Interview with Michael Milicia: An Inspiring Bird Photographer

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Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Michael Milicia Profile Photo By Jim Coutre

You know that this blog is based on simplicity. Michael Milicia is a person who lives and breathes on simplicity.

Mike is a software professional turned professional bird and wildlife photographer. He is a multiple award winner as well an inspiring photographer and teacher. He believes in breaking down the complex technical aspects in photography into something that is well organized and simple. That’s his core philosophy of teaching.

I am so glad to have Michael Milicia with us today. It feels great that we share similar passion and outlook on teaching.

I would like to thank our reader Myer Bornstein for mentioning Mike’s name in the article Top 12 Bird Photographers in the World.

Without further ado, let me take you through this simple and inspirational journey with Michael Milicia.

Prathap: A hearty welcome to Nature Photography Simplified, Michael. Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Michael Milicia:  I started doing photography full-time in 2005 after working 27 years as a Software Engineer.   I quickly gravitated toward birds as a favorite subject, attracted by the wide range of artistic possibilities that they present.  I am generally much more interested in creating aesthetically pleasing images than I am in documenting natural history, although you almost always end up doing a bit of both with bird photography.  I started teaching photography classes and leading field workshops in 2011 and I also became affiliated with Shoot The Light Instructional Photographic Workshops, which is owned and operated by Canon Explorer of Light Charles Glatzer.

Prathap: Bird photography is almost always about the action. How do you get a good pose during the fast action? What should one look for? How would you prepare for such shots?

Michael Milicia: Catching great poses during fast action results from a combination of field craft, technology, and a bit of luck.  The field craft part is about being proactive and getting yourself into the right position and having all the camera settings locked in ahead of time so that you can react instantly when the action starts.

Gentoo Penguin. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Gentoo Penguin
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Once you see that the focus has locked on and the subjects are generally oriented in a pleasing way, the technology part kicks in by enabling you to shoot a quick burst of shots.  Catching a great pose during the burst is where the luck comes in.  More often than not, you end up capturing poses that you didnt really “see” because the action was so fast.

Snowy Egret. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Snowy Egret
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Generally speaking, if you wait until you see a great pose, you will likely miss it.

Prathap: What is the importance of understanding birds behavior in getting the best bird photographs, Mike? Whats your preferred way of knowing about a birds behavior?

Michael Milicia: Knowledge of bird behavior can certainly be beneficial in terms of everything from locating subjects to anticipating action.  One oft-cited example is knowing that most waterfowl will do a wing flap after preening.  Therefore, when you see a preening duck, you may want to zoom out a bit to avoid clipping the flapping wings, increase your shutter speed, and move your focus point to where you will want it to be for the flap and then wait for the action.  Taking these steps proactively will greatly increase your chances of getting the shot.

Least Terns Mating. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Least Terns Mating
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Although there are many excellent resources for studying bird behavior in the form of books and websites, I tend to learn mostly by observation in the field.   Its probably not the most efficient way to do it, but I find it the most enjoyable.

Prathap: These images of a Snowy Egret display are simply stunning. Can you talk about the image making process of these photographs a bit? How do you get the right exposure on tough subjects like Egrets? 

Michael Milicia: These images were captured at the bird rookery of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida.   This place is sometimes referred to as “the easiest place in the world to take a bad picture” due to the amount of clutter surrounding most of the perches and nests.  Therefore, when this snowy egret in prime breeding plumage landed at the top of a small tree with nothing behind it but some green vegetation about 50 feet away, I immediately took notice.

Snowy Egret Display. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Snowy Egret Display
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

One of the keys to successful bird photography is developing the ability to recognize the difference between good and bad situations and having the discipline to only spend time on the good ones.

Once the bird started displaying, I knew from previous observation that this was likely to continue for a while so I set up at a good light angle and adjusted my tripod height and camera settings to be optimal for this particular situation and spent the next 20 minutes capturing images.

Snowy Egret Display. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Snowy Egret Display
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Regarding setting the exposure, I am typically in Manual exposure mode using a Spot metering pattern.  For a bright white bird, I would normally spot meter the brightest part of the bird and adjust my settings until the exposure scale reads +2.   This will give the proper exposure for rendering detail in a bright white subject regardless of the background or the size of the subject in the frame.

However, in this particular case, it was about 3 hours before sunset on a clear day so I just used a Sunny f/16 setting of 1/1600, f/8, ISO 400.  Since the intensity of the light hitting the subject was constant and I had the settings locked in using Manual mode, every frame was perfectly exposed regardless of how much of the frame was taken up by the white bird in the various poses captured during the display.

