For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Photography

Original Air Date: Feb. 10, 2009

Laura just bought a DSLR camera, and is trying to adjust.

Duration: 4′30″


Photography I started birding in 1975, and for the next 25 years never took bird photos. Then when I was writing for Journey North, the educational website teaching children about migration, I often found myself in need of photos so in 2000, I broke down and bought a small digital camera. I didn’t take many bird photos, and most of the ones I took were pretty bad, but it was fun taking pictures of toads, flowers, and other closer and more cooperative subjects. I upgraded to a 5x zoom camera in 2004, and spent the year taking more and more bird shots, even getting a couple of magazine quality ones.

In 2005, I started working for a local optics company, writing a blog, and in order to have better material, bought an 8x camera. That was before Image Stabilization was affordable, and to zoom in enough to get birds reasonably close, there was way too much camera shake. But at the same time, I was getting to use very high quality spotting scopes, and so I learned to digiscope, taking photos with a nice little digital camera through the scope’s eyepiece. Little by little I was building up my digital photo collection, which now has decent shots of hundreds of species, and lousy shots of hundreds more—I’ve been trying to get all my photos on the Flickr photo-sharing website, and have a pretty good start.

But now that I’m editing BirdScope, the newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I’m often finding myself searching for photos with higher resolution than I’ve ever taken, so at New Year’s I decided to bite the bullet and buy a top-of-the line consumer grade SLR—I got the Canon 50D. It took up pretty much my entire discretionary income for 2009, with the two lenses it came with on a store sale. It’ll be at least another year before I can afford a top-grade long lens, but the 70-300 mm lens that the camera came with is already providing me with some pretty amazing photos. Now when I stroll through Sapsucker Woods at lunchtime, I’ve been mostly leaving my binoculars behind and just bringing my camera. I’ve gotten some really nice pictures of feeder birds, including some of Black-capped Chickadees wearing an aluminum US Fish and Wildlife Service leg band, a plastic colored band, and a much bigger colored band that is actually a transponder. Every time a chickadee sporting one of those alights in a special feeder, the individual, its time of arrival, and its time of departure are recorded. The information scientists are gathering about chickadee feeding behavior is fascinating, and the birds don’t seem to mind the additional hardware—it doesn’t seem to have affected their behavior or their ranking in their flocks. Most of the time when I photograph a chickadee I can’t tell whether it’s wearing the bands or not until I see the photos on my computer.

Although my new camera allows me a huge amount of control over its settings, I find myself gravitating to basic point-and-shoot functions because it’s so much quicker. I’ve taken to setting the automatic function to landscape when photographing birds in bushes—it seems to take the pictures at a reasonably fast speed while also providing extra depth of field, allowing me to get more of the bird in focus than when I use other automatic settings. I’m playing around with the settings quite a bit, though, and over the next several months if you go to my Flickr page, you’ll see more and more of the results. I never thought of myself as a bird photographer before, and it’s interesting to focus more through a camera more than binoculars, but it’s fun, and lets me enjoy birds long after they’ve flown away—something binoculars just can’t do.