The Beginnings of Bird Photography

Freya Coursey

Freya Coursey

Welcome to the Young BPOTY blog! I’m Freya, one of the judges and ambassadors, and I am thrilled to be taking charge of the blogs on our new and improved site. If there is anything you would like to learn more about, or if you have any suggestions for blogs posts, we would love to hear about them! 

For now, as this is the first blog post, I decided it would be fitting to kick off with the very beginnings of bird photography, a subject that is inspiring and surprisingly entertaining! Brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton are often considered the world’s earliest wildlife photographers. They took the first photograph taken of a bird’s nest with eggs in 1892. This inspired them to produce the first ever nature book entirely illustrated by photographs called ‘British birds’ nests: how, where and when to find and identify them’.  

With digital and modern equipment, it is a lot easier taking images of birds now than it was before the rise of digital cameras. At the start of the 20th century, the Kearton brothers had to go to extraordinary lengths in order to capture images for their birds’ nest book. With no long lenses, the Keartons had to get up close and personal with their subjects, often requiring extremely precarious positions such as climbing to the very tops of trees using ladders with heavy camera equipment! They also had some very cunning techniques for photographing particularly shy birds, such as disguising themselves as tree trunks and piles of straw. They even used a stuffed ox to hide inside, although it must have been extremely uncomfortable!

Their hard work paid off and they produced a gorgeous photographic array of birds on their nests. Despite being an interesting subject, there is an important reason why many of the first bird photographs were of birds on their nests. Unlike our auto-focusing cameras today, the cameras that early wildlife photographers used had to be manually pre-focused to where the subject was expected to be. The exposure also had to be manually set. This could take some time, so pre-focusing on a nest was the surest way to get a photo, as they knew that the bird would eventually return to the nest. It was often that these photographers would only have several images from a day of photography, as setting up a shot would take so long!

Eric Hosking, another pioneering wildlife photographer, followed in the Kearton brothers’ footsteps. He also photographed birds’ nests, as cameras still had to be pre-focused in the 1930s and ‘40s. Eric was keen to embrace new technology however, and he was the first to use flash in order to capture nocturnal birds and birds in flight. This allowed Eric to photograph one of his favourite subjects, owls, but this backfired when he was photographing an owl’s nest. When returning to a hide at night, he was struck in the face by a Tawny Owl, causing him to lose an eye! But he was so fixed on getting the photo he wanted, he returned to the hide soon after he was well enough. That’s determination!

Through digitalization, automation and others advances in modern wildlife photography, the techniques used by the earliest bird photographers are nearly unrecognisable to us today. But we can definitely learn something from their patience, ingenuity and determination!

Freya Coursey.

Image taken by Freya Coursey, titled ‘Clouds and corvids’

Image taken by Freya Coursey, titled ‘Clouds and corvids’

Rob ReadComment