Remember my article about “Top 12 Bird Photographers in the World”?
I asked you to mention some of the most noteworthy bird photographers that I might have missed. One of our avid readers, Diane R, mentioned Melissa Groo’s name.
I had never heard of this name before. But when I checked Melissa’s portfolio I realized that I had been a great admirer of her work, unknowingly!
The first time I saw the marvelous photograph of Great Egret Display which won the 2015 Audubon Grand Prize Winner, I fell in love. Sadly enough, I didn’t pay attention to the photographer.
I would have definitely considered Melissa in my top 12 bird photographer list, had I known about her before. Her photographs are truly marvelous. I must say I am spell-bound by her work.
I am super-excited to bring you one of the best and the longest interviews so far. The complete interview is well over 4,000 words! Every word in this interview is very important. It has a wealth of knowledge that you wouldn’t necessarily get often.
To make it easy for you to digest, I have split it into a 2-part interview. Don’t forget to check out the part-2 after you finish reading this part.
Before you start the interview, I would like to thank Diane R for bringing up Melissa’s name. Thank you!
Prathap: A hearty welcome to Nature Photography Simplified! Melissa. I am super excited to have you here.
Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Melissa Groo: Hi everyone. Prathap, thank you for this invitation, I’m honored.
I live in upstate New York, in deep country. I have been an avid bird photographer since 2011, and though I mostly photograph birds, I love to photograph all wildlife. So I don’t call myself strictly a “bird photographer.” But bird photography is what first really made me fall in love with photography of wild animals, and it’s a genre that definitely helped me to hone my craft.
Prathap: I see you call yourself a “Wildlife Biographer” than a “Wildlife Photographer.” I’d be very interested to know why.
Melissa Groo: I half-jokingly call myself that because I love to tell the stories of the birds and other animals I photograph. I’m very interested in the natural history of the species I photograph, and I hope to capture behavior that tells the viewer something about the life and the habits of the subject.
I’ll never tire of taking perfectly posed, aesthetically pleasing portraits of birds, but there are so many of those out there now that it becomes sort of humdrum. What is less frequent is freezing a natural moment in a bird’s life that gives a glimpse of their characters, the nuances of their relationships, and their struggle to survive.
I’ll give you an example. A year or so ago I was sitting in my car photographing a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers coming into a small tree that had sap wells in it. They would fly to the tree, dip their beaks into the sap, and then fly back into the forest behind me. It became obvious they were feeding nestlings. As I watched and photographed, I began to realize they had insects in their beaks when they arrived at the sap tree, and I started wondering why they weren’t taking the insects right back to their young. And then I observed that these woodpeckers were dipping the insects into the sap, making the perfect snack of sugar and protein, before taking it back to their chicks!
I went home and found that others have observed this too, but there is not a lot of literature on it. Birdwatching magazine published this photo because they found it fascinating too.
So as a “wildlife biographer,” I love to tell these kinds of stories about their lives.
Prathap: You have won multiple awards in multiple categories. One of my favorite images “Great Egret Display” is the 2015 Audubon Grand Prize Winner.
It would be interesting to know the story behind this image. Maybe you could throw some light on the image making process.
Melissa Groo: I took that photo in Florida, in a town called Port Richey. A friend took me to a little-known rookery behind a fence, along a busy road. We set up our tripods on the outside of the fence and began to photograph through a break in it. It was near sunset, and egrets and herons were flying in to roost. I really wanted to get a flight shot, but it was a dark overcast day, and I couldn’t get the shutter speed I needed, even with an ISO of 1600. So I settled for photographing the birds after they had landed on the little island in the middle of the lake. Suddenly, I noticed that one particular Great Egret was spreading its aigrets, and extending its neck into the classic breeding pose. I had never photographed the breeding display of the Great Egret before, and I fired shot after shot, hoping something might come out despite the lack of light.
Later, when I had time to look at my photos, this is the one that jumped out at me. Of course, the whiteness of the bird against the dark, distant mangroves was instantly eye-catching. But it was the feeling of this pose, and the grace of its lines, that stuck out for me. I had many photos of the classic egret pose, where the body is fully extended, with beak pointed to the sky, but for me, this had something special, something unusual.
I was very honored that the five Audubon contest judges (including photographer Joel Sartore and bird book author Kenn Kaufman) unanimously agreed. In fact, one of them, the creative director of Audubon, when interviewed me for a magazine profile this month, said: “The problem with egret images is their ubiquity. The egret is Audubon’s logo, and it’s a bird that’s shot a lot, so you can imagine I’ve seen thousands of great pictures of egrets, almost to the point where I don’t want to see any more. But there’s something about Melissa’s shot that is just so completely perfect. The way it was displaying its tail, that little bit of color in its face, the crop that she did―I never saw one quite like it. Melissa’s category was the last of the day.” Out of 9000 images, he and the other judges chose mine, stating it was “such an obvious winner. We didn’t argue over it―we all agreed, which was remarkable. When you choose a grand prize winner, there tends to be a lot more argument.”
