Red-necked stint with leg flags
Red-necked stint with leg flags
A red-necked stint flagged in Tokyo Bay before landing in a Queensland cane field. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Nice surprise in middle of a cane field

Wild bird photography has its challenges, never more so than when there doesn’t seem to be much around. But sometimes ‘nothing’ turns to gold.

A recent case in point was a decidedly uninspiring visit to a local wetland that had produced good results in the past.

The conditions were reasonable – early morning light from behind, not much wind and enough cloud to soften the colours. There should have been plenty of waders and other water-orientated species to get up close and personal with. But there weren’t.

In fact, there didn’t appear to be any birds at all.

Sit for hours

In other aspects of life, patience is not a quality with which I am blessed. But when it comes to bird photography (and observation), I will sit for hours in one spot because experience tells me something will come along soon.

For wetland shoots where sitting on the ground is not really an option, I always take a small folding camp stool. Being low down serves two purposes: the birds are much more comfortable with your presence, and you are at their level when the time comes to make some images.

So, there I was, sitting quietly at the edge of a swamp in the middle of a Queensland sugar cane field; all the camera gear primed and ready, but no birds!

Stints swooped

I was close to packing it in when a small flock of red-necked stints swooped in low over the reeds, wheeled left and right in perfect formation and settled abruptly.

Your average red-necked stint is about the size of a house sparrow, and although there was now something to study, they weren’t showing any breeding plumage and were too far away – even for my biggest lens.

But as luck would have it, the stints strode purposefully toward me and began to peck rapidly in the shallows. They were interesting to watch but the camera stayed ‘off’.

Sleeping godwit with NSW leg flags
Colour-coded leg flags have greatly improved bird tracking. Photo ©Tony Neilson

See the gems

As is often the case when you have a number of birds feeding or roosting together, it is not until some change position that you see the gems. And that’s exactly what happened here – one of the previously unseen stints was suddenly in the open, and everything changed!

The tiny little bird, which migrates to and from the Arctic every year, had two identification flags on one leg and a metal ring on the other.

Still nothing too special about that, except the top blue flag was clearly marked ‘HO6’ and the bottom one was originally white. Turns out (thanks Mikey) that the stint had been netted and flagged at Yatsu-higata mudflats on Tokyo Bay just a few months earlier.

Stints are the smallest of our migrating shorebirds and two flags on one short and fragile-looking leg did seem excessively burdensome. Not that the bird looked to be suffering in any way.

Not a bad morning’s work after all.

©Tony Neilson 2018


Jun Kaneko's 'Heads' sculptures
Jun Kaneko's 'Heads' sculptures
Jun Kaneko’s ‘Heads’ examine the importance of space in design. Photo ©Tony Neilson

‘Space is the breath of art’

To a humble wildlife photographer, ‘space’ is all about that important ‘degree of separation’ that can make or break an image.

A good picture needs to ‘breathe’. Or as the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright put it: ‘Space is the breath of art’.

Space gives the viewer a reference for interpreting an artwork – something that was brought home to me during a work trip to Shanghai a few years ago.

Ceramic heads

During an early morning stroll around the Chinese mega-city’s architecturally awe-inspiring financial district, I came upon these (pictured) ceramic heads by celebrated Japanese/US public art creator, Jun Kaneko.

Although at the time the heads were a little out of context when viewed against a backdrop of construction cloth, the ugly material did serve to emphasise the core message embodied in Kaneko’s work. SPACE!

The distance between the two heads was immediately comfortable to my eye, but I confess to not getting the intended message. I chose a more literal interpretation: that the work was all about ‘communication’ – perhaps commissioned by some global hi-tech giant, and that someone had stolen the headphones!

Importance of space

In fact, Kaneko’s boldly glazed 2009 ‘Heads’ examine the importance of space in the achievement of order.

“To shrink the distance between viewer and object by using a realistic form or head interests me greatly,” he says. “I started making heads as a pair because [they] give me the opportunity to create a different visual power and [set of] problems.

“The space between the two heads is an important element … and the adjustment of space is part of the piece … If one shape is just there by itself there is no order, but the minute I put the next shape there then it has a certain kind of order, and then a complicated thing begins to happen.”

So, there you go. Next time you get the camera out, try to give your subject a bit more space in which to breathe.


