An interview with Alan Murphy

Is there anyone out there who knows nothing about one of North America’s most famous bird photographer, Alan Murphy? I have been following his work for a few years now and been stunned how perfectly transforms his view and knowledge on birds to the image sensor. Alan was kind to share some of his thoughts on bird photography to my audience online.

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Alan Murphy

Thank you Alan for being with us today. May I start with a simple question? Why birds?

I have been a bird watcher since I was a young boy growing up in England and Ireland. I spent thousands of hours in the field with birds and the relationship I had with that hobby became deeply important to me. When I moved to the USA in the mid 80,s, I was a little overwhelmed with the number of bird species, especially with so many bird species looking so alike. I borrowed a camera and 300mm zoom lens to take some images. I would use the slides to compare to the field guides for identification purpose. The birds were very small in the frame and usually not very sharp. I then got a bigger lens to get closer and bought a couple of books on photography. Next thing, I was hooked. I quickly realized that not only was bird photography the greatest way to bird watch, but you also came home with something to show for it. I love the challenge of how difficult it is and being a creative person, I also love that there is endless creative opportunities. Top that off with the challenge of having to make quick technical decisions with the equipment, and you have the makings of the perfect life endeavor for me.

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Painted Bunting. © Alan Murphy

We barely see your work out of North America. What is the reason behind this?

This is because I now make my living by selling and marketing images of North American birds. Probably more important is that I have many goals within my bird photography interest, and one of those is to photograph as many North American species as I can in my lifetime. Because I study the birds of N. America, I feel that I have a deeper connection with them. I went to Costa Rica twice to photograph birds, and although the birds were beautiful I was not as familiar with them as the ones here in the States. I actually get more excited going after a drab colored empidonax flycatcher than I would going after a Scarlet Macaw, solely because I have a deeper and more intimate connection with the birds I study.

I guess for you bird photography is not for making a good living and for that very reason it is less stressful. How do you see the market now? What does a photographer have to ponder when thinking about make a living from bird photography?

I am very lucky that I have another business that I have built for the past 20 years which is my main source of income. This allows me to approach my career in bird photography the way I choose to. I can shoot images the way I want to and if editors want to buy them than that’s great. I am not under pressure to have to shoot images the way editors want to see them (which I do not necessarily line up with). I also get to choose to do workshops with the locations that I feel are wonderful and not have to run all over the country where everyone else goes. I also don’t feel the pressure to have to have 10-12 people in the workshop. I mostly work with 3, sometimes 4.

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Cooper’s Hawk. © Alan Murphy

Sharing and teaching is very important to me and I really want to know that whoever spends time with me leaves with any expectations exceeded.

For those now wishing to go into bird photography as a career, I would encourage you to really try to have a niche or a unique style that is recognizable. With digital technology, there are now 1000’s of great photographers all competing. Just being a great photographer and having a style of your own still may not be enough. I fell that being successful in any creative business is 80% marketing and 20% skill. An average photographer who knows how to get his work out there, will be far more successful that the great photographer who waits for the sales to come to him. I can think of my top favorite 5 bird photographers and they are not making the most money. I can think of the 5 most successful bird photographers and they are not the best bird photographers.  I think having a good balance is key.

Your workshops are very successful and everyone wants to learn the famous Alan Murphy style of setting up. Do you remember your first workshop and your excitement about it?

Oh I wish you did not ask this question 🙂 I do not think that I will ever forget the first day of my first workshop. First off, we were in the Texas Hill Country. A bad weather storm was heading our way. Before the storm there was many months of severe drought so the place looked dried up and barren (the place looked amazing when I originally booked the workshop) The day before the workshop began, I spilled my tea into my laptop which had all my slide shows on it. While walking up to greet the participants (I was shooting nearby when they arrived) my 600 mm lens and camera fell off my tripod onto the gravel path. To top it off, we had hail that evening and the roof was ripped off the car port from strong winds.

They say that the character of a person is defined in crisis. Well I was truly tested. My camera and lens was scratched up but was still usable (although the VR would only work in horizontal mode. if I turned the lens vertical it would chatter loudly) I had a backup laptop and was able to remote into my home computer and retrieve the slide shows. The weather changed things as far as birds coming to the feeders etc, so I had to improvise and bring my participants into the field to track down birds. It turned out to be a wonderful workshop where the participants loved the process of going out in the field to scout for birds, look for perches, choose a shooting location with the sun direction and background in mind, setting everything up and then bringing the bird in to land on their chosen perch. From that first workshop I had 100% repeat business, so I guess I pulled it off. Every workshop after that was an easy one.

