Editorial Photography

Picture Story: Bird Odyssey

August 2, 2018

By David Walker

One challenge for conservation photographers is drawing viewers into the repetitive, painstaking work of field scientists, and showing why that work matters. Photographer Karine Aigner was up against that challenge when Audubon magazine assigned her in April 2017 to document the work of a scientist studying the migration of a rare warbler. Her strobe-lit, eye-catching images appeared in the Spring issue of Audubon magazine (and online) with a story by writer Scott Weidensaul.

“It’s always hard to get everything you want [but] she hit all the marks,” says Audubon photography director Sabine Meyer, who assigned the story to Aigner. The photos “give a sense of what it’s like to be on the ground working with the research [ornithology] crew.”

The story focused on ornithologist Nathan Cooper, who is studying the effects of winter habitat conditions on the Kirtland’s warbler. Weighing just half an ounce, Kirtland’s warblers must find enough to eat during the winter in the Bahamas that they can then migrate thousands of miles to Michigan, where they breed during the late spring and summer. The research has implications for other migratory species whose winter habitats are adversely affected by climate change, for instance.

Meyer met Aigner at an International League of Conservation Photographers meeting in 2016. Aigner showed a portfolio that included images of birds held by scientists. She had shot them against white seamless and lit them with strobes. “She was working with scientists making sure birds were not in distress, and the results were particularly striking,” Meyer recalls.

Aigner also showed Meyer images of migratory birds fitted with nano tags—tiny transmitters that enable scientists to track the birds without weighing them down in flight. Not long afterwards, Meyer was looking for someone to photograph a story about Cooper’s fieldwork. He was using nano tags to study the warblers, and Meyer immediately thought of Aigner.

“[Meyer] said, ‘We want you to get a great shot of the nano tag being put on, and a great portrait of the biologist,’” Aigner recalls of the assignment brief. Meyer also wanted Aigner to use lights, in the same style as in her portfolio images. Lighting wildlife is difficult, Aigner says, but “it looks cooler, and has more of a dramatic effect than straight natural light.”

© Karine Aigner

Ornithologist Nathan Cooper untangles a warbler from a mist net, which he uses to capture the birds for his research. © Karine Aigner

Aigner had less than a week to prepare for the four-day shoot. She did background research on Kirtland’s warblers, and looked online for images of Cat Island, the Bahamas location where they overwinter. “Cat Island isn’t photographed [much],” Aigner says. “It’s an undiscovered place.”

She packed a lot of gear, including two Profoto B2 battery packs (one for backup) and two heads, plus two Canon Speedlites “in case we didn’t have enough light.” She also packed two softboxes and stands, plus a third softbox “to put the birds in, because we needed a shot for a possible cover.” Aigner carried a small portable table to support the third softbox for the cover shots. She packed two Canon 5D Mark III bodies, as well as a Canon 7D; a 24-70mm zoom lens and a 100mm macro lens.

Working without an assistant, Aigner was battling “weight, wind and heat,” she says. All told, her kit weighed close to 40 pounds. Aigner weighs barely 100 pounds. “I’m fit,” she says, but she struggled just to keep up with Cooper and Weidensaul, who were carrying almost no gear while walking at a fast pace under the hot sun, using a bird call to attract warblers. Weidensaul offered numerous times to help Aigner carry camera gear, and she finally relented when she realized she wouldn’t be able to keep up.

Another challenge was the speed at which Cooper worked. When he attracted a warbler, he quickly set up a mist net to try to capture it. Aigner had just minutes each time to photograph Cooper capturing the bird, taking blood and stool samples, weighing the bird, attaching a nano tag, and letting the bird go. She realized she had to keep her cameras and lights ready, with her softboxes opened and attached to the lights.

“The wind was no fun with the softboxes,” she says. “We had a lot of wind.” It was impossible to steady the softboxes on stands, so in addition to carrying Aigner’s gear, Weidensaul also held the lights for her. (Aigner, who previously worked as a photo editor, says she understands how tight editorial budgets are. But considering the demands of lighting in the field, especially under the conditions she encountered on Cat Island, “I would absolutely insist” on bringing an assistant on future assignments.)

Talking with Weidensaul, Aigner learned that he would probably be following Cooper to Michigan to study the reproductive success of the tagged birds. Editors wanted to gauge the progress of Cooper’s work in the Bahamas before committing to the Michigan leg. “Sometimes birds don’t show up, or the weather is bad,” Meyer explains. Aigner spent three days in Michigan, with a much lighter load, and a better idea about what to expect, and what to shoot.

Because Cooper’s fieldwork—capture, tag, release—is so repetitive, Aigner’s creative challenge in both locations was to vary her photographs. “It’s a Catch-22: If I have a shot that’s OK, do I try to make a better one, or take a chance and shoot something completely different?” she explains.

She pulled way back to give viewers a sense of the hot, dry landscape in the Bahamas. And she went in close to capture a lot of details as Cooper handled the birds and took notes, as well as images of nesting birds and their offspring. Aigner also shot middle distance images to show the process of capturing birds with mist nets, and locating tagged birds in Michigan with an antenna to pick up radio signals from the nano tags.

Once she returned from the field, Aigner edited her take to 136 images. “I give editors a wide edit,” she says. Her background as a photo editor helps her edit her own work, she says. (Her advice for self-editing assignment images is: “If there’s anything you hate, don’t show it, because it will get used, without question.”)

Meyer praises two images in particular: a close-up of Cooper measuring a captured warbler before tagging it, and the lead image for the online version of the story. “The light is dramatic, we see the prime habitat, the beautiful blue sky, the antenna on the back of the bird, the hand (holding the bird) with a tattoo, which makes field work look ‘hip’!”

Aigner says that despite all the challenges she faced on the shoot, “it’s really cool to have the opportunity to do these [stories]. For the scientists, it’s really important work, and if I’m able to help bring what they do to a larger audience, that makes me feel like I’m making a little bit of a difference.”

Aigner’s story is available at www.audubon.org/magazine/spring-2018. Her photos are on Instagram @kaigner.

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