Arthur Morris
Wild Bird Photographer Extraordinaire

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It's a long way from an elementary school in New York City to the pristine bird habitats of south Florida. Though less than a thousand miles as the crow flies, the two locations are worlds apart when considered figuratively. After 23 years of working in the inner city, Arthur Morris made that transition in 1992, leaving a secure teaching position to take on free-lance bird photography as a full-time profession.

Renowned for images of artistic design and technical excellence, Morris' work appears regularly in major birding, natural history, and photo magazines as well as many books and calendars. The most recent of his four books, The Art of Bird Photography; A Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques, has won rave reviews as the definitive work on this topic. Sharing his expertise generously and employing the skills he had developed as an educator, Morris now leads many photo workshops.

I caught up with him at the J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in Florida. We discussed his metamorphosis from school teacher to full-time bird photographer, a few shooting techniques, and the reasons for his impressive accomplishments. This includes awards in the BG/BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and a gallery exhibit that hung at the prestigious Roger Tory Peterson Institute this summer. (The exhibit of 64 images is co-sponsored by Canon and The Nature Conservancy and will travel to other locations starting this fall.)

Shutterbug: I know from your books that you were a birder long before you took up photography. Was that an essential ingredient in your recipe for success?

Arthur Morris: Yes, it was a definite advantage. Expertise with your subject is far more important than expertise in photography. In fact, the photography is fairly easy to learn. I had occasionally done some bird watching over the years, but never got "hooked" until August 1979. I was out on a mudflat at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (NYC) watching a marbled godwit at sunrise. A thousand cars and trucks roared by on the boulevard, jet planes were taking off, and subways rumbled along. I thought, "This bird is so beautiful and no one even knows it's here." That was my "spark bird." Everyone can remember the one bird that just grabbed their heart and stole it away.

SB: So, did birding then become a passion?

AM: Yes, I birded intensively from that day on, before and after school, and during summer vacations. I was even involved in a shorebird survey for the Manamet Bird Observatory. I counted birds twice a week, eight months a year for eight years and wound up counting almost half a million of them. Eventually, I became bored; I had seen most of the birds that came through New York. I liked them, but I couldn't see what the big deal was about just checking them off on a list. I still hadn't taken a single picture but the experiences all wound up being important in my photography.

SB: Can you provide a few practical examples of that?

AM: Remember this morning while we photographed great egrets fishing? You know that when they crouch, they're about to strike for fish but you can't just waste a whole roll of film firing when the bird is in a crouch. If you have watched this behavior before, you'll know that they tense their muscles and retract the feathers about the head and neck an instant before they strike. Little cues like that help you to get a great shot. You can easily get into the rhythm and trip the shutter just an instant before they strike and keep shooting. Also, you know that you need to adjust your composition, leaving lots of room in front of the bird, so you are not shooting its head out of the frame. You don't have to be a skilled birder, but you do have to be a skilled observer.

And familiarity with birds teaches you that they're creatures of habit. When you approach one on a perch, it may very well take flight. Most people will just give up and walk away, thinking "Better luck next time." But if you know why the bird was there, you might surmise that it will return to the same perch.

SB: If I recall correctly, you were nearly 40 before you began to photograph birds.

AM: That's true. I was 37 when I bought my first telephoto lens, the Canon FD 400mm f/5.6. By starting late, I had given myself time to learn about my subjects. It's like anything else: the subjects you photograph best are those you know and love. It was better for me to have been a birder for years and then learn photography.
I was able to progress more rapidly than someone who was already a skilled photographer. I've found that I have really benefited from a familiarity with birds. Knowing where to find various species during the year, knowing their migratory patterns, breeding and wintering grounds, and learning where to find birds that are acclimated to the human presence has made my job relatively easy.

SB: You were still teaching then and shooting part-time. I remember reading somewhere that you introduced your love of birds to the students. Can you tell us about that?

AM: I taught in a really bad place, in an area where you'd walk by drug vials lying in the school yard. For many of the kids, home life was dismal, but many were able to rise above it. I saw that good teachers could make good things happen in the classroom. I started bringing slides of birds into school and got the kids interested in sketching. When I went around the room, I'd get goose bumps. These kids had no exposure to birds and yet most had captured the bird's essence with a couple of strokes of charcoal.
We took lots of field trips to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and Central Park. The kids were thrilled with the birds even though these environments were foreign to them. Later, I got a grant to develop curriculum and to share ideas with other teachers--using birds as the common theme. The educational approach was to use one unifying thread to teach several subjects. For math they would calculate migration distances; for geography, they would trace migratory routes; and for sex education, I'd bring slides of herring gulls copulating, as well as of chicks and eggs. Having the slides was a natural in explaining where the birds and the bees come from. There was no limit--just your imagination and creativity--as to how you could use the concepts and the images of birds across the curriculum.

SB: You mentioned that your first lens was a 400mm. These days, you primarily use a 600mm f/4 with tele-converters. How did you manage with the shorter focal length?

AM: With a 400mm lens, you really have to work hard to get close to the birds, get down in the mud to crawl up to them, and wait patiently for special situations. I remember the first time I ever saw somebody using a 600mm lens. I asked to look through it at a cormorant, and the difference in magnification was incredible. Even so, I did some good work with the old Canon FD 400mm f/4.5. My early articles for Bird Watcher's Digest and Birder's World were illustrated with that lens.

