Bird Photography: Interview with Colin Dunleavy

Reflection bird photo of white Snowy Egret walking through water by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2010 Colin Dunleavy. All Rights Reserved.

Snowy Egret

Amateur photographer, Colin Dunleavy was raised in the east midlands area of Nottinghamshire, England. He is a man who loves the camera and makes some remarkable images. His specialty is bird photography although he enjoys any kind of wildlife or nature images. He may not make a living from his photography, but he is certainly a man who is beyond amateur status.

NB: Noella Ballenger (Interviewer) & CD: Colin Dunleavy (Photographer)

NB:Colin, how did you get started with your photography?

CD: I’ve owned various point-and-shoot cameras over the years and would only use them when going on holiday. About ten years ago I discovered an ecological lagoon in a small seaside town in North County San Diego. It is home to hundreds of migratory birds. This wonderful proximity of wildlife led me to purchase a really good digital camera and a 400mm f5.6 lens.

Close-up bird photo of Brown Pelican head by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2010 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Brown Pelican

Close-up bird photo of African Grey Parrot with red tail feathers by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2010 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

African Grey Parrot

NB:Birds are certainly a dominant subject of your work. Why the interest?

CD: I first became interested in birds when I was about 8 years old. At school in England, we all collected and traded Brooke Bond “Wild Birds in Britain” tea cards. We lived in a rural area and after school and on weekends we would spend a lot of time exploring and looking for birds in the countryside. I didn’t know much about North American birds until I moved to San Diego. There is such a wide variety, so I have been studying bird books to learn more about them.

Photo of adult and young Western Bluebirds on branch by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2011 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Western Bluebird

NB:What are your favorite bird photography locations? Do you ever go to the zoo to photograph birds? How is that different from being out in the field?

CD: It all depends on the time of year, but I like the abundance and variety available at an estuary or wetlands. There are water birds as well as song birds and raptors. I also like to visit new areas to seek different birds that are not seen near the coast, such as the Cleveland National Forest, 40 miles east
of San Diego.

I haven’t been to a zoo yet to make pictures, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do that. I think photographing captive birds is a good way to get close to a bird that may not be approachable in the wild. However, a lot of satisfaction is gained when one creates an image of a wild bird. It’s the excitement of the unknown. Many times the bird activity can be scarce, and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, something exciting will happen – seeing an uncommon bird or watching some hawk in pursuit of its prey.

Bird photo of American Wigeon in water with wings spread by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2011 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

American Wigeon

NB:Any tips on how to find birds for those starting out?

CD: You don’t have to go far to find birds. Just look in your own backyard. I have flowers that attract hummingbirds and seed feeders that bring in finches, blackbirds, sparrows, jays and doves. Buy a good bird book and carry it with you in the field, such as the Sibley Field Guide to Birds or the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. They are invaluable for identification. They will also disclose types of locations and best time of year to find particular species.

Also, look for local nature centers and talk to the guides or park rangers. They will know more than anyone what birds are around at any particular time of the year. Of course there is always the internet that will list local areas of interest for birdwatchers.

Bird photo of White Tailed Kite perched on branch by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2012 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

White Tailed Kite

Bird photo of colorful Allens Hummingbird in flight by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2011 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Allens Hummingbird

NB: How do you get close to the birds?

CD: In remote areas where there isn’t much foot traffic, the birds can be more skittish, but nature trails that have joggers and walkers help condition the birds to having humans around. Some birds however do not like to get close to people no matter what the location. For example, the Belted Kingfisher can be very elusive and even with a long lens, it can be a challenge to photograph. Often though, if you sit still and wait, the birds will show up and, even if they see you, they still may not feel threatened.

Recently I was sitting on a river bank in the late afternoon. I used the reeds for cover while waiting for birds. A kingfisher approached and landed less than 20 feet away on a perch on the other side of the reeds. Even though I had to focus manually, I did manage to get some images through the reeds before the kingfisher saw me. A hide (bird blind) could be beneficial in these situations, but I haven’t used one yet.

Bird photo of American Coot running on top of water by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2011 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

American Coot

NB: What resources do you use for assistance?

CD: I visit a variety of websites – more so in the beginning. I pick up tons of useful information that helps me progress with my bird photography. For instance, if you do a bird photography search here on, you’ll find lots of helpful information.

Most people are willing to share tips and tricks. Occasionally I would contact good photographers directly to ask how they got such great images, and sometimes I’ll even check out the images exif data, which shows the lens used, shutter speed, f stop, etc.

