Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Nature Photography



Nature photography is popular among nature enthusiasts ever since the introduction of digital cameras. The ability to see your results immediately rather than wait for days if you are using transparencies is one major factor contributing to this. Another is ease of handling images like hard disk storage, sending via e-mail and posting on websites. Cost is another factor as there is a camera for any budget, from cheap instant to the more sophisticated professional types. And with pocket sized cameras of reasonably resolutions, you are able to have one with you all the time, allowing you to be ready should a shooting opportunity arises.

Of the different categories of nature photographers, the most common are the birdwatchers - see HERE. Then there are the insect enthusiasts, especially those seeking out butterflies.

Conventional Nature Photographers

Prior to the era of digital cameras there were a handful of nature photographers working with black and white films and later, colour transparencies. These photographers work alone, seeking out their subjects in all corners of the country, as well as overseas. The earliest was Loke Wan Tho, an ornithologist-cum-photographer in his own right. His 1957 A Company of Birds is now a classic. This is a black and white photographic book filled with images of birds he encountered in Singapore and the surrounding countries, each bird annotated with detailed information. Three decades later Ivan Polunin published Plants and Flowers of Singapore (Polunin, 1987). Both authors were members of the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore), now Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS, but they operated independent of the society.

It was only in the early 1980s that the NSS formed a Photo Group made up of a handful of enthusiastic nature photographers. They went about documenting various aspects of local and regional nature and in 1983 published a colour book on regional insects (Murphy & Hun, 1983). A decade later Chua Ee Kiam brought out a book on the local natural history (Chua, 1993). Chua subsequently went on to publish three other nature books, but not under the auspices of the society (Chua, 2000, 2002, 2007). Independent photographers who were not part of the Photo Group include Morten Strange and the late Ong Kiem Sian. Strange was probably the only bird photographer working from Singapore in the 1980s. He is one of the pioneers of bird photography in this region, seeking out birds never photographed before. His work can be seen in his many published photographic bird guides (Strange 2000, 2004; Strange & Jeyarajasingam 1993). Ong was a birder-photographer who travelled extensively around the region photographing birds in their natural environment, taking not just portrait shots but behavioural as well (Ong, 2008).

Nature Photographers

When digital photography came onto the scene around the early 2000, a group of enthusiastic nature photographers approached the NSS to reactivate the Photo Group which was then in dormancy. Unfortunately, lack of foresight led to the society rejecting the initiative (Wee & Tsang, 2008). As a result, the Nature Photographic Society (Singapore) was thus formed. So the NSS lost a golden opportunity to work closely with photographers, a group of extremely dedicated and focused nature enthusiasts. As fate would have it, birdwatchers are currently courting bird photographers for use of their excellent images. And the NSS's Photo Group is currently still in dormancy.

Other independent photographers set up e-forums such as NaturePixels and Club Snap that catered to their interests. Here, they showcase their images and exchange news and information. Members also assist one another in the identifications of the organisms they photograph.

Bird photographers are mostly interested in birds, as these are the most easily encountered wildlife in Singapor, besides being attractive and captivating subjects (Chan et al., 2007; Tang et al., 2009).  Understandingly, their entry ruffled the feathers of many a traditional birdwatchers who had enjoyed total monopoly to this group of wildlife for easily half a century (Chan et al., 2007; Wee & Tang, 2008). 

Highly focused in their attempts at getting the best images possible, this new breed of digital photographers was less concerned with how they behave in the field. In no time at all they led the field in sightings that even the experienced birdwatchers envied (Wee & Subaraj, 2009). In addition, their crisp images of birds were badly needed by the birdwatchers that are generally averse to using a camera in the field. However, the sudden proliferation of so many photographers descending all at once on the limited birdwatching sites invariably caused disputes – between newcomers and traditional birdwatchers as well as among the newcomers themselves. The rows of photographers with their long lenses on tripods fighting for a favourite spot and waiting for the birds to appear are a sight to behold. At the Singapore Botanical Gardens they even scattered mealworms on rocks to lure out the rare migratory ?Pittas [], a practice much frowned upon by birdwatchers. There were even cases of people using recorded calls excessively, not to say that birdwatchers never use such calls to lure birds out of the forest.

Other anti-social behaviour  includes the clipping of branches in order to get a clear view of nesting birds for photography. Such a practice led to the disappearance of the egg and chick from the nest of the Emereld Dove (Chalcophaps indica) at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, possibly due to predators as a result of the nest being too visible. Then there was the case of a photographer actually picking up a Little Tern (Sterna albifrons) chick and placing it on a flat surface to photograph, despite the screaming of the adult overhead.

