James Henderson Creates “Featherscapes” Using Beautiful Bird Feathers

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My name is James Henderson. Feathers are seen by everybody, but not many people stop to look at them. Children prize them when they find them in the garden or on the street, and many adults will stop for a quick look. But how many of us really look? As Mary Poppins says, “When will you learn to look past what you see?” Using a macro lens lets us get a vantage point that we don’t generally get. It’s a chance to appreciate the shape, color, texture, and “life events” of the feather. Sometimes the prints are seen and thought they are pure abstract art. So often, when people think about macro photography, they think about pictures of bugs. I don’t do bug photography. Humans simply aren’t accustomed to seeing feathers in that scale or that close. Also, not many people do focus stacking, so that opens up some enhanced abilities for depth.

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I was walking along the beach while on vacation and found a large feather. I recognized it as being from a Brown Pelican. I picked it up and looked at it, and stuck it in the tension cord of my hat. I wore it like that for several days and then when I returned home I placed it on a table. There it sat for some time. I walked past it every day for several months, probably. And then one day I looked down at it, and it was like I’d never seen it before. That day I knew I had to photograph it. It was curvy and elegant and textural—all the things we look for in a subject. That evening I made my first exposures of that feather, just looking for how to do it in the way the subject demanded. You may be the “photographer,” but if you’re sensitive, the subject will dictate how to shoot. So the first few times were for me to learn how to photograph this feather. After trying a number of methods, I came up with some techniques that seem to work for me.

It’s funny that once you are “tuned” to a certain subject, you’ll start seeing more of that. I started finding feathers everywhere! So I photographed a few of them and started showing them around to get an idea of what other people thought. People responded very positively, and one friend said, “I used to work in a pet store, and I kept every feather that fell.” So then I had access to some exotic birds. And after that, it grew again.

The project was nearly called “In Memory of the Carolina Parakeet” because that bird is extinct, in large part because it was too beautiful. It seemed unlikely that I would ever get to photograph one, so it would have to be in memory. But that also got me interested in finding one that I would be able to photograph. I contacted a few places which led to nothing, but one ornithologist was quite helpful and knew which museums had specimens. I did eventually get to go to Florida and photograph the Carolina Parakeet. Implicit in the exhibition is the idea that we only protect what we know. It wasn’t designed to be a conservation message, but you can understand a little more why we need to be careful.

There’s a lesson for photographers in that series of steps. If there’s a project you want to do, you might get turned down a lot of times because you’re an unknown. Start with something similar that you can accomplish. That establishes a baseline of credibility. It shows you can do what you’re asking somebody to let you do. So if you want to work something rare or expensive, start with the common or inexpensive but shoot it like you would the rare stuff. Then you can demonstrate that you really have the skills to work with rare things. I started with feathers I found, then got the pet store feathers to work with. Then I approached museums and showed my work. That got me access to museum specimens and even from an endangered bird rehab center.

Photography is cool! I am naturally contemplative. I can sit and stare at things. Or nothing. One of the things that attracts me to photography is that every shot is different. Just as with a portrait, every face requires a slightly different approach, every time you pick up a camera, it’s an experiment: find the right angle, find the right light, make your lens selection, what to exclude, etc.

Interestingly, I was recently having a discussion with a painter, and we discussed the idea that sometimes you find a shape in an image, and you can’t explain why you put it there. You just knew it would work and make a better image. As a photographer, that happens, especially when you have the control to set up a still life. If you look at some of my images, the composition would fall apart if some small detail were removed. A couple of images come to mind immediately. One is a photograph of a lighthouse I made when I did a photographic journey along US 1 from the Canadian border to Key West, Florida. A bird flew by as I was photographing and made the composition. Without the bird, the image is unbalanced. The other is one of my bird feather photographs. It’s a parrot feather, and there is a small downy barb sticking up off of the shaft. It turns out that very small detail is quite necessary in terms of composition.

Most of the time, I shoot with a Canon 5DS R, though I have a couple of infrared-converted cameras as well: a Canon T5i and my original digital camera, a Canon 20D. For the times I shoot film, it’s a Canon A2 35mm or a Bronica ETRS for medium format.

