Art of Birding – Our favourites from the January 2022 challenge + sparks

By Judi Lapsley Miller, challenge creator, with input from the AoB Facebook moderators

We got off to a tremendous start in the 2022 Art of Birding Wildlife & Nature Photography Challenge with some wonderful new participants and many returnees. I changed the format up a bit this year, to keep things interesting and to give more flexibility. The focus is now on monthly challenges supported by weekly inspiration sparks drawn from previous years.

The January challenge was to create a “matched pair” of images about something the participant cared about. The sparks revolved around introducing ourselves to each other with the places and wildlife that we love.

Spark Week 1 - My happy place

Moderator Dave Hattori (USA) selected Beth Wishart’s (New Zealand) photo of Mt Taranaki. Beth says she finds it easier to define her happy place when she’s overseas, as a broad “New Zealand” is easier to explain. “But if I drill deeper, my happy place is whenever I’m out exploring our beautiful landscapes. I’m new to the photography game, my spark submissions are all snaps from my phone as I’ve explored our amazing country over the last two years.”

This particular photo was from an incredible moment. “After tramping up the Mangorei Track to Pouakai hut, I popped up to this spot after dinner and it was here that Taranaki revealed himself for the first time. I was the only soul about. The mountain looked impossible. It was far bigger than I had realised. My jaw was locked down for a while, but after some time, I took out my phone and snapped this picture.”

Dave commented, “Beth had a wonderful set of photos for this week’s Spark. I was particularly drawn to this one for a number of reasons.  The lighting on the mountain is wonderful, and the clouds coming off of it and surrounding it add to the scene, making a nice backdrop for the mountain to help it stand out even more.  I also liked how the foreground draws you in and makes you travel down the hillside into the valley and then up the mountain to the sunlit peak.  Overall a beautifully composed photo of a stunning scene, and I was even more impressed that it was taken with a phone.”

Spark Week 2 - My favorite critter

Moderator Marion Skelton (NZ) had a difficult choice with this challenge because there were many possibilities, but she loved the composition of this photo by Janet Bailey (UK) of the Common Blue Butterfly, especially because it also showed the male and female. Janet says, “I was lucky enough to capture the male and female mating. Each year, from May to Aug/Sept, I specifically go to my local wood in search of the butterfly. They seem to always be in the same vicinity and pretty easy to spot due to their color. They are tiny, and a challenge to have them land and stay still long enough to capture them but well worth it.”

Spark Week 3 – My favourite plant

Kathy Keddle’s (New Zealand) dahlia was the pick of moderator Karen Miller (aka Kizmit Winter, NZ). Karen commented, “I  liked the synchronicity of the perfect petals and the subdued tones and lighting. I found the image very calming.”

Kathy “just loves Dahlias.” “I grow quite a few of them and find them to be very photogenic.  This one was taken in a garden I visited on a Horticultural Society field trip to a Dahlia Breeder.  It has not been picked; the bokeh in the background is the rest of the garden. I use Lightroom to edit my photos and probably spent a couple of hours on this one to get the finished product. I really enjoy creating art with Dahlias and have become known for it at my local Hawera Camera Club.”

Spark Week 4: From My Archives

In this challenge, participants were asked to select a favourite photo, tell us about it, and say what they might do to improve it if they had the chance to retake it. Self-critique is a vital first step towards improving your photography, and it is much more helpful (especially when starting out) than getting critiques from others. It takes some time before knowing what to ask for and how to receive a critique. What can happen if critique is given too early, is that the recipient loses confidence in their own assessment and relies more and more on external validation. Create for yourself, and satisfy yourself first!

Moderator Carmen Therrauilt (Canada) selected Kathy Le Bron’s (USA) monk seal.

Kathy says her favorite wildlife photos from her archives would have to be the surprise opportunity to photograph a mother Hawaiian Monk Seal and her 8-day old pup on a beach in Kona, Hawaii. “It’s my favorite for several reasons.

  1. Because they are critically endangered with only about 1,400 individuals left in the wild, making this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  2. Because in the second photo, you can see rogue fishing line by the face of the pup in their protected area. After getting home, I was able to alert those who were overseeing their protection on the beach and have it removed.
  3. It was a complete happy accident that we came upon this area of beach that day, after driving over very long, rustic volcanic road to reach the beach.

What I would do differently, first and foremost, would be to shoot in RAW and manual. I was still shooting JPEG and automatic in those days! I would also spend a lot more time shooting the mom and pup! I was only able to be there for about an hour. Still, it was one of the most exciting and special photographic experiences of my life!”

Carmen commented “Kathy’s beautiful photos of a mother Hawaiian Monk Seal and her 8 day old pup show us the precious, intimate bond between a mother and her young. Kathy’s images remind us of the importance of capturing life’s exciting and amazing experiences so that we can relive them again and again. As Kathy said, given the same opportunity again, she would do things differently (shoot in RAW and Manual mode) but our photographic journey is all about learning and improving while not missing those special experiences. Thank you, Kathy, for sharing these beautiful images with us!”