Stork with golf ball suspended in bill
Stork with golf ball suspended in bill
Juvenile black-necked stork finds a golf ball – ©Tony Neilson

A case of unreasonable disbelief

In the bird world, juveniles are rarely what you would call attractive. But to the photographer, they can be gold.

This young black-necked stork (above), photographed at one of my favourite local swamps, was a case in point.

While its beautifully marked parents made full use of their average 1.3 m height to scan the shallows for anything edible, ‘Junior’ (already taller than the folks) employed a clumsier and more energy-sapping foraging technique.

Aimless plunging

It consisted of rapid strides and dashes, and seemingly aimless plunging of its prodigious bill into the water and ooze below.

I’d chosen a low angle to emphasise the scale of the birds and, probably through lack of experience, the juvenile paid me little attention as it made repeated passes – stabbing and clapping its bill hopefully at the water.

Totally random it might have been, but the technique eventually produced something fairly incredible – a golf ball!

Given that there isn’t a golf course or driving range within cooee of the swamp, the young stork’s find was doubly amazing. But for one so young and inexperienced, the dimpled orb had definite potential as food.

Dangerous prey

As it would eventually learn to do with difficult or dangerous prey, Junior repeatedly tossed its find in the air – perhaps not sure if this really was something it should swallow.

Fortunately, the ball finally slipped once more into the murk, and the young stork strode off to see how Mum and Dad were getting on.

The other side of this little story is the image itself. Although by no means one of the great wildlife captures, and not totally tack sharp, I thought it curious and possibly even unique.

Curt email

So I broke with my usual policy and entered it in a competition. I didn’t expect to win, but was stunned when a curt email arrived basically saying, we don’t accept digitally enhanced images. Obviously reflecting their assumption that I had ‘dropped in’ the golf ball.

Having seen examples of ‘fraudulent’ photography getting past the scrutineers and winning prestigious competitions, it is right that the judges should question the unusual. But in this case, my image was simply dismissed on suspicion.

Pretty disappointing, but if there’s an ad agency creative director out there desperately looking for an original image to promote the world’s best golf ball, here’s my email.

©Natural Images 2017



Screen shot of Tony Neilson Images homepage

Screen shot of Tony Neilson Images homepage
Click here to visit my image collection

A comprehensive collection of my high-resolution photography is now available at Tony Neilson Images.

Hosted by SmugMug, this ever-changing portfolio reflects my passion for wild things and the natural environment.

Unlike the more ‘journalistic’ Natural Images blog, which will continue as usual, the new site is purpose-built to showcase a large resource of hi-res images for viewing and possible download.

The SmugMug e-commerce system is simple to use and enables digital files large and small to be acquired – for personal or commercial use.

Content is updated on a regular basis, so why not bookmark the site now and check it out from time to time.

I would also be interested in your thoughts about the presentation and ease of use.

Many thanks,



Barn owl sitting on a camera
Endangered crested black macaque
The inquisitive and endangered crested black macaque – ©Shutterstock

A scary prospect for all creative people

You can usually rely on Mark Twain to capture the essence of the ridiculous. And on the subject of copyright, he didn’t disappoint.

‘Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet,’ Twain wrote.

Like running out of water in the desert, copyright protection can drive creative people mad.

An extreme example I was on the fringe of a few years ago occurred at an international furniture fair in Singapore where one manufacturer accused the other of stealing his designs. A scuffle ensued, one of the combatants fell, hit his head on a piece of the furniture and later died. The other guy fled and remained at large until apprehended some years later by Interpol.

Ludicrous case

Shocking though that incident was, it doesn’t compare with the ludicrous case of a lawsuit over who owns the copyright of ‘selfie’ photographs taken by – wait for it – a monkey!

In 2011, British photographer David Slater spent a week in Sulawesi, Indonesia building rapport with a group of critically endangered crested black macaques. They are naturally inquisitive animals and so Slater mounted his camera on a tripod, set it to predictive autofocus and continuous drive, and kept hold of the tripod as the monkeys moved in.

Grinning toothily

The macaques played with the camera and inevitably tripped off some images – including one of a monkey grinning toothily into the lens, which went viral. And thus began Slater’s nightmare.

