Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Artie Morris: One for the Birds

A lifetime of observing avian behavior has enabled Artie Morris to spot exciting bird behavior, such as this great blue heron making an impressive landing in Florida. A lifetime of observing avian behavior has enabled Artie Morris to spot exciting bird behavior, such as this great blue heron making an impressive landing in Florida.
© Arthur Morris / BIRDS AS ART

After growing up in New York City hardly noticing birds, Morris became one of the world's foremost avian photographers

Artie Morris is one rare bird.

As one of the world's top avian photographers, he readily shares with others the information he has gleaned over nearly 30 years of stalking winged and feathered vertebrates. He conducts photo workshops worldwide, with plans in 2012 for trips to Japan, the Galapagos Islands at the Equator, and South Georgia and Falkland islands in the Southern Ocean. He has also parlayed his business, called Birds as Art, into a thriving web presence, selling everything from e-books and CDs to camera accessories and apparel.

At 65, this busy resident of Indian Lake Estates, Fla., shows no signs of slowing down. He still shoots 180 days a year while traveling the world, writes almost-daily blog posts at BirdsasArt-blog.com, and answers questions and critiques photos on birdphotographers.net, a nature photography discussion forum and e-zine, where he estimates he has penned some 18,500 posts in two years. For a price, he'll even critique a photographer's images over the telephone (10 images for $100; 20 images for $175).

Morris has always had a drive to excel, fueled by a healthy dose of confidence in his abilities not just as a photographer but as a worker in any profession. "If I had been a garbageman, I would have been the best damn garbageman in the department," he insists.

To explain his penchant for the spotlight, he hints at past paternal slights. "I've been spending the last 35 years or so trying to excel at everything I do … doing as good as I could possibly do, so I could hear people say the nice things about me that my father never said," he says. "That drives me. It's driven me to succeed. I like being the center of attention."

The secret behind his self-confidence, however, is an equally strong desire to be sociable. "I like hearing people say, ‘Thank you.' I like getting nice e-mails, and I like sharing. I'm a people person," he says. "The end result is it's all been great for the bottom line. I have succeeded far beyond my dreams. If someone told me 10 years ago that I'd be grossing close to a million dollars annually, I would have laughed."

Not bad for a kid who used to never look twice at a bird.

Finding his spark

When Morris was a youngster from New York City and managed to get out to the country, he chased butterflies, frogs and snakes, and largely ignored the feathered creatures overhead. "If you would have asked me, I would have said birds are for sissies," says Morris, who used to describe great egrets and snowy egrets simply as "Florida birds."

Today, Morris sounds like an ornithologist as he rattles off the names of the various birds he has photographed, including yellowlegs, purple gallinules, phalaropes, American kestrels and marbled godwits, the latter of which he credits with getting him truly hooked on birding.

{jb_quote-right}I like free and wild birds. I like to take my camera and go for a walk and make friends with the birds.{/jb_quote-right}

His initial interest in birding was piqued when he was out fishing and became fascinated by the sight of a black skimmer gracefully flying low over the water. He stood and watched it for 45 minutes, learning the name and species of the bird only later, when he went out and bought his first field guide.

That sighting prompted him to start going to New York's Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where, with a pair of old binoculars and his bird book, he subsequently spotted a young marbled godwit.

"I'm standing there and the trucks are rumbling by 100 yards behind me," he recalls. "There are planes overhead flying into JFK [Airport]. Fifty yards away, the A train and C train are thundering by. I'm thinking, ‘This bird is here and nobody friggin' knows it. It's beautiful.'"

That godwit was his "spark bird," Morris says. "I had no idea at the time that seeing that one shorebird was going to change the remainder of my adult life."

While working as an elementary school teacher at P.S. 106 in Brooklyn — he spent 23 years in the classroom — Morris would go bird watching every morning before school and every afternoon after classes let out.

"My seven years of birding around New York City and New York state was probably the equivalent of 20 or 30 years for a normal person," he says of his near fanatical passion for bird watching.