But to be fair to photographers, they are new in their encounter with nature. Many are simply not aware of what not to do, like disturbing nesting birds, handling eggs and chicks in their nests, etc. In a way they can be excused for such behaviour, for after all, even the best and most experienced birdwatchers started off being obnoxious in the field. It is only after years of fieldwork that they eventually become aware of the necessity of field ethics. In this regard it is regrettable that when a group of photographers interested in resurrecting the then defunct Photo Group of the NSS, they were not welcomed. Had the NSS been more generous in their approach, photographers would be able to interact closely with seasoned birdwatchers and in the process become more considerate in their treatment of the birds they stalk.

To the benefit of photographers, they are now conducting self-policing, talking to those behaving badly in the field and encouraging good field ethics.

Slim Sreedharan, an ornithologist of much repute, had, some decades ago, wrote on the necessary ethics wildlife photographers need to adhere to in the field. His list of what to do and not to do can be read HERE. Below is an edited summary for the attention of birdwatchers and photographers:

1. Careless conduct can drive birds away or wreck their breeding cycle.

2. Breeding behaviour is fascinating and yields fine pictures. Yet, it is also a time when the animal is at its most vulnerable. Stalking or harassing it will separate young ones from the parents and put them at risk.

3. The area around the nest is often cleared of leaves and twigs that may effect the composition. Quite frequently, this is taken to extremes, such that it exposes the nest and endangers the young ones.

4. A simpler, and more effective method, is simply to tie back all unwanted herbage with a short length of string. And, of course, to remove it after each photo session.

5. When using photographic hides, do not leave the hide unattended or to visit it so frequently as to leave a clear trail to and from the nest. This may provoke the parents into abandoning the nest or enable predators to find the breeding site.

6. When and where to place a hide often depends on the subject. Some birds will permit closer approach than others. Patiently watching your subject as it approaches and leaves the nest, and its reaction to your presence, will help you decide where and how close to place your hide.

7. It is always better to place the hide as far away as possible from the nest to begin with, then move it closer little by little over a few days. Or even use a long lens. A noisy shutter will not startle them too much.

8. Knowing exactly when to put up the hide is important – get it up too early in the breeding cycle and the birds will readily desert the nests and eggs. They are less likely to do so once the young ones have hatched out.

9. Once the hide is in place, the birds should be given time to accept it before the hide is moved any closer. It is best to move the hide late in the afternoon to give them time to accept it and get back to the nest before nightfall.

10. Once inside the hide, never rush your pictures. The birds will be nervous to begin with, so take your time and let the birds settle down. If they do not, or are too distressed by your presence, never hesitate to pull out. Try again the next day – or sacrifice your pictures altogether.

11. Do not attempt to handle young birds in a nest. As the fledglings get older, they become extremely wary and, when frightened, are likely to “explode”, scatter every which way they can!

12. Should this happen, be careful when searching for them in tall grass – you may step on them. If they are very young, and you have someone to help you, and put them back into the nest one at a time, keeping them covered until they settle down again.

13. If they are almost fully grown and can fly, they may be impossible to recover. It might be better at this point to cut your losses and leave the area at once. With luck, attracted by distress calls from the young ones, the parents may come back.

14. Finally, never divulge the location of a breeding site to anyone else.


Chan, Y. M., K. C. Tsang & Y. C. Wee, 2007. Bird watch: A field guide to the passion for birdwatching in Southeast Asia. AsianGeographic, 46(7): 62–72.

Chua, E. K. 1993. Ours to protect. Nature Society (Singapore)

Chua, E. K. 2000. Pulau Ubin, ours to treasure. Simply Green, Singapore.

Chua, E. K. 2002. Chek Jawa, discovering Singapore's biodiversity. Simply Green, Singapore.

Chua, E. K. 2007. Singapore’s splendour: Life on the edge. Simply Green, Singapore.

Loke Wan Tho 1957. A company of birds. London: Michael Joseph.

Murphy, D. H. & Kwan Hun 1983. An eye on nature. Maruzen Asia, Singapore.

Ong Kiem Sian, 2008. A passion for birds. Draco Publishing, Singapore. 167 pp.

Polunin, I. 1987. Plants and flowers of Singapore. Times Editions, Singapore.

Strange, M. 2000. A photographic guide to the birds of Malaysia and Singapore. Periplus Editions, Hongkong. 398 pp.

Strange, M. 2004. Birds of Fraser's Hill: An illustrated guide and checklist. Nature's Niche, Singapore.

Strange, M. & A. Jeyarajasingam 1993. A photographic guide to the birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Sun Tree Pub., Singapore.

Tsang, K. C., R. Subaraj & Y. C. Wee 2009. The role of the camera in birdwatching in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 183-191.

Wee, Y. C. & K. C. Tsang, 2008. The changing face of birding in Singapore. Nature in Singapore, 1: 97–102.

Wee, Y. C. & R. Subaraj, 2009. Citizen science and the gathering of ornithological data in Singapore. Nature in Singapore, 2: 27–30.

Widipedia 2012. Nature Society (Singapore). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_Society_Singapore#Photo_Group (Accessed 02Feb. 2012).

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