Muneer Al Shanti’s bird photography is all about communication – with the birds as much as the many people who admire his photographs.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.

I first came across your photography when your shot of a black cockatoo with a gumnut in its claw was shared on Facebook. I found it especially beautiful and compelling.
Thank you. That’s why I love taking shots of birds. Mainly because their personality comes through the photo. This is one of my most well-known and popular photos, and one of my own favourites too. I felt a connection that day like the cockatoo was posing for me.  This photo is actually hanging in the Australian Embassy in the United States to remind them of back home.

Red-winged Fairy Wren.

Do you consider yourself a professional bird photographer?
By profession, I’m an architect with my own business in Perth. I always had a good camera for architectural jobs, and in 2014 I started to learn to shoot landscapes as a hobby. Especially sunsets and sunrises at the beach because my number one hobby at that time was fishing.

Then I got to know the Australian bush and to love it. The animals looked magic to me from the first time I came to Australia. Birds, animals, and also flowers and seeds. I came to appreciate the flowers and seeds at the same time as the birds because the birds eat them and they are very visual in Australia.

Where did you come to Australia from?
I was originally a Palestinian born in Bahrain. I came here in 1999 for a holiday, and that’s when I met my love in Perth. She’s Australian-born, of Lebanese descent. We married after one year and lived in the Middle East. Then in 2005 she said why don’t we go to live in Australia. I said it was a very different culture and way of life, but I loved Australian nature extremely, and that was a big reason why I came.

According to my heritage from the Middle East, birds have the freedom of flying, the freedom to get away from wars and whatever, and we know them to be intelligent and magic in general. Australian birds are especially intelligent, not only for hunting, but also communicating. I have had a blue wren sit on my shoulder, to look down and find worms. A few times I have had a lady black cockatoo come down and open up a honky nut to feed me. Like I’m being fed by a mum!

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.

Where do you go to photograph birds?
In particular, Whiteman Park [a 4000-hectare bushland area 22km north of central Perth]. I have friendships with a few big birds I’ve known there for four years. They come back according to the seasons and they don’t fly away from me.

You’re obviously very patient to have that happen.
Correct. You have to get to understand the birds’ behaviour and create a safe environment for them by your attitude and the way you move. It was always a challenge and a sport to get good bird shots. Then the birds started interacting with me. Even if they were mainly being hungry and looking for food, they were curious about me. I stay very still and my eye contact needs to be minimal. If you look sideways at them and just move your eyes, they continue doing what they are doing and don’t fly away. I always have the camera lens in a shooting position because lifting it up is a big movement to a bird.

Australian Magpie.

Do you feed them?
Never. They need to find and eat their native food.

What do you wear?
Camouflage shirts, jeans, and high boots for the snakes I have experienced very close. But even at home, if you organise your land to have worms and native food, and don’t spray with things that can kill the animals and birds, the birds will come. We have a willie wagtail that visits us at home. If I keep our cat inside.

You have a cat? That’s surprising.
I’ve had them all my life. But when this cat dies, I won’t get another one. I will not support cat business – or dog business. They are friendly and lovely animals, but they are not good for the environment. Unfortunately, families’ cats, and cats in the wild, are a big problem. Amazingly, cats’ personalities are very much like birds such as the kestrel falcon and black kite in the way they behave and hunt the same things.

Nankeen Kestral.

What do look for in a bird photo? What’s your style?
Personality and the human connection. I look at them as beautiful birds, like any photographer. But if the bird can trust me, ‘talk’ to me and send me a message, the viewer can see that. A few photographers have attacked me by saying I’m photographing captive birds or birds in a studio. But I don’t do that.

Why do you often make the backgrounds surrounding the birds so dark?
With bright backgrounds, the details of the birds blend in. I shoot the right exposure on location to get the detail, then darken the backgrounds in the digital darkroom. Sometimes all the way to black, making the shot like an art piece.

Black-necked Stork.

Barking Owl. 

Your bird scenes also tend to be very tightly cropped.
Sometimes that’s because the bird is right next to me, or even on top of my leg or feet. I try not to move, but sometimes I need to go backwards because it’s too close for the lens to focus. My 8-15mm Canon fisheye is good in that case, especially with bigger birds, like a duck.

With one duck, I slid down to the ground and used the camera without looking through the lens. The duck came very close because it was used to humans feeding it, and when the camera made a noise, it hit the lens – ‘Pah!’ – with its beak. Another time, with a black swan, it was so close, someone said, ‘Watch out, it’s going to break your leg.’ I said, ‘It can break it – it would be my fault – but I’m not going to move.’

Black Swan

What other gear do you use?
The main lens for birds is a Canon 300mm f2.8, with or without a 2X teleconverter. I have a lot of lenses. My cameras are a Canon 5DsR 50-megapixel and a Canon 7D Mark II. I usually have a macro lens on the 50-megapixel in case I find a flower, mushroom or something, or the bird gets too close for the long lens. The 7D has a faster shutter speed and its autofocus is better with the long lens. I have a tripod and I built a monopod, but I don’t use them much. Hand-held is more flexible.

Do you focus on bird photography in the group courses and one-on-one workshops you do?
I teach all types of photography, but birds are my number one. My first course, in Canberra in January 2019, was really successful, so we arranged to do it again this year ( ). But the COVID situation between states is proving a difficult complication.

I’ve also taught courses in Mandurah [south of Perth] and Sydney. I’ve had about 100 one-on-one students from all over Australia. A dentist, a GP… Most of them are professional people. We do a four or five-day course that’s about more than photography. It’s about being in the wild and having the animals trust you.

Do most of your print orders come through your Facebook page?
Yes. I had three orders just this morning. I’ve also had a lot of requests for a book, so I’m going to create one. But I’m not very good at selling myself. On Facebook, I don’t have anything about that. Or about me. It’s all about the birds.

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 86

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