Strike a pose:
Tim Flach's extraordinary bird portraits

A grey crowned crane with its wings raised.
Animal photographer Tim Flach has turned his attention to birds, capturing striking magazine-style portraits that celebrate each species, such as this image of a grey crowned crane. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/18 and ISO100. © Tim Flach

Tim Flach's animal photography is unique. Mostly working in a studio, he creates pictures that emphasise the extraordinary and make us see even familiar animals afresh. It's not just that his images are beautifully lit and highly detailed, they help us to form an emotional connection with the animals, often by highlighting human-like appearances or expressions.

To date, Tim has produced four animal photography books. The first, Equus (2008), focused on horses, and was followed by his study of canines in Dogs Gods (2010). Then came books that showed a broad range of animals: More Than Human (2012), in which he aimed to "illuminate the relationships between human and non-human animals" and Endangered (2017), which focused on at-risk species.

Tim is currently working on a new project photographing birds, from the rare and exotic to the everyday. Shot entirely on Canon equipment, it features a selection of species that Tim finds especially spectacular or intriguing, from the grey crowned crane to the blue tit. He plans to release a book of the project in 2021.

In this exclusive interview, Tim reveals the techniques he uses, why he finds animals fascinating to photograph, the 'controlled chaos' of his studio and his aims for his ongoing bird project.

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You've produced four books on animals. What attracts you to photographing them?

"It can sometimes be difficult to understand a human, but understanding an animal seems that bit further removed. That has always intrigued me. I deal in images, so the question is how we derive meaning from those images, in relation to our understanding of what those animals mean to us.

"I'm interested in how anthropomorphism can be used in animal portraits – the whole idea of connecting something we see as human in the animal world with our world. I think that's a powerful tool for communicators. Now more than ever we should question how we connect with people and make them care about the natural world."

What's your aim when shooting images for a book project?

"I'm interested in ways of engaging people with nature. You've really got to do it in a matter of seconds – you have to either challenge or surprise people, or keep them moving from image to image. It might be that a picture is ambiguous so you don't quite know what you're looking at. As a photographer, you have to keep directing the viewer to things you think are interesting."

A close-up portrait of a vibrant blue tit.
Tim's close-up portrait of a blue tit makes the small garden bird appear large and intimidating. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/20 and ISO400. © Tim Flach
A brown and white speckled Jacobin pigeon.
The speckled Jacobin pigeon is famous for its feathered hood. Tim hopes highlighting the birds' human-like qualities will encourage us to care more about the natural world. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/20 and ISO250. © Tim Flach

How did your current project on birds come about?

"I've been working with researchers studying the sorts of images that people are most likely to care about and respond to emotionally. I'm interested in the animal portrait, so I thought instead of going on location, which I usually do for my projects, I'd concentrate on birds as a subject without the distraction of a background.

"Working in the tradition of ornithologist and British bird painter John Gould and the American ornithologist and illustrator John James Audubon, I really wanted to explore how to give the birds personality and character; to create stylised images that really celebrate the species. So, for example, I've taken a really small bird like a blue tit and done a close-up portrait of its head."

How do you ensure that the birds don't experience any distress?

"I'm essentially photographing birds bred in captivity. Sometimes I go where they are kept, but most have been photographed in my studio. I've built a mobile aviary, which is designed so the birds can't see me. I've also installed a turntable that works really well. The birds sit on a perch which moves around – they don't seem to mind that at all. This enables me to take pictures of birds with more stylised lighting than maybe has been previously possible. I've mainly used studio lighting, but with some of the bigger birds I've used natural light. I think daylight is really beautiful. So it's nice to have the mix."

An owl swooping low onto the snowy ground.

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Which camera body and lenses are you using?

"I've been shooting everything on the Canon EOS 5DS for its 50.6-megapixel resolution. With animals, I can't always determine the crop beforehand – for example if they're in flight – so the file size is a big attraction. Even with static subjects I sometimes need to crop into an image to get what I want. I've mainly used three lenses: a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, a Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM and a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x."

How long does it take to photograph each bird?

"Sometimes I've photographed five different species in a day, but others take more time. With hummingbirds, for instance, we had to do literally hundreds of shots to get just three images. One bird I want to photograph for the project is a tragopan, also known as the horned pheasant. It has an amazing coloured bib. I spent days waiting for one to be available in Belgium, but it didn't happen. This particular bird is so surprising that I'll probably invest another few days on it – so that will be almost a week on one picture."

A pink Major Mitchell's cockatoo with its crest of feathers raised.
This shot of an exotic toucan caught mid-call shows the brightness of its beak and also the serrated edge it uses to tear its food. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/20 and ISO200. © Tim Flach
A portrait of a toucan with a bright orange beak.
This brightly coloured Major Mitchell's cockatoo almost looks as if it's smiling. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/18 and ISO200. © Tim Flach

You've described some of your animal shoots as 'controlled chaos'. Is it like that when photographing birds?

"Yes, and I think you have to accept that. All you can do is create the stage on which something might happen. As they say, if you don't go fishing, you don't catch anything. So in a sense, when you bring the ingredients together, hopefully something happens that's outside your reasoning. I think it's what surprises you that's most rewarding."

Have you also been surprised by the way the overall project is developing?

"It's really intriguing when you find certain types of shots building in a book. I've started putting together a set of portraits of small birds, which wasn't something I thought I'd do at the beginning of the project. I thought I was going to have lots of big birds of prey – I do have them, but not very many. The birds that have made more interesting pictures weren't the ones I imagined when I started."

What do you aim to achieve with your birds project?

"This was never intended as a field book or an encyclopaedia. I'm hoping I've distilled some of the structures and forms of these birds in such a manner that textile and fashion designers might get excited about them. I'm hoping it will have an unusually broad reach for a bird book.

"There are 10,800 bird species and I'll only include about 80 in total. So all I'm doing is a visual exploration of some bird species. I hope, just by giving that sense of wonderment, people will think about the birds' situation; and giving the birds character and personality will make this book even more emotional than past projects might have been."

Autor David Clark

Tim Flach's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EOS 5DS camera.


Canon EOS 5DS

Combine fast, instinctive DSLR handling with 50.6-megapixel resolution, and capture exquisite detail in every moment. "The file size is a big attraction," says Tim.


Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

This versatile lens gives great results in portrait work and handheld movie-making, thanks to its ability to achieve a shallow depth of field with beautiful bokeh, along with built-in Hybrid Image Stabilization and lightweight design.

Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM

With its telephoto specification, life-size close-ups can be taken from further away with this lens, without risk of disturbing the subject.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. A four-stop Image Stabilizer maximises sharpness while instinctive controls enhance handing.

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