Creativity in Bird Photography

When I started photography it was all about the bird. I wanted to take close ups of all birds, but especially rare ones, and soon hoped to get brilliantly sharp images with flawless backgrounds and uncluttered compositions. I was aiming for the perfect “field guide” shot. My dream at that stage was to get a perfect, close up image of an African Pitta or the first ever portrait of a Shelley’s Crimsonwing in the wild. It was a fun and worthy pursuit, as these images show the beauty of birds and often ignite interest and awareness in those that view them. They are also perfectly suited to someone who wants to see and experience as many bird species as possible.

A Cape Grassbird photographed at Ballot’s Bay in the Western Cape. I spent a week studying the daily routine of this Cape Grassbird. It preferred certain prominent perches from which it would serenade the surrounding fynbos. Although I took my best portraits of the bird during this time, it was only when I experimented with light, composition and space that I achieved images that portrayed more of what I felt than purely what I saw.

So what has changed over the last 12 years?

I still love trying to find new or rare birds and I still love portraits, but I now find far more joy in creating images that portray what I felt when in the field and how the overall scene impacted me. The hope is to take images that tell a story, that evoke emotion and that capture the essence and wonder of my subjects. The desire is to express myself through my work and create images that are unique and interesting. I hope by doing this my images and my passion for birds will encourage people to stop and wonder; wonder about how birds are so perfectly made, wonder about their stunning habitats and what we can do to protect them for future generations.

When I visited the Coutadas in 2019 I took a number of close up portraits of this incredible African Pitta. Although these were a dream come true, it was this image of an African Pitta that revealed how it felt to be there and witness one of Africa’s most spectacular birds move through the dense, dark lowland forests of the Zambezi Delta. It hangs on my wall in our office and transports me back to this magical moment.

I am now far more intrigued by different perspectives, interesting uses of light, unique compositions and magical environments. My foray into “habitat shots” or “birds in their environment” images 7 years ago was completely accidental, but it is an area that continues to excite my heart and holds so much room for creativity and future developments.
In short, my passion has moved from being all about the bird to being more about art and expression with the bird as the subject. This may seem like a subtle departure, but it has led me down a fascinating journey of self-discovery. 12 years ago I would never have dreamed of studying composition and design, taking inspiration from artists or being interested in different ways to use light and camera techniques to illuminate a subject. In this regard, it feels like I am right at the beginning of my journey. I am learning about what it looks like to be creative, to develop my own style as an artist and to find the right conditions for the creative process to blossom.

A very common but equally pretty Karoo Prinia brings home a Praying Mantis for its new family in stunning Fynbos habitat.

To achieve this end I am having to reconsider how I go about things, where I spend my time, what influences my approach and how I view what success looks like. Consequently, I thought it would be helpful to write a newsletter on creativity in bird photography and document where some of my thoughts are in this regard, albeit that they are in their infancy and constantly being influenced, changed and refined.

To help me with this I have also invited fellow photographer and friend; William Steel, to give a bit of his perspective. William is one of the most creative wildlife photographers I know and his insights on this subject are incredibly valuable. I encourage you to follow William’s work at and sign up to his newsletters.

I hope you enjoy the issue that follows.

Bird Photography and the Creative Process
Love and Passion for your Subject

I recently had the privilege of speaking to the photographic society at Michaelhouse; a well-known private boy’s school, near my home in Balgowan. I was asked to talk about how I got into bird photography, what it takes to become a bird photographer and how photography can influence conservation. It was a wonderful opportunity to encourage a room full of young photographers and share a little bit of what I have learnt on my journey to date. The title of my talk was “Falling in love with your subject” and I used this as a launching pad to talk about what it takes to grow as a photographer and artist.

Creativity is undoubtedly aided by a deep passion or love for what you do and why you do it. My advice to the audience was to shoot what they loved and fall further in love with their subjects. In my newsletter focused on Bohm’s Spinetails it was explained how “loving your subject” inevitably improves your photographs as it drives you to learn more about them, spend more time with them and photograph them in new and exciting ways.

To illustrate this point, my talk used some recent work with a Cape Grassbird. It shows how a curious, focused and persistent approach helps aid the creative process. My only regret is that I only had a week with this magnificent bird!