When he asked the free information site Wikimedia to remove his images, it refused, claiming Slater didn’t own the copyright because he didn’t press the shutter. But when the US Copyright Office ruled that animals couldn’t own copyrights, the pictures basically had no author.

Having set up the shoot, the composition, lighting and camera settings, Slater argued he had demonstrated sufficient creativity and intent to be the copyright owner.

Barn owl sitting on a camera
A step backward and this barn owl might have a copyright case! – ©Shutterstock

PETA sued Slater

Then along came the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who sued Slater in 2015 for infringement of copyright.

Except it wasn’t actually PETA who brought the charge, it was a monkey called Naruto. Yep, that’s how they played it. PETA claimed it was acting as ‘legal next-best friends’ for a party incapacitated or unable to represent themselves.

Naruto (PETA) and Wikimedia argued that whoever presses the camera shutter button should be deemed the copyright holder.

Only in the US

Following that kind of ‘it could only happen in the US’ logic to its natural conclusion would surely mean that when a designer (of anything) employs a third party to make the item, he/she automatically cedes the copyright.

Some kind of sanity has prevailed in the Slater v Naruto case, with an out-of-court settlement in August that requires the photographer whose camera was ‘used’ by the macaque to donate a quarter of the royalties generated by the photos to animal charities dedicated to protecting the monkeys’ natural habitat.

Too late, however, for Mr Slater, who has been financially ruined by the six-year battle and no longer owns a camera.

©Natural Images 2017


Golden shouldered parrot
Golden shouldered parrot
Mature male golden-shouldered parrot – ©Tony Neilson

Six years to get one perfect shot

Maybe you’ve heard the one about the first-time visitor to New York struggling to find Carnegie Hall?

Seeing a woman carrying a cello, he approached her. “Excuse me, he said, “but can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Sure,” said the woman, “practice, practice and more practice.”

To be a good bird photographer you certainly need plenty of practice. But to be really, really good you also need luck, skill, a good ‘eye’ and, above all, dedication – bordering on madness!

The perfect shot

The most extraordinary example of commitment to ‘the perfect shot’ that I know of is that of Scottish wildlife photographer, Alan McFadyen. He spent six years and shot 720,000 frames getting the perfect, flawlessly straight pic of a diving kingfisher at the very point its beak touches the water.

At my own modest level, there are many such frustratingly elusive quintessential compositions. One is the iconic mature male golden-shouldered parrot (GSP), standing sentinel atop his termite mound nest.

Immature golden-shouldered parrot
Young male golden-shouldered parrot on termite mound – ©Tony Neilson

Numerous trips to remote areas where small populations of these seriously endangered birds exist have produced many sightings and some good studies . . . on the ground, in trees and flying. But when it comes to the brilliantly coloured male perched proudly on the termite mound – zippo!

The first to know

I’m not sure if my quest for perfection will match that of Mr McFadyen, but I will be back up Cape York next breeding season, and if successful, you will be the first to know.

Footnote: I’m reliably informed that in cases where an immature male GSP takes over from a dead mature male during nesting (which happens all too often it seems), the ‘replacement’ is not allowed to enter the nest. He feeds the female and she takes the food into the chicks until such time as he sires his own brood. (An lesson for the human race perhaps?)





Photographer Tony Neilson 600mm lens at a bush hide
Photographer Tony Neilson 600mm lens at a bush hide
Tony Neilson’s advice to beginners … know your kit like a sniper knows his rifle. Photo: Christine Ross

Choose carefully and sleep with it

So you want to photograph birds and animals, but the point-and-shoot isn’t delivering the goods. Surprise, surprise!

I’ve lost count of the number of times people see me out and about with one of my big lenses and immediately think I can help them get better pictures.

They’ve frequently got a perfectly respectable compact camera, probably bought because the guy in the shop said the built-in 30 x zoom will ‘get you out there’ over 700 mm. But they don’t cut the mustard as a wildlife kit.

Most people buy this stuff in the fond hope that they literally just have to ‘point and shoot’ at whatever takes their fancy, and in any conditions. No need to read the instructions, just stick it on auto and Bob’s your uncle.

