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Behind the Lens (Full Article)

Note: this blog entry features the full interview of amateur photographer and All Seasons Wild Bird Store team member, Jim Weisman. A portion of this article was printed in the September/October 2015 edition of our Bird’s-Eye View in-store newsletter.

With patience, a playset blind, and “a lot of luck,” All Seasons Wild Bird Store employee and customer Jim Weisman captures stunning images of backyard birds.

Q: How did you start taking pictures of birds?
A:  I moved to Minnesota 11 years ago. The first spring I was here I saw a Pileated Woodpecker. I knew I had to get a picture of it, but I didn’t have a good camera. We also had owls in the woods behind us and I took a lot of pictures of them because I thought they were cool. I finally got a decent camera—the one I have now—and that’s how it happened. I was hooked on taking photographs of birds. Each bird I photograph has a folder in my computer. I believe I probably have a photo of every species of bird I’ve seen in my yard!

Q: What’s your secret to getting such great shots?
A:  Patience. I know the birds are going to be there. I just sit in my daughter’s Rainbow® playset—I put a patio chair up there—and wait. You need to sit and observe. I’ve learned a trick is to sit there for 15-20 minutes, because going out there disturbs the birds. After that time, the birds start to go back to their normal behavior.

Q. What makes a good bird photo?
A: A number of things, including:

  1. A good pose. I like to get their back with them looking over their shoulder at you. For instance, goldfinches—males—have beautiful stripes on their wings that you don’t see most of the time. If I can get them looking over the shoulder so you can see the eye and the wings—that’s a good shot. Blue Jays are like that too.
  2. Interactions and juxtapositions.
    I like shots that show two birds in one frame. You may get a shot that shows a parent feeding a baby bird or something like the Wood Duck in a tree with a Baltimore Oriole in front.
  3. Unusual features. A lot of shots I don’t realize what I’ve got until I get them on the computer, like a photo I took of a balding cardinal. Those accidents turned into something I look for now. Or sometimes I’ll just be photographing a bird, like a chickadee on a feeder, and I’ll be snapping away when it flips upside down and looks like it’s doing pull-ups. It’s just luck!
  4. Behavior. Watching the birds over time, I know where the good shots are going to be. I can count on the House Finches to eat the golden safflower. So if I hear them, I’ll start to focus the camera on the safflower feeder. Or the Pileated Woodpecker—if I see or hear it nearby, I’ll automatically focus on the tree by the suet feeder, because it usually lands there. Then I’ll get a shot on the suet feeder next. I know the behavior to look for.
  5. Lighting. The light is best right after sunrise and before sunset. About 30 minutes before sunset makes everything so beautiful! If the sun is out that day, I’ll make a point to go out that evening right before sunset.

Q. What lessons have you learned from photographing birds?
A:  Some people don’t have a something in their life to get excited about. With birds, I’m learning so much all the time and I love it! People who don’t have something like that—what do they do? I feel privileged to be watching birds. And if I can take pictures and share them, that’s good enough for me.

Q. What kind of feeders and/or feeding stations do you have in your yard?
My backyard is a great yard. It’s cut into a corner of woods, so it’s woods on 3 sides. I have three poles, for a total of three feeding stations. I put suet out for woodpeckers year round. I have two suet feeders: one that holds a 3-lb suet cake and the other which is a suet log that I fill with plugs. I have golden safflower at all three stations, Nyjer®™ and Chips on two stations, and striped sunflower on two. So, what is that? 11 feeders! In the summer, I put out an oriole feeder with meal worms and grape jelly, plus 2 hummingbird feeders.

Q. You have an 11-year-old daughter. Does she enjoy backyard birds too?
A. Yes, she likes birds too. She knows a lot about birds for someone her age! She knows their proper names and can tell the males from the females.

Q. You get some great shots from your point-and-shoot camera. Any wishes for another camera?
I think about getting a high-resolution high-speed camera so I can capture birds in flight. I want to get crystal-clear moving shots where you can see each individual feather. I’m giving it some thought!

Q. Besides graciously sharing your photographs with us at All Seasons Wild Bird Stores, how do you share your photos?
I make a Christmas calendar for my friends and family (for me, more than anything!). I enjoy the challenge of whittling down a year’s worth of photographs down to the best 12-13. It’s tough to edit!

Q. So you take a lot of photos?
A. I use a shotgun philosophy when I photograph birds: I take a bunch of photos with the hopes of finding 1 or 2 good ones. I’ll fill up a memory card each time, and out of 755 photos, I’ll end up with about 25 good ones. I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I save the photos I like and remove the ones I don’t.

Q. What’s your favorite time of year to photograph birds?
Right now (mid-summer). There are lots of babies! It’s fun to see the babies getting their food. You can tell it’s a young Hairy Woodpecker [for example] because their feathers are funny—still short—it’s like they’re bald. Right now I’m watching 2 Red-bellied Woodpecker fledglings chasing each other around. But it’s also exciting to see the returning migrating birds in the spring.

Article by guest contributor Katrina Hase. Photos by Jim Weisman.