Amazing patterns of bird flight captured in “ornithography”

January 26, 2020 • 2:15 pm

Reader Lenora called my attention to some stunning bird photos on Atlas Obscura, which you can see in the following article (click on screenshot):

Have a look!

Ornithography #153. All photos by Xavi Bou

As author Winnie Lee notes, Bou captures the flight pattern of either single birds or groups of birds by taking videos and then lumping (as I gather) several frames into a single image).

Dark, sinuous lines float in a blue sky. It seems straight out of sci-fi or fantasy—a fantastical spacecraft transitioning into its cloaking shield, or a mythical beast in flight. In reality, it is cranes at Gallocanta Lake in Spain, dozens of them, traveling between where they feed in the fields and where they sleep in the water. It is many frames, compressed to a single moment. Catalan photographer Xavi Bou is fascinated with birds and the challenge of making their flight patterns visible. He has combined his passions for nature, art, and technology to create these images which he calls “ornithography,” from the Greek ornitho– (“bird”) and graphe (“drawing”).

These seem to be the cranes:

Ornithography #97

Here’s how he does it; I don’t fully understand how it works but perhaps a reader can clarify:

Creating these images is a slow process. He might spend a couple of days at a site recording video footage. Then it can take a week to 10 days to process the images in low resolution, and then another week to create a high-resolution final image. “To be able to show a period of time in a single image and not do it through a long exposure,” he says, “what I discovered is that I had to take many images per second and merge them into one. I shoot between 30 and 120 frames per second, so I use high-resolution movie cameras and shoot most of the time in slow motion … Then I merge the sequence into a single image.”

At any rate, the images of flight are stunning, and I’ll show three more (you can see many more at the Instagram site linked to his name above):

Ornithography #123


Ornithography #126

And this must be a murmuration!

Ornithography #62


14 thoughts on “Amazing patterns of bird flight captured in “ornithography”

  1. “Ornithography”

    You know – I think he’s earned it – ornithography it is…. I guess it’s his own field he invented.

  2. The key difference in technique compared to long exposures is that he merges still frames that each have a short exposure and thus little motion blur individually. (Recall that “slow motion” implies high frame rates and thus a short exposure time per frame.) He will then pick just one frame per dozen or dozens and overlay them. As a result, we see each bird in well-separated instances throughout its phases of flight. This technique is not that far removed from Eadweard Muybridge’s famous work on the motion of people and [other] animals.

    A bird flight path on a long exposure would just create a blurred streak. Long exposures de-emphasize moving objects, which is why it can be used to “keep out” cars or people from shots of street scenes or tourist sights.

    1. I imagine the talk of processing in low res before merging in high res refers to setting up filters in Lightroom (or whatever) for optimum exposure, contrast, etc. and to compensate for variations in lighting conditions during the course of the video shoot.

  3. Birds do not seem to be intent on getting from A to B. There’s something very fanciful in the way the birds occupy their airy domain. I have to believe they think of flight as fun as well as functional.

    1. I’d say you’re right about that. “Straight as the crow flies”? Tell that to a crow zoming around doing aerobatic rolls. Every day I see flocks of urban pigeons all over the city doing aerial manoeuvers in tight formations, then perching, only to rise in unison again and course and wheel some more. Countless additional examples.

  4. Simply amazing.

    That last photo looks like something out of Lord of the Rings…a mass of crows leaving the black tower of Isengard. I think it’s a clump of trees, but with a little imagination it’s Orthank.

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