Snapshots from a different angle
Photographic Tour de Force!
Along with most birders, I've always felt that a photographic field guide could never approach, let alone equal, the utility of a well-illustrated 'conventional' guide. The appearance of David Sibley's recent opus only seemed to confirm this sine qua non of field guide design. Peterson summed up the illustrations versus photos argument in his 'Eastern Birdsí thus "a photograph is the record of a fleeting instant; a drawing is a composite of the artist's experience. The artist can edit out, show field marks to best advantage and delete unnecessary clutter ... A photograph is subject to the vagaries of colour temperature, make of film, time of day, angle of view, skill of the photographer, and plain luck." I'd add to this the difficulty in slotting sufficient photos onto a single field guide sized page Ė the Collins Bird Guide only managed to squeeze in 613 photos in a 750 page book a third of which was taken up with photographs.
Now, however, digital scanning, computers and the genius of Kenn Kaufman have made much of Petersonís argument redundant. Kaufman's new field guide "Birds of North America" is a remarkable tour de force. The aforementioned new technology has allowed Kaufman edit out, enhance field marks, delete clutter and go a long way towards counter acting those vagaries mentioned by Peterson. Superficially the 'plates' resemble conventional field guide plates - most show a dozen or more individual portraits despite the small handy size of the book (i.e. the same size as Petersonís ďEastern BirdsĒ). With over 2,000 photographs used, it has substantially more illustrations than even large format guides and as many as some guides illustrated by paintings.
It's not perfect - some of the photos are blurry and the number of plumages shown limited, but it is a vast improvement on any other photo-guide. It makes a perfect foil to Sibley being so convenient and user friendly to use. The maps are, to my mind, better than those in Sibley. It is clear that an enormous amount of thought has gone into the design of the book which a very clear layout, neat colour coded tabs and an ingenious one page index. After some deliberation I find it preferable to Peterson and, in conjunction with Sibley, better than the National Geographic (which I've always found over rated). This is not the book to use when faced with splitting American/Pacific Golden Plovers, but for the majority of species it is more than adequate. It would be interesting to see a more ambitious version of this book aiming to cover all species in greater detail - it wouldn't be an easy option as I suspect that the task of selecting and modifying photos must be an onerous one. Given the history of field guide development, itís a certainty that we in Europe will soon be getting a book based on this volumeís ground breaking design.
Before I go completely over the top, I'd agree that guides illustrated by talented artist/birders are far more aesthetically pleasing and are likely to have the edge for some time yet. However, with skilled photographers arguably being more common than such supremely gifted artists as Lars Jonsson et al, in the future the well designed photographic guide is sure to find a place in every birderís library.
The camera can lie!
Friends, a great problem with photographic guides is colour registration. In the printing process, all the good work of the authors and photographers can be undone, unless the publishers and their customers are willing to go to great expense. Clearly, the publishers can't do so when aiming to sell their guides at a reasonable price. That's an important reason why I don't rely on photographic guides.
No matter how good the photograph, and no matter how hard an author such as Kaufman tries to get things correct, the printing process can result in severe colour distortions, and, in the case of one series of U.S. photographic guides, can result in the outright omission of yellow in key locations on the bodies of warblers.
Compare Kaufman's portrayals of Greater Yellowlegs with those of Mullarney, Svensson et al. On first opening a copy of Kaufman's book, I turned to shorebirds. I remember thinking to myself that Europeans using the book might wonder why the description of Greater Yellowlegs was accompanied by a photo suggesting they might want to look for a juvenile Greenshanks. Greaters are dark above, but they're not black.
Kaufman's guide also crops photographic images so closely as to render the birds as disembodied silhouettes against pastel backgrounds. I find this approach disorienting. Lacking a frame of reference for apprehending shapes and proportions, I get the uneasy feeling I'm looking at a reflection in a mirror with severe surface imperfections.
Against a natural background, I can easily judge the angle at which the bird was photographed. Against a neutral background, I can't. I perceive the effect of that angle, however slight, but I have no way of adjusting for it. As a result, the shape of the bird appears distorted.
In my opinion, it takes an artist to get the shapes and proportions of birds right, because, as is often noted, beginning, perhaps, with Roger Tory Peterson, the photograph is a record of a moment, not the product of a lifetime of experience. For that reason, photographs often lie.
Mullarney, Svensson et al. do a great job on the two yellowlegs, I believe. Lesser is a very graceful, almost perfectly proportioned bird. Mullarney, Svensson come very close to capturing it (as does Jonsson). Greater is very much less graceful. Mullarney, Svensson give it more grace than I think it deserves, but look at the contrast they give you between the two species. Separation of the two species eventually comes instantly, on sight, given sufficient field experience with their aesthetics. Mullarney et al. most certainly head you in the right direction.
I've admired Kaufman's work for many years. He's a good artist. I wish he'd done his own illustrations.
[After writing the above, I looked over Kaufman's guide to see how I would respond to his treatment groups of birds other than shorebirds. The images to which I responded negatively were those of birds which I expected to present varying tones and intensities of red-brown, brown, grey-brown, grey, grey-black and black. Subtle differences in tone, and in degree of saturation, quite evident in the field in natural light, were most often missing. The images struck me as lifeless. Perhaps the problem may lie with computer-assisted photo-enhancement itself, not simply with colour registration difficulties that may arise during printing.]
Created: 13th Feb 2001
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