There are approximately 70 million birders around the globe-quite possibly the largest recreational activity we embrace. Six years ago, I joined six other photographers from five continents and set about to create a body of photographs that would nab the aviary world mid-flight. The result of our work (more than 12,000 days of shooting) is a collection of fabulous photos comprising nearly 100 bird varieties. There is portraiture of endangered species, exotics, and favorites like the barn swallow and great horned owl. Images profile birds in solo flight and in tandem; some birds are diving, some stalking, and others migrating. This was a fascinating adventure in capturing each at their best.
The project, "On Feathered Wings," has spawned a book published by Harry N. Abrams (due out in June) and an 11-month gallery exhibition with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The book has presold in the thousands and is currently in negotiation for translations into Spanish and German for additional international distribution. Editors tell us the reason for its success is a combination of outstanding imagery not easily produced and a subject of common interest to a wide variety of consumers.
Tackling this project was a labor of love, patience, skill, and dedication. These images truly focus on the kinetic wonders of the bird kingdom in midair, and only in midair. It's one thing to get a sharp, well-framed image of a bird from 30 or 40 feet away. It's another thing to freeze a moment in time with that subject doing something extraordinary that humans don't often witness. Thousands of hours and frames went into producing this project.
Behavior, Geography, and the Best Angles
For any dedicated wildlife photographer, studying and learning to track movements and behaviors within a habitat is a must. The nice thing is that birds are creatures of habit. Through study, I recognized how they carry on activities and began to detect patterns-this helps a crouching photographer plan and anticipate. Familiarity with habitat and geography, learning the best vantage points, determining optimal shoot times, and having the right gear are also essential.
As an avid birder, I've been visiting the same sites for 20 years, so I have a solid knowledge of the terrain. Each environment varies greatly and requires specific gear: on the beach, you need to consider the wind and the high degree of reflection from the sand and ocean. Streams and other waterways have reflective elements to work around (plus you sometimes need to get into the water for the best shot). Some places have brush where you can camp out; other spots don't.
Once you become familiar with the geography, you need to get a feel for where birds flock. Learn the migratory movements, where each bird nests, and how each flies. Track their hunting and eating. The best time to shoot is early morning or late afternoon, not only for the best light, but because that's when birds are most active. And stay focused-this type of photography demands pinpoint precision for those once-in-a-lifetime shots.
A few words about gear: we each used a range of digital cameras and lenses. For me, Canon is a mainstay in my Lowepro bag as I trek from the foggy shores on Long Island to the snowy Canadian tundra to the sultry air of the Florida Everglades. I like the Mark III because it's fast and can hold up to the elements. The 300mm 2.8L IS lens and 500mm are my workhorses. Since all shooting is done handheld, I also use a BushHawk shoulder mount. I have to admit that without digital, this undertaking would have been far more complicated and time-consuming.
Pictures in a Book and Museum
With more than 170 images in our collection, I approached seven publishers; five were interested. I submitted presentations featuring 12 images and a book outline, plus suggestions on what I felt was missing in the market. I didn't use an agent.
Harry Abrams took a great interest and seemed the best fit due to its background in producing and marketing fine-art and wildlife books. The book came together easily because the skill level of each photographer is excellent and because what we provided is an awesome collection. The hardcover edition is just under 200 pages and features 175 color images. There's descriptive text, plus my opening essay on the mechanics and evolution of bird flight.
With the bulk of requirements for the book behind me, I put time into finding additional outlets in which to show the photos. A chief target was museums. As I live near New York City, a natural choice was the Natural Museum of History. I contacted a curator and mailed a selection of 12 images, background on the project, and a mention of the book. The museum had never done an exhibit dedicated solely to birds in flight.
Within 12 months of sending the proposal, I was honored to learn that the museum wished to talk further. I was asked to go before the review committee and describe the project. About four months later, the museum called and said they wished to stage an exhibition, "On Feathered Wings." It's my understanding that shows are scheduled years in advance, so this news was amazing. The exhibit will run 11-months starting in June and will display 35 of our framed images. We're happy to have Lowepro as a gift sponsor.
The other photographers who helped produce the book are DAVE HEMMINGS (Canada), JIM NEIGER (Florida), ROB PALMER (Colorado), MIGUEL LASA (England), KK HUI (China), and OFER LEVY (Australia). We came together through mutual admiration of photography, nature, and the power of digital technologies.
What comes next? No doubt we will each be in the field every chance we can, looking for the elusive species and those amazing flight shots.
Richard Ettlinger (www.richardettlinger.com) is a nature photographer who has been an avid birder for more than two decades. From his home on Long Island, NY, he continues to pioneer new techniques and create worldwide interest in action-flight bird photography. His quest: to photograph the most unique action images of birds in their natural environment.
Opening: June 14, 2008
Location: American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY
Hours: Daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.
"On Feathered Wings" by Richard Ettlinger,
Harry N. Abrams; June 2008
U.S: $40; CAN.: $48
Hardcover; 192 pages; 175 full-color illustrations