A couple years ago I charted the rise of the bird photo field guide. Since then, several new photo field guides have come out, including the Stokes guide that is out this month, and the photographic field guides of Paul Sterry and Brian Small that came out last year. And everyone is waiting to see Richard Crossley's field guide scheduled to come out next year.
In this review I want to focus on the Sterry & Small guides to emphasize what I think are the biggest problems with photo field guides. But first some things things that stand out about these twin Eastern and Western guides.
A) Large photos: Photos in these guides are generally generously sized--which is good in that they provide a nice look at the birds, but may be bad in that they take up so much room that we don't get as many photos of each species. The beautiful photos, most by Brian Small, are easily the best feature of these guides.
B) Non-square format: One of my pet peeves about photo field guides is that each page becomes a series of rectangle bird images. Sterry & Small break that up by editing the photos so that the birds break through the frame of the rectangle. At one level this is great so as to get rid of the boxiness of the guide. But in some cases it becomes a bit distracting, and makes it so that the eye doesn't quickly comprehend the species on the page and their relationship to each other, and one has to pay extra attention to the labeling to make sure which image goes with each species. My initial thoughts on this were "nice layout" but after more closer review, the layout is maybe more distracting than useful--even if it looks nicer.
C) No migration on maps: I think we've all come to expect seeing migratory pathways rendered on field guide maps. These guides don't have them, so birders in most of the country would not be able to use this book to determine which migratory species might occur in their area during passage.
And now for some more difficult comments. To facilitate this, I'd like to compare one typical two page spread with a similar spread from what I recently called the best field guide ever, Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition (like these Sterry & Small guides, also put out in the US by Princeton Press).
Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition
Sterry & Small (Western) Photographic Guide
First things to notice:
1) Fewer bird images: 16 bird images in the illustrated guide, only 4 in the photo guide. This seems to be a fairly consistent issue with photo guides--while an artist can cram images together in an aesthetic way, that is tough if not impossible to do to the same extent in a standard photo guide.
2) Fewer plumages depicted: This goes along with the first point. Note there are no juvenile birds depicted in the photo guide. In the case of these Sterry & Small guides, there seem to be huge gaps between what is covered here and in standard field guides. When was the last time we didn't get to see juvenile Northern Saw-Whet Owls in a field guide?
3) Photos don't show as much: Despite the claim that photos show birds more realistically than illustrations, photo field guides almost always fall down on this point--they just don't show what is really needed for us to see in order to make a good identification. Read the descriptions of a bird in any photo field guide, then look at the included photos and ask if you can really see that point in the photos. More often than the authors would care to admit, the feature just isn't visible in the photo.
Here are some examples from just this owl page--look closely to see if you can see these features mentioned in the text:
--"Long-tailed appearance is diagnostic" (maybe not too obvious in photo)
--"Gray-brown overall" (we only see under parts, not most of dorsal side)
--"Upperparts are marked with pale spots..." (again, we only see a little of the upperparts)
--"...smallest and densest on the head" (you can see this, but only on the crown)
--"Underparts are barred..." (thank you, yes that is visible)
--"as is the long, tapered tail" (tail hardly visible at all)
--"Eyes and bill are yellow and facial disc is pale and rounded..." (yes)
--"...with striking white eye-brows" (OK, its there, but photos of other owls on page have at least as striking eye-brows, so what's the point of the mention?)
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
OK view of back as described, but can't really see the "underparts whitish, but heavily streaked rufous." Again, juvenile not shown at all.
--"Rich brown plumage overall" (not visible)
--"Upperparts are marked with bold white spots, smallest and densest on head" (not really visible.
--"Underparts are whitish, but heavily streaked with rufous brown" (OK, but looks more dark brown than rufous in photos)
--"Facial disc is whitish with dark border (OK)
--"Yellow eyes" (eyes are mostly closed)
--"...framed by white eyebrows" (OK I guess, but not most distinctive feature.
