Pigeons Are Beautiful, so Start Photographing Them

Photographer Andrew Garn shares his tips for capturing these underrated urban stalwarts in all of their iridescent glory.

Ask most city dwellers how they feel about the ubiquitous Rock Dove—a.k.a. the pigeon—and their response will likely range somewhere between indifference and outright loathing. But photographer and New Yorker Andrew Garn finds them fascinating subjects—so much so that he recently published a whole book of photos of the species, The New York Pigeon. Most of the photographs in Garn’s book were shot in a studio, with subjects on loan from the Wild Bird Fund, a nonprofit that rehabs injured and orphaned birds, which is where he came to appreciate the subtle beauty of this much-maligned species. “You see these colors and patterns, you start to look at what feathers are made up of, " Garn says. "It opens your eyes." In addition to the studio, Garn has also spent plenty of time shooting this species on their home turf in the urban jungle. Here he offers some guidance on how to capture shots that give these urban warriors the respect they’re due.

Follow the sun . . . 

At first glance, most pigeons appear to be a rather drab gray. But if you look closer—and get your lighting right—you’ll find an iridescent rainbow of color hiding in their plumage. To capture it, head out on a sunny day, and aim to get your light 90 degrees to the camera. “In nice direct sunlight, you’ll pick up a lot of the coloration, and the texture of the feathers,” Garn say.

. . . But let the birds come to you

You’ll also have better luck if you get up close with your subject—which, fortunately, is pretty easy to do when you’re dealing with birds that tend to see humans as crumb dispensers. “If you just sit down and don’t move too abruptly, you’ll be able to get them to come pretty close.” 

Integrate architecture into your shots

“Look up, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a pigeon looking back at you,” Garn says. An SLR or DSLR camera and a telephoto lens that zooms to 400mm will let you see what you’re doing.

Go for action

Pigeons are natural acrobats. “They’re very maneuverable birds,” he says, “almost like helicopters.” If you’re looking to freeze that action, Garn suggests starting with a shutter speed 1/2000th of a second if your subject is close by, and cranking it even higher if the birds are flying above you. If, on the other hand, you’re going for a shot that emphasizes all that kinetic energy, try experimenting with lowering your shutter speed to around 1/500th of a second and panning in the direction of the bird’s flight, which will give you an in-focus subject against a blurred-out background.

Watch out for mating behavior

Unlike many species that breed just once a year, pigeons tend to do it all year round, providing photographers ample opportunity to capture their courtship rituals. “The preamble is hilarious,” Garn says. “The male pigeon really puffs up and spreads its tail feathers, and turns into this totally different looking bird.”