Learning hard way

As somebody who specialises in learning the hard way, I can say with confidence that the answer for would-be wildlife shooters lies within the following four bullet points (which, to save time, I should get printed off as a hand-out):

• If you want to shoot birds and wildlife, don’t buy low-end gear because disappointment will soon follow

• Avoid mirrorless cameras, the auto-focus is usually too slow

• Get a DSLR with good auto focus capability

• Spend more on a good lens and less on the camera itself.

Some entry level kit suggestions (remembering I’m a Canon tragic):

• Good value/performance camera bodies suitable for wildlife include: Canon EOS 700D (formerly the Rebel T5i) and the EOS 60D, or perhaps the Nikon D3300 and D5300. I’ve also heard good reports about the Pentax K-50 and KSI

• The Canon and Nikon suggestions (above) have 9-11 point AF and deliver around 18MP files – that’s plenty

• On the lens front, a zoom offers the best entry value/reach and Canon, Nikon and Tamron all have excellent 70-300 mm ‘glass’ at f/4-5.6, with image stabilisation at well under $1000.

• If you want to do the job properly, I would recommend the Canon 7D Mk II body with the EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS II USM. It is one of my favourite combinations and could change your wildlife photography forever.

Best advice of all

And now for the best advice of all: think of your kit as a sniper thinks of his rifle. Get to know it intimately, sleep with it if necessary and use it at every opportunity.

Or as a famous amateur golfer who’d just won his national championship for the umpteenth time told a young reporter who asked for his secret to success: ‘The more I practice the better I seem to get.’

©Tony Neilson May 2017

(Note: We are not sponsored or supported by any camera manufacturers.)


Black-crowned pitta in Borneo jungle
Photographic study of Galapagos marine iguanas resting
High-key abstraction of resting Galapagos marine iguanas and one bright red Sally Lightfoot crab. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

To paraphrase Groucho Marx: here are five guiding principles for outdoor photography, but if you don’t like them, we have others!


The world is awash with close-ups of the proverbial gnat’s eyebrow. I’m deeply in love with my own ‘long kit’ (Canon 5D MK IV and 7D MK II x 500mm f/4 IS II x 1.4 III extender). But ‘shorter and wider’ lens/camera options offer more creative scope – more cheaply. So, if you want to shoot other than ‘documentary style’, go for speed and width ahead of length in your lens selection (see Principle 2). It is more challenging, but it takes you to a creative space where big is not king.


If you use cameras with interchangeable lenses, get the fastest glass you can afford. By ‘fast’ I mean at least f/4 or f/2.8. Used correctly, these big aperture lenses will give you unbelievable latitude in difficult light, and you can basically throw away your flash. They also work much better with extenders (converters) when you want more focal length without losing too much light.


When it comes to composition, learn to let go of your preconceptions and the new ideas will follow. Or as my then 25-year-old son David told me when trying to help me with my overthought golf game: “Forget the theory and let your instincts take over.” Easier said than done but if you want to do more than record what you see through the viewfinder, read Principle 4.


My go-to guru on making pictures is the Canadian photographer and writer Freeman Patterson. His book Photography and the Art of Seeing is a master class in showing the reader how to think sideways. He says letting go of self is an essential precondition of really seeing a picture; that by more directly experiencing a subject, new ideas will follow. “Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photography, but good photographic expression is impossible without it.”

Black-crowned pitta in Borneo jungle
The black-crowned pitta is found only in Sabah – but for how much longer? Photo: ©Tony Neilson


My own outdoor skills improved when I began thinking more about telling stories and less about taking pictures. Even a BOB (bird on branch) capture can be framed to reveal enough of the habitat to transform a record shot into something more narrative.

The image (above) of the black-crowned pitta (a Sabah endemic) accompanying this post is a case in point. Definitely a BOB, but with a subtle message: isolating the bird at the extreme right of the branch says something about its precarious future in a country where natural forest destruction in favour of oil palm is a major threat to all wildlife.

Back story: The elusive black-crowned pitta image involved a crawl through steaming Borneo rainforest, the persistent attentions of leeches and giant ants, and a nerve-racking wait for a shaft of light to penetrate the canopy in the right spot. In a thousand other situations the bird would have departed just as the light arrived, but luck was on my side that day. (The shot: Canon 1D Mk IV, 500mm f/4 IS II at f5.6, 1/50 sec, ISO 3200, hand-held, no flash.)