In 1990, at Cape May, New Jersey, I saw a guy with an 800mm f/5.6 Canon FD lens. It turned out to be Art Wolfe, one of the world's best wildlife photographers. With the money I'd made selling stock and illustrated articles, I bought the same big lens. From then on, I could do much more, photographing the birds going about their daily routines without disturbing them. Image size is proportional to the square of the focal length so by doubling the focal length, a bird actually covers an image area four times as large on the film frame.
SB: Now you're using the Canon EOS system. How did you get turned on to autofocus?

AM: In 1993, I attended a George Lepp Seminar and I saw his photos of speeding cars and planes--and several of birds--made with Canon autofocus equipment. I knew Canon had hit on something when I saw Lepp's pictures of a race car coming straight at him at 200mph and all seven frames in a row were razor sharp. I switched almost immediately. I thought that the EF 400mm f/5.6L USM seemed ideal for birds in flight and in action. From the very first roll, I was able to do miraculous stuff with flight photography.
I call the EF 400mm f/5.6L USM "my toy lens," but as I said in my article in Birders World the EOS A2 and this telephoto is truly a "Deadly Duo" when it comes to photographing birds in flight. It's easy to hold and the predictive autofocus system is superb.
Now, I'm also using the EF 300mm f/4L IS USM with built-in Image Stabilizer and I just love it. The stabilization technology really does take the shake out and enables most photographers to make sharp handheld images at 1/60 sec or 1/90 sec, even when used with the 1.4x tele-converter. Some experienced shooters will find they can work with even slower shutter speeds and still produce critically sharp images. And the lens focuses incredibly close--to less than 5'--making it ideal for eyeball shots of large, easily approached birds. I think this lens will revolutionize photography for bird watchers who, as a group, absolutely hate working with tripods. (Since this interview, Morris has also acquired some EOS-3 bodies and is looking forward to testing the new EF 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 telephotos with Image Stabilizer.)

SB: I won't ask you to describe your entire shooting strategy in a few words, as that would lead to gross over-simplification. But in your "Birds as Art/ Instructional Photo Tours," what do students find to be the single most useful technique for improving their bird photos?

AM: After four or five days, most participants feel that they have a much better understanding of composition and image design. They learn to really see the background, and to eliminate any clutter by shifting their position. The hallmark of my style is capturing birds against clean, defocused backgrounds of pure color and I try to teach my students how to do just that.

SB: When viewing your slides, I am most impressed with their impeccable technical and aesthetic quality. Aside from background, what's your secret?

AM: One of the things I have realized over the past couple of years is that it's constant attention to tiny details that make the difference. When we hold critique sessions during my workshops, people think I'm a nit picker, because I notice a little branch sticking out at the edge, or the angle of light is not quite perfect. But this field is so fiercely competitive that the images have to be close to perfect if you want to market your work.
I often think of the hundreds of thousands of images I've made. For each one you have to calculate the exposure quickly in your head, make a compositional decision and position your equipment. Then calculate the exact instant you'll fire the shutter; sometimes you also have to anticipate the action. If you consider 100,000 images, with the four or five decisions that must be made for each one, it seems like an immense task. And yet, I know my work gets better each year, sometimes every month, it seems. A lot of it is just attention to little details, quibbling over a 1/3 stop of exposure or a slight change in a bird's head position; all those things in total make a given body of work stand out.

SB: Most photographers find they discard a lot of their bird photos, as I do, at least if they're really critical of their work. What's your success ratio in terms of "keepers?"

AM:
Especially when taking photographs that depict behavior, flight, or action, you can expect that many of your photos will end up in the trash can. Serious bird photographers usually discard over half their pictures. Lately, I've been keeping and labeling only about a third of everything that I shoot, especially when trying a new technique. From every 50 rolls or so, I'll generally select 6 to 12 images to be duplicated in 70mm for the "family jewels" file. It's a strong desire to produce these truly exceptional images that drives me to be in the field at sunrise more than 250 days a year.
And aside from the occasional astonishing image, there are many other rewards, as you know. Moments spent with a singing meadowlark, a preening peep, or a screaming gull are not soon forgotten.

SB: You left your New York teaching job six years ago and moved to Florida to begin working full-time at photographing and writing about birds. That had to be a risk, financially at least. What motivated you to take the plunge?

AM: On June 28, 1992 I walked out of the school for the last time. It was a wonderful, glorious day. I loved teaching for a while, but I had been "burned out" for several years. I looked forward to my new career with some trepidation, but it has paid off, both artistically and financially. I have no formal training in photography, art, or ornithology, so I feel extremely fortunate to be able to make a good living doing what I love best: photographing free, wild, and unrestrained birds.

SB: Before we wrap-up, what advice would you give to aspiring bird photographers?

AM: Study the birds every chance you get. Look at as much good nature photography as you can get your hands on. Get up early, take a nap during midday hours, then stay out late. Pay attention to the details; watch your backgrounds. And work hard. Of all the keys to my success, hard work has surely been the most important.

Arthur Morris' book, The Art of Bird Photography; A Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques is distributed by Amphoto, New York. For Instructional Photo Tour information, or to order an autographed copy of one of Morris' books, contact him at PO Box 7245, Indian Lakes Estates, FL 33855; by e-mail at: birdsasart@worldnet.att.net or visit his web site at: www.birdsasart.com.

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ShutterFan's picture
Interesting article

great site too