Avian Abstracts

A different interpretation of bird photography that departs from the usual sharp, literal imagery to which we’re accustomed
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One of Lang’s favorite shots, this was made in late afternoon during the winter as the sun was starting to lose its strength. Sharp in the eye and just the right amount of movement make the image work.


Taken in winter in an area that’s both a staging and feeding place for many different birds, Lang cropped a horizontal image of a small flock
of Canada geese to a vertical. He stood on a bridge as they passed; incidentally, bridges are great places to shoot from.

Abstraction is defined as “freedom from representational qualities in art.” That’s what I tried to do with my series of avian abstracts—to make a series where form is translated into another form, where you as a viewer have to make up your own mind as to what it represents. Part of my shooting philosophy is to capture something that isn’t there. These shapes are fluid. They’re an abstract of their true origin.

Birds are of great importance to me on many levels. The beauty of their flight and the patterns that come from their flight are a wondrous thing to see and be a part of. There’s a solitude about their flight even when in a group. This is one of the reasons I decided to shoot this series. I wanted to capture the shapes and individual movements of each bird and get images that seem to show me what’s inside of the birds. Many look like an X-ray of motion. It’s as if they’re revealing secret sides of themselves to me, and I’m honored to be allowed to see what they will show.

To achieve the abstract effect, I photograph the birds by moving the camera along with them. I try to be guided by their motion. At the most basic level, all I’m doing is moving the camera as I make a long exposure. However, I’ve learned how I move my camera can determine the degree and direction of motion I get. Many wildlife photographers pan along with a moving subject to keep that subject sharp while making the background blur. To make my avian abstracts, I concentrate on moving the camera with the bird, but not at the exact same speed. The effect makes the background blurry, and because I’m not panning at the same speed, the birds blur at a different pace.

The shutter speed is the most important variable for the technique. I suggest you set your DSLR to shutter priority and experiment with shutter speeds around 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 sec. Longer exposures are difficult to manage, and instead of an interesting blur, you can end up with just a jumbled streak across the frame. Some birds move faster than others so be prepared to make adjustments. A hawk that soars lazily in a summer thermal usually will require a slower shutter speed than an egret that’s moving with a purpose over the surface of the water.

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A more textured background gives a different effect. When there’s detail in the background, take care that you create plenty of blur so you don’t get distracting sharp areas. All Images: Nikon D70S, Sigma 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6

The natural setting also plays a major role as does the background, along with the fact that using a somewhat longer exposure often requires a lower ISO. Watch your apertures so that you have sufficient latitude in your lens to compensate for the long shutter speed. Most of this is your call as to what you want it to look like in the end. Remember, there are no real rules here. Certain backgrounds can add a great deal as a bird passes across them. You can get a wonderful tapestry or pattern to enhance the photograph.

The subtlety of movement may be turning the camera to the left or right or up and down. It may include turning it 360 degrees or panning along with the bird or birds. The movements are simple. Sometimes they’re hardly noticed. No invention on my part, but what comes out of it is solely mine.

A least tern caught in a hover as it contemplates a dive and a bright blue sky create a strong image.

If you also pay attention to a bird’s flight pattern, it can help you create the composition you’re looking for. Or you can simply move in anyway you want to get whatever happens. That too is great fun as it can bring about some wonderful imagery. Nothing is wrong in those instances. And everything is right.

I try to think outside the box, and in many ways I don’t believe that there’s a box at all. I once had an art teacher who always said that you can break any rule you want as long as you know the rule you’re breaking. I always lived by that; however, at some point I decided that I could walk down a road where the rules were my own. Now I feel that when I shoot, I decide what’s real and right and what isn’t. My reality, my vision, my camera, my image. There’s a great comfort that comes when you shoot where there are no mistakes. Creating these images is really very rewarding. For me, it’s not a technical vision as it is a place of comfort. I’m at peace and at home here.

Remember, abstraction is “existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.” Go out and experiment, and create your own unique look.

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10 + Tips For Making Tack-Sharp Bird-In-Flight Shots
By Mike Stensvold
While Stephen Lang’s abstracts make for a unique take on bird photography, you may also be interested in these tips for getting more traditional sharp shots of birds in flight. (Right: Sigma 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 APO EX DG OS)

1 Use continuous AF and just the central AF point. The central point is generally the camera’s most sensitive and, thus, will produce the most accurate focus.

2 “Ballpark” focus the bird manually, then activate the AF system. That way, the AF system will acquire the subject much more quickly with no “hunting.” To do this, you need a lens that permits focusing manually while in AF mode, such as a Canon EF, Nikon AF-S, Olympus SWD or Pentax SDM.

3 Start tracking the bird with the camera before it reaches the point at which you wish to photograph it. Press the shutter button halfway to activate the AF system, and give the system a second or so to lock in on the bird. Then fully depress the shutter button to make the shot when the bird reaches the desired spot.

4 Many pro bird photographers set their cameras so that the thumb-operated AF button on the camera back activates autofocusing independently of the shutter button.

5 Be sure to keep the AF point on the bird (on the bird’s eye or head, if possible) at all times while tracking the bird with the camera. If the AF point moves off the bird, the camera will lose focus. Don’t worry too much about composition; generally, you’ll have plenty of room to crop the resulting shot when you process it.

6 Follow through. Don’t stop panning when you fully depress the shutter button to make the shot; keep tracking the bird as you shoot.

7 Use high-speed continuous advance mode, and fire off several frames. That way, you’re more likely to get an ideal wing position.

8 I switch off stabilization for flight shots because it slows the camera operation. To stabilize really long lenses, use a tripod and a gimbal head.

9 Use a fast shutter speed, at least 1⁄1000 sec.

10 Keep the camera steady. A tripod fitted with a gimbal head or a monopod can be an excellent tool. While handholding can give you good results, it can be easier to pan with the birds using a gimbal head that allows you to concentrate on moving the camera more than supporting it. Big, fast, powerful telephotos are heavy and awkward, so the more you can do to take the load off your arms, the better.

11 Practice! It takes lots of practice to become good at tracking birds in flight. Put in the practice, and you’ll become very good at it!

Stephen Lang is on staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. To see more of his photography, visit Lang’s website at www.stephenlangphotography.com/photo/index.php.


    I enjoyed reading your article and viewing your artistic bird imagery. I am also an avid bird photographer…I became hopelessly addicted october of 2008 after capturing some bird pics at my local wetlands. Now after many new camera and lenses purchased…this has become my all time favorite subject to photograph. When I was still a rookie, I did quite by accident, capture a great blue heron in flight with a too slow shutter speed while panning in low light. The resulting image was fantastic!

    Lang, thank you for share with us a great work. I love photograph birds, as a photographer birds is my passion. I really love your abstract work; You have the vision we got the emotion. thank you.

    I like the featured abstract bird shots. I never thought of that approach for birds. I have used the blurred approach in sporting shots, especially in NBA and NFL games, and they’re my fovorites when players react to grab the ball. Great idea!

    I have always enjoyed using blurring and zooming (sometimes together) to create interesting blurred photos and abstracts, but have never thought of doing so with birds. I’m going to try this.

    I have several shots of a pair of Red Tailed Hawks that hung out in my back yard for a week. There was this mockingbird that kept annoying them. In several shots, the mockingbird is just a blur.. but it conveys her determination to keep trying to make the hawk leave.

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