Confessions Of An Amateur Bird Photographer


Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)


You and I have read all of the “right way” articles instructing us how to photograph birds, post-process the images, and store the files.  These have given me some valuable tips, maybe even from your blog, but in the end I must make my own way, experiment, and go with what works for me.  When this deviates from accepted practices there is some hesitation, or even embarrassment in mentioning it.  Despite this I’m offering my bird photography confessions; please don’t laugh or ridicule.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)            click on any photo to zoom

On the input side I’m pretty conventional and follow consensus.  Use good equipment, the best that budget allows, take a lot of pictures (a day of birding typically results in 500+ shots), use aperture priority trying to keep exposure times to 1/800 seconds and faster.  Get close and stay low for ground birds.  Frequently check and adjust brightness compensation as conditions change, and if anything slightly under expose the bird.

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)

Here comes confession #1, I don’t like RAW.  If I was a professional and trying to make a living with bird photography I would use RAW, but I’m not and I don’t.  The RAW files are simply too large and the post-processing too time consuming.  JPEG suits me just fine.  Remember, I have 500 photos to sort through when I get home, even before post-processing begins.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

A quick run through the 500 shots eliminates 400 due to motion, poor exposure, bad composition, or simply too many pictures of the same bird and pose; it’s easy to get carried away when the light and bird are perfect.  This brings me to confession #2, I do not use a sophisticated photo-processing program such as Photoshop or Light Room.  I’ve tried them and found that they are overkill for my needs.  The guiding principle here is KISS (keep it simple stupid).  Don’t laugh; I use Mac Photos 1.5.  It’s free and came with the computer.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)

My post-processing goal is to take the remaining 100 shots and with reasonably little effort reduce that to 10 or 15 “keepers” suitable for long-term storage.  I crop most of my shots, stopping just before graininess becomes apparent and often realign the photo keeping the “rule of thirds” in mind.  A few quick tweaks to the exposure, brightness, and shadow controls and I’m done.  I almost never change tint and color.  If the shot doesn’t look great after these simple steps it goes into the trash.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Confession #3 is my methods for file organization and storage.  For a while a used Light Room’s rather complicated system entering tags and species identifiers to facilitate sorting.  When newer versions forced me into the Cloud I left LR and looked for a simpler solution.  I’m a little paranoid about the Cloud and the Russians–what if Vladimir Putin steals my warbler pictures?  Mac Photos 1.5 suits me well with periodic back-ups to a second computer and also to a free-standing hard drive stored in a fire-proof safe.  By the way, Photos 1.5 even handles RAW images if you must.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

I’ve used multiple filing systems for bird photos and have switched to the scientific bird classifications.  In Photos I’ve created a separate album for each Order of birds, and a subfolder for each Family in the Order.  The Order names end with “…formes” and the Family names with “…idae”.  For instance a pelican photo is placed in a subfolder called Pelecanidae which is located in the folder called Pelecaniformes, and a nuthatch photo is placed in a subfolder named Sittidae which is in the folder Passeriformes.  This system has the value reenforcing my knowledge of bird classification as well as reminding me of the various birds’ anatomical and behavioral traits that place them into a specific Order and Family.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus)

On a few occasions a photo may be placed into an additional album.  For instance, bird photos from a trip abroad are placed in a country-specific album in addition to the entry in the bird classification file.  I also have a separate album for interesting flight shots.  Lastly I name the photo by common name and genus and species while the camera attaches a number, date, and now with the Canon 7DII, a GPS location.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

So I confess to KISS, but am always open to suggestions and experimentation.  I apologize to the non-photography readers for the shop talk in this post but hope it triggers some conversation or comments from my fellow shutterbug friends.  It’s always fun to see how others handle their photos and files and is just another factor contributing to the many pleasure of this hobby.

22 thoughts on “Confessions Of An Amateur Bird Photographer

  1. I understand the filing “difficulties”. I often look at a photo and imagine trying to find it again — should I file it under location, critter, clouds, sunset all having to do with one photo? Thanks for sharing your process. Love your photos.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Initially the filing doesn’t seem to be any big deal, but after several years of this and thousands of photos you have to come with some system. This seems to work for me. Non-birding photos are a different kettle of fish however.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are awesome photos! Not or get to “artsy” on you – I believe photography is a form of creativity and expression. Everyone uses different tools to attain the results that they want. Other artists such as painters, do not use the same brush, canvas, or paint – it differs. The equipment and post processing doesn’t matter …To each his/her own. Your work is great!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this article! I’ve also decided I hate shooting RAW… it slows everything down, but I’ve been feeling guilty lately like maybe I should be shooting RAW… glad to hear i’m not the only one who prefers the speed of jpegs (and the quality is still decent). I just used a super basic windows photo editor for ages, but I’ve recently upgraded to Lightroom and I’m happy with it. It forces me to actually organize the pictures into folders and the editing is quick. Plus I love that it synchs to your phone (again with RAW the quality of the synched pics is terrible, but with jpeg it’s good).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I often bird with another photographer who shoots in RAW and I must admit there is that occasional shot that he can salvage with post-processing, whereas my version is hopeless. That is unusual however and doesn’t out-weigh the other issue with RAW we’ve both experienced. Your LR comments are interesting. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You are very organized. I do use Lightroom in the Cloud. I have images on a different internal hard drive and also on external drives. You photos are wonderful and I bet you would like a photographer I just went to an all day learning workshop/presentation. While I am not a Canon shooter, his work was astounding. If you don’t mind me leaving a link, here it is. He does more than birds but you will swoon over his pelicans. Even though he told us how he got that shot, I found it very difficult to get myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed your ‘confessions’ and am totally impressed. I consider your work at a professional level, and have been inspired by them. I do shoot both jpeg and raw, but the storage is indeed crazy, especially after a day of shooting hundreds of photos. I’ve had to upgrade my external harddrives to be able to store my years of photo-taking. I promise myself, someday I will go through and ‘clean out’ many of them to reduce the bulk. I do need to do this sooner than later! Thanks again for sharing this post, it was very informative!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that. It seems we’re all struggling with volume. I have become more ruthless with the delete button. How many pictures of a yellow-rumped warbler do I really need? But then again if they’re splitting that species I better hold on to them. It never ends. I appreciate your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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