For the Birds Radio Program: Photography, Part I

Original Air Date: Oct. 5, 2010 Rerun Dates: Oct. 13, 2011

Laura talks about how she learned photography using film cameras and made the transition to digital.

Duration: 4′47″


Bird Photography When I was in high school, our science teacher taught a photography unit. We learned a little about composition and mostly about the physics behind camera settings and how to develop black-and-white film. My family had a Kodak Instamatic, but Russ had a good rangefinder and since we were dating, he let me use it. In college I took a photography class more focused on producing slide shows for educational purposes. We were living on a shoestring budget and couldn’t afford to buy much film or pay for developing, and so months often went by between my taking a photo and then finally finishing the roll off and getting it developed. I enjoyed photography, but it was hardly a consuming passion, and when I started birding, I completely lost interest in it. When we went on trips, Russ took lots of photos on slide film. He mostly focused on scenery and wildflowers, but he managed to catch a few of my lifers. Me, I couldn’t imagine putting down my binoculars for a moment to fiddle around with a camera. Then in 2000, when I was writing for an educational website, I started needing photos to go along with the text I was writing, so I got what was, at the time, a pretty good point-and-shoot digital camera. Russ still used film for family events, and I only took photos as I needed which wasn’t much, but after going down to New Orleans to photograph hummingbird banding for the educational site, and after visiting Costa Rica twice with my old camera, I started seeing the utility of getting a better camera and learning more about digital photography. So in 2003 I got what was, at the time, one of the best point-and-shoot cameras. I was extremely pleased with some of the pictures, but for the most part the birds were too far away to get anything print quality. It didn’t bother me—I mostly photograph to remember encounters with individual birds, and did not aspire to becoming a professional photographer. But some of my feeder birds came close enough that I got a few magazine-quality photos. That winter a couple of Hoary Redpolls visited my feeder, and photos I took of them appear in the book Tanagers, Cardinals, and Finches of the United States and Canada. And the following spring, I had an amazing influx of Scarlet Tanagers and Cape May Warblers in my yard, some getting close enough for some amazing photos. I was becoming addicted. I upgraded my point-and-shoot camera two more times, and managed to get a lot of very good photos on trips to Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. But once I started working on publications as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I started really appreciating the differences between my pictures and the ones produced with digital SLR cameras, so I started saving up, and in January 2009 I sprung for a Canon 50D. It came with an affordable zoom lens, which was good for learning on as I saved up for their professional-grade 400mm lens, which I got in May 2009. Suddenly I’ve gone from a birder whose binoculars were seldom out of reach to one who brings my camera everywhere, and no longer even bothers with binoculars. When a bird is too hard to identify through the viewfinder, I just snap its photo and identify it from the zoomed in image. I don’t see as many birds as I once did, but I see more details of each one, and am enjoying my birding more than ever. I use a 32-gigabyte memory card, and so even shooting at the highest possible resolution, I can take more than 1500 photos in a day. Most used to be throw-aways, but more and more are turning out. I post a lot on flickr, and in the coming months am going to put together a really good index to my best ones. You can see them at