Taking wing

It wasn't until he attended a slide show at the South Shore Audubon Club, with most of the images shown captured around Jamaica Bay, that Morris decided that he, too, wanted to photograph birds.

So in 1983 he purchased a Canon 400mm f/4.5 manual lens, mounted it on an AE-1 body, and shot his first roll of film. What showed up on the slides were tiny dots: those were the birds.

The ever-persistent Morris began learning from his mistakes. He started to crawl through the mud to get close to the birds. He read everything he could about photography, enrolled in a once-a-week, two-hour evening photo course at Audubon, and sought out advice whenever and wherever he could from experienced photographers.

"God forbid I met an experienced photographer — they were in big trouble," he recalls. "I would be a leech."

Within about five years, Morris began trying to market his images, accompanying them with stories he wrote. He quickly found success, writing in a style that made it sound as though he were speaking to the reader from across the table. His stories were accompanied by colorful and technically excellent photographs of birds. He estimates that more than 20,000 of his images have been published in magazines, calendars and books.

He eventually went on to write books about how to photograph birds. "The Art of Bird Photography: The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques," published by Amphoto Books, became the leading how-to book on the subject, he says. Morris reissued the softcover version in 2008 with a new title, "The Art of Bird Photography," and has since released "The Art of Bird Photography II" on CD.

He has published two other books and offers downloadable PDF files on such topics as digital basics and guides to Canon's 1D Mark III, 1D Mark IV and 7D cameras. As one of Canon's Explorers of Light, he has won numerous awards for his bird imagery. His work has also been exhibited in several galleries.

Lightening his load

Although he began by shooting film, when digital imaging came along, Morris was quick to convert.

"It's so much easier now with digital and the big lenses and the multiplier effects of the camera and teleconverters," he says. "When I started, you had a 400mm lens, and it was hard to get close to a small bird, or even a big bird, with that lens. Now you've got a 400mm lens on a 7D, and all of a sudden you have a 640mm lens because of the multiplier effect."

His kit today consists of Canon 1D Mark IV bodies, a Canon 800mm f/5.6 telephoto, a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, a 24-105mm IS zoom, a 15mm fish-eye lens, and EF 1.4x II and 2x III extenders.

Morris says the 70-200mm lens (with either teleconverter) has "revolutionized" his photography. If nothing else, the combination has significantly lightened his load, allowing him to leave behind several lenses, including the 400mm f/5.6 and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS.

"That one lens [70-200] has replaced about five lenses for me," he says. "I'm actually traveling lighter than last year."

Ruffled feathers

His images, tours, books, products and other offerings have resulted in a wide popular following. Even so, he readily admits that when it comes to some of his digital techniques, he has his detractors.

For instance, he has no hesitation about routinely removing distracting elements from an image or adding a bird's wing tip if it wasn't in the original frame. Ever the entrepreneur, he markets a Digital Basics File, a downloadable PDF file ($20) that promises to help photographers learn to optimize their images quickly and easily, just as he does.

He shrugs off any negative comments about his workshops or himself, saying that they come from people who have never met him or been on one of his tours. ("These are bitter, unhappy people … they're jealous of my success," he says.)

He also dismisses any criticism of the image manipulation — he calls it "image optimization" — that he performs on some of his photos in Photoshop.

"We routinely remove small, distracting elements from the background, but we never add anything to the picture that wasn't there when the shutter button was released," Morris says. "My goal is to have the natural history of the picture remain the same. If it's an osprey flying with a fish, the picture is going to end up an osprey flying with a fish."

Even so, he admits that on "rare occasions" he might combine elements from several different photos into a single composite image. "I tell everybody what I do; it's in the caption," he says, noting that a photo incorporating elements from several images will include the words "digital composite" in its description.

"I'm using the tools today to make the images as beautiful and salable as possible," he explains. "What I do with my pictures is my business, and as long as I'm honest, it's not your business."

