Through my photography I try to portray the character or spirit of a bird. Often that involves capturing behavior that represents some distinctive aspect of that particular bird’s lifestyle. It’s extra rewarding if I can achieve that vision in a unique or artistic way as with this black skimmer in flight. We see the astonishing blade-like bill with which it skims the water’s surface to capture fish, a bill so thin in cross-section that, seen from the front, almost disappears from view. The unusual head-on view, the symmetry and verticality of the wings, the shallow depth of field drawing attention to the bird’s eyes—factors that all came together to produce a compelling image. Framing a bird flying toward you at close range can be extremely difficult, but I love a challenge and in this case the reward totally outweighed the effort.
How I got the shot
Last August I photographed black skimmers caring for their chicks at a seabird breeding colony on New York’s Long Island, where birds are very used to seeing beachgoers. Late one afternoon, I turned my attention to flight shots of skimmers arriving with fish, zooming in for closeups and fully intending to clip wings. Under these conditions it’s a struggle to keep the bird in the frame, but at one point I managed a sequence of a skimmer flying toward me. The symmetry of the wings at the peak of the upstroke, accentuated by a vertical crop during post-processing, clinched this particular shot as my favorite.
What I used
I used aSony a9 camera with a Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS lens at 600mm, hand held. The settings were 1/1600 second, f/6.3, ISO 4000.
I’m a full-time wildlife photographer and author, based near Ithaca in New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region. I’ve been photographing nature for 35+ years, specializing in birds for much of that time. I travel nationally and internationally, and also shoot a lot locally, particularly in my own backyard. My articles and photo essays about birds, bird behavior and bird photography have appeared in numerous magazines, and I’ve authored or co-authored five books, most recently Mastering Bird Photography (Rocky Nook, 2019)
Maybe it’s my British upbringing, but I consider myself a fairly quiet, even rather shy, person most of the time, and I certainly am pretty intense while I’m engrossed in photography. But throughout my life there’s been this secret, inner “showoff” who sometimes emerges spontaneously, especially when it comes to music. Hearing a funky tune, especially if it has an African or Latin vibe, I am liable to start dancing … pretty much anywhere!
My photographic journey
Growing up immersed in nature in the English countryside, I’ve loved birds my entire life, but I first began photography in the 1980s during several years on a research team studying avian social behavior in East Africa. My work required careful observation, concentration and perseverance, skills as vital for wildlife photography as they are for scientific research. As a photographer, portraying bird behavior has been my goal. Great bird shots are everywhere these days, though. To stay motivated I push myself to take creative risks, whether through unusual composition or lighting, capturing split-second action, or experimenting with camera settings for an abstract look.
NANPA and me
I’m a charter member of NANPA, having attended the pre-NANPA nature photographers’ meeting in Jamestown, NY in 1993. Several of my images have placed in the Top 100 and Top 250 of previous showcases. At NANPA’s last Summit in Las Vegas (February 2019) I presented a breakout seminar “Capturing the Spirit of Birds”.