I have learned that a photographer’s artistic sense and decision-making doesn’t end with the photo; as curator of your own work, you need to have an eye for what frames among your images, are the ones that offer something different. Those are the ones to reach for.
Prathap: Can you tell us what makes an award winning photograph? Do you keep awards in mind while you are out in the field?
Melissa Groo: I don’t keep awards in mind at all when I am out in the field. Being in the field is my favorite thing in the world, as it’s the only time I feel I am fully in the moment, and I am able to forget everything else. I simply seek to immerse myself in the world of the bird, and I look for moments that pique my interest or aesthetic sense. The only thought that separates me from what I am experiencing is being aware at every moment what my settings are, as I work in Manual mode.
I think if you’re thinking too hard about winning an award, you’re not going to be in the flow enough to even come up with an award-worthy image. The exception to this is if you’re controlling or manipulating your subject with an ideal image in mind, and you are working on making a lot of elements come together. But I try to interact with my subjects as little as possible and don’t use techniques to draw them in or pose them the way some photographers do.
That being said, there are certainly angles of light, backgrounds, and bird positions that I am always hoping will be aligned in the best way possible and previsualizing can be very helpful with that.
Prathap: It would be interesting to know how you select the images for the competition. What criteria do you use? And what is your recommendation for our readers?
Melissa Groo: I think the best thing you can do is constantly train your eye. Since I got into photography I haven’t stopped looking at other photos, constantly. Especially those taken by photographers I admire. I want to know what makes a photo special. What evokes a response in me, and in others? And, conversely, what makes a photo ordinary―what’s been done one thousand times before? Because I don’t want to do that. And I don’t think most contests want to see that either.
I think it’s very hard to guess what judges will like, and I certainly don’t consider myself an expert. Contests are tricky because they are such a subjective thing. I strongly recommend looking back at the previous years’ winning images, to get a sense of common characteristics to those images. It’s easy to see that Audubon celebrates avian beauty and form, and stunning poses are always a good bet. But I think fleeting moments of interaction, prey capture, etc. can also be of great interest.
This is actually the third year I entered the contest, and, in addition to the Grand Prize, I achieved two images in the Top 100. I thought some images I had entered the prior two years were worthy of making it into the Top 100, but to my disappointment, not one did. However, I recently learned that Audubon used an American Avocet image I entered in the 2014 contest, on the cover of their 2015-2016 calendar! So I guess you never know when something you submit might get used, as you basically sign your rights over to them when you enter anything (which is, of course, the case with most photo contests).
Prathap: Melissa, it’s quite interesting to see many centered compositions in your portfolio. When do you decide to go for such compositions?
Melissa Groo: I often think of the quote attributed to Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” I think with composition it’s often best to roughly follow the rule of thirds, having the bird to one side or another, along one of those lines. And to have more space in the direction the bird is facing than behind it.
But I do also think there are times where you have to break away from those conventions, in order to express yourself in a more artistic manner. Times when it does work better to have the bird in the middle. For instance, I think that usually when you have a bird looking straight at you, a center placement turns out to be ideal. At other times, the foliage or other details around the bird are often just as important to me, and if I feel like that setting tells an important part of the story, I might want to include as much of it as I can.
Prathap: If you could give us some photography composition tips, it would be quite helpful.
Melissa Groo: I’m always thinking about balance and framing. When you are placing the bird on one side of the frame, it’s nice to have a balancing element on the other side, such as a flower, or a curving branch. I also really like the framing that natural lines can provide, and am always looking to include that.
I think it’s important not to crowd birds in the frame. It feels stifling to the viewer if you crop too close to the bird, cut its legs off, and don’t leave it any room to walk or look into. If it’s a wading bird standing in water, leave enough space under the bird to give its implied leg length (what’s called the “virtual leg”). Our brains expect certain things, and if the image doesn’t meet that expectation, I think a feeling of discomfort is created in the viewer. Adding canvas is certainly an option in the most recent versions of Photoshop, but can also be painstaking and time-consuming to do, so it’s best to get it right in the camera.
You also need to work off of your bird and its behavior. Where is the bird looking? Give some space that includes where it’s gazing. Is it looking up? Give more space above. This will tell more of a story. Sounds basic but it’s amazing how many photos I see that don’t follow these simple principles.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with taking images of birds that are small in the frame. I need to push myself to do this more, because I tend towards tight intimate images, but I think it can be very refreshing to have a bird pictured in its environment, and I think it can offer more opportunities for artistry. Moreover, it can tell a powerful story about the world of the bird, and the quality of that world. Is it a pristine, zen-like environment, like for the Yellowlegs here?
Or is it threatened by human sprawl? These kinds of images are often the best choices for conservation photography, as the health of an animal is of course directly tied to the health of its habitat. I’m increasingly interested in conservation photography and how it can help raise awareness and lead to change.
That’s all for today. I hope you had a blast checking these amazing photographs and words of wisdom by Melissa Groo. Did you?
Checkout the part-2 of this interview which deals with tips and techniques about bird and wildlife photography.
THINK PHOTOGRAPHY. THINK SIMPLE.