“Why not take photos?” Installment #1: Bird Photography Edition

“Why not take photos?” When talking about photography vs illustration, this is probably one of the most common questions I get. The easy answer is, “because photos can’t do the same things illustrations can”. Just because photographs are quick to capture and are becoming more and more accessible, they do not replace a well thought out and well executed illustration.

To show you some examples, here are some photographs I took on one of my walks recently. It was a gloomy afternoon in February; winter is actually a great time to go see wild birds because the bare trees make it easier to spot them. In one hour, I identified and photographed 10 common species in the area.

No, I’m not the best photographer and I still have some learning to do.  However, I hope you’ll see where the photographs fall short compared to illustrations.  Let’s see some birdies and think about visual communication![bra_divider height=’40’]

1. Camouflaged subject

White throated sparrow camouflaged

Do you see that bird?

It is amazing how well the little birds blend into the environment even though a lot of them have very striking contrast and bright colors! Nature has found a way to blend the little birdies in with the leaves and branches.  That’s great for birds, but as avid bird watchers and photographers, this is pretty frustrating. Try spotting the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) in the above photo.

Fortunately for illustrators, it is possible to separate out the environment from the animal so it is easy to see the bird’s colors and patterns.

White throated sparrow camouflaged

Here it is in case you didn’t see it in the above photo.

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2. BackgroundEastern Bluebird female photo

No matter how much a photographer tries, sometimes it’s impossible to get the background right. Take littering for example.  Not only are they harmful to the environment, they also wreck photographs. Yes, I can probably crop the orange straps on the trees, but it’s pretty inconvenient.  Besides cropping, I can probably Photoshop the offensive orange out, but then doing so interferes with the integrity of the photograph.

As with the camouflaged birds, illustrations can take only the necessary information from the reference photos/life studies. If I do decide to add the tree to the illustration, I can very easily not illustrate the orange straps when drawing tree barks.

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3. Focus

white breasted nuthatch

Stop moving so fast!

Darn! I have a hard enough time keeping my camera steady on a cold day, but those birds move so fast! They go all over the place on the tree bark to the branch to the ground to the next tree and back. I wonder how those little legs move so fast. Anyway, unless the shutter speed is set to really really high and technical settings are set on the camera, it’s pretty hard to get those birds to be in focus. I hope I get better with practice, but I hope you get my point.

American robin photo

Here’s another problem: Depth-of-field. Since cameras usually only have 1 lens, it can only focus on one distance at a time. Fortunately for me, the American robin closer to me trotted right into focus. I was out of luck for the robin further back.

When illustrating, the illustrator will have the subject in full-focus even when the other subject is closer or further from the focal area.

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4. Pose/Facial expressions

ummm...can you look this way?

Sometimes I think that the birds know that we’re trying to take their photos. This bird was openly uncooperative to my plans. We had a patience contest as it sat with its butt facing towards me for at least 5 minutes. Come on bird, I know you’re busy eating food and chirping and stuff, but can you pose for me a little bit?

This is where field sketching comes in handy; it was too cold for me to be drawing, but I would take my sketchbook out and sketch the birds to capture their overall body language and pose. Unfortunately for photos, we only capture one instance of the birds per photo.

Sure enough, when the mockingbird finally looked this way, it gave me a really mean look:

mockingbird glaring

Sorry! I’ll go away now.

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5. Unnecessary “props”

Little birds are very shy and like to feel safe. This means that photographers have to fight millions of branches: How do you avoid these? Please leave a comment if you have tips and tricks.

cardinal among branches

Hmm. And you are exactly 20 feet away from me at all times.

blue jay

So close! Darn that branch over the tail.

Carolina wren

I know, it’s cold isn’t it?

Imagine how challenging this would be if there were leaves on the branches. Goodness. We’ll never see them, ever. We’ll have to wait for them to come out to eat during meal times.[bra_divider height=’40’]

6. Individuality

This is something I noticed only when I started to illustrate professionally. When illustrating an individual, I started to see all sorts of subtle differences in the individual’s faces, poses, color patterns, and expressions. Maybe I’m looking at things too hard, but check out these two juncos.

junco 2

junco 1

These dark-eyed juncos have different patterns on their breast/belly area. Actually, look up “Dark-eyed junco” and be amazed at all the different variations of this bird!

If I were to draw a “human”, whose face would I pick? I would have to average out some facial features to come up with a general face. I find that I have to do that a lot with specimens too. If I can find references for more than one individual, I try to average out the characteristics. How would you do that in a photograph?[bra_divider height=’40’]

7. Weather

Finally, the weather. The day that I went out with my camera was a cold and cloudy day. Most birds were puffed up to stay warm. It’s natural for them to do that, but that’s not their “normal” look.

white-throated sparrow puffed upeastern bluebird puffed upcarolina chickadee puffed up

Also, if the image needed to have lush summer leaves or autumnal leaves, I’ll be out of luck for few months.

And now, let’s look at a bird illustration I did recently: I present to you, the Carolina Wren!


Carolina Wren Scientific Illustration

Compare this to the photograph:

Carolina wren

I know, it’s cold isn’t it?

So, what do you think? Join the discussion and let me know if you can think of more ways to compare photographs and illustrations.  Share a lesson learned from scientific communications below, and please share this post if you know others who have benefited from scientific illustration.

See more scientific illustration pieces