An interesting discussion on the radio this morning about a new bird book - Britain's Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland - which is illustrated entirely with digital photographs (and on a grand scale, with more than 2,700 images). The author, Rob Hume, made the case for this omniphotographic approach, while artist and illustrator Ian Griffiths argued for painted illustration.
Some of Griffiths' points - about, for example, the illustrator's total control of viewpoint, lighting and background - were partially rebutted by the sheer versatility and flexibility of digital photography. However, in the end pictorial illustration will always have the edge over photography for this kind of book - especially if picture space is limited - as the knowledgable illustrator can design his single image to emphasise exactly what needs to be shown for identification purposes, and to convey the overall 'feel' of its subject. Even the cleverest photography captures, by definition, a snapshot; a good painted illustration captures an essence. The very stylisation of the hand-made image allows it to be, in a sense, more real than the 'real thing' caught by the camera lens.
This morning's discussion ended in acknowledging the virtues of both approaches - and their complementarity. The best field guides are those that contain both photographs and painted illustrations - as does the brilliant Philip's Guide to Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Jeremy Thomas, the best pocket guide to British butterflies. But then butterflies are much smaller than birds, and it seems to be a rule that the smaller the subject the less useful photographic illustration is, and the more the discriminating eye of the illustrator is called for. Well, up to a point.