I will always love portraits as they show off the sheer beauty of birds and their intricate details. Here are two from my time with the Cape Grassbird; one with beautiful warm tones and the other with much colder, blue tones.

How “falling in love” creates new and different images

While exploring the beautiful Ballot’s Bay Nature Reserve near Wilderness in the Western Cape I found a very friendly Cape Grassbird in the fynbos above our accommodation. At first, as is often the norm, my efforts were focused at trying to achieve some decent portraits of this usually shy bird. The bird would select a few different perches during the course of the morning and my camera used the wonderful colours of the surrounding fynbos and different types of light to create my best portfolio of “Grassbird” images to date.

The vibrant colours of the surrounding fynbos made for some lovely settings. By moving around the subject I was able to find some pleasing compositions.

I exclusively used my 600mm lens, at varying distances, for this purpose and made the most of the opportunities presented.

Two more portraits of the Cape Grassbird, this time showing his beauitifully streaked back.

I loved how the combination of beautiful fynbos, sky and ocean backgrounds made for such a variety of photographs.

A Cape Grassbird standing tall in his fynbos habitat on the coast line of South Africa.

During this time I would often walk further away from the subject to see if I could achieve images with more space around the bird and that would give a different perspective.

Different distances, vibrant colours and an accommodating subject made for my best portraits of this usually shy species to date.

I then decided to experiment with light. I had played with the warm tones of the early morning light as well as the cooler tones of more overcast, misty days, but I also wanted to see if back lighting could portray what I experienced as the sun started to rise over the mist-ridden fynbos and the expansive ocean below. Experimenting with light produced two of my most cherished images and encouraged me to keep looking for alternative ways to communicate what I sensed and how I felt while observing this bird and its environment.

A backlit image of the same Cape Grassbird calling from his favourite perch in the fynbos of Ballots Bay. Although this image does not reveal the beauty and details of the bird, it communicates far more emotion and feeling.

Acknowledging that the bird was becoming increasingly comfortable with my presence, I thought that it might be possible to use a wide angle lens and capture images with far more environment and depth of field. Following this hunch, I took out my 16 to 34mm f2.8 lens and went to work.

Frankly, this is not for the timid, as patience and a willingness to fail are prerequisites to success! Fortunately I really enjoy observing birds and stuck at it. Although the results did not produce my favourite images of the experience, they were different from what I had seen before and definitely communicated different aspects of the bird, its environment and what I discerned while there.

A wide angle shot of a Cape Grassbird showing his misty, fynbos environment.
Another wide angle image of the same Cape Grassbird showing the beautiful pink hues created as the sun rose over the ocean and its fynbos habitat.
Another different perspective of this beautiful bird and its unique habitat.

I then went one step further and changed the presentation of some of the photographs by experimenting with black and white and other options.

A wide angle image converted to black and white to create more drama and intrigue. Although this will not be everyone’s cup of tea, I like how it simplifies things and creates greater focus on the subject.

To achieve this evolution of images, I had to sacrifice doing other things that I really enjoy; exploring new environments, looking for new birds and improving my images of rare ones.

As much as this took discipline to achieve, I am really glad I persevered, as it allowed me to provide an in-depth photographic study of a single species and delve into various techniques to show it off. It also clearly demonstrates how time with a bird encourages a more creative approach as it enables experimentation, refinement and moments of inspiration both before and after the event.

A classic portrait of a Red-collared Widowbird taken while I was waiting to capture the bird flying in front of his Afromontane forest backdrop.


I began this year looking to identify projects or ideas that would hopefully produce images that are different to what I have done or seen before. I have found that identifying unique or out of the ordinary environments can play an important role in the creative process and how the final images turn out.

One of these projects focused on Red-collared Widowbirds. I found an unusual environment in which they were breeding and tried to use this to portray their extravagant personalities and long tails. The location was beautiful, high altitude grassland adjacent to Afromontane forest. The dark forest background is what interested me, as previously I have only found them in open grasslands with grassland, grassy hills or dams as the backdrop. I felt that a black, possibly backlit bird against a gloomy background could produce some intriguing images. Although this project needs more time, these are two of the standout photographs to date.