Philippe Halsman is a huge influence. When you look at my work, it might seem strange that a portrait photographer would be influential, but he was. When I was in college, the public library was right across the street from the lab where I got slide film processed. While I was waiting on my film to be done, I’d walk over to the library and browse the shelves in the photography section. There I discovered Halsman’s book, Sight, and Insight. One of the things I find remarkable in Halsman is his connection with his subjects. The style of his photographs was different with each person, but he always had immense respect and caring for his subject, and in some cases, it was a game, and they played along for the creation of something unique. You can see that in the way they look at the camera, and especially if you read that particular book. I enjoy working with people, but I don’t get the opportunity very often. But my approach to feathers is much the same—just a lot slower. Halsman was one of the greats who didn’t have to be a rock star. I got to see one of his silver prints (as opposed to a reproduction in a book) of Albert Einstein a few years ago and just stood there studying how he used lights and made use of the dark tones. When I work with people, I almost always have them jump at the end of every session. That’s from studying Halsman. He’s one of my photographic heroes. Working with people can be spontaneous and move more quickly than the tedium of working with feathers, which is great.

Irving Penn also had a style that I have drawn from. His fashion work and still lives and flowers. . .it’s so much about light and shadow.

I had a Kodak Instamatic camera as a child, which I really enjoyed, but it was the typical child snapshots. It’s not like I showed great promise as a photographer in the early days. After high school and I was working, my brother and I went in halfsies on a Canon T70 and a couple of lenses. I didn’t photograph a lot, but I read the photo magazines of the time and attempted to improve. I still wasn’t any good. I started university shortly before my 27th birthday, and that’s where I really began to work at it.

Starting the second semester of my freshman year, I got some real photographic instruction, which I’d never had before. I used up all the photography classes that were offered and then did independent studies with a professor so I could get critique and feedback on my work. His deal was he would let me do the study, but we had to meet once a week and discuss what I was doing. I wasn’t required to have a photo to show every meeting, but I always tried to have something, even if it was just a workprint, so we could talk about my composition or what my idea was, or whatever. I grew so much during that time, both compositionally and with darkroom skills. The constant exercise of having to produce something.

Certainly, my style has changed as I’ve aged. I think I’ve honed down what I include in the frame. I’m not minimalist by any means, but I certainly simplify as much as possible.

I like to see things. Haha, I think sometimes my style can be quite dramatic, and I gravitate to elegant light. I was in a class in college when I first realized that light wasn’t just to make an adequate exposure. I remember very clearly suddenly getting the impression that light is a moldable substance that we can use to do things. I’m always examining the light.

I used a Canon 5D MK 2 for most of the feather images. However, I began using the 5DS R after some time. The lack of the demosaicing filter I thought would help me out because of the way feathers behave under the light. I was looking for something a little difficult to define. As I began working on this project, I experimented first with close-up filters. Then I worked with a Canon 24-85mm lens on extension tubes. From there, I used Canon’s 100mm macro lens, which is a nice lens with a very flat field. I rented the Canon MP-E macro lens to try it out and was impressed enough that I bought one after a couple of uses. It’s such a great lens, though it’s kind of specialized. Most macro lenses go to life-size (1x) and stop, but it starts with life-size (1x) and goes to 5 times life-size. I think the lens is the biggest help in getting my shots. It opens up some places optically. A hummingbird feather is so small that shooting at 1x (lifesize) doesn’t come close to filling the frame.

When I’m looking at a feather, I have to decide which part will be the photograph. I’m not looking to document “this is what a feather from this particular bird looks like” for identification purposes. It’s more about what that feather has been through. The MP-E lens lets me get to some small details in the feather. The bad news is you can’t use it for anything other than a macro. Its MAXIMUM focusing distance is only a few inches.

The Sigma rep let me use a Sigma SD-1 camera and an assortment of lenses for a few weeks, also. That camera was very, very sharp. And, of course, the lenses are nice. There’s just no substitute for the Canon MP-E macro lens. I don’t know of anybody making a similar lens.

There are a few things that make these feather photographs less stressful for me. One of them is a Manfrotto macro rail. It’s not automated, just manual. It would be cool to maybe use one of the controllable ones, but I’m still doing it by hand, turning the knob just a little at a time in approximate increments. Haha.

One of the most important things in the feather project is focus stacking. For that, I use Helicon Focus software. It also includes some Remote software that will control the focus if I’m using an auto-focus lens (the Canon MP-E lens is the strictly manual focus). I did a short tutorial for stacking with Helicon on YouTube that has gotten some nice comments.

I use Photogenic Power Light 750 monolights for the lighting setup. Since most of the photographs are done with focus stacking, I needed the consistency of lighting that was under my control. Natural light can be beautiful, but I need to be able to control as many variables as possible. Not to mention my time schedule doesn’t always let me shoot during daylight hours!

