Cynthia Burgess

Nature, Landscape and Bird Photographer

"How to take a Great Nature Photograph"

Cynthia Burgess is an award-winning photographer who travels around the country taking photographs of birds, wildlife and landscapes. Most recently, Cynthia traveled to the Everglades and the Florida coast searching for the perfect shot of exotic and wild birds. Cynthia gives her advice on how you can get a great photograph on your travels. You can view Cynthia's photography at

1. How is taking a wildlife photo different from taking a portrait of a person?

Wildlife tends to be elusive and more on the move than people and they don’t take instruction well! As a photographer, you are navigating in their world and have to work with whatever that entails. You aren’t in control as much when you’re photographing in nature as when you are in a studio.

2. How much does 'patience' play a part in getting a great wildlife or bird photo?

It plays a significant part in getting the great shot. If you don’t stay in one place for awhile your chances of catching an unusual behavior are slim. More opportunities present themselves, if you remain in one spot.

On a recent birding trip, I stayed in one spot for more than four hours. In that time, I witnessed a great blue heron male making repeated trips to the nest with gathered sticks and vines for his mate to incorporate into the nest. I got to experience the “welcome back” dance of the female and her acceptance of the twigs and branches—none of which would have been captured without patience. I saw photographers come and go quickly all around me—they missed a lot of great shots.

3. Is a great shot the result of a great camera or a great photographer?

I think it’s a result of both. A great photographer can do wonders with a simple camera; and a great camera can help even a beginning photographer get some amazing shots.

4. What do you look for in taking a wildlife photograph?

Sometimes I look for unusual behavior from the subject or for an out-of-the-ordinary angle. Both can create special images. For example, a bird flying directly toward the camera at eye-level while making eye contact--it’s not a shot you see a lot, so it can be very powerful.

5. How important is lighting?

Lighting is the basis of photography. Without it you have nothing. Light and dark are integral to any successful photograph. The way the slanting light falls across a dark forest path or bathes the feathers of a bird silently hiding among some low-growing ferns is fundamental to the success of that photo. Bird photography usually means working with available light. A couple hours after the sun rises and a couple hours after sunset generally provide the best light of the day. However, some of my favorite shots were taken in the middle of the day. Fill-in flash helps soften harsh midday shadows.

6. Do you always apply The Rule of Thirds?

I often think about the Rule of Thirds when setting up a shot or when cropping later in the computer, but I don’t have a compulsion to keep to the rule. Rules are made to be broken, as they say, but you should know why you’re breaking them. Sometimes centering a beautifully colored bird against a dark background just works, even though it’s breaking the Rule of Thirds. I think it can strengthen a shot to center the subject, if the subject is exceptional in some way.

7. How many photos does it typically take to get the one perfect shot?

From my experience, there is no typical. Occasionally, you’ll get extremely lucky and the first shot is the best of the batch; other times two hundred shots might never yield the photo your mind’s eye was hoping for. And perfect is a very subjective term!

8. How important is a telephoto lens in shooting wildlife, and birds especially?

A telephoto is the most important lens when photographing birds and wildlife. Some birds, what I call city birds--those used to people—allow you to get very close, so a long lens isn’t necessary. But birds like hawks and other raptors often require a telephoto lens to be able to bring the small details into focus. Sometimes it isn’t the bird’s lack of acceptance of humans that creates the need for a long lens, but rather the distance to a nesting spot or a water hole or where the bird has chosen to land. I’d like to mention that it’s imperative to respect a bird’s comfort zone and stay back if you notice any agitation or hesitancy on the bird’s part. One of the foremost rules of birding is to always be aware of your movements and the level of noise you’re creating and never do anything to stress the birds.

9. How you do research your photo locations?

I do a lot of online research in the beginning. I read as much as I can about an area. In online forums people are usually very helpful about sharing good spots for photographing and will often include information about the best time of day to shoot a particular spot or what pitfalls to watch out for in an area. Asking specific questions will get you some great answers. Some of my best shots wouldn’t have happened without someone sharing online their experience about photographing in that specific locale. It may sound old school, but I find that talking with travel agents is invaluable. They have heard lots of stories about particular locales and have been very helpful in pointing me to photographic opportunities I might have missed.

10. Specifically, what do you want in an ideal bird photograph?

I always like the eye to be sharp. Personally, I don’t like busy backgrounds with lots of trees or branches. Of course, you can’t always be choosy about where a great photo is going to present itself. You have to try to minimize the problems in any shot.

11. What useful recommendations can you give a novice nature and bird photographer?

Always turn around; look behind you. We can get so caught up in a shot that we forget to look at everything around us. It’s amazing how often a much better opportunity is waiting right behind us.

Also, use a tripod. It is essential if you’re using a telephoto lens. Your images will be so much sharper and the results will be well worth the trouble of carrying it to your destination.

12. Why do you especially enjoy photographing nature and specifically birds?
I like a good challenge. Between getting the right lighting, finding a pleasing background, and having the birds cooperate to some degree, it can be difficult to capture the shot you’re after. Sharp images of birds in flight are particularly challenging. But trying to get all these things to come together into a pleasing photo is a thrill for me.

Also, being out in nature recharges me in a way nothing else does. Even if the day hasn’t been that productive photographically, I’ve still had a great day just being out among all the creatures and getting some fresh air.

13. Where do you want to travel to on your next photo adventure?

I would love to go to Iceland. The rugged terrain and the sometimes barren landscape really appeal to me.

14. What is the best piece of photo advice you've ever received?

Learn your camera! Know what every feature on your camera does and how to make it work when you need it. Most people only use a fraction of their camera’s capabilities. Today’s digital SLR cameras are powerful tools and so it’s really worth the effort to learn all the functionalities. What can seem complicated at first soon becomes second nature with just a little practice.

15. Other than your camera, what is always in your camera bag?

Extra batteries and memory cards. There’s nothing worse than finally having that elusive shot appear before you and realizing your battery has just gone dead or that you used your last shot on your memory card five seconds ago. Think ahead and change out cards and batteries at opportune times and don’t wait until they’re completely depleted.

16. What is your adventure motto?

Start dreaming of your next adventure on the way home from your last one!

Cynthia Burgess