“Out of Darkness” ~ A male, Red-collared Widowbird flies across Afromontane forest a few hundred metres from my home in Balgowan, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
“The Cross & the Switch Blade” ~ I love these pitch black birds with their red, cut-like throats. The combination of diffuse, back-lighting to illuminate the wings and a dark forest made for some wonderful moments.

Loving your subject and identifying new approaches and environments are just a couple of ways to ignite creativity in what you do.

I asked William a few questions to understand his take on creativity and the creative process.

Questions and Answers with William Steel

What makes a photographer creative?

I think there could be multiple influences on what makes a photographer creative. For me, a passion for art came before photography, so when I picked up a camera I naturally adapted the principles of artistic creativity to this medium.

That being said, there are also plenty of photographers who state that they do not have an artistic bone in their body but still capture unique photography that is undoubtedly creative. I think with photography, creativity largely comes from inspiration. Inspiration to represent a subject in a new and interesting way, inspiration to create a visually beautiful scene, inspiration through others, or simply using your individuality to share the way you see the world.

How do you go about being more creative?

Being inquisitive, I have always been inspired visually. The more I am out in nature the more I tend to be stimulated by it. Creativity then becomes a secondary effect. The goal tends to be around finding interesting ways to depict what I see. Often this is simply finding a new angle in which the light falls on a subject. I am forever striving to capture the way light interacts with a scene, and it continues to inspire the way I view the world.

The second biggest focus for me is around an idea; “powerful photography is a combination of beauty and intrigue”. This idea is one of creative storytelling. I have always tried to focus on these aspects regardless of the subject that I am photographing. As a result, this desire to tell stories forces me out of taking the easy or obvious photograph.

Finally, a huge source of my creativity comes from being inspired by others. From unique ways to use light conditions, to camera techniques and artistic styles. While making sure I don’t emulate others’ work, principles can be adapted, mastered, or simply stored away as an idea for the future.

What is the goal of creativity?

In the same way that creativity is subjective, I think the goal of creativity is too. For me being creative is to capture something unique. To showcase a subject in a new way that has never been done before. The goal of my creativity is therefore a desire to produce a work of art that aligns with the principles of beauty and intrigue.

What is your advice to photographers who want to move more into this realm?

Don’t chase after ‘wow’ subjects, search for ways to create art from the ordinary. Once you have learned how to make the mundane beautiful, then you can apply that to rare or iconic wildlife. The biggest step forward I had in my creative journey was to stop and look around me. Whether it is in my garden or walking around my local nature areas. The process of trying to capture something unique and interesting in a challenging environment will mean that when you are next in an incredible location you will no longer see the obvious photograph, and the creative process will flow.

One of William Steel’s most recognized photographs and one of my favourites titled “Lockdown”. William has an incredible ability to take images of ordinary birds and commonplace scenes and transform them into the extraordinary.

Setting the Table for Creative Success

After reading quite widely what different photographers say about creativity and how they define it, I realized that some take a narrow view and see it as purely the use of different light angles, camera techniques and shutter speeds, while others go much broader and see it as any idea or approach that produces something unique or different from the norm.

Personally, I felt somewhat ill-equipped to define or talk about creativity, as it is such a deep and intricate subject and I only know the tip of the iceberg. Consequently I hoped to find a well-researched skeleton on which to hang a few of my thoughts and practical experiences.

David Priilaid; a professor at the University of Cape Town who teaches entrepreneurship, wrote a book in 2018 called “Creativity Explained”. The book defines creativity as “the use of imagination to produce something new and valuable” and describes the meaning of creativity as the “practical outpouring of imagination”.

I often find inspiration in the work of others and learn from a wide variety of artists and photographers. This image of an Eastern Long-billed Lark was undoubtedly inspired by photographers who I admire and is one of my most memorable from a trip to the Mountain Zebra National Park in April last year. (Edited ~ I darkened this image using levels and the curve in photoshop and desaturated everything except the birds red legs)

After studying creative poets, visual artists and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards, Priilaid discovered mindsets and disciplines that “set the table for creative success”. In short, the process incorporates three “artistic mindsets”: love, grit/resilience, and suffering and four “artistic disciplines”: proactivity, practice, perspective and the invocation of the muse. For a brief review of Priilaid’s book: BOOK REVIEW: What business leaders can learn from musicians, poets and artists | Fin24 (

Much of what Priilaid describes really rings true to me and provides some excellent considerations for photographers looking to push their own creative boundaries. It also provided me with the skeleton I was looking for. Using his book for direction and inspiration, I have summarized some of my thoughts on the subject and how I feel these practically apply to bird photography.

