setups be honest and say you are.


Authors Biography & Contact Information

David Lilly David Lilly is a professional nature photographer living and working in Calgary, AB he also teaches photo workshops. His photos have been published in PhotoLife, Calgary's Natural Parks, Alberta Nature Magazine and Fine Scale Military Modeler. Dave shoots with Nikon equipment. This is Dave's 13th article for the Canadian Nature photographer.

David Lilly 
Web site:
Phone: 403 236-8587 (Cell)




See David's other Photography articles on the Canadian Nature photographer

David Lilly - Newfoundland Undiscovered Country
David Lilly - Loons of Lac Le Jeune
David Lilly - Pheasant Photography
David Lilly - Photographing Yellow Warblers
David Lilly - Bird Adventures in Florida
David Lilly - Dancing with the Sharp-Tailed Grouse
David Lilly - Birds of a Feather Flock Together
David Lilly - Scavenger Birds
David Lilly - Reflecting on Birds
David Lilly - Bird Photography in the Winter
David Lilly - Birding Gadgets Window mount
Dave Lilly - Wild Turkeys of Alberta

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