Snowy Egret Display. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Snowy Egret Display
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Prathap: This portrait of a Piping Plover chick is simply the BEST photograph. Its so cute and I literally want to hug the chick ☺ Can you throw some light on how one can make an intimate portrait like this?

Michael Milicia: Two general points come to mind when thinking about what made this image possible.

The first is that one of the advantages of working in Manual mode in constant light situations is that you no longer have to think about exposure and can concentrate solely on things like composition, looking for distracting elements, and waiting for a good pose.

The second is the importance of always shooting a burst of images rather than just one for any live subject.  Even when birds seem to be standing still, there is still the possibility of small, quick movements that can cause motion blur in any single exposure.  When the subject is actively moving, shooting a burst becomes even more important as a way of catching good action poses.

Piping Plover Chick. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Piping Plover Chick
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

In the case of this particular image, the chick is actually in the process of preening but by shooting a burst, I caught a moment in time where the pose presents a much more serene look.

Prathap: You seem to be the master of intimate photographs. The interactions between the birds in these photographs are so appealing. What are the key considerations while photographing interaction between two birds? What works? What settings one should use?

Michael Milicia: I may be sounding like a broken record but, again, being proactive is a key ingredient here.  By being in the right position and having all of your camera settings locked in ahead of time, you are free to concentrate on catching the action or catching the few milliseconds when all of the subjects strike a good pose simultaneously.

Razorbill pair. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Razorbill pair
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

One of the biggest challenges when trying to photograph more than one bird is getting enough depth of field to make all of them sharp.  If you want the subjects to be relatively large in the frame, you are often dealing with a depth of field of at most a couple of inches and sometimes far less.  Unless the birds are physically interacting in a way that puts them on the same plane, it often comes down to luck.

In some situations, you can try to make adjustments to your camera angle and/or shooting position to get multiple subjects closer to being on the same plane and parallel to the sensor.  The key here is to be aware of the issue and do what you can to address it.

American Avocet pair. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

American Avocet pair
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Prathap: I always say background makes the picture.  In fact, I bore my readers with it ☺ These photographs seem to prove me wrong here. They are aptly named by you as “Tern in the white sky.”

Is it possible to tell us the importance of the background? Can you also give us some tips on birds in flight?

Michael Milicia: The background is indeed a very important element of an image, but there are many types of backgrounds that can work depending on the subject and the situation.  High key backgrounds like the ones here seem to work quite well with white subjects as it lends an ethereal mood to the image.   The only thing I try to avoid is having distracting elements in the background.

Common Tern in flight. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Common Tern in flight
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Beautiful washes of out of focus color work well in this regard but, when possible, I would rather have a background that conveys a sense of habitat without introducing any major distracting elements.

With respect to photographing birds in flight, the very best advice I can offer may sound clichéd but its “practice, practice, practice”.  There are some basic camera settings and techniques you can learn that will improve your results, but it mostly comes down to being able to track the bird with precision and consistency and that only comes with practice

Common Tern in Flight. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Common Tern in flight
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Prathap: Flash photography is a very interesting topic among many of our readers. You actually dedicate 1 full day to teach just that. Thats awesome.

Would you please give us some quick tips about flash photography? Whether one can make use of built-in flash or do you recommend any particular flash system? 

Michael Milicia: I should point out that your comment about spending a full day to teach flash actually refers to the Shoot The Light Technical Series which is offered by Charles Glatzer.  This 4-day workshop is one of the most comprehensive and productive learning experiences available and I sometimes help out as an assistant instructor during the field portions of the class.

The built-in flashes available on DSLRs are limited in power and lack features like high-speed sync and manual flash making them much less useful for typical bird photography applications.  I would recommend using an external flash unit made for your particular camera model.

I would always prefer to use natural light for bird photographs, but the use of flash can improve your results when you are faced with less than ideal natural light conditions.

Cattle Egret. Flash Photography. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Cattle Egret (Flash Photography)
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

The quickest tip I can give would be to understand that automatic flash modes like ETTL have all of the same advantages and disadvantages of automatic ambient exposure modes like Av or Tv.  With ETTL, the amount of flash exposure compensation needed will vary with the overall tone of the scene.  Different birds on the same perch or the same bird with different backgrounds may require different amounts of flash exposure compensation to get the same amount flash.

An alternative is to use Manual flash which will enable you to consistently put out the exact same amount of flash every time, but the proper settings will vary with the distance to the subject.  If you are working at known distances, Manual flash can be easier to use and will give more predictable and consistent results.