Bird photo of Common Yellowthroat perched on weed by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2007 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Common Yellowthroat

Bird photo of Fox Sparrow perched on plant by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2007 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Fox Sparrow

NB: Which photographer, living or dead, has been the greatest influence on you? What set them apart for you?

CD: Many years ago I visited the home of a professional nature photographer. Seeing all her pictures on display left me with a lasting impression. Her work motivated me to go out and buy a camera and study photography.

There are many amateurs out there taking amazing wildlife pictures. I see their images and this really influences and motivates me to become better. They appear to have fine-tuned their skills, but I’m sure, just like me, they too are still evolving and striving to produce even better images. If we don’t keep learning, we become stagnant.

Bird photo of Black Phoebe perched on branch of tree by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2011 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Black Phoebe

NB:What equipment do you use and why? What is your favorite lens for wildlife photography … the one you use most often?

CD: I currently own a Canon 1D Mark III. It has a long battery life, fast auto focus and shoots 10 frames per second on continuous shoot. I have owned several super telephoto lenses, but my current lens is a 300mm f2.8 IS. It is a very sharp lens and not too big to handhold. Coupled with a 1.4 X or 2X teleconverter, you can make it a 420mm or 600mm lens without sacrificing a lot of image quality. I also have a 400mm f5.6, which is even smaller and a really good lens for traveling.

This is not an inexpensive hobby and one of the pitfalls can be buying inadequate gear that will be replaced with high-end stuff later. Good cameras and lenses can be purchased at much lesser prices if you are willing to use last year’s technology. A lot of folks want the latest and greatest, which is good for us bargain hunters.

Photo of Red Winged Blackbird in flight by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2010 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Red Winged Blackbird

NB:If you are intending to photograph a specific bird, how do you recommend preparing for the adventure?

CD: There are a lot of sources of information on the internet, so do your research. With this knowledge you can plan where to go, what equipment to use and what clothing to wear.

NB: As a self-taught photographer, what most effectively helps you learn and develop your skill?

CD: I study amazing images by other photographers and try and find out or figure how they do it. I took lots and lots of pictures in the beginning. I remember my first lagoon outing with the 400mm lens. I took over 300 images of various birds within an hour. I went home and copied them to my PC and ended up deleting all but four of them. By studying my own images, I would learn from my mistakes. I’ve now slowed down and pay more attention to all of the technical and compositional details.

There are one or two photographers in my area that have been helpful to me by answering my questions. So by trial and error and pushing myself to learn from others, I continue to develop my skills.

Bird photo of Red Tailed Hawk flying in to perch by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2008 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Red Tailed Hawk

NB:Is there one special bird you love photographing the most and why?

CD: The special bird is the one I haven’t photographed yet. It always feels good to find a new bird and capture the image, especially if the bird is colorful and the lighting and background are good. I also enjoy photographing a bird’s behavior, whether in flight, feeding or courting. Portraits are also fun, but the action images depict what they do best.

NB:Could you describe in a nutshell, what you believe to be the key to great bird photography.

CD: I believe you have to love and appreciate all birds for their beauty and intelligence, understand their habits and treat them with respect. Someone once told me many years ago, “Don’t chase after the birds. Keep still and be quiet and they will come to you.”

Photo of 2 Black Necked Stilts in water with bills crossed by Colin Dunleavy.

© 2011 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Black Necked Stilt

Bird photo of a Willet with crab in beak along shore by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2006 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.


NB:Can you mention some basic traits you think are important to be a successful bird photographer?

CD: Sure. Here are some that I think are very important.

Be patient – nature’s creatures don’t always do what we want them to do.

*Know your equipment – you may need to alter camera settings at a moment’s notice.

*Understand light – the angle and color of light changes throughout the day. The light is typically warmer in the early morning and late afternoon. Midday sun can produce harsh and unpleasing shadows.

*Composition – it is important to focus on the eyes of your subject.

*Backgrounds – a nice image can be ruined with a distracting object or branch. Be conscious of the whole picture within the frame.

*Ethics – respect wildlife and their environment. Take only pictures and leave only footprints!

Bird photo of Heerman's Gull standing on river rocks by Colin Dunleavy.
© 2010 Colin Dunleavy. All rights reserved.

Heerman’s Gull

Colin, I have really enjoyed this interview and I’m sure our readers have learned and been inspired by your work. Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful images and giving us insight into your photographic world.

Would you like to learn more and become an even better photographer? 

Be sure to join Noella in one of her online classes presented through Apogee Photo.
You’ll want to get signed up today – just click here.

by Noella Ballenger

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