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Photo by David Dunagan

By Eric Bowles

An enthusiastic response by GNPA members resulted in 276 entries this month for the “Spread Your Wings” gallery exhibit at Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell. Of those entries, only 24 could be chosen to hang in the gallery. The level of photography was excellent, and there were a number of truly outstanding photos.

Eric Bowles judged the competition and made the selections for the gallery. The winning images will be selected after the framed prints are delivered in early June. The gallery exhibit opens on June 4, 2021.

Of course, bird photography is one of the most popular genres of nature photography. For this specific exhibit, we also had a large number of entries featuring winged insects, resulting in a very diverse and creative set of images. We’ve compiled some statistics about the submissions, which may be helpful to our members when they consider entering future competitions.

By a wide margin, there were more images of wading birds submitted than any other category. They accounted for 85 submissions, or 31% of total entries. We had 39 egrets alone, featuring Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Reddish Egrets. In addition, there were 12 Great Blue Herons, 9 Sandhill Cranes and 16 Spoonbills. The large number of submissions is not unusual for such a popular subject. Wading birds are relatively common and easy to photograph, so if you want your image to stand out, it helps if you can include something unique or unusual in your photo, along with an artistic composition.

The second largest category of submissions was raptors, with 34 photos. The leading species were Bald Eagles with 10 submissions, Osprey with 6 and various owls with 14. We also had several images of hawks and vultures in this group. Raptors are another very popular category, so little details in a photo can make a big difference.

The third big category is one I’ll generically refer to as ducks and geese, but it also includes cormorants and anhingas. We had 21 images submitted in this group covering a wide range of subjects. There was nice variety of species, compositions and behaviors.

Making up the balance of submissions were 59 entries split between songbirds, hummingbirds and shorebirds. The variety of songbirds was particularly large, and included some less-common subjects. The tough thing about this group of images, from a judge’s perspective, is that compositions or poses are very challenging. You are dealing with a relatively small subject, so many of the photos are going to be perched birds. That places a premium on clean backgrounds, good head positions and proper editing.

Among the insects, most images fell into three groups – butterflies, dragonflies and bees. We had 28 images of butterflies and moths submitted, and the quality level was remarkably good.  We had a lot of nice images with clean backgrounds, nice positioning on a flower or plant, and appropriate depth of field.

The second big group of submissions was dragonflies and damselflies. There were 19 of these entries, and they represented a range of species and some very nice photography. Many were particularly colorful and faithfully captured in the image.

Finally, in the third group we had 9 images of bees. These included some very good close ups of bees and wasps. The images showed nice detail and color, making selection particularly tough.

Overall, the images for the gallery exhibit were selected based on artistic image quality, with an effort to strike a balance of different types of winged subjects and their behavior. The selected images were determined to be the best of their specific group or species, and in many cases showed creativity or unusual behavior. All were well edited to present the subject naturally and in a positive light. While we had to narrow it down to just 24 images to hang in the gallery, there were over 90 images submitted that were selected as finalists and were worthy of hanging in any GNPA exhibit.

For those images that were not selected, in part it’s simply a numbers game in a competition that included lots of good images. If you submitted an egret, spoonbill, heron, eagle or owl, you simply had the bad luck of competing against a number of really excellent images.

Here are a few tips that may be helpful for future competitions:

  • You can’t know in advance how many images of a particular species will be submitted, but in general there are usually lots of entries featuring wading birds and raptors. With these subjects, your submission needs to be outstanding. Little details with light, saturation, white balance and post-processing will make a difference.
  • If possible, try to avoid the harsh shadows associated with photographing in the middle of the day. Watch out for blown highlights and images that are too dark.
  • When editing your image, be alert for over-saturated color. This is especially a problem with a particularly warm or cool white balance, or with brightly colored subjects like spoonbills. There is nothing wrong with strong color, but nature photos should reflect how those subjects look in real life.
  • When selecting your images for competition, backgrounds are important. Backgrounds that are clean and don’t distract from the subject can result in an outstanding image. Thoughtful backgrounds can also provide context or a sense of place that gives an image an environmental context. And while it may be difficult, avoid backgrounds that are busy or cluttered.
  • Finally, the little details count in a competition. With birds, the head should normally be turned slightly toward the camera, rather than turned away. A catch light in the eye provides an added spark to the subject. Leave a little space in front of the subject so it has “room” to move or fly. Look at the wing position and foot/leg position to be sure it does not seem awkward. And remember – birds have two legs, so be sure your bird is showing both of them.

One of the big benefits of competitions is that you get feedback on your images. But remember, it’s supposed to be a fun experience. If you have questions about your photographs, feel free to ask other members; many of them have a great deal of experience and are happy to help. Learning from the work of others, and asking for feedback regarding your own images, can help you improve as a photographer.