Creating a Modern Photographic Field Guide

by Iain Campbell | April 11, 2014

© Iain CampbellI am old school. As a birder I have always much preferred plate based nature field guides with paintings rather than photos. For me there was just never any comparison between the highly illustrative paintings of the National Geographic and Sibley guides and the shabby images in books such as the Kaufman guides. But two things changed my mind. The first was when I saw the superb Birds of Southern Africa: The Complete Photographic Guide by Sinclair and Ryan, and then when I saw what Richard Crossley was trying to do with the ground breaking The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. Photography had reached the point where we could use it for field guides every bit if not more effective than plate guides, and I was sold.

When the opportunity arose to do a new field guide to Australia, I jumped at the chance. I had a hard choice to make. I could go for the exciting Crossley format where you have one species per plate, showing many different angles, plumages and sizes. This is done by superimposing different shots onto one background and a massive amount and skill in Photoshop to make it look “real”. The problems with making a guide like this is that it becomes very bulky when dealing with a whole continent of birds, and the more pressing one of there just not being enough images of many species in Australia to make this exercise possible. The second option I looked at was to use the WILDGuides series type format. Theirs is a brilliant format of having larger images for the more iconic and visible species, and spending much less text and photo space on those species that the casual birder was less likely to see. As a portal to get people excited about visiting an area, it is hard to improve on this style, but it does not suit itself well to showing a vast number of species across a continent and describing how to tell them apart.

New Holland honeyeater © Iain Campbell

A New Holland Honeyeater from Western Australia

In the end, my co-authors Sam Woods and Nick Leseberg and I agreed to go for the less exciting, but most manageable format: a series of shots of different species framed on the same plate in a fairly standard format; essentially swapping paintings for photos. But then came the difficult part, amassing over 1,000 images, including some very rare species from very remote locations. While my ego wanted me to try and use my own shots, this was neither feasible nor the best solution. Enter Geoff Jones. Geoff has an amazing collection of extremely high quality images, all meticulously cataloged for photo location, race, and sex of species. So, although I wanted more of my own shots in the guide, I bowed to the better, more organized photographer and mainly used his shots. So with Geoff’s and my shots we managed to cover the vast majority of species, including nearly all resident birds.

The goal of the book was to make birding and bird identification accessible to the vast majority of people, including beginners, while still providing a resource to more experienced birders. To achieve this, the text is written in a casual style, in the way one birder would likely describe a bird to another birder; the most important feature first, be it the plumage, a restricted range, a habitat requirement, or a bizarre habit. Then a general description is given, along with the bird’s distribution, and how and where to find it. The key to birding in Australia is in understanding the habitats, so to really get the most out of this book, it is very important to read ‘The Habitats of Australia’ section.

Blackburnian warbler © Iain Campbell

The Blackburnian Warbler plate from the “Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds”

The biggest criticism of photography guides is that they do not standardize the images for comparison. To be honest that is a criticism I have often made myself. But birds are rarely encountered at a standard distance or in perfect lighting, so we embraced that, and although we are using photos for comparison of birds, the species do not appear in similar positions. The photos show the diagnostic features, but the birds are in a variety of positions, because you will be watching birds that are constantly moving. The presentation in most field guides looks very static, so we have put the chaos of nature into the book. The sizes of the images and the relative sizes of the birds within them have no relation and should not be used as an indication of species’ sizes.

Saddle-billed stork © Iain Campbell

The Saddle-billed Stork plate from the WildGuides “Birds of the Masaai Mara”

Bird descriptions were made as simple as possible; for easy groups such as honeyeaters the descriptions can be easily understood by anyone. Some groups, such as shorebirds and especially seabirds, are notoriously difficult to identify even to the most experienced birder; here the terminology required to describe the birds becomes far more complex, and many words used will be new and unintelligible to casual birders. This is unfortunately unavoidable given the small differences between some species. We avoided overly complicated or convoluted descriptions where possible, but for those birds that require them, the glossary covers all terms used. A casual birder is highly unlikely to find him- or herself 100km (60mi) offshore in the Southern Ocean pouring through prion flocks, or in similar extreme conditions, so the simplified descriptions will suffice in most situations.

Quail-thrushes and whipbirds © Iain Campbell

The quail-thrushes and whipbirds plate from the upcoming “Birds of Australia”

In conclusion, the thing that I have learned most from the experience is shoot everything. It is hard to believe that one of the shots I was left needing at the end was a House Sparrow. The second take away is that when you revise an image, think about its use in potential that need shots at different angles and positions, even if it does not look like your classic “keeper”. After finishing this book, I found myself excited by a back end shot of a flying Verdin in California. I thought to myself “I may just need that one day”.

Splendid fairy-wren © Iain Campbell

A Western race of the Splendid Fairy-wren

For those who are interested the book is called Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide by Iain Campbell with Sam Woods and Nick Leseberg, published by Princeton Press.

About the Author

Iain started his life in Australia as a fanatical birder. He ended his career as a geochemist in West Africa when he decided that watching birds was indeed far more important than gold. He moved to Ecuador, started Tandayapa Bird Lodge and Tropical Birding and spent his time guiding people around the world. Few years ago listing species started to wear thin and he became more interested in chasing down individual rare species and getting photographs of them. He now guides bird and wildlife photographers around the world to shoot the world’s coolest species.

3 thoughts on “Creating a Modern Photographic Field Guide

  1. The technology has been with us for years to have binoculars identify birds for birders (face recognition, etc.). Just upload the species ID card for the region of the world your in…five years tops.
    For myself, I can’t say learning a birds christian name has ever added to my appreciation or enjoyment of it.

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