Setups in Bird Photography

In bird photography “setups” are a matter of taste.

I nearly always add a tech line below my bird images where I include the words “not baited, set up or called in”.  As a result I’m often asked just what a setup actually is so I thought it was time to clear that up.  Birds are notoriously difficult and uncooperative subjects.  They’re prone to extreme shyness, hiding in thick cover and perching in unattractive or busy settings so many photographers circumvent those challenges by setting up elaborate and unnatural “stages” for their photography.  They tend to use attractive perches in good light with pleasing (often artificial) backgrounds and then bait their subjects in with food and/or electronic  calls.

Before we go further I encourage readers to watch this clip where a well-known bird photographer walks the viewer through the construction and use of an elaborately designed and highly controlled setup meant specifically for goldfinch photography.  The video will give you a better feeling for setup photography than my descriptions ever will.

Personally, setup photography doesn’t appeal to me in the least.  Setup photographs of songbirds are nearly always easy to spot because of their combination of clean backgrounds, uncluttered foregrounds and their unusually attractive perches.  Flash is often used in these situations (you can see flash constantly going off toward the end of the clip) and I don’t like using flash on birds.  And I prefer not to control my subjects.  This makes getting a nice shot much more difficult but when I do succeed it gives me a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that would be unobtainable if I shot setups.



american goldfinch 9827 ron dudley

1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in 

I photographed this American Goldfinch a few weeks ago at Farmington Bay.  I think it’s technically a good image – there’s ample detail, both bird and dried sunflower are sharp, the light angle works well and both bird and perch are unobstructed.  But for me it has the look of a setup (which it is not) and for that reason (and the fact that there’s not much personality from the finch) the image just doesn’t light my fire.  I suppose that’s my problem, a prejudice against setups that I’ve long had and likely always will.

For me, setups are more akin to studio photography or zoo photography than they are to nature photography and they leave me cold, especially when the setup is not disclosed (which it seldom is).

The opinions of others may (and do) vary…


18 comments to Setups in Bird Photography

  • No ‘set-up’ flags for me – Just a really excellent photo of a little bird who stood still for a moment! 😉

  • Ron, I dare say your birder’s soul is speaking here! I am keenly aware that you see yourself as a bird photographer and not a birder (for reasons I can easily imagine, having been on and off a keen birder — and therefore around birders even keener than myself — for over three decades), but your desire to place these birds in their natural surroundings in natural poses would make any birder proud. And most of us are interested by the natural lives of our subjects, not some artificial setup. So kudos to you and thanks for sharing your great photos with us! -Pierre

  • Charlotte Norton

    It’s a lovely shot and I know what you’re saying about setups. That doesn’t mean I’m going to quit feeding my backyard birds and this year I planted some really tall zinnias by mistake and the hummers loved them. I’m going to plant them again next year and also some different varieties of milkweed since it’s been 2 years since I’ve had any monarchs on mine. I miss all the stages of development in them and hope to get them back. So I guess this could be considered staging as well. Depends on your outlook. I ran into an American Goldfinch on some Russian Sage in a park this year and got some pics just as pretty as the staged pics. Was it staged because the park may have planted the sage to attract birds. I guess I don’t really have an issue with it as long as it doesn’t harm the birds.

  • I could only watch part of that clip. My hackles started to rise and I began to hiss and spit. In the interests of lowering my blood pressure I turned it off.
    I have a huge weakness for the natural. Artificial doesn’t float my boat – in almost anything.
    Love that goldfinch and am slowly getting accustomed (though not resigned) to the fact that you are your own harshest critic. Which, since it pushes you on, is not entirely a bad thing. But please, while you are beating up on yourself, keep the other hand free to pat yourself on the back for the beauty and the education you give to us each day.

    • That clip is hard for me to watch too, Elephant’s Child – especially since it’s used to sell videos and recruit workshop participants who will only perpetuate the practice. “Different strokes” I guess but it’s not for me…

  • I love this photo. I understand why you don’t, but think you should congratulate yourself on getting a shot naturally that others can’t. 😀

  • Susan Stone

    That clip leaves me shaking my head. What is he thinking? The photos are worthless. I don’t like that the white flowers show up pink, and all the poses are stiff. There is no chance for a bird’s personality to show up. That man goes to extreme lengths to get nothing of worth. I see why you don’t like the photo in this post – except for the facial expression, it does look rather wooden, even though it is not set up. One of the things that has always drawn me to your photography is that you routinely capture photos that show the birds’ personalities. Your photos capture real life. This is starting to sound like a rant – sorry about that. Watching that clip has left me feeling discombobulated. And even more grateful for your ethics and the images you post.

