Making the invisible visible: birds in flight shot with a difference

A composite image by Xavi Bou showing the flight path of gulls creating a wave shape in the air.
Photographer Xavi Bou's composite image captures the way the flight path of seagulls creates patterns in the sky in Delta del Ebro, Catalonia, Spain. "This shape was created because the birds were flying into a strong wind," says Xavi. Component images taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM). © Xavi Bou

When you first look at Xavi Bou's images, it can sometimes take a short while to puzzle out what they're showing. What could make these random, graceful and sometimes chaotic shapes in the sky? Looking closer, however, you can see that these patterns are made up of dozens, or even hundreds, of birds in flight. These intriguing and unconventional wildlife images show us the familiar in a completely new way.

Xavi's images ultimately sprang from a passion for nature that he's had since childhood. After completing his photographic studies in 2004, he began a career in fashion and advertising photography. While pursuing his professional career, he also loved going out into nature in his spare time, and in 2012 began developing the series he calls Ornitographies. The single images he produces are created from multiple frames of 4K footage, shot on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III), that have been skilfully and artistically stitched together in post-production.

Here the Barcelona-based photographer tells us about his inspiration for this unique project, the Canon kit he uses, and why he wanted to "show the beauty of movement, playing with the limits of our perception."

The flight path of a murmuration of starlings, captured by Xavi Bou, appears as a fluid, cloud-like shape in the air.
Xavi's creative approach turns this murmuration of starlings in flight at Delta del Ebro, Catalonia, Spain into a tornado-like shape. Component images taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens. © Xavi Bou
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What inspired you to create these images of birds in flight?
"When I was younger I did not take pictures of wildlife, but I've always had an interest in finding a personal project that could contribute my own vision. After many years I realised that if I wanted to do a personal project it had to be something I loved and knew. I realised that I should talk about nature, but from an unconventional point of view. For me, an artistic project must show something new and make the viewer ask questions.
"Conventional nature photography shows the beauty of animal physiology, but I wanted to show the beauty of movement, playing with the limits of our perception."

How did you come up with the idea for the technique you use in Ornitographies?
"As a naturalist, I usually look at the trails left by animals on the ground. One day I asked myself what kind of trail the birds would leave in the sky, if that were possible. I imagined the lines they would create and it was then that I began to investigate how to make them visible."

How long have you been creating these images?
"I captured the first images in mid-2012, then I stopped for about three years, until I was able to rent cameras that gave me enough resolution to be able to print the photographs at a decent size. I have been exclusively dedicated to this project for the past three years."

What made you decide to use frames from 4K video?
"I immediately realised that these images could not be created from a conventional photograph. So if what I had to do was to condense several seconds into a single image, I had to take many images per second and make them into one. What allows me to take more pictures per second is slow-motion footage. At a minimum, this footage must be recorded at 4K."

A composite image of the flight trails of Alpine swifts in Barcelona produces paint-like streaks across the blue sky.
Xavi adapts his filming technique depending on the type of birds and their flight patterns. These flight 'trails' in the sky are created by Alpine swifts in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Component images taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens. © Xavi Bou

What are the advantages of shooting these images with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II?

"I have filmed with several video cameras, but I have sometimes used the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II because it allows me to record at 4K and 60fps, at a time where no other DSLR allowed it. It's a much lighter camera than I usually use, and gives very good results."

Which lenses have you used for Ornitographies, and why those lenses?

"I've used the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM [now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM], Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM [now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM]. I use prime lenses in low-light situations or when I want to carry the minimum possible weight. But because of the speed of the birds' movements, I usually work with zooms, to have the versatility they offer, to obtain the desired framing."

A white-tailed eagle snatches a fish from the water, leaving droplets of water glistening in the sun behind. Photograph by Markus Varesvuo.

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Has your style or technique changed or developed during the time you have been shooting Ornitographies?
"At the beginning, I considered the frames more like a nature photograph, where the birds move through a landscape with a sky as a backdrop. But more recently I have been isolating the birds more in the sky as if it were a drawing on a canvas, eliminating the landscape, even the colour in many of them, in order to focus attention exclusively on the choreography of the birds."

How long are the recordings you use to create these images?
"It depends on the flight you want to make visible. For example, a seagull flying over the sea may take five seconds to cross the frame. But to capture the spirals created by vultures rising in the thermal currents, you could be talking about 100 seconds or more."

What makes a good subject for an image in this series?
"Lately I have focused more on groups of birds with particular flight patterns. For example, I love how swifts meet to fly in circles in a social way in the morning or afternoon. Or starlings flying in clouds to distract hawks. I am increasingly interested in complex flights and less in an isolated individual."

The flight path of Yellow-legged gulls creates spirals and column patterns across the sky in Delta del Ebro, Catalonia, Spain.
"These yellow-legged gulls [in Delta del Ebro, Catalonia, Spain] were flying in this way because there were strong winds and big waves," says Xavi. "In this situation the seagulls usually make low flights over the sea and then rise a few metres." Component images taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM lens. © Xavi Bou

Where do you photograph birds, and do you make these images at specific times of the year?

"The greater part of my project is recorded in Catalonia, Spain. It is the place where I am from and I know the birds well and the spaces to find them. Occasionally I have travelled to Iceland, southern Spain or the United States, for specific issues. I usually plan in advance the shoots I will do during the year. For example, starlings are grouped in winter in a specific place, just as swifts are in the city between April and August. The natural calendar totally conditions my work dates."

How do people react to your work?

"One of the things that interests me most about this project is the reaction of people when they are in front of one of my images and still do not know what it is. Normally we are flooded with photographs that we recognise instantly, but we rarely challenge our brain to try to understand what we see. Curiously, it is children who find the solution more quickly."

What do you ultimately aim to show in Ornitographies?

"The objective of this project is to make visible the beauty of the flight of birds that is invisible to the naked eye, and in this way to put the focus on nature. It is a call for people to lift their heads and enjoy this spectacle that luckily still surrounds us. It is not necessary to go far to enjoy many of the spectacles that I show in my images – we just have to pay more attention and enjoy what nature offers us."

Напишано од David Clark

Xavi Bou's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.



Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM

A 35mm prime lens with a four-stop Image Stabilizer and f/2 maximum aperture – ideal for low-light photography. Ultrasonic AF is fast and accurate, while an aspherical lens element boosts image quality.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this compact, high performance standard lens can be relied on for superb performance in any field of photography.

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