The step to shooting in RAW is something we’ll be encouraging as the challenges continue. RAW format gives so much more latitude in post-processing to recover less-than-perfect exposures. Yes, getting it right in-camera should always be the aim, but anyone shooting wildlife knows that the reality is usually quite different! If you’re not quite sure if you’re ready for RAW yet, consider shooting RAW+JPG, which automatically gives you both.

Moderator Kaylene Helliwell (NZ) chose Elizabeth Howell’s (UK) dynamic darter photo for her Week 4 pick. “I chose the image because it was an amazing capture of a special moment and such a big fish!!! I loved the story and the image popped too!!”

Elizabeth describes how she got her shot “12 years ago I took this photo of a young Darter trying to remove this large bream from its mum’s stomach. Fortunately, mum retrieved it and quickly swallowed it again. I think the chick would have choked. This was my first time using a 600mm prime lens so it brings back fond memories. I photographed these youngsters from the time they hatched until they left the nest. It was the first time I had ever done this. I think given where they were situated over water, this was the only angle I could have taken the shot without branches getting in the way. It was quite dark where the nest was so I had to lighten the photo. Probably the only thing I would have changed is to use a higher ISO, but back then I was always worried about noise in the photos. Technology has improved so much I don’t care what ISO I shoot these days.”

Elizabeth is correct in how noise-reduction technology has revolutionized wildlife photography. We can now trade-off a faster shutter speed for a noisier image, knowing that it can be denoised in post-production. It’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to recover a photo that has too much blur from a slow shutter. Popular noise-reduction software includes ON1 NoNoise AI and Topaz DeNoiseAI. In combination with shooting in RAW, these new technologies make a huge difference in creating that jaw-dropping wildlife image.

January Challenge: A Matched Pair

The first monthly challenge was to create a “Matched Pair”. I was after two separate images that somehow related to one another, and were processed to be harmonious. The inspiration I gave to help people were these photo-artistic pieces of mine featuring kākā parrots (left “It’s About Time” and right “Two Minutes to Midnight”).

Both images feature the same species (kākā and kākā beak flowers), imagery of time, and themes of decay and renewal. The birds are sized similarly and face each other so that if hung together there is a nice symmetry. Both are processed using antique sepia and rust tones. Similar, but different. They can stand alone or hang together.

There were many wonderful pairs to choose from, and in the end, I reluctantly narrowed my choice to three.

Jan Robinson (Australia) loves photographing the insects that visit her garden. Her matched-pair features two different native bee species. Why do they work so beautifully as a matched pair? Both are on a white flower with a similar pastel-toned background bokeh. The bees are also roughly similar size, and, like in the example, mirror symmetric. The bees themselves are colour coordinated with each other and their surroundings. I do like how the yellowy-orange thorax of the Blue Banded Bee is carried over to the orange pollen and abdomen of the Megachili Bee.

My second choice was Gayle Beveridge-Marien’s (Australia) sweet superb fair wrens amongst the blossoms. What I especially loved is how Gayle matched a female (or juvenile) and male bird, with their different colouring. Inserted into a similar environment with some photo-artistry, their differences and similarities are more readily apparent. I’m impressed that this is only the second photo-artistic composite piece Gayle has attempted! Gayle explained more about how she created the images and about the fairy wrens themselves.

The Processing: This is only the second time I have made a digital art image. All the photographic components were taken by myself and each image is a composite from four separate images. The female (or juvenile, I’m not sure which), was photographed in my back garden and the male in the Wonthaggi Wetlands Conservation Park. The branch of blossom was a spring flush on a neighbour’s tree. The image base is a macro creamy-bokeh shot taken of shrubs in our garden and the mauve cloudy texture is a shot of storm clouds taken from our front garden one night when I was hoping for images of lightening. The blend mode for the mauve clouds texture was ‘Soft Light’ which was masked so as not to interfere with colour of the birds or the blossoms. I used GIMP freeware to prepare the images.

The Superb Fairy Wrens: these birds are common where I live. They are often in our garden and can even be seen jumping around the back verandah. The adult male is resplendent in his coat of vibrant blue which is iridescent when he is searching for a mate. The female is a brownish-grey and has a soft red eye-makeup. Juveniles carry the same colours as the ladies. These are tiny birds (13-14cm). They hang around in small groups and mostly forage on the ground. They like the dense cover of low-lying shrubs. In Australia they can be found below the Tropic of Capricorn (Southern Queensland), eastern New South Wales and Victoria, south-east South Australia and Tasmania.

My third pick was this sweet pairing of two redpolls by Gail Kirkelund (Canada). She also used a photo-artistic touch, and here she matches her pair by mirror symmetry but with different poses for the wings.

Gail explains that she used her own textures with the exception of the light bursts from Topaz Textures. Redpolls are Gail’s favorite backyard bird during the winter – they entertain and kept her busy for many hours!


I do hope these photos inspire you too. If you’d like to join the challenge, it’s not too late. Jump on in with the current month where we’re creating photo essays about local flora or fauna.

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