Last week I had the pleasure of leading a dozen amateur photographers from a San Jose photo club on a three day ornithological tour of some wetland sites here in northern California. From 6am to 6pm we traveled to wildlife refuges, rivers, ponds, rice fields, and a sewage treatment plant in search of birds to photograph. Years ago when I was doing research on Townsend’s Solitaires and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, I took lots of photos for documentation and later presentations at scientific meeting. These were the days of film cameras. You remember those, using slidefilm like Ektachrome 400, a roll of which would take about 36 photos. Of course, you had to send the film in and wait a week or so to find out that maybe one or two slides were actually of good enough quality to be useable. And if you wanted a print or a duplicate or wanted it cropped, off it went to a photo store for another week or two.
This photo group, of course, had digital cameras and they collectively took thousands of photos. They aimed their long lenses at ducks taking off from the water, geese flying overhead, and herons stalking prey across the river and clicked away. And I mean clicked. I swear that any duck that appeared photographically available had 30 photos of itself taken before it got ten feet above the water. With 64 gigabyte memories in the camera, one could shoot still shots of birds all day long along with a few minutes of video and not worry about running out. When the day was done the photographers went back to their hotel rooms and culled, edited, and photoshopped their pictures so that they could share them the next morning.
They knew virtually nothing about birds but enjoyed learning about them as they “shot” them. I learned some photographic skills in the process, myself. Interestingly, more than a few of them were curious as to why I don’t carry a camera around while birdwatching. I explained that it is more than enough to carry around binoculars and a bird book; I don’t need more to lug around. Plus, the four pound lenses these people hefted along with their camera and very heavy tripods cost as much as a first class flight to Paris. I don’t mind losing an occasional pair of binoculars to the elements or stupidity, but not that kind of gear.
There’s real skill to photographing birds. Good sites to visit are How to Photograph Birds and Bird Photographs and Photography if you want to learn more. If you google bird photos you’ll find an amazing variety of terrific photos along with a few bad ones. (Note to bad photographers: Don’t post your junk on the web.)
I’m always amazed when I take non-birdwatchers out and find out how very little they know about even the commonest birds; the reward for me is to see them open their eyes to the world of our feathered friends, even if it’s through a lens.