(©Tony Neilson, December 2016)

Photography in wild places

Natural Images founder Tony Neilson at King's Canyon
Photography wild places: Abstract treatment of birds in flight
Motion: black-tailed godwits take to the skies – ©Tony Neilson 2016

Finding my artistic side

I always imagined being possessed of an artistic talent of some kind. After all, there are painters, musicians, singers, writers and designers on the family tree.

Unfortunately, drawing was a dead end. And my vocal skills were called into question early on when the singing teacher suggested I stop because I was putting the others off.

Paint by Numbers gave me some early optimism, but it was to journalism (and its various mutations) that I eventually graduated. Yippee. I’m a writer! That’s my God-given talent. Or so I thought.

Freeman Patterson

It wasn’t until I attended a lecture by Canadian nature photographer Freeman Patterson that I received the key to understanding a whole new world of artistic expression and satisfaction through photography.

Stepping back again, to when I was a know-nothing, do-anything cadet reporter on a small town newspaper in New Zealand, there was early but brief photographic success. You might say, beginner’s luck!

Battered Rollie

On day two at the paper, I was told to interview a wildlife rescue guy about a strange bird that had been blown in on a storm. Clearly not expecting much, the chief reporter passed over a camera, offering an unenthusiastic ‘good luck’ by way of instructions.

The camera was a battered TLR Rollie, fortunately with the film already loaded. By some miracle, I worked out how to flip up the viewfinder box and use the film advance crank. Shutter speed and aperture? What were they? I just fiddled with the focus and pressed the button.

Photography wild places: Wide sunset landscape featuring Mt Conner and desert plants
Sunset on Mt Conner south-west Northern Territory, Australia – ©Tony Neilson 2016

The blow-in bird turned out to be an albatross (I think), which struggled powerfully in the arms of its carer – a florid-faced gent with a Mr Magoo-type nose. Not knowing anything about depth of field or the rule of thirds, I snapped off a few shots, got some basic details from the guy and was on my way back to the office.

In handing the camera over, my expectations of further photo/journalism assignments were not high. So when the chief sub (there was only one sub) came into the newsroom brandishing a fresh 8 x 10 print, I imagined the worst.

A cracker

“This is a bloody cracker!” he shouted. (He didn’t need to shout – the ‘newsroom’ was only bedroom size.) “Front page on your first try. Not bad, son.”

By the biggest fluke in all creation, I had captured the bird’s beak just as it closed on the rescue centre guy’s ample nose. Ouch!

Buoyed by that success, I wanted to know everything they could teach me about press photography, film processing and developing – including ‘dodging and burning’, now a key part of digital post-processing.

Wanderlust and better

But the photography buzz was soon overtaken by incompetence (mine), wanderlust and better opportunities in journalism and public relations.

Another 25 years down the track, I listened to Freeman Patterson talking about something like ‘Photography and the Art of Seeing’. In one hour, he helped me find my true artistic calling – as a photographer of wild things and wild places.

Photography wild places: High-key interpretation of ancient native forest, Australia
Understorey: old growth native forest, Gippsland, Australia – ©Tony Neilson 2016

Freeman inspired me about photography, not as a ‘capture’ or technical process but as an expression of ‘visual thinking’. “Seeing a photograph comes well ahead of technique,” I recall him saying. “It requires us to utilise our senses, our intellect and our emotions… But letting go of self is an essential precondition to real seeing.” (Or words to that effect – it was a while ago.)

Afterwards, I bought his book ‘Photography of Natural Things’, which Freeman kindly signed, with an added and nicely nuanced ‘Go wild!’ notation.

In the intervening years that is pretty much what I have tried to do, although it is fair to say I’m still most comfortable with the ‘outdoor’ aspect of ‘going wild’. But I’m working on being more expressive and free-spirited with my photography – particularly when it comes to capturing the intangible qualities of wild places and things.

My photography blog

Watch out for my monthly blog posts about some aspect of photography in the wild. They will be ‘different’.

As far as gear goes, I’m a Canon tragic, but that’s mostly because I have lots of it and know (more or less) how to use it. So don’t expect too many camera or lens reviews. I’m more interested in writing about the stories behind the pictures.

This is also an open invitation to readers to contribute their own thoughts on photography in wild places – and the art of seeing.

Tony Neilson: tonywneilson@icloud.com