Employing a child-like curiosity & being willing to fail: An innocent, child-like fascination with the natural world is a conduit for greater creativity. Being curious, shooting without bias, letting your imagination go wild and forgetting the rules allows a freedom to express, to explore and to experiment without judgement.

My son’s favourite response to my instructions is “Why?”. “Josh don’t stand in the hole!” “Why Dad?” Josh, don’t touch that! Why Dad? Please can I? His favourite answer is “Because I thought it would be fun” Or “Because I wanted to see what would happen”.

This inbuilt desire to try new things and to question the traditional rules is often lost as we get older and yet it is such an important part of the creative process. It often results in failure, but how do we discover new things, improve or refine if we don’t fail. What if I can sneak within a metre of the bird? What if the bird lands in the midst of that incredible landscape? Why can’t I photograph the bird from below without any eye contact? Why I can’t I move the camera up and down and create weird blurry things?

Many of my best photographs have been taken by imagining what might happen and patiently waiting to see if it does. Yet nine out of ten of these visualizations have failed.

“Slippery when wet” ~ I love images that tell a story. I watched this Drongo hawking insects amongst a herd of Nguni cows. He would dive down, catch an insect and then hurry back to one of his habitual perches. On this occasion his speed, combined with a wet perch, meant he over-balanced and spat out his grasshopper snack. It begs the question: “What happened next?”

Observing and persevering, observing and persevering: I can’t even begin to explain how many times I have gone out hoping to take a memorable photograph and come back with absolutely nothing to show for my efforts. At first this was very discouraging but after a while it has just become part of the process.

The determination to see a vision come into reality is an important part of the creative process. From a bird photography perspective, it means long hours of observation and nothingness, it means waking up before sunrise and going back before sunset, it means waiting for the shot longer than anyone else would and it means looking critically at your work and realizing you aren’t there yet and need to go back and try again.

You may have noticed that if you spend a couple of hours with a bird, you will likely find a portrait or image that you like and feel it is worth adding to your portfolio. However, if you go back and spend another five days with the same bird, that image will no longer make it into your top ten. Why is this? My view is that creativity more often than not takes time to manifest and observation is a critical part of this process. As you observe you begin to notice and imagine things, which allow you to capture something truly unique and beautiful. It also allows time for luck or providence to run its course.

The many shades of Mopane” ~ After hundreds of kilometres of driving through Mopane I eventually happened upon this Magpie Shrike and this magical scene. I spent as much time as I could with this bird and photographed it from every conceivable angle. For me, it captures what I had hoped to communicate; the variety and beauty of mopane.

Being ready for that split second moment: Gary Player’s famous quote; “the more I practice, the luckier I get” couldn’t be more true for creativity in wildlife photography. The more I practice a certain technique; whether it is back-lighting, low key, high key, panning for motion blur, identifying unique compositions, the more likely I am to take advantage of the situations that present themselves and create something new and different.

For example, I like looking for patterns and interesting compositions in nature. It is slowly becoming second nature. I also like looking at other artists work and seeing what patterns and compositions have worked for them. The more I do this, the more I see and the more I see, the more likely I am to take advantage of a moment of inspiration.

Being still & listening: Creativity Explained gives many examples of musicians, poets and artists who withdrew from their surroundings to find their “still water”; a Zen-like place where they could be creative. “Van Morrison was one of great singer-songwriters who understood and spoke of this yielding of self to greater forces of creativity and insight”.

Just being in nature is conducive to being still but I also find that you need to be able to quieten your mind and allow the stresses of the everyday to fall away before you really start to listen. Whether you do this through meditation, repetitive actions or prayer, it is often only once you have become truly still that you will be inspired and come up with new ideas. Some of the best ideas come from those quiet moments sitting next to a river or wondering through a forest. The more you make space for these moments the more they are likely to occur.

