Bird Photography – Art vs Journalism

Bird photography, like all genres of photography, has an artistic and a scientific side. But  the question is, what separates art from science? Is it sharpness. composition, story, or is it light? I personally believe that what separates true art from journalism is creativity and vision. Art does not have to be perfect in absolute terms such as sharpness or noise, but it needs to have a visual impact, which is created by the composition, the light, and the story that the image conveys. On the other hand, while journalism is heavily reliant on composition and story-telling for visual impact, it does not allow for much creativity at all. Journalism and documenting show the scene ‘as is’, and not how the creative envisions it.


Take this scene for example. This is a colony of mixed shorebirds (plovers, sandpipers, dunlins, etc.) in flight. Quite obviously, this image is not sharp, not even close. But that is not the point. I deliberately used a slow shutter speed which blurred the birds’ wings and helps convey motion and speed. From a purely scientific point of view, this image has numerous flaws. It is lacking sharpness, contrast, and the birds are not in perfect focus. But artistically, the image expresses chaos and speed that a picture captured at a high shutter speed would just not be able to convey.


In contrast, this image of a Socotra Cormorant is technically perfect. It is sharp, has contrast, and the bird is in focus. However, in terms of visual impact, it isn’t nearly as eye-catching as the first image. This is because the image does not convey as powerful a story as the picture of the shorebirds colony. However, even though the shot does not seem very artistic, it does represent the bird in its natural habitat. Such a shot could be invaluable for research, especially if its an image of a rare or elusive bird. In these cases, a journalistic picture showcasing the bird’s features or its habitat could be prove to be a lot more precious than an artistic image which obscures said elements.


For beginners, it will be tempting to create images with perfect sharpness and focus, which isn’t a bad thing at all. But as you gain experience, you will learn that sharpness is not a priority. It is the composition and vision that matters. As a rule of thumb, once you’ve documented a subject, try to photograph it from different angles, different shutter speeds, under different lighting conditions, and with different compositions – for a creative mind, the possibilities are endless.


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