Cattle Egret. Flash photography. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Cattle Egret (Flash Photography)
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Prathap: You have some amazing silhouettes of the birds. Could you please describe the process of shooting silhouettes? Also, any post-processing tips would be helpful.  

Michael Milicia: Silhouettes are only possible when you have a very specific lighting situation where the light illuminating the background is several stops brighter than the light illuminating the subject.  If you expose for the background light, the subject will be rendered as a silhouette.  Silhouettes are all about form and shape so it is critical that you get a clear, unobscured profile view of the subject.    If the bird is angled too much toward you or looking straight at you, various body parts will start merging together and the shape of the silhouette can become an almost unrecognizable blob of blackness.

Silhouettes are all about form and shape so it is critical that you get a clear, unobscured profile view of the subject.

Long-billed Curlew silhouette photography. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Long-billed Curlew silhouette
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

With respect to exposure settings, it is important to have enough shutter speed to get a sharp outline on the silhouette.  Since there is no fine detail in these images, one can easily use a higher ISO to get a faster shutter speed and then apply aggressive noise reduction as needed in post-processing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the subject does not have to go completely black at capture time.  As long as the background is much brighter than the subject and the subject is significantly underexposed, you can always selectively darken the subject further in post-processing.

Sandhill Cranes silhouette Photography. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Sandhill Cranes silhouette
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

One final post-processing tip is that I never sharpen silhouettes.  There is so much contrast between the edge of a properly captured silhouette and the background that additional sharpening to enhance this contrast is not really needed and it often just introduces halos.

Prathap: Whats the best way to keep in touch with you? Would you like to talk about your workshops and some key takeaways from your workshops?

Michael Milicia: The best way to keep up with my activities is by following my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/miliciaphoto.  I try to include photography tips with some of my posts and I will gladly answer questions about any of my images.

The goal of my workshops is to help clients take their photography to the next level while also presenting them with excellent opportunities to practice their craft and get some great images.  I am a firm believer that the ability to create professional quality bird photographs is well within the grasp of any photographer.  It all comes down to whether you are willing and able to put in the time and effort needed to learn both the technical side and the artistic side which are equally important to your success.

Piping Plover chick. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Piping Plover chick
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

You can see some feedback from previous workshop clients here:  http://www.shootthelight.com/Testimonials/Michael-Milicia

Prathap: It was a pleasure talking to you Mike. On behalf of our readers, I would like to thank you for sharing your hard-earned knowledge. We wish you a great success.

Michael Milicia: Thanks, Prathap!  I am happy to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on bird photography!

Least Tern. Interview with Michael Milicia. A professional bird and wildlife photographer. Best bird photography and wildlife photography tips. Nature Photography Simplified.

Least Tern taking off
Image Copyright © Michael Milicia

Got inspired by Mike’s simple yet powerful bird photography tips? Are you all geared up to try some new stuff?

Great! Don’t forget to check out Michael’s 500px portfolio and his website for loads of photographs to get inspired.

What do you think is the best takeaway from Michael Milicia’s interview? Do you believe that simplicity is amazing?

Do let us know. We would be glad to answer if you have any questions.

I say…THINK PHOTOGRAPHY. THINK SIMPLE.

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7 Responses to Interview with Michael Milicia: An Inspiring Bird Photographer

  1. David Weiss September 18, 2015 at 8:58 pm #

    Every image is exquisite. His dedication to simplicity is stunning, demanding prolonged examination of every image. Should I use these images as examples to emulate or to give up and find another hobby?

    • Michael Milicia September 18, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

      Thanks, David!

      If you like the style, then, by all means, emulate it! Indeed, most of us start out by emulating images that inspire us. But after doing so for a while, you will have a much better ability to pre-visualize and you will soon develop your own style.

      • Prathap September 18, 2015 at 9:48 pm #

        Very well said! David.
        I completely agree with you, Mike. I have done that many times and still do it. I think that’s the key to staying humble and do more 🙂

  2. Monte Comeau September 18, 2015 at 10:39 pm #

    Simply beautiful images and the technical explainations are very informative.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Prathap September 21, 2015 at 11:41 am #

      Thank you! Monte Comeau.

  3. Pinakin Trivedi September 19, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    Great article.Setting prior to action,burst ,not to sharpen silhouette are good tips.

    • Prathap September 21, 2015 at 11:41 am #

      Thank you! Pinakin Trivedi.

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