The art of photographing Auckland Museum's bird wing collection.

Auckland Museum has over 300 bird wings in its collection and now with digital photography we are allowing the public to learn more about this exquisitely complex piece of avian anatomy and how it relates to a bird’s lifestyle, air-miles and feeding habits.

The Museum holds wings from 123 bird species, after emeritus land vertebrates curator Dr Brian Gill began collecting bird wings in the 1980s for the study of bird moult.

Since then, the bird wing collection has attracted hundreds of scientists, researchers, children and artists looking to answer questions about the morphology, feather make-up, shape and structure of bird wings.

The requests we get from the public are almost as varied as the birds themselves. On any one day, you’ll have artists using the bird wings as a reference for a painting; students looking at bird moult or scientists measuring the wing-shapes of birds with differing lifestyles.

By studying the structure, size and feather-make-up of a bird wing, researchers can find out why an albatross can soar motionlessly for days while a little fantail needs to flap furiously to keep aloft.


Our high resolution imagery captures the colour and structure of a bird wing to a level of detail that boggles the imagination. 

Take the wing of the Sacred kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus for example, a species seen widely around the coast of Tāmaki Makarau. Our images capture the magnificent differences in coloration between the dorsal (top; blue) and ventral (bottom; russet) surfaces of their wing.  

Closer up, the overlapping nature of the wing is apparent with covert feathers resting on top of the main primary flight feathers of the wing.  At 2.5 times magnification the amazing nature of the feather vane is apparent, each vane made up of thousands of tiny barbs that not even our cameras can capture.  

The barbs and their components act to “zip up” individual feathers which together create the perfect strong and light aerofoil to allow birds to fly through the air, and in some cases the ocean as well

So when you see birds preening, it's often not to impress mates, it’s actually to ensure that its flight-gear is in top condition. 

Capturing this level of detail requires more than just the right equipment, but having the right equipment makes it easier.

We use the Canon 5Ds for its 50 megapixel resolution and Broncolor Siros lights for their consistency. Three lenses were used for the bird wings, all from Canon. 


This image was shot with a Canon 5DS, EF 100mm F2.8L Macro.

Andrew Hales

This image was taken with a Canon 5DS, EF 100mm F2.8L Macro at close to 1:1.

Andrew Hales

This image was taken with a Canon 5DS, EF MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro at 2.5x life size. Often structural colour is used to create the shimmering iridescence that can be seen in our tui, shining cuckoo and kingfisher.

Andrew Hales
The right set up and gear

The right set up and gear

Since we do not edit and manipulate the photos, everything we photograph has to be lit perfectly and photographed in a way that is consistent and repeatable.

The lighting needs to show accurate colours and details, and bird wings present an interesting challenge here. Some birds use structural colour instead of, or in combination with pigment. Structural colour is created by microscopic structures in the feathers that reflect different wavelengths of light, often in different directions. 

The Sacred kingfisher wing has great examples of both; the green tones are a mixture of pigment and structural colour while the blues are mostly structural colour. To show off the texture and details in the feathers, along with any structural colour that maybe present, we used the following set up (see image below):

•    A strip box that highlights the leading edge of the wing and then sweeps light over the top. This produces contrast and highlights colours on the front and top of the wing surface. 
•    Two octa boxes on each side, “feathered”, meaning light from the edges of the Softbox shines across the wing. This highlights any structural colour and makes it pop. 

A reflector board behind the trailing edge of the wing, gives an even tone to the background.

Collections Photographer Andrew Hales, Canon 5DS, EF 24-70mm F2.8L

Richard Ng

Auckland Museum has now photographed our entire collection of bird wings, producing images that can be used for scientific research, artistic reference, pure aesthetic beauty, and anything else you are free to imagine. All bird wing images are made freely available under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC BY license. 

Cite this article 

Hales, Andrew and Rayner, Matt. 'Capturing birds on the wing'.
Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 25th January, 2018.