Red-Tailed Hawk on a Kill

by Dec 19, 2019

(warning: some of the images are a bit graphic, but that’s because life is sometimes a bit uncomfortable)

Bird Photography is often about trying to sort out good light, a good viewing angle and an interesting bird before the bird looks at you, flips you a virtual finger, and flies off laughing.

Once in a while, though, they cooperate. And when they do, it can be glorious, but at the same time create new types of problems.

Take, for example, this red-tailed hawk. I came across the bird at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge on a kill — a former American Coot, from the feet — enjoying an early breakfast. Problem 1: it’s very close to to the auto-tour route, close enough I’m sure my driving past will flush it, and I hate flushing birds (aka “making them fly off”) in general, but especially if they’re feeding.

I drive as close as I dare and angle the car so I can get a good photo angle of the bird out the window. The bird stops eating (a bad sign) and looks at me. After about 10 seconds, it goes back to eating — it’s decided I’m not a threat. Good. So I start shooting.

I end up taking about 50 shots before I feel I’ve gotten what I need. At that point, I need to drive past the hawk, which will take me much closer. I expect the hawk will fly off and then return once I’ve passed, but the alternative is to wait for it to finish. I fire up the car and start moving very slowly.

The hawk looks up, glances at me, and goes back to eating. Having decided I’m not a threat, it ignores me. As I slowly drive past, I get within 20 feet of the bird, and it ignores me. I decide to stop. It ignores me, so I decide to take a second round of pictures. I do this quickly, spending about 30 seconds because I don’t want to push my luck or the bird’s patience, and move on. The bird ignored me the entire time, eating enthusiastically.

So now I have another problem. I have too many photos.

We all know That Photographer. They come back from a trip and dump 300 images onto their Yahoo gallery and expect us to dive in and look at all of them. I never, ever want to be that photographer. It’s my job to guide you to my best images, not dump all of them on you and demand you do the editing for me.

It’s my job as the creator to do the editing and so I try to cut down what I post to to the bare minimum of photos that tell the story of that trip with unique subjects, poses and activities. It’s not “how many good photos did I take?” but “How few of these should I use?” — my goal is always to limit the final image set from a shoot to the fewest that both hit a needed quality standard and are unique compared to all of the other images from the shoot.

Since I shoot in burst mode in the field, this kind of aggressive editing is necessary, because it’s quite likely I’ll end up with 6-10 very similar images, and my goal is to pick the one best, not use all of them.

Here I am with a single set of images about a single bird and a single activity, and I’ve got well over 100 images that could be used. That’s an insanely wonderful problem to have. So I start culling. It gets hard about 25 images. I finally whittle it down to 17 and call it a night, because I’m at a point where I think I need to sleep on it and get fresh, not-tired eyes on the problem.

So the next day, I dive in again and start doing comparisons. I make a few more painful cuts. When I get to 12 images, I stop, feeling like that’s as far as I can go. Still a lot of images for one bird doing one thing, but to me, each one tells a unique part of the story of this bird having breakfast, showing a unique pose or some unique aspect of this.

End result: I culled over 90% of the good images from this one event, not just the usable ones. I could easily have doubled the number of images even with my normal rather aggressive culling. But more images wouldn’t increase the impact to me, instead, it would dilute it and encourage viewers to skim. By keeping the images to the bare minimum, I hope by editing people will be more willing to stop and look at the images rather than glance and move on, which is a behavior I believe that “dump 30 and wish us luck” mentality encourages.

So here’s my advice to other photographers: get in the habit of editing what you post until it hurts. Because if you’re not willing to edit what you show to your best, why should anyone else invest the time and do it for you? Because time is short and interest fleeting, and I know when I see a batch of 300 new images, my eyes glaze over. My goal with my images is to never do that to you, and make the time you spend looking at what I make public worth the time and effort you invest in me and my images.