Do you know how many participants have enjoyed your teaching so far?

2010 will be my 4th year doing workshops and I only do a few a year with 3-4 participants in each one, so I guess I have had around 60+ participants who have spent time with me in the field.

We see a growing number of people who consider themselves bird photographers even without basic knowledge about their subjects. How important do you think having a bird-watcher background is for being a good bird photographer?

This is a great question and one I am glad you are asking. I feel that the best Bird Photographers are the best birders. Those that study their subject, know the habitats and can know what birds are in a given area will have the most success. When I am shooting from a blind, I’d say that 60% of the birds I shoot are from the fact that I can hear them in the distance (I know the calls) and can call them in. Without that knowledge I would be missing so many great opportunities. A good birder can pick out the unusual species in a group of birds. He or she will know which subspecies they are shooting. They will know males from females, and will know which bird in a group is in full breeding plumage compared to the other birds of the same species. There are numerous reasons why being a better birder or bird watcher will improve your bird photography.

You presented here one of your favorite images. Why was this was selected?

It was tough to pick one image as a favorite, but I chose this image of a male Wilson’s Plover at his nest turning over one of his eggs with his foot. This was taken on Bolivar Flats on the Upper Texas Coast during April. I had found 5 different nests and this one was the most attractive. I was shooting with Greg Downing at the time and we both started way back slowly crawling closer on our bellies. We watched the male and female take turns at sitting on the eggs. As the light got lower and we got closer, the birds totally excepted us. Great light, great behavior and a great experience shared with a friend.

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Wilson’s Plover © Alan Murphy

In one of our earlier mailings about switching from Canon to Nikon you said ‘Welcome on the dark side’. How do you see that dark side now?

I actually don’t have any allegiance to any particular brand. I will shoot with the best equipment for the job. I am happy that Nikon now has VR in their lenses and that they have some of the best pro bodies in the business. The advancement of technology in digital cameras is making things very exciting and will continue to do so. Canon and Nikon leap-frogging each other is a good thing for all of us. I feel that whatever the equipment that you use, learn the equipment. It will only be as good as your ability to use it.

How important is it to have the latest technologies in your hand?

I think the latest technology in noise reduction is the most exciting thing happening for us as photographers that shoot action. Being able to shoot at such high shutter speeds and still have a clean image is opening up a whole new world for us. The 4th image of a Great Kiskadee was taken without any flash and just a shutter speed of 1/8000. I was able to focus on the bird as it came in to a feeder and with these insane shutter speeds, capture an image that would have never been possible back in the days of film.

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Great Kiskadee. © Alan Murphy

Where do you see bird photography developing in the future?

Looking at the changes in bird photography since film, I feel that we will see some amazing action and flight photography images in the future. If you have a vision in your head of some kind of bird behavior, then I feel that the technology will now if not soon be able to support us in capturing it. Look at all the great images coming out of the dark and wet rain forests. Something that was a real challenge for bird photographers just 5-8 years ago. It very exciting to be a bird photographer right now.

What is your future in bird photography?

My goal is still to add new species to my files, so that means a lot of travel. I have a very busy 2010 in front of me and looking forward to every minute of it. I will continue to do selective workshops and will probably start working on my Advanced guide to bird photography. I also have a bunch of speaking engagements next year that I like doing.

Do you have dream species you still would like to photograph?

I have put in hundreds of hours at a drip pond on the Upper Texas Coast in hopes of getting Black-billed Cuckoo. Maybe next Spring will be my year. I will be photographing Puffin’s among many other species when I lead a workshop to the Pribilof Island in Alaska in 2010. That is a bird I can’t wait to meet.

And finally a returning closing question. What is your advice for beginner bird photographers?

  • When the weather is not good for photography, go birding with some good birders.
  • Go on a workshop.
  • Get involved with online Bird photography forums like Naturescapes.net, Naturephotographers.net and Birdphotographers.net.
  • Network, so you know people around the country and the world.
  • Try to develop a style that is your own.
  • Don’t be discouraged. Bird photography is hard. Birds can fly away and they do all the time. I too take lots of bad images. I just don’t show them to anyone. 🙂

Find out more of Alan’s incredible work and learn more about his workshops at his photography website: www.alanmurphyphotography.com.

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