Alan Murphy is a busy bird photographer. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to Bird Watcher’s Digest.
Scott interviewed Alan in early January, 2009.
1 – Scott: Please tell me how and when you got into photography.
Alan: I grew up in England and Ireland and was a bird watcher since age 6 (now 48). I moved to the States in 1984 and although my years of birding helped me a little in identifying North American Birds, it was really like starting all over again. To help speed up the learning process I borrowed an old Minolta camera with a 80-300 MM zoom. I would lay out my prints next to my filed guide and compare filed marks to get a positive ID. It became apparent that my images were horrible. The birds were way too small in the frame, so I bought a bigger lens. I also bought some books on getting closer to wildlife. Next thing I was hooked.
2 – Scott: What is your favorite photographic location or subject?
Alan: My favorite location to shoot is the Upper Texas Coast during Spring migration. I have been shooting migrant songbirds at costal migrant traps for the past 12 years. When the birds make their flight across the Gulf of Mexico they arrive on the Texas Coast in search of food and water. Setting up a drip pond in front of my blind draws many species down to bath and drink. Every hour of the day different species may show up including Tanagers, Orioles, Warblers and Vireos.
3 – Scott: Can you recall the first photograph you made that caused you to think WOW – that’s a good shot and if so, what was it?
Alan: I think this has to be a shot of a Belted Kingfisher with a fish in his mouth. I worked three weeks on setting up the perch in just the right spot for this elusive species. I sat in the blind for many days before the bird took my perch. It all came together one evening with clear light, the bird catching a fish and sitting on the perch with his crest up.
4 – Scott: Do you have any formal training in photography or a related field and do you think that’s important for aspiring serious photographers?
Alan: I actually have no formal photography training, but I do believe that my years of studying birds has greatly improved my bird photography. I have also been to art school which trains your eye for things like composition, balance and form. Everything I learned about using a camera I learned from all the mistakes I made in the beginning.
5 – Scott: Are you more of a technical or an artistic photographer?
Alan: I lean more towards the artistic side of photography. If I have an image of a bird in great habitat sitting on a stunning perch, I can live with it if his upper beak is a little over-exposed, but I can’t live with a bird on a stick that has no drama even if it is technically perfect.
6 – Scott: Which photographers if any influenced your work?
Alan: Brian Small’s ability to get close to the hardest to find species first inspired me. He has photographed more North American species that anyone, I wish I had is knowledge of birds. Robert Royce has some stunning work and his own style. If I plan of going after a certain species, I will always check to see what Robert has done on that species first to get motivated.
7 – Scott: What has been the most interesting or surprising thing to you about how people react to photography?
Alan: Well the general public (non birders and photographers) will always comment on the cuteness factor and never see the technical value or how difficult an image is to get.
8 – Scott: How would you describe your style of photography?
Alan: I have always tried to get beautiful close up portraits of birds on a interesting perch that represents their habitat.
9 – Scott: How do you go about “seeing” a photograph?
Alan: Before I leave the house to go on a shoot, I always have the final image already in my head. For me it always consist of an out-of-focus background, a beautiful perch and a bird in great plumage.
10 – Scott: Of your many projects, which is your favorite and why?
Alan: My favorite project at the moment has to be my workshops. I held off doing these for many years as I was not sure if I wanted to share all the knowledge and tricks with everyone else. Now taking 3 or 4 people into the field and teaching them how to locate certain species, setting up perches and showing them how to get the bird to land exactly on the right part of the perch is so thrilling when you see the participants get excited.
11 – Scott: You’re very busy. How do you publish so often?
Alan: I have to be doing something creative for me to feel alive. It’s the way I am wired. It’s hard on those around me just keeping up, but for me it has never been work, it’s the challenge of the process that I crave.
12 – Scott: After all these years as a photographer/teacher and author, do you ever find it hard to remain passionate about your work?
Alan: That’s one of the great things about bird photography. It will take the rest of my life and I will still not even see many of the species of North America. No one person has ever seen 80% of the bird species let alone photographed them. I have also shot the same species over and over and will continue to do that as the setting, light and situation is always different each time I encounter the same bird.
13 – Scott: Everyone will ask me why I didn’t ask this question if I don’t – so here goes – What cameras/lenses do you use and why?
Alan: I am a Nikon shooter and have been since I moved from Minolta about ten years ago. I own the D3 and D2Xs for bodies. I have the 200-400 VR zoom and the 600VR lens. I have other shorter lens but the big glass is what I mostly use for birds.
14 – Scott: What’s the biggest mistake you made when you first started out as a photographer?
Alan: I think as a beginner I did not pay enough attention to the perches I was choosing for my bird setup shots. I once drove across Texas with a stump in my car that had lichen and fungus growing all over it. I use it to shoot Scaled Quail down in South Texas and have these great images of the Quail standing on top of this stump looking all proud. The problem was that Scaled Quail are a dry desert species and the stump was from an eastern forest. Scaled Quail and fungus (which grows in moist forest) would never be in the same habitat.
Most people would not pick up on that, but someone I respect pointed it out and it changed my approach to my photography.
15 – Would you like to give any final words of advice to photographers who want to improve their photography?
Alan: Yes, find out who is better than you and go learn from them. You can also take workshops. I believe networking on the many online photography forums is one of the best ways to learn. There are so many passionate photographers on these forums willing to share their knowledge and critique your work to help you grow.
You can find out more about Alan Murphy at his website: www.alanmurphyphotography.com.