Fickle & Fabulous Photos
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine May 2018
I’ve lately been updating fatbirder.com with fabulous photos of stunning birds taken by a growing number of fantastic photographers. They range from just terrific to truly remarkable. Things have completely changed since my youth. Half a century ago a small band of dedicated photographers sat interminably in hides or hung about aviaries. I can barely remember decent pictures of birds in the likes of the National Geographic magazine; the only highly colourful feathers were in headdresses at tribal ceremonies.
Popular bird books rarely had photos and those few were strictly monochrome. Fieldguides were illustrated with line-drawings or watercolours. Most weren’t up to much either. In 1954 a revolution began. Peterson and Mountford produced a guide to the birds of Britain & Europe that combined depth of knowledge, eye for detail and pure artistry. At about the same time Tunnicliffe was painting for journal covers and, most influential of all, series of collectible cards in tea packets. Scratch a crumbly old British birder and out will spill a tale of how they were turned on to birding by tea-cards loving pasted into tea-stained albums.
For three next decades painted illustrations veered towards the artistic from the likes of Lars Jonsson giving habitat hints and the book equivalent of ‘ID by general impression, (Jizz). Then, just before the birth of the noughties Lars Svensson’s Collins Bird Guide gave us what I believe is the pinnacle of drawn fieldguides, which, together with the subsequent app, reset the benchmark.
Two strands remain, that which engages our internal artist (I don’t think you can better Tunnicliffe) and that which really helps you tell the difference between difficult ducks or hard to tell apart tits. Only one development made me stump up cash since, Richard Crossley’s dedication, giving us landscapes filled with gender, age and seasonal variations of each species.
Keeping fatbirder.com up to date over its twenty years on the net has meant having contact with hundreds of photographers and an acute awareness of how improving equipment and affordability has meant hundreds of thousands of birders becoming good photographers and photographers growing even more aware of nature’s photo opportunities. The range of incredible quality has stretched beyond belief. Since the late Laurence Poh invented digiscoping in Malaya a whole generation of acolytes have embraced its possibilities too.
Our coffee tables now creek under the weight of eye-watering photo-based avian artworks and our TV choices include moving bird images in depth and detail not even dreamed of in the twentieth century. On the back of better photography and a massive expansion in available bird photographs have come attempts to create photo-based fieldguides.
Two things, in my view, holdback photo bird guides from reaching the summits scaled by pen and paint. Firstly, reducing photos to a pocket book size often leads to loss of sharp detail and that is further eroded by the quality of print. Secondly, half the use of a fieldguide is as an aid to splitting difficult species. To do that one needs to look for and find the key differences. In drawn guides these clinchers can be pointed out and the images posed identically. Photographing every parrot or pipit in poses exactly like its fellows, in the same light and against the same background is virtually impossible. In fact, I doubt we will ever reach that particular apex, even if song wasn’t sometimes crucial too.
My everyday work leads me to feast my eyes on wonderful bird photos, but whether preparing for an overseas trip or checking my ID when building my year list, I need those drawn and painted images at hand.