Chapter 1

Introduction and Overview

1.1 Introduction

This is the online version of what I hope will become a highly useful reference for all bird enthusiasts wishing to improve their ability to capture aesthetic and/or useful images of living birds, using digital imaging technology.  The intended audience is quite wide, ranging from casual watchers of yard birds to the most serious students of ornithology.  Although much of the book will deal with issues related to the selection and effective operation of digital imaging equipment, I will be dealing with a fairly wide range of equipment, including not just the ultra-expensive, top-of-the-line, pro-photography gear, but also the more economical solutions generally available to the masses. I will also be addressing aesthetic issues, such as the framing of the bird, the effective capture of behaviors, and the manipulation of color and light and other image properties both in the field and in postprocessing.  I think you'll find that while there are many books available on digital photography, there are very few that focus specifically on digital bird photography, and probably noneother than this onethat (1) are as continuously updated by the author, and (2) are totally free.
     The only prerequisite for reading this book is to have a keen interest in capturing fine images of birds. At the outset I don't assume you know anything whatsoever about cameras or digital imaging technology. In fact, I'll be providing quite a lot of information about modern camera technology, and I'll be presenting it in what should be a very accessible and understandable level for any reasonably mature reader. Some of the sections may delve into technical details that you don't find particularly interesting; feel free to skip these on a first reading, and to possibly come back to them at a later date, after you've assimilated the more immediately applicable information.


Fig. 1.1: Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in North Carolina. This photo was
selected as the cover image for a nature calendar.  Obtaining a black background
like this can be achieved via the use of appropriate angles and flash ratio.  The
 cropping geometry and placement of the subject in the final, cropped image
could be improved.  All of these issues are discussed at length in this book.

1.2 A Note about Editions

A note is in order regarding this online book and how it relates to the print edition of this work. The print edition, which is only tentatively planned at this point, will most likely be a shortened and more accessible version of this lengthy online edition.  The online version will retain the advantage of being more frequently updated, though the print edition may be useful to those readers in a hurry or wanting to read it away from the computer.
    Note also that there are (for now) two online versions of the book: one with figures adjusted for Windows monitors, and one with figures adjusted for Macintosh monitors.  Because PC's and Macs (prior to OS X version 10.6) use different gamma settings, images formatted for one but viewed on the other will appear too bright (washed out) or too dark.  The issue of gamma in web-based distribution of bird photos is discussed in section 16.2.4.
    Finally, the online edition is, unlike the print edition, entirely free, though obviously
free in this case means free accessnot free of any copyright. Both versions of the book are copyrighted by the author, who enjoys little or no financial gain by sharing this information, so please respect the rights of the author (you can read the fine print by clicking here).  Donations and purchases of the author's other books and prints are much appreciated, and will help defray the cost of hosting this free edition of the book.

Fig. 1.2: White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) in Florida.
Several techniques used in the capture of this image are described in this book,
including the use of shallow depth-of-field to isolate the subject, the use of external
flash to achieve better color and detail in the subject, and the use of extreme angles
to bring the bird to the viewer's level and
in the case of waterbirdsto compress
the surface of the water to a smooth, narrow band.

1.3 Brief Outline

My goal with this book is to be as comprehensive as possible. Using an electronic—and therefore easily updatabledistribution format should advance that goal considerably. The text is currently divided into four main parts:

I. Equipment
II. Technique
III. Postprocessing
IV. Distribution

These four parts span what I see as the full range of technical, logistical, and artistic aspects of bird photography.  I give a brief description of each section, below. You can skip to any section by clicking on
contents in the navigation pane to the left (you may have to scroll up to see it) and then clicking on the section to which you'd like to jump. Just be aware that if you skip ahead you might bypass definitions of terms that you'll need to know in order to fully understand later sections of the book. You can always skip back again and search for those terms and their definitions (a glossary and subject index will hopefully be added in the near future, to make this easier).
     Part I of the book encompasses all equipment issues, ranging from cameras and lenses to essential accessories such as flash units and memory cards. Part I also discusses the construction of a digital darkroom (i.e., a computer system for digital postprocessing of images), though a thorough discussion of digital postprocessing techniques is deferred to Part III of the book. For those readers who are just now trying to decide what camera or lens to buy (whether as a first camera or as an upgrade to your existing setup), this section should provide many, many useful pieces of advice, both specific and general. As the technology continues to advance in the months and years ahead, I hope to keep this section up-to-date with regular revisions.
     Part II gives concrete advice on the most effective use of all this equipment, specifically for photographing wild birds. A thorough treatment of camera operation is given, with an emphasis on the successful use of flash.  You'll learn how to best utilize the camera's settings to achieve the proper exposure (brightness and contrast), depth-of-field (via the aperture), noise characteristics, and color fidelity when capturing both the bird and its surroundings. 
Advice is also given for homeowners wishing to turn their yard into a bird-photography studio.
     Part III delves into the bewildering but essential topic of digital postprocessing. Since the industry standard in terms of image processing software continues to be Adobe's Photoshop, the emphasis will be on the use of this particular software, though several other tools will be discussed as well.  I believe this information is fully as important for artistic bird photography as that contained in the previous sections.  Having a sense for what is possible in postprocessing will definitely influence your technique in the field.
     Finally, in Part IV we will consider alternatives for distribution of digital images, with an emphasis on distribution via the internet. Some practical advice regarding print distribution is given as well.

Fig. 1.3: Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia), before and after artificially
changing the image's background.  Techniques for digitally enhancing images in
Photoshop will be discussed in great detail in this book.