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How to Take Pictures of Birding

We’ve said it before here at The ABA Blog, and we’ll say it again: Digital photography has revolutionized the way we identify, appreciate, and understand birds. The proliferation of digital cameras has quite literally changed the way we look at and think about nature. That’s awesome. But I want to shift the emphasis now from photos of birds to photos of birding. Note: I didn’t say photos of birders. I said photos of birding.

Big difference.

Pictures of birders are frankly boring. For example:

Left to right: Cayenne Sweeney, Johanna Beam, Hannah Floyd, Ted Floyd. Lyons, Colorado; January 2018. Photo by © Laura Beam.

No diss on the subject matter. Cayenne Sweeney, Johanna Beam, and Hannah Floyd are a pretty amazing trio. As to the dude on the right, well, three out of four ain’t bad. Anyhow, this is a boring photo. And no diss on the photographer either. The photo was my idea, and I don’t blame Laura Beam for the result. I’ve seen thousands of photos like this one: wonderful birders rendered stiff and lifeless. The problem, in a nutshell, is that this photo doesn’t depict birding.

This one does:

Cayenne Sweeney studies an American Dipper. Lyons, Colorado; January 2018. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

That’s Cayenne, photographing an American Dipper.

Here’s another:

Hannah Floyd studies an American Dipper. Lyons, Colorado; January 2018. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

That’s Hannah, watching the same American Dipper.

Do you sense that there’s something less than ideal about those pix of Cayenne and Hannah? Here, let me fix the problem:

Left to right: Johanna Beam, Cayenne Sweeney, and Hannah Floyd study an American Dipper. Lyons, Colorado; January 2018. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

Huh? You still can’t see their faces. True, but that’s not the chief shortcoming of pictures of people birding. In this photo, unlike the two that preceded it, we see three people birding together. And that, in my opinion, makes all the difference in the world.

 

ABA President Jeff Gordon’s regular column in Birding is compellingly titled “Birding Together.” I wish I could tell you that I came up with the idea, but I didn’t. That one is all Jeff. It was the name of Jeff’s very first president’s column more than seven years ago, it’s been the name of every single one of his columns ever since, and I imagine it will be the name of the column for many more years to come.

Needless to say, we all go birding alone from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Me time” is as valuable to the birder as to anybody else. But I’m also strongly aligned with Jeff’s communitarian vision for birding. Rare indeed is the birder who never goes “birding together.”

Which brings us back to photos of birding. A bizarre thing, if you ask me, is that there are surprisingly few photos of people actually birding together—in the sense that I believe Jeff intends.

Take a second look at that photo of Johanna, Cayenne, and Hannah. True, they’re all in the same physical space. But are they really together? They could be three perfect strangers standing next to each other in a mall or at an airport gate. They’re not, of course, but you can’t really tell that from the photo. Each one of them appears to be off in their own private world, pondering their own thoughts, doing their own thing. To me, this photo does not credibly reflect Jeff’s vision of birding together.

Now here’s a photo, not by me, that strikingly captures the essence of what I think Jeff has in mind:

Noah Strycker (left), Paul Hess (right). Martin, Ohio; May 2017. Photo by © Mike Fialkovich.

Mike Fialkovich took this picture of Noah Strycker and Paul Hess. Noah and Paul are 45+ years apart, but that doesn’t matter. They’re two peas in a pod. They’re two of the finest ornithological editors of this or any generation. You get the impression that they’re sharing a laugh about misplaced modifiers or split infinitives. But they’re not really birding, one might protest. Nonsense. This is totally birding. What could be more birderly than two bird word nerds seated at a table in a diner in Ohio on a dreary midday in May? Those two have been birding all morning, they’ll be birding again in the afternoon, and—I’m completely serious about this—they’re birding together at the very instant in space and time captured in this photo. This is a marvelous photo. Take photos like this one, and we’ll publish them in Birding magazine, I can almost guarantee it.

Here’s another depiction of birding together:

Foreground: Sharon Stiteler (left), Andrew Floyd (right). Background: Linda Will (standing), Ron Harms (red/black plaid), Sally Harms (white sleeves). Lamar, Colorado; February 2018. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

That’s Sharon Stiteler and Andrew Floyd at a bingo parlor in rural eastern Colorado. Knowing those two, I can tell you that they might be discussing dangling participles à la Noah and Paul. They might also be discussing horror movie memes. And they might well be discussing the abiotic determinants of avian range limits. I’ll tell you the truth: They were discussing all three of those matters. I know it because I was there. Throughout the course of a long day of birding together, Sharon and Andrew and others talked about grammar, film, birds, and other things. In the background, by the way, we see birders Linda Will, Ron Harms, and Sally Harms, and we note that they’re absorbed in conversation, absorbed in the business of birding together. This is what birders do! And yet photos like this one—photos of birders truly interacting with one another—are quite rare.

Birders spend time together in the field of course, and I’ve seen countless photos of birders lined up at a scope, birders filing across a meadow, and, worst of all, birders smiling weakly at the camera. How about photos of birders in the field authentically birding together? You know, looking one another in the eye, engaging one another about their mutual love of birds, even of one another? Here’s one from long ago:

Andrew Floyd (left, rear), Ted Floyd (right, front). El Dorado Springs, Colorado; November 2010. Photo by © Kei Sochi.

That’s Andrew Floyd again, this time with Yours Truly. We’re at a dipper stream in Colorado, which is to say we’ve been brought together by the same bird species that brought together Cayenne and Johanna and Hannah and me earlier this year. Birds bring us together. I totally get that we take photos of dippers and such. Guilty as charged. But let’s also aspire to document the actual phenomenon of birding itself.

 

A final thought. In the forthcoming April 2018 issue of Birding, we’ll be running an important commentary by Jeff Manker. I don’t want to give it all away, so I’ll just say that Jeff challenges us to work together to build the birding community. Sounds like something another Jeff might write about! Anyhow, as we at Birding were working on production of the commentary, it was surprisingly difficult for us to find photos of people actually birding together. So we went to artist Sally Ingraham and asked her to depict Jeff Manker’s (and, I’m pretty sure, Jeff Gordon’s) big idea. Here is one of several of Sally’s illustrations to appear in the April Birding:

Mixed media on paper by © Sally Ingraham.

The young woman in the red shirt and aqua pants hasn’t yet acquired the expertise of Cayenne and Johanna and Hannah. It doesn’t matter. Her friends have brought her into the fold. And here they are now, birding together. One gets the impression that the convert will, in quick succession, download the eBird app, join the ABA, major in biology, get a Ph.D. from LSU, and revolutionize ornithology before she’s thirty.

We birders speak of “spark birds,” and I fully understand that the Acorn Woodpecker in Sally’s illustration plays a role in the story of the innominate young woman in the red shirt and aqua pants. But that’s not really what got her started. Her friends did. They reached out to her. They invited her to go birding together.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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