That kind of blunt, pull-no-punches talk, which is typical of Morris, hasn't dissuaded any among his legion of followers. If anything, it seems to keep them coming back for more. Recently, Morris chastised two people on a tour for using inferior equipment. They not only ended up each buying $600 tripod heads from Birds as Art, but urged Morris to sign them up for a seven-day, $3,200 tour.

Market plunge

While his personal business is booming, Morris says the overall market for publishing bird photography has plummeted. "The market is hugely depressed," he notes. "Picture sales are just pathetic."

Photographers who once made six-figure incomes from their stock sales are now making a fraction of that amount. Other photographers are willing to sell images for publication for as low as a few pennies.

"They want to get published, so they do it," he says. "I have no animosity towards these people. Fortunately, I was able to see that sales were going down, and I didn't want to work in Burger King, so I had to figure out what to do. I pretty much stumbled into my mail-order business."

{jb_quote-left}"Birds are beautiful and they lead fascinating lives. And I'm not the only one who feels that way."{/jb_quote-left}

Morris also doesn't take umbrage at photographers who capture their images at animal or game farms, as long as the animals are well treated and well cared for, and the images are labeled accurately.

"I like free and wild birds," he says. "I like to take my camera and go out for a walk and make friends with the birds. I will admit to going to places where the birds have become acclimated to people. … To me, they're still free and wild birds, and you have to be careful not to scare them away."

Staying with his flock

Having spent nearly three decades with his lens focused on birds, Morris says he has "zero desire" to shoot other subjects, including sports, which he especially enjoys watching. "I tried it [shooting sports] at a local high school football game and failed miserably," he admits. Although, ever the competitor, he quickly adds, "If I wanted to be the best sports photographer in the world, and I set out to do it, I could have done it."

In the meantime, there appears to be no shortage of people wanting to learn how to be successful bird photographers — and Morris is more than happy to teach them. "It's a big challenge [to photograph birds]," he says. "A bird can fly away. Birds are beautiful. They do interesting things. If you're learning, gulls are a great subject. Point the lens at them, and they're going to do something really cool within minutes.

"Birds are beautiful and they lead fascinating lives," he adds. "And I'm not the only one who feels that way."

IN THE LOUPE: Artie Morris

Office/Home/Gallery: Indian Lake Estates, Fla.; main website: BirdsAsArt.com.

Staff: Daughter Jennifer Morris is his executive director; Jim Litzenberg is his manager.

Family Life: Two daughters (from a first marriage) and four great-grandchildren. "I lost my best friend, beloved second wife Elaine Belsky-Morris, to breast cancer in 1994," he says.

Favorite Equipment: Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens; 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens; 1.4X III and 2X III teleconverters; and two EOS-1D Mark IV bodies. Gitzo 3530 LS carbon-fiber tripod with a Mongoose M-3.6 tripod head.

Favorite Assignment/Project: Teaching and sharing through his blog at BirdsAsArt-Blog.com.

Inspirations: John Shaw, Tim Fitzharris, Rod Planck. "Currently, the great images being produced by my students and by hobbyists on birdphotographers.net."

Awards: Grand Prize in Wildlife in the inaugural Nature's Best photography contest, for the image "Great Blue Heron Courtship." "Fire in the Mist" featured as wrap-around cover art on "Light on the Earth," a collection of 20 years of winning images in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition. First place, Art in Nature category, in the 2009 Nature's Best contest, and the Bird Behavior category in the 2009 National Wildlife Federation contest.

Recent Book Projects/Gallery Shows: "A Guide to Pleasing Blurs," with co-author Denise Ippolito. "On a Wing and a Prayer," an exhibit of 60-plus framed prints, continues at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Advice for Aspiring Nature Photographers: "Photograph what you love. Know your subjects. Look at as many great images as possible. Work long and hard, and don't let the nay-sayers pull you down. You can and will succeed."

P.J. Heller
Story Author: P.J. Heller

P.J. Heller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southern California.

Website: www.photoreporters.net E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
More in this category:
« Charles Flip Nicklin