That's not a great percentage of mentioned features readily visible in the photos.
4) "Extra photos": In this format, there are often "extra" photos over on the left-hand side within the text of the species accounts. Usually, more photos is better, but often in this guide the photos seem more attractive than useful. Case in point the Bristle-thighed Curlew illustration on the curlew page (above). Nice to have the bird illustrated, but just as with the owl page, most of the identifying features listed for the species are not visible in the photo at all.
5) Missing flight shots: This could just be another subset of the above categories, but for most birds we aren't given photos of the birds in flight. And sometimes when they are, they can cause problems, such as...
6) Photo artifacts create confusion: Case in point, the Great Egret shot on page 87 of the Western guide (p. 77 in the Eastern) seems to show the bird with black underwings. Experienced birders will know that this is a photographic artifact due to lighting, but a beginner could be easily mislead. Just another point that photos just don't always show the birds in the best way for them to be identified.
7) Distracting backgrounds: Great thing about an illustrated guide is that the birds can be depicted against a uniform background--usually white or another pale color to best show off the plumage. In photo guides, each bird is vignetted with what are usually just distracting background leaves or other features, making the eye and mind work harder to get a clear image of the bird itself. In illustrated guides, backgrounds can be shown that are actually useful, such as the numerous small image shots of birds in the Birds of Europe that illustrate interesting behaviors or habitat features.
8) Clutter: Sometimes the guide succumbs to the temptation to pack in too many images in too small a space, such as pp.158-159 in the Western Guide, where 12 variously sized photos of Western Gull, Sabine's Gull, and Black-legged Kittiwake are so crowded as to be distracting.
9) Poor Comparisons: That same crowded gull plate illustrates another problem--because of the nature of fitting photographs onto the pages, you rarely get good close images of two similar species in proximity to each other. A standard of illustrated field guides is to depict similar species right next to each other to facilitate easy comparison. You just can't do that as well with photos. On the crowded gull plate, there is no reason to have Western Gull next to these smaller species--it would be better served in close proximity to some of the other larger gulls.
Granted, many of the problems with these guides are shared by other photo field guides, so in some cases I am just pointing out the limitations of this genre.
However, when it comes to the text, there are plenty of other frustrating things to puzzle about. I'll just mention the biggest problem--
Similar species: For the most part, and I think this is the book's fatal flaw, the book just doesn't tell us how to identify birds from others that may be similar. This is really bad in tough ID cases--like Empidonax flycatchers--as precious little is given here for those birds. There is no similar species section (except when there are extra-limital or range-limited similar species not covered by their own species account), and the text for most species usually doesn't mention other similar birds at all. When distinguishing features are mentioned, they are often not visible on the photos (see point #3 above). So birders are left to try and photo match what they see with one of the photos in the book, really can't use this to reliably identify more than just the most distinctive birds.
On books I like a lot, I usually list all the great things about it, then may have to mention a few problems or things I don't care for at the end. In this case, sadly, I'm left at the end of the review having spilled a lot of ink without dishing out many praises. But there are a few things that I liked that I can draw attention to in these books. The photos, despite not being the most useful for identification purposes, are by and large excellent and beautiful. This may well be the "most lavishly illustrated photographic guide" to North American birds as plugged on the back jacket. I also liked the "observation tips" section at the end of each species account. Sometimes there is fun or useful information there, such as when we are told for the Northern Hawk-Owl that "Low density, nomadic habits, and fickle site faithfulness make it tricky to pin down. However, on the plus side, diurnal habits and fondness for perching on treetops allow supurb views if you do find one." Of course, as with the other features of this book, sometimes this section is less than useful, as when it says that a species is "easy to see" or in the case of the American Golden-Plover when it states that the birds are "most reliably found by visiting Arctic breeding grounds in summer." What? Sorry, not useful for most of us!
Which is probably what I have to say in conclusion about these books. In many ways they are beautiful, but probably not useful for most of us.
Other online reviews:
The Birder's Library