Book review – Creative bird photography

Creative Bird Photography, by Bill Coster

My review of this book was originally published in volume 58 of Notornis, the journal of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand. I’d like to thank OSNZ for allowing me to publish this revised review here.

Creative bird photography

Bill Coster is one of the UK’s leading wildlife photographers and this, his first book, is aimed at bird photographers who want to take their work to a new level of originality and distinctiveness, rather than a manual of camera settings and technical instruction. The engaging photo adorning the cover is one that makes you pause, as a successful photograph must—an easily recognizable subject but a unique, ‘creative’ perspective.

Most of the book is devoted to introducing the reader to techniques and ideas that can help with creating unique images. Illustrated with Coster’s magnificent photographs of birds from around the world, it achieves this very well. Example images are used generously to highlight different photographic techniques and photogenic bird behaviour. The chapter Portraits offers suggestions to help eliminate distracting backgrounds for clean compositions, and advice on how to incorporate reflections and elements of the surrounding environment to best effect. Flight introduces the reader to the basics of photographing birds in flight, then introduces concepts like capturing the decisive moments of take-off and landing, and mid-air behaviour that can lift an image from good to great. The Life cycle chapter works through several examples on photographing birds at different stages of their breeding cycle, while gently impressing upon the reader the need for caution and respect for the subject at this particularly sensitive time. Two chapters highlight aspects of the daily lives of birds, such as feeding, drinking, singing, fighting and preening—common behaviour, but often not easy to photograph well. A subsection devoted to penguins seems a bit incongruous, but it’s easy to see why the author would want to include the wonderful photos of penguins in action.

The last two chapters stand out for introducing a number of concepts that new, and even many advanced bird photographers may not have considered. Readers are encouraged to move away from literal interpretations of their subjects and environs to the more abstract, to use intense pre-dawn colours, backlighting, silhouettes and motion blur, and to see beyond limitations imposed by the form of an entire bird and find interesting compositions in its parts. A theme evident throughout this book is that the ‘rules’ of photography can be broken, and experimentation can lead to new and interesting perspectives. This and Coster’s easy-to-read-style are a refreshing contrast to some other well-known photographers who proclaim that their way is the right and only way. I grew tired of the latter, do-it-my-way-or-you’ll-never-have-perfect-photos-like-mine style a long time ago.

Coster doesn’t attempt to tackle the technical aspects of photographic equipment in a substantial way, but does give a brief introduction to the basics of exposure and camera operation, followed by a chapter dedicated to digital cameras and equipment. Given that the main thrust (and strength) of the book is creativity, the initial focus on equipment is almost superfluous. While a sound understanding of exposure theory is essential for a photographer to be in complete control of their work, Coster’s explanation is not particularly clear and far from complete. This is a recipe for a false sense of confidence, with the associated pitfalls. Some useful points are raised in the section on equipment, but it is important to note that it is also peppered with misleading or simply incorrect statements that could have budding bird photographers confused or wasting money. No, more megapixels are not always better, smaller sensors don’t give you more magnification, and shooting rate has nothing to do with the speed of moving data from sensor to memory card. The term ‘burst rate’ is not a rate at all in the context in which Coster uses it, but is confused with the camera’s buffer capacity. Advice to always use the fastest possible memory cards to get the best performance overlooks the fact that the vast majority of current cameras can’t utilize all that speed, and that the fastest cards may cost two or more times as much for zero gain. I see little point in ‘future proofing’ on things like memory cards either, because by the time you upgrade to a faster camera that can use the extra speed, you’ll want higher capacity cards, and they will probably cost a fraction of what you paid a year or more earlier. That’s a waste of money, not good advice. A good understanding of the mechanics of digital photography is certainly a great advantage to any photographer, but these are complex and rapidly evolving subjects that could have been omitted without affecting the aim of this book. Anyone with a serious desire to better understand this subject would do well to start with a book dedicated to the subject, such as Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography, and get up to speed on subsequent advancements on the web. At least the section on equipment is not a major part of the book.

Creative bird photography is a beautifully illustrated, easy to read book that offers something for novice and more proficient bird photographers alike and, apart from the section on digital equipment, it is likely to remain a useful reference for many years to come.