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  • Superb Parrot

    Superb Parrot.   Photographer: Judy Leitch

  • Eurasian Coot

    Eurasian Coot.   Photographer: Con Boekel

  • Great Cormorant

    Great Cormorant.   Photographer: Jill Wilson

  • Australasian Grebe

    Australasian Grebe.   Photographer: Judy Leitch

  • Magpie Goose

    Magpie Goose.   Photographer: Murray Chambers

Once again it is a privilege to be asked to comment on the entries to a Birdlife Photography competition.  Once again the standard was such that it was difficult to pick a winner, and in the end it came down to some basic criteria that often combine to make a great photograph, and in particular a successful bird image.

It is important to remember that a great bird shot must be sharp – especially the head and the eye.  There were a number of entries that would have been great shots, but they were not quite sharp where it mattered.  Believe me, I understand the disappointment of not quite getting a great shot.  Bird movements are sharp and unpredictable, and when working with a long lens depth of field is quite shallow.  All of this means that the odds are stacked against the photographer, and it is the reason why so many images end up in the bin.  It is the “nearly” shots that are so frustrating, but I’m afraid there is no getting away from the fact that if it’s not sharp it’s just not a great shot.

Secondly, at the risk of stating the obvious, light is everything in a great photograph.  Light on the bird’s face so that the eye is sharp and clear, light on the plumage showing feather detail, and of course the “golden” light of early morning and late evening that enhances almost every subject.  Light was the limiting factor in many of the entries, and the deciding factor in the success of the winning pictures.

Winner: Eastern Reef Egret, by Warren Bennett (Image ID 29313)

This is a beautifully simple image of a Reef Egret going about its business.  The feather detail is very well captured and the subtly varied shades of grey that combine in the bird’s plumage are strikingly impressive.  The yellow of the legs and that of the eye and the bill call to one another in an aesthetically pleasing way, as well as reflecting some of the yellowish tones in the background.

Eastern Reef Egret

What makes the image stand out, however, is the way that the bird “pops” against the darker tones of the background, creating a strong impression of three dimensions.  A dark bird against a dark background would be flat and uninteresting – what makes this outstanding is the light on the bird which enables us to see every feather.  A tiny suggestion for a marginal improvement might be to darken the corners – especially the bottom left where light reflected in the water tends to draw the eye away from the subject.  This is an excellent capture and a worthy winner.

Runner-Up: Silver Gull, by Paivi Lobigs (Image ID 29691)

Such a common species, almost part of the background to a day on the coast, but a striking bird when captured in light like this, and this picture is testament to the fact that even the mundane and the everyday can be transformed by the right light. It is the bird’s eye to which our eyes are drawn, and that eye is pin sharp and engaging. The white plumage is a little over exposed on the bird’s throat but very nicely captured elsewhere on the gull’s body showing texture and detail. Photographing white birds in bright light can be problematic, especially when there are strong shadows – as is the case here. The photographer in this instance has maintained significant detail in the shadows without “blowing out” the sunlit areas too badly. The grittiness of the sand in the foreground quickly gives way to a nicely blurred and ambient background. A minor criticism might be that there is a little too much space to the right of the picture, but this is very much a matter for personal taste. It is important to give the bird “room” and space to look into, but to my eye it could be reduced a little here by cropping in a little further on the right. It works to the composition’s advantage that the bird is not right in the middle of the image. Very nicely captured.

Silver Gull

Commended: White Bellied Sea Eagle, by Jennifer Carr (Image ID 29330)

This deserves to be commended simply for the level of difficulty it represents over some of the other captures.  Photographing egrets is a relatively simple matter when compared to the challenge of getting a sharp picture of a bird that is flying past at speed.  I imagine that many people will have seen these majestic birds soaring over beaches and cliffs, but not many will have seen one from this angle, and fewer still will have taken a photograph as good as this.  Importantly, the area of the image that is well lit is the head and the eye, and this area is well exposed.  There is an engaging highlight in the bird’s eye, and the detail in the feathers and the beak are striking and excellent. However, there are two aspects which limit the effectiveness of the image.  The first is that there is little detail to be seen in the shadows, and this is something which could almost certainly be improved in post processing.  The second is that it would have been nice to have seen the entirety of the right wing but, unless it has been cropped out, I am afraid there is little that can be done about that.  Nevertheless this is an excellent shot, and anyone who has attempted to capture birds in flight will appreciate its virtues.

White Bellied Sea Eagle

Commended: Great Egret, by Paivi Lobigs (Image ID 29687)

Another shot where the image is made memorable by strong light, coming from the left in this case.  This egret is nicely posed with the beautifully curved neck and the gracefully held claw combining to make it stand out from more routine pictures of these birds.  The eye is well illuminated, and the feathers in the light are beautifully exposed.  If the feathers in the light are well exposed in strong light then it will almost certainly mean that the camera will struggle to capture the detail of the feathers in the shadows, and to some extent this is the case here.  Almost certainly the camera has in fact captured more detail than can be seen in these shadows, and this is something that is easily corrected in post processing.  In a compositional sense this is an image that would have benefitted from a portrait rather than a landscape orientation.  It would be nice to see the standing leg all the way down into the water.  Dramatic light and an interesting pose make this image memorable.

Great Egret

Commended: Wandering Tattler, by Warren Bennett (Image ID 29308)

This is a very nice capture of a bird that many people will only have seen from a distance.  There is also a little drama happening here as the bird is caught in the act of consuming the crab(?) while droplets of spray from the last wave explode around it.  The plumage is well lit and shows excellent detail, there is a pleasing highlight in the bird’s eye and there is nice detail and texture on the rock with its shellfish and weed.  While the droplets of spray do provide a sense of drama, they also provide some unwanted highlights that tend to draw our attention away from the subject, and it might be said that the picture could be improved if the whole background, and particularly the bottom right corner, could be darkened.  The background is mainly grey, and the bird’s plumage is mainly grey, so anything to increase the contrast between the two would go a long way towards strengthening the image.  Some of the brighter spray droplets could perhaps simply be removed.  Nevertheless, there is a lot to commend this image – very well done.

Wandering Tattler

Commended: Hooded Plover, by Jennifer Carr (Image ID 29481)

What’s not to like about this charming image of a Hooded Plover?  Once again it is the beautiful golden light that makes it memorable, and differentiates it from other shots.  The bird is sharp in its entirety while both the foreground and the background are blurred, so there has been nice management of depth of field here.  The eye is sharp, engagingly highlighted and of course emphasized by the red ring which characterizes this species.  There is a lovely ambient background which complements the bird’s plumage and is devoid of distractions.  The shot is taken from slightly above the bird, and would perhaps have been even stronger if attempted from a lower trajectory, and the whole thing might benefit from a tighter crop . Nevertheless there is a lot to like here – really well done.

Beach Stone-curlew

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