Photographers in Focus: Alan Murphy
We stumbled upon Alan Murphy’s gorgeous bird photos by accident this month while looking online at Common Loon [Gavia immer] images. September is that special month when we celebrate a group of waterbirds that excels at beauty and wonderful parenting skills. What attracted us to Murphy’s photos is that he captures these waterbirds with such grace.
Murphy is an award-winning photographer based in Houston. Besides spending time creating top notch bird photos, this photographer leads several bird photography workshops. Check them out here
We asked Murphy to tell us more about his passion for capturing images of our avian friends:
Question: Your photos of loons are striking. How do you get such intimate portraits of these beautiful birds?
Answer: I have been leading loon photography workshops in British Columbia for the past 7 years. We take small groups out to photograph 3 or 4 nesting pairs. The birds are used to us and allow us to spend time watching and documenting their behavior. I built a low profile platform pontoon boat that you can lay down to photograph the loons from a low perspective. Our camera lenses are only a few inches above water level giving that very intimate look. Each year we get to see and photograph eggs hatching, the chick’s first swim and first feeding. As the adult loons dive to catch their food, their chicks remain on the surface leaving them vulnerable to eagles and other predators. Many times they would bring the chicks over to our boat knowing they would be safe. It is truly a spiritual experience to spend time with these beautiful birds.
Q: How did you get into wildlife photography?
A: As a young boy growing up in England and Ireland, bird watching was my hobby. I loved spending time in the woods and had a keen interest in the birds. When I moved to the United States in the 80’s, I was a little overwhelmed with the number of species that looked similar. As an example, in England we have one wren, where in the States we have nine species of wren. To speed up the challenge of identification on the many species, I borrowed a camera and small zoom lens. I would have prints made from the slide film and then try to ID the birds from the prints with my bird book next to them. It didn’t take long to see I needed a bigger lens and find ways to get closer. I read books on how to find and approach wildlife and also on how to be a better photographer. I discovered that I loved the challenge of the technical camera stuff, the challenge of getting closer and most of all, I found photographing birds to be the most intimate bird watching there is. I was hooked.
Q: What’s are some of the challenges you face in your bird photography?
A: My personal photography goal is to photograph as many of the species that breed in North America. There are over 740 species. It has taken me 30 years to photograph just over 600 and will probably take the rest of my life to reach 700. It takes time, networking, money and luck. There’s also a sense of urgency as so many species are getting close to extinction and may not be here in 20-30 years. In the 30 years I have been photographing migrating birds on the Upper Texas Coast, I have seen a decline in bird numbers. The technology in camera gear is getting better each year and equipment is getting lighter, but our subjects are declining and the places to find then are shrinking. To help with this challenge, I try to use my photography to help in conservation in any way I can.
Q: What camera system do you prefer? Favorite lens for wildlife photography?
A: I work with Nikon equipment and have been for over 25 years. Since my main subject is birds, I use the Nikon 600 f4 lens for most of my perched work. For birds in flight I use the Nikon 300 f2.8 lens, sometimes with the 1.4 teleconverter.
Unlike photographing large African mammals for example, birds are small and a long telephoto lens is a necessity. It can be expensive entering in this hobby or profession, but once you have your gear, your set for years. (Well, until the next and greatest camera comes out!)
Q: What tips or suggestions for photographers do you have to edit and catalog their work?
A: I was a photographer when film changed to digital. There was a steep learning curve and not a lot of info for those of us on the forefront of digital. I made a lot of mistakes when it came to organizing my work. Today, there is so much info on the internet, that you can find a lot of feedback on almost anything. What I found works best for me was to create folders for every species of bird in North America. I have one set of folders that store all my RAW files (over 750 folders) and one set of folders that store all my processed TIFFs. I also have a set of species folders that store smaller JPEGs that are used for my website, newsletters, Facebook etc. The RAWs are stored using the embedded camera file number. The TIFFs are stored using the embedded camera file number, plus the species name. I don’t use keywords like date, sex, location etc, but if I were also cataloging mammals, landscape, macro etc, I would probably do that in order to find things easier. If I need a bird photo, I just go to the species folder.
Editing for me has changed over time. When I first started out, I kept everything. Now, it has to be as good or better than what I already have for me to keep it.
Q: What bird photo projects will you be working on in the future?
A: I have a few things in the works. This winter I will be trying to improve on a photo project that I have been doing to capture a Belted Kingfisher diving into the water. The image I am after is right as the bill touches the water.
I am building a system to where I have a camera and wide angle lens hidden in a fake rock. I will bring this to the Iceland workshop next year so participants can get up close and personal wide-angle images of Puffins. The camera has a WiFi device that can be operated from your phone up to 100 feet away.
Q: Who are some of your favorite wildlife photographers?
A: Since I’m a bird photographer, all these people specialize in birds and have all inspired me.
Q: How has working in nature enhanced your life?
A: As a young boy, I found great solace and peace looking and studying birds in the forests. Now as an adult, I get to not only do this for a living, but I get to share it with many others. To be around other like minded people and to share the wonders of nature, to contribute to conservation, and to travel to amazing places, I surely have the best job in the world.
More of Murphy’s favorite bird photos can be seen here: http://www.alanmurphyphotography.com/favorites.htm