    • Susan, Believe it or not there’s a large market for prints of setup photos. Most folks buy those types of images in ignorance of the circumstances they were taken. As I’ve said before, I believe that non-disclosure is dishonest and unethical.

  • Dan Gleason

    Another well-known bird photographer (I’ll leave him nameless for now) many years ago used flash to freeze any action in ways that made the images look very unnatural to me. But much worse, his set ups included such things moving nests to places where there would be no obstructions. He did this slowly, over several days, so that the birds would remain at the nest, but to me, this is highly unethical (and possibly illegal) behavior. While many considered his images “stunning” I always considered them unnatural and showed me nothing of the bird’s behavior or chacacter. I delight in your images because they do revel a livling bird as I would see in nature. As one who does a lot of bird photography, I greatly admiral your images. They show a high level of skill and technique that shows birds going about their lives, not sitting in a static pose. As a record of a living bird, they are of even greater value to me becausethey are not set up or baited. Thanks for so generously sharing your work with all of us.

    • Dan, Similar to the unethical behavior you describe of moving nests is the despicable practice of removing leaves and branches from around the nest so that the photographer can get unobstructed photographs. Birds choose nest sites in the shade for good reason and when cover is removed, they cook. Sometimes literally…

      Thanks very much for the kind words.

    • Dan, was this in the U.S. Depending on the species, that nest moving behavior was definitely illegal — per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Ron, now that I’ve been photographing for enough years, I cringe to think what behaviors I might have learned were acceptable, were I tutored by those with looser ethics. I was fortunate that my wildlife education came from a wildlife hospital instead of a seminar, I suppose. But I remember hearing an interview with a pro wildlife photographer, about the time I was first starting out, and he talked about transporting deer carcasses he found along the roadside, to locations where he’d bait other animals in prettier settings — among other acts I would now be loathe to consider. I imagine a lot of novice photographers look to these sources for advice in the way I gobbled up everything I could learn. So thank god for photographers like you who strike a balance against less upstanding behavior.

      That being said, I admit to having feelings different from yours about an image as beautiful as the one above. I’d hate for someone else’s staging efforts to get in the way of anyone appreciating the striking photography you produce. In fact, I view it from an even more positive perspective — that you achieved this without staging makes me hold this image in even higher esteem, rather than compare it to a staged photo. But again — I know we’ve had this discussion at different times — that’s why disclosure ought to be the norm in wildlife photography, at bare minimum.

  • Good Morning Ron,
    I like to take pictures of birds and to me you exhibit a skill set that is truly amazing. Your knowledge of bird behavior and your ability to capture it with out using baits or set ups set you apart from a lot of “Nature” photographers. In my estimation you get pictures that they can only get by “cheating”. I have nothing but admiration for your attention to detail and your skill in getting your wonderful pictures.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, Len. To be perfectly honest I agree with you that setups approach a form of “cheating”, particularly when use of setups isn’t disclosed. Bird photographers can usually spot a setup image but the average Joe (or Josephine) cannot and they’re the ones that are usually buying these prints, usually with the expectation that it’s a “nature” photograph and not a “studio” shot. It’s unethical to not disclose, IMO…

  • Dick Harlow

    Nice shot! I agree with you. I prefer to take my images as they occur. My only set-up, if you can call it that, is a blind. Haven’t used that for awhile though. Tough to take pictures of the breeding behavior of Terns without a blind.
    It is hard for me to believe that people can’t see that a Goldfinch will go to a dead or dying seed head rather then a pretty flower, unless after an insect.

    • Dick, I don’t see using a blind as being a setup or even a component of a setup. You’re not altering the setting and using one probably effects the behavior of the birds less than if you didn’t use a blind. I have a blind but the only reason I seldom use it is that in my situation using my vehicle as a mobile blind works better for me.

  • Thanks very much, Ron! “Photographic illustrator” Ozzie Sweet lived in my town, and after working in Hollywood, went on to stage many a magazine cover. To his credit, he was completely open about it… as a person who carried around a stuffed deer might well have to be!

    As an illustrator, I pull together various elements in whatever way works. That being said, I deeply respect the integrity of your approach and the learning it provides to you and to your audience. Like the zen practitioners, you ‘enter life directly’ and the rewards are boundless. Thanks for all you share with us!