Photography is a chance to notice things and pay attention. It’s a constant challenge. It’s kind of like a puzzle, only you don’t know what the finished product is supposed to look like. You have to discover it along the way. And, in part, you have to create what the puzzle is supposed to look like. Though photographing feathers can be quite tedious, the flip side of that is that it’s kind of meditative. At least, it can be. Not always. Just like with most things, I guess, some days it’s a struggle, a negotiation between me and this little feather and the light. Haha

For me, documentary and creation blend into each other. In this project, I’m making fine art photographs, which lends itself to creation, but I don’t manipulate the feathers to do it. If I find one on the sidewalk that has been stepped on, broken, bludgeoned by the rain, and that’s what attracts me to it, I want to keep those details in there. I want to make it visible that that’s what it’s been through. I don’t clean it up and try to make it a perfect representation of a feather. So it’s documentary in that regard, but it’s creation at the same time because I’m choosing which part to emphasize. I do some work that is more “pure” documentary, though. I love to know the how and why of things.

When I first look at a feather, I look at the overall shape. And maybe, the overall condition. Some feathers are beautiful because of their perfection, but some feathers are perfect because they aren’t perfect at all. The imperfect is more perfect than the perfect. Whatever damage they have from being used gives them their character, their beauty. They may be broken, or bits of them don’t fit right anymore. But in looking at them, I see there is one part or more that is especially interesting visually. There’s going to be some part of the feather that is worth featuring. It might be a swirl of color or shape. I’m looking similar to as if I were photographing a landscape. This sort of “featherscape” has features within itself that will draw attention.

From there, I’ll put it into a little clamp on the end of a flexible arm and hold it in place. I generally shoot the feathers against a black background placed several feet behind. That puts the background out of focus, and it prevents any light from spilling onto it, so it just drops out, basically. Usually, I’ve set a light up and turned the modeling light on high to give me the most visibility from the camera position. I don’t look through the camera to start with; I’m looking to see how the feather reacts to the light. At the very least, I’m looking to accentuate the texture of the feather. Some will pick up some iridescence when the light strikes at a particular angle. A hummingbird feather is just a dark brown color until the light hits at just the right angle, then it just lights up and glows like neon. The color comes from the structure of the feather rather than any pigment or other coloration, so lighting angle is critical for something like that.

The camera is mounted to a macro rail, which is mounted to a ball-head tripod, and I’ll adjust the basic composition. It’s almost surprising how long it can take, but when you’re working at that kind of closeness and magnification, small increments can make a big difference. Especially if I’m working with the MP-E lens, there is no autofocus, and I don’t have a motorized rail, so time is an element.

Usually, I’m working with the intention of focus stacking. Because of this, I’m not concerned with depth of field. I’m concerned with sharpness. I’ll set the aperture to between f5.6 and 8, as the lens is sharpest in that part of the aperture range. Shooting begins. It’s easy to think of feathers as flat, but they’re really not. So I’ll make an exposure with the camera moved to a point where the foreground or closest point is in focus, then move the camera slightly toward the feather and make another exposure. This process repeats over a number of frames (somewhere between 6 and 40, usually) until the farthest point is in focus. Once I’ve made it that far, I shoot a black frame. That helps me keep track of the beginning and end of a stack in case I need to do it over for some reason or if I shoot another stack that is very similar.

When doing the focus stack, the stacking software comes first. I’ll take all the raw images from a particular stack (for example, 15 images) and import them into Helicon Focus, and let the software do the stack. It does have a selection of stacking methods, and sometimes one of them will do a better job than the others on a particular feather. That means I usually end up processing the stack multiple times to see which one gives the better result—that is, which one will cause me the least amount of cleanup work! It also has the capability of letting you choose a particular layer for retouching purposes if it made an incorrect choice of focus when processing. You can just paint the correct portion in.

After the stack is completed, then I treat it like any other image. Whatever brightness, contrast, tonality, or cropping needs to be done will be handled at that point. I tend not to do a lot of manipulation on these images. I’m really just looking to make a good print of what’s already been done.

Generally, the images are then uploaded to a lab to be printed either on Fuji Pearl or Fujiflex Supergloss. The Fujiflex really showcases the luminosity and chroma of a feather.

I saw something beautiful and interesting that wasn’t the usual size for photographing. It was both fragile and strong. And though it had been worn and manipulated by tide and wind and sand, it had a character that attracted me. The only way I could adequately represent what I saw was to get close to the subject.

I photograph a lot of different things. Photography, for me, is a chance to see things in ways you can’t otherwise experience—though sometimes it’s an excuse to see things you otherwise wouldn’t get to see at all. It really is a medium that allows both objective and subjective observation. You can hold an instant with your camera and come back and examine it later, or share that instant with somebody who wouldn’t have otherwise seen it. You can change the perception of a subject by changing the lighting. There are so many things a photograph accomplishes.

You can find more work from James Henderson on his website, his Instagram, and his YouTube.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.