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My Changing Shooting Style

by E.J. Peiker | April 2, 2014

© E.J. PeikerI have been a photographer for most of my life and throughout my 46 years or so of photography, my style has changed many times. When I first got heavily into bird photography about 14 years ago, the trend in North America was towards shooting birds as big as possible in the frame and I followed that trend taking at least 100,000 birds that were, what I now consider to be “stuffed” in the frame. In recent years photos like this have become less and less satisfying to me but I continued to take photos where the bird took up the vast majority of the frame. Part of this was driven by the pixel counts of the era. With 4, 6, 8 and even 12 megapixel cameras, in order to get enough pixels on the bird for larger scale reproduction, it was necessary to not “waste” too many pixels. But as cameras advanced to larger megapixel counts like 24 and now 36, it became possible to include a lot of the surroundings and still have plenty of pixels if a publisher does need a tight shot.

Even though I teach photo workshops, every year I attend one or two workshops as a paying participant with photographers that I respect, admire, and can learn things from. One should never stagnate in their craft! Last Spring I attended Alan Murphy’s and Brian Small’s Warbler Migration workshop on the Texas Gulf Coast. There is no better bird photographer in the world than Alan Murphy and Brian Small is one of the top experts on birding, birds in general and bird photography in the world. I am happy to call them both friends for years now. While photographing an amazing array of birds during this workshop, it hit me that I am not taking nearly as many shots with teleconverters and that I am taking a lot more shots with more of the perch and the environment included in the frame then I did in the past. As I thought more about this, I concluded that the reason for this is that we now have the tools that allow me to take the types of images that I find more visually pleasing but at the same time leave me the option to use those photos for editorial purposes where the only thing that matters is the primary subject.

Below is an example of the types of shots I used to take and what I am taking more and more of now:

Magnolia warbler photographed in 2003 © E.J. Peiker

Magnolia Warbler – 2003

Magnolia warbler photographed in 2013 © E.J. Peiker

Magnolia Warbler – 2013

I find the image from 2013 much more visually pleasing. The amazing thing is that the number of pixels that comprise only the bird is actually higher on the newer image due to the much higher megapixel camera that it was taken with. I could crop the new image so that the bird is the same size in the frame as the older image and still have a larger file and be capable of larger reproduction. Who says that newer equipment can’t unleash creativity?!

About the Author

E.J. was born in 1960 in Augsburg, Germany and moved to Ohio in 1969. He attended Purdue University and earned a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering and completed graduate studies in Microelectronics and Semiconductor Physics. After working for the Intel Corporation for 27 years, he is now retired from the electronics industry and is a professional freelance photographer. E.J. and has formally studied photography at the University of New Mexico and completed courses from The Rocky Mountain School of Photography. E.J. has two sons, and has lived in Chandler, Arizona since 1994. A photographic specialty is artistic images of ducks and E.J. has published the book Ducks of North America - The Photographer's Guide. E.J. is also prolific in landscape photography, his first photographic love. E.J.'s photographs have been published worldwide in books, advertising, magazines, billboards, murals and more. Some of his publishers and clients include The National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Fund, The United States National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Navy, State Parks Arizona, Barrons, and Dorling Kindersley. New Zealand Post honored E.J. by making one of his penguin images the primary image for their 2014 Commemorative Antarctica Ross Dependency Stamp set. He has also been named one of the top 100 Wildlife Photographers in the world by Eastern Europe's Digital Photographer Magazine. Visit his website at: www.ejphoto.com.

7 thoughts on “My Changing Shooting Style

  1. I like the habitat inclusion. Since I do not have a really big lens I found this to be true. The close up shots are great, no doubt but I find giving some room around the bird gives the person looking at the image more of a sense of being there or what the conditions may have been like. Always have loved your work.

  2. I to prefer to have a birds environment be a part of it’s image. Doing so conveys a lot about the bird, and vastly increases the compositional opportunities, and problems. Never using a tripod has helped my compositions greatly. The ability to move the camera quickly to create a composition cannot be done with a tripod given the speed and typically unpredictable and consistent subject movement.
    What limits me is my ability to hold a heavy long lens. What helps are long lighter lenses…Canon 400mm 5.6 @ 2.6 lbs is a staple, great high ISO performance, and the energy I retain by not lugging the 3 legged beast all over creation.

    • Steven, have you tried using a Gimbal Head? It frees you up to swing the camera in all directions with nothing more than finger tip force and can handle very heavy lenses. This is why heads like the Wimberley are so popular.

      • Agree with your approach. Integrating the environment and the subject in a tasteful, interesting, and attractive way is much more interesting. The tight shots are technically satisfying, but less artful.

  3. Making an exceptional environmental image of wildlife is more difficult than the close-up shot because more elements need to be arranged in balance. How many times have you found that when the background was good, the subject was in poor position and vice versa. It takes more talent and patience to make the environmental image, but it creates a more satisfying image with longer lasting interest interest.
    I do agree that there is a place for both types of image when done with taste.

  4. Great article E.J. You’ve been at this at lot longer than I have but I absolutely agree, I think that the photographer and photography as an art form need to continue to evolve to breath new life into the artistic expression. As an aside I suspect that your background as a landscape photographer allows you to approach bird photography from a better “head space”. There is more to a great landscape image than just the mountain or the waterfall or the whatever, there are so many required supporting elements and equally a great bird photo incorporates those same supporting elements. I think that’s what I’ve learned and appreciated in studying yours and Alan’s images.

  5. One’s photography style should always be evolving with the expectation to see improved results. Over your decade, E.J., as you choose to make the comparison, your work is clearly improved in this article. There is, however, nothing wrong with having a wildlife subject fill the frame. The difference between the two is indeed a matter of taste. I prefer your latter style which incorporates the immensely critical habitat, even if modest. You are right that the primary subject is your point. The secondary one like leaves of a tree will potentially develop a new interest to some. Bird photography I think is a turn off to many because of its difficultly in capturing a good image. The best parts of it is, of course, getting the diagnostic shot while not disturbing the subject whenever possible. Learning about the things closest to dinosaurs in our history on Earth is mighty cool as well.

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