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Low-Key Nature Photography: Parrot Portraits

Back in January, I was on the train one morning, wondering where to take my series of On Black nature portraits next. The obvious direction is to go for a dark and moody tone, to mirror the aesthetic, and that's something I've done before (elephants, moose, deer). It works well, and ultimately it's probably the direction in which the project will tend to move. But on this occasion I wondered if I could go the other way, and use the format to portray something light-hearted, with a little charm and whimsy. ...Parrots..? ...A macaw, maybe?

I'm very grateful to Les Rance of the Parrot Society UK, who introduced me to two very characterful parrots. I got a good collection of portraits on the day, but I'm sharing just my favourite five in this blog post.

Green-Winged Macaw

This first bird is a green-winged macaw, also called a red-and-green macaw. And this particular individual is known as "Spiderman", as he matches the iconic colour palette of the comic book hero.

Green-Winged Macaw - On Black
Green-Winged Macaw - On Black

I'm really happy with this photo. It's pretty much exactly what I had in mind. It's bright, colourful, upbeat, and jovial. Quite a change from the portraits I've typically produced in the past.

Green-winged macaws originate from the Amazon region of South America, and are, thankfully, not an endangered species. Their large beaks are able to crack open big nuts, enabling them to feed a relatively large brain, and live a long lifespan similar to that of a human. I'm always looking for a personal connection to the subjects of my photos, and I think the character of these birds shines through in great evidence.

Green-Winged Macaw - On Black background
Green-Winged Macaw - On Black #2

In this third macaw portrait I was, for some reason, drawn to the idea of processing it in the style of a classic-era Hollywood portrait. I don't know why - maybe it's the apparent glamour of the subject. It's also fun to play with colour saturation, and show a very colourful bird in a more toned-down representation.

Green-Winged Macaw
Green-Winged Macaw - Classic Hollywood Portrait

My last bit of macaw trivia, which I learnt on the day, is that the feather pattern on the face, around the eye, is unique to each individual, and can act like a fingerprint for identification. There you go; you can tell your friends that one.

African Grey Parrot

The African grey originates from the Congo region of central Africa, and is an endangered species. They are particularly known for their intelligence, and their ability to mimic sounds and speech; able to collect a vocabulary of over a hundred words. Birds pack brain cells more densely than mammals, and large parrots are more intelligent than primates of a similar size due to their greater number of forebrain neurons. Grey parrots in particular have shown a cognitive ability on par with a four to six year old child!

I liked this photo because I think it looks like he's caught mid-conversation. Or maybe just about to begin a sentence. That really communicates the character of this species.

African Grey Parrot - On Black
African Grey Parrot - On Black

I really like capturing moments and expressions that portray animals in a more human way, as I think it helps us relate to them better.

The last photo here is slightly more sinister - more in the style of the rest of my On Black project. Not what I intended to capture on this occasion, but when an animal appears to take a genuine interest in what I'm doing, and what's behind the lens, I'd be silly not to make the most of it. It obviously creates an instantly engaging result.

Grey Parrot - low-key on black background
Grey Parrot - Out Of The Dark

These photos of animals appearing to come out of the darkness are very tricky to achieve with a creatures on this scale, using a flash. I've done it with larger animals in the past, but when you're working with a light drop-off of centimetres rather than meters, it gets much harder to execute - especially when the subject is free to move around like this. So for that reason, I'm particularly pleased with this shot - and it would suggest that my flash skills are slowing improving.

Working with birds that are able to fly around the room as they please can be very difficult - especially when you need them in front of your pre-positioned backdrop and flash unit. This shoot took some patience, and a lot of care for the birds themselves - letting them decide when to pose, and when they've had enough. I had to wait quite a while for the macaw to settle, but once he did he posed brilliantly for some time. The grey parrot was the opposite; He came straight out, posed like a star for a couple of minutes, and then made it quite clear that we were no longer of any interest.

I think birds really suit this style of photography, so I'm going to have to find some more opportunities to build on this collection with more interesting and characterful subjects in the future. To see more of my photos in this project, take a look here.



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