Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the ongoing balancing act I have between my love for birding and my love for bird photography. I started birding well before I ever tried photographing birds and, despite my best efforts, I’m wondering if there’s been something lost in making the switch.
Let’s think about this more.
Birding Versus Bird Photography: Priorities
When you go out in the field and your main purpose is to capture stunning photographs of birds, you have a whole different set of priorities to someone going out hoping to identify and observe bird species.
Suddenly it matters what type of light the bird is in, how far away the bird is and what background objects are cluttering up the frame (to name a few). At the extreme end of things, it is no longer “enough” to see the bird if you aren’t able to get a great photograph. You can come away feeling dissatisfied from the experience.
Social media and even eBird, to some extent, feeds into this need to photograph. I find half the time people don’t read the words you write on social media, it’s all about the images and videos.
Which Facebook status is more impressive:
Similarly when I get an eBird rare bird alert come through on my phone, I immediately check to see if there is a photograph attached to it. Somehow it is always less convincing, less real if it’s just the name of a bird on a list.
This can unfortunately lead to extreme behaviors by photographers that are much frowned upon by the birding community, and in many cases rightly so!
The Joy of Birding
For me the joy of birding, before I took up bird photography, was about getting outside and seeing different and wonderful species of birds. I enjoyed the challenge of bird identification and the excitement of seeing a new species.
One might argue that these things are easier to focus on without the added “distraction” of a camera. You can more effortlessly stay in the moment of observing and learning about a bird without worrying about whether, for example, your ISO is too high. Furthermore, you gain more joy in seeing a bird, without the added pressure of capturing a perfect photograph of it. The pleasure is in the observation itself.
I also think that you are more likely to see a greater number of bird species if you are out birding without a camera. This isn’t always true, but there is a trade-off between taking time to frame a perfect shot and potentially missing other birds on the trail ahead.
What Photography Brings to the Table
On the flip side of things, it’s important to remember that there is also a lot to gain in photographing birds. Taking pictures forces me to slow down and really observe and learn about the bird I’m trying to photograph. When I have my camera, I spend much more time with different bird species and I actually feel like I’m getting to “know” them better.
There is risk with birding of going after that “tick” on your list and then quickly moving on to find the next species.
The other day I noticed a lone Snow Bunting on the shore of the Ottawa River. I spent a good 30-45 minutes observing and photographing this bird. It definitely knew that I was there, but it seemed to accept my presence. It was a beautiful experience that likely would have been lost if I was just there to bird.
Photography also allows you to see those smaller details of a bird’s appearance that you can’t get from your binoculars. I’ve learned so much about bird identification from my photographs and I likely wouldn’t successfully identify nearly as many birds if I didn’t have the picture to rely on.
One could argue that using photography to identify birds is a “crutch,” but I find that if I’m able to study a photograph, then the next time I’m in the field I’m more able to get to a successful identification.
The camera also captures these little moments that I often don’t see with my naked eye. Notice the Snow Bunting’s tongue sticking out in the 3rd picture above? It’s that type of thing that photographs allow you to notice.
Where does this leave me?
At the end of the day when you consider birding versus bird photography, I don’t think that the two things are mutually exclusive. Each brings something different to the table and you can have the mindset of a birder and still be behind a camera. Like most things in life, it’s all about achieving a balance. My internal “pendulum” swings between bird photography and birding and will sometimes veer wildly to one side or the other, but in the end I strive to reel it back in to rest somewhere in the middle.
Perhaps I will even instigate one day a month where I go out birding and leave my camera at home. That is, if I can control the feeling of panic already building up inside my chest at the thought of missing a shot…
Where do you fit on the birding/bird photography spectrum? I would love to hear from you in the comments below ↓