Q & A: Paul Sterry and Rob Read

Posted on 22nd November 2016 by Sally Campbell
Collins Life-Size Birds is as much a celebration of photography as it is of Britain and Northern Europe's rich and varied birdlife. For the first time, owing to recent advances in digital imaging, contemporary photographers can capture images of birds in as much detail as can be seen with the naked eye. The resulting imagery is simply breath-taking.  Here, Collins Life-Sized Birds co-creators Paul Sterry and Rob Read explain their ground-breaking work.

Why has a book like this not been produced before?

The simple answer is that, until very recently, photographic technology was not good enough to allow us to create a comprehensive coverage of every British and northwest European bird species with images of sufficient quality for a book of this kind. Only in the last few years has technology caught up with our aspirations and those of our publisher, and several years were needed to take images with enough detail to print at life size showing every feather detail.


Photo: Red Kite - "Modern digital cameras and autofocus lenses produce images of outstanding, and astounding clarity and detail, previously only dreamt of in the days of film." (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


Why use photographs and not artwork?

In the hands of a skilled illustrator, artwork is a valid and worthwhile medium for illustrating natural history books. But it has its limitations when it comes to the time it takes to create ‘detail’ and the accuracy of the resulting image can sometimes be called into question. Photography has the potential to create more faithful interpretations of a species, given the proviso that skill and experience have their part to play too.

In the past, photography was always seen as the poor cousin to artwork when it came to illustrating field guides, and lavish books such as Collins Life-Size Birds. But even at the start of the digital photographic era – a decade or more ago – it was clear that things had changed and that this new approach to capturing images had major advantages over its predecessor, film. Clarity, definition and photographic flexibility improved immediately by an order of magnitude compared to film. However, one thing that was lacking perhaps in the infancy of the digital medium was file size; this translates into how large an image can be printed. But in the last few years, digital photography has really come of age, hence our ability to produce this book.


Photo: Flight shot of a White Stork (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


Photo (Left): Field shot of a Tawny Owl  (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Photo (right): Tawny Owl -  "Image with the bird isolated from its background to enhance its use for identification purposes in the book"  (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


Are there any drawbacks to using photographs to illustrate books of this kind?

As well as being a visual celebration of our bird fauna, Collins Life-Size Birds also sets out to aid and enhance the reader’s ability to identify birds and make comparisons between species. Size is obviously crucial to identification and comparison, hence the inclusion of life-size images in the book. But the way the images are lit when captured digitally can have a profound effect on the appearance of the bird in question.

In the past, variable and inconsistent lighting has always been a criticism levelled against the use of photographs in books where comparisons between species are central to the aim of the work. Fortunately for us, the coming-of-age in digital photography coincided with dramatic changes in the power and scope of desktop computers, and the availability and affordability of advanced image manipulation and management software. The result has been that issues relating to inconsistent lighting and variable colour hues can be addressed with ease.

As a consequence, when it comes to illustrating books such as Collins Life-Size Birds photography can now hold its own with the very best of artwork and depict images that are faithful to life rather than interpreted by the human eye and painted. These images also reveal as much detail – feather barbs for example – as can be seen by human eyes (at least those of the authors) with the bird in the hand and with the aid of a magnifying lens.


Photo (left): Field shot of Nightingale (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Photo (right): Close-up crop of Nightingale image showing feather detail (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


What were your biggest photographic challenges?

Funnily enough, it is straightforward enough to take images of sufficient size of smaller species that will print on the page at life size. It is the larger species that present the problems. Consequently, we expended much more effort obtaining  large enough file size images of species such as White-fronted Goose, Great Northern Diver and Glossy Ibis (where it is challenging to get close to the birds in question) than we did with species such as Wheatear, Bearded Tit or Nightingale.


Photo: Field shot of Bearded Tit (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


Photo: Close-up crop of Bearded Tit image showing feather detail (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


Photo: Field shot of Dunnock (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd


Photo: Close-up crop of Dunnock image showing feather detail (c) Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd



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