I love patterns and look for them wherever I go. As I continue to practice this skill, I see more patterns and as I see more patterns, I find more interesting compositions. I noticed this Thick-billed Weaver on one of my walks around my home and was intrigued by the wavy green reeds and how he popped out from their flowing, peaceful presence.

Enjoying the journey: Recently I visited the Kruger National Park. At first I was rushing around trying to achieve my photographic goals. I was putting in long hours and constantly questioning my approach and willing my vision to come to life. It was intense and I wasn’t really enjoying the time. I heard an inner voice say “don’t forget to enjoy the journey” and I realized I was trying too hard and needed to calm down and go with the flow. This didn’t mean that my planning had gone to waste or that I shouldn’t put in the hours, it just meant that I should enjoy each moment and the path towards getting the shot and not just the outcome or destination. It changed my approach and I am pretty sure it changed the type of images I achieved. Interestingly, a Harvard business review study found that more intense emotions stifle creativity while less intense emotions increase creativity.

This quote from Creativity Explained really hits the right notes for me “important work (read the most creative work) does not come from ego driven showmanship but rather the process of letting go”.

I have seen Purple-crested Turacos a thousand times over and have taken many poor images of them. On this day, however, they decided to do something completely different to my previous experiences and land right in front of me. What a moment in time!

Being inspired by others: In Prillaid’s book there is a quote by Igor Stravinsky who half jokingly said “A good composer does not imitate, he steals”. The book also gives the example of Steve Jobs sending his design team to an exhibition of Tiffany glass so that they could learn from Louis Tiffany’s designs.

I am often inspired by the work of street and landscape photographers. I also enjoy studying the work of famous artists to understand what made them so consistently effective. I find that I often take these ideas and concepts and apply them in a different context or in a different way. Taking inspiration from others is undoubtedly a fuel to my creative fire and has been found to influence the creative process in many others.

Looking to God for inspiration: One of the key findings or conclusions drawn from Priilaid’s book is that creativity comes from a supernatural force. Priilaid concludes that “Many artists shyly admit to some level of supernatural inspiration, seemingly embarrassed to credit the presence of a divine force in their lives. In a secular world, the mention of God has become politically incorrect. Regardless, as sifting through the views of Dylan, Cohen, Sting, Taylor and Waits and others will show, great art is written from the heavens, the artists serving as lightning rods for this purpose.”

I never thought I had a creative bone in my body. What I am sure of, however, is that I have the most creative God; Jesus Christ, that inspires and directs me.

FUTURE VISION – What to expect

With the introduction of newer and better technology; from mirrorless cameras with incredible advancements in autofocus to artificial intelligence that improves post processing, bird photographers will find it more and more difficult to differentiate themselves through traditional methods. Brilliant portraits of rare species are already common place, action shots are becoming easier and technical skill is becoming less of a requirement for success.

Creativity will increasingly be the only thing that differentiates one photographer from the next! It will be less and less about how brilliant or sharp your portrait is, or how perfect your flight shot is, but more and more about how unique or different your idea is, how unusual and captivating your composition is and how you have used light and/or camera techniques to push new boundaries.

Based on my love for habitat shots, this means that I will need to look at how this niche will evolve, how new technology will enable different methodologies and how I can develop new ideas or modify old ones to create something fresh and unique.

“Shoot what you love” – I spent a few days in February at Leeupan; a small pan in the south of the Kruger National Park. Every day a pair or more of African Pygmy Geese would arrive on the scene and swim around me. I took many classic portraits but this image is the one that I liked the most. I like that it reminds me of a water colour painting and that it is calm and gentle. It reveals more to me about the bird and my time with it than any other image.

For now this means focusing on the birds and habitats of Africa and seeing how they can be combined to create truly unique images. The “birds in their environment” category still holds incredible opportunity for the future and is arguably where creativity still has the most room to play.

Based on our shared passion for this genre, William Steel and I will be collaborating on a project to see how our different styles can work together to bring these subjects to life. Our first assignment is planned for 2023 as the concept itself requires practice, research and experimentation before we can get going and show you what we have achieved.

It is without a doubt a leap of faith, as right now we aren’t completely sure if it is doable on a consistent basis. But therein lies the fun, the challenge and the excitement and hopefully as we pursue the vision we will have our own, unique moments of divine inspiration.

Yours in bird photography