Sunday, September 17, 2017

Social Networking, Social Media and Bird Photography by Al Alvis

     My first attempt at bird photography was a trip to the Mississippi River to photograph the eagles in flight. I was a very experienced photographer, but had never tried to shoot birds in flight before, let alone under the freezing conditions that I was about to encounter. I mentioned my upcoming outing to a friend and he gave me some contact information to a photographer who was very familiar with the subject , the location, and the conditions. After a couple of e-mails and a brief phone conversation, I felt that I had received the guidance that I needed. Some things I was already familiar with like high-speed  continuous shooting and automatic  focus tracking. He suggested some settings in the focus tracking, shutter speeds that would be appropriate, and shooting in manual mode metering off the water. I had not shot in manual mode for a while, but that and all of his other suggestions enabled me to have a very successful shoot. Without his advice, I am sure that I would not have nearly the number of keeper images.  I enjoyed it so much, I made the trip out two more times that winter.
     A few months later, I purchased a new telephoto lens, and I was eager to try it out. I remembered a forest preserve where I had seen ducks before. I grabbed my camera with shiny new lens attached , and headed out. I had a pretty lucky day and got some shots of a loon, a horned grebe, and a couple of very enthusiastic geese. But my luck didn’t stop there. My photography life was about to change. As I was leaving, I rounded a turn on the west side of the lake and noticed a gentleman there with this very large and heavy looking tripod. Mounted on top, was camera with an enormous lens attached with paint peeling off of it and looked like it went through a war. Clearly, this was an experienced bird photographer. I couldn’t resist the urge to stop and strike up a conversation with him. He showed me some areas along the shore where certain ducks were known to gather, showed me some of his photographs, told me of a few nearby birding locations, and mentioned a website called IBET, where birdwatchers posted bird sightings and their locations.

     I went on to that site and found a place called McClaughry Spring Woods which was pretty close and noted as a good place to find migrating warblers. Off I went. When I pulled into the parking lot, guess who I run into? Yes, the same gentleman. So now he knows that I was paying attention and was serious about bird photography. He shows me some of the spots and explains which birds have been seen and where, then, he says, “follow me.” We get in our cars and drive a short distance to a place called Camp Sagawau  Environmental Learning Center. He introduces me to the naturalists and director of the facility and gives me the grand tour. This is a place for bird study. There are numerous feeders around including hummingbird feeders, nectar feeders and oranges for the Orioles, nest boxes for Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, bird houses for the Wrens----it’s a bird paradise!!!  All courtesy of the Chicago Park District.

     As it turned out, he became my mentor. He taught me what time of year and where to look for different species of birds, what time of day to be there and what time to leave, the names of many, many different types of birds, how to tell the difference in sexes, and their habits and mannerisms. He taught me about front lighting and where to be at certain times of the day.  He introduced me to Gimbal heads and teleconverters. Everything!
The point here, is, that even though I was a pretty good and experienced photographer, every different  category of photography has its  own challenges,  and when you are first starting out photographing a new subject, nothing beats one-on-one training out in the field . Learning from someone with real experience can save you lots of time and frustration, possibly even saving you from giving up on the subject, when all you needed was a little guidance.
     After  a while, it was time for me to “leave the nest,” but continue learning. You will find that birders and bird photographers are very eager to tell you about their bird findings and locations, The conversation goes like this “Good morning. How’s it going. See anything interesting?” Then comes the trading of information."  I saw some Yellow-rumped  warblers  over at McClaughry this morning” “Oh, thanks, I’ll check it out. The Indigo Buntings have showed up at Camp Sagawau." And so on. This is how you find out where the birds are. Before long you have a list of which locations to go to and what time of year you go. You also make friends and build a birding social network.
     I have a few people that I keep in contact with via email, text message or phone calls to let them know of photo ops for birds and they do the same for me. Just a little text message “Hey the swans are out at Lake Catherine” or “There have been some Scarlet Tanagers showing up at Sagawau.”  So, this is my social network for bird photographers.
     Where does the social media come in? I already mentioned IBET for the daily posting of bird sightings.  I have found a couple of useful educational websites. “Secrets of Digital Bird Photography” is a little older but very complete and accurate information. Another one that stays a little more up to date is “Mike Atkinson Bird Photography.” Many people use Facebook in their networking posting photos and usually locations. I am a big fan of FLICKR  the photo sharing site. It is another outlet for your work and it is interesting seeing other photographer’s work as well. I belong to several groups. Two of my favorites are smaller groups. OUTSTANDING BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY  is international and you will see stunning images that will give you inspiration. ILLINOIS BIRDER’S FORUM PHOTOS is just for our state and a good place for bird identification and locations.  Really handy for identifications is a phone app called “I-BIRD PRO.”  It is not free, but worth it.
    I am, by no means, an expert on bird photography. I have done much research on the subject and countless glorious hours in the field. My mission at our CAPS school is to just  pass on as much information as I can in my allotted time. Call it payback for all the people that have helped me along the way.

     Al Alvis is a self-described photography addict who has been involved with photography since the wet darkroom days back in high school.   He has been doing presentations revolving around photography for over thirty years with topics including black and white, landscapes, macro, portraits, composition and lighting.   His favorite field is nature and, for the last four years, almost exclusively, bird photography.   

Flickr:  al alvis’s albums | Flickr     

Al will be presenting, "The Mechanics and Art of Bird Photography" on Sunday, November 19th.

To see the entire schedule of classes go to: or click here:  Home

To register go to:   Chicago Area Photographic School (CAPS) 2017 | Summary | powered by RegOnline

1 comment:

  1. Great article, thank you. Only one correction to offer. The Sagawau Learning Center is part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County with no affiliation to the Chicago Park District.