Creative: Kit That Matters

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Nothing like a little bird’s eye view of a bird’s eye.

It is not often I take the time to write a blog post about equipment, but when a piece of equipment instantly leads to another level of work then it is worth noting. Some kit matters. Before I go any further, just know that I don’t consider myself a birding photographer. I’m not there yet. There are world class bird photographers scattered all over the globe, and my limited experience with these folks has taught me several things. First, they are badass photographers and would be good at anything they turn their lens on. Second, they know birds. These are not people who decided on birds as some last minute option. No, quite the contrary. They are some of the most focused, educated, driven photographers I’ve ever met.

I came to birds late in life and due to the pandemic. My understanding is that the pandemic might actually work out well for the birds, because as it turns out, I’m not alone. A lot of folks came to birding during this time simply because they had the time. The time to look around, to pay attention and note a feathered subculture existing in plain sight. My gateway bird was the Woodhouse’s scrub-jay who came as a pair and nested on my patio. Babies followed while I developed a relationship with the pair. (Paco and Juanita) Year two of the pandemic arrived as did the jays. Same scenario. Relationship, babies, flight lessons, etc.

As my relationship developed I realized I wanted more.

I wanted to document the damn things, which I did. And then I wanted even more. I wanted to know what else lived in plain sight and how I could have missed birds for my entire life. (I did hunt birds for 20 years, but that’s different. Oh, and I ate them wrapped in bacon as I danced around a fire unloading my spare shells into the air in some demented, pagan hunting ritual.)

I think non-photography birding might actually be a better experience. Or better yet, birding with binoculars and then drawing or sketching or painting is perhaps the most supreme version of the birding experience. Not only is there a lot less to carry but this more tactile experience forces you to slow down. I’ve been addicted to the shutter for the past thirty five years, and I can’t draw, so I’m hosed and realized immediately I needed to up my bird photography game. Hence the need for new equipment. There is something important to note here. I worked with what I had for over a year before really investing. For over a year I used my 50mm-140mm 2.8 with a 2x converter while constantly finding myself in under-lensed scenarios. I would visit Bosque del Apache and stand next to “real” birding photographers with their 500mm’s or 600mm lenses.

Bluebird, mid-flight flare.

With the Fuji system, I’m actually quite limited when it comes to long glass. However, what exists is superb. The 200mm f/2 is a work of art. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s large. Yes, it’s heavy. But man does it pay off, and it comes with its own 1.4 converter. I’m now making images like the ones I’ve included here and these are the kind of images I was after. This is the most difficult photography I’ve ever done. It requires patience, skill and a bit of luck. Okay, a lot of luck. You have to anticipate both bird movement and direction. Larger birds are a bit easier but the smaller birds are like someone doing cocaine while snorting meth and drinking Jolt Cola. It can be maddening at times, but when I miss moments it fuels me with the fire to return again and again.

I love birding because it’s free, doesn’t require access, permission, model releases, and the birds don’t belong to any political party. I’ve started an entirely new, multiyear project, 33&Counting, which revolves around birds, and I’m slowly building an archive of high resolution birds of New Mexico. I’m in no rush and I realize I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m going anyway. This lens allows me to track birds in flight, get close and also produces insanely sharp photographs. It is small enough to hand hold and is built like a tank. I try to use this lens every single day. I walk our property looking for spring additions. Yes, it needs a custom camo paint job, but I’ll get there.

Comments 6

  1. A very interesting project which, once it’s finished, it might be a good idea to let us buy your book or zine from Blurb. I don’t think I would ever have the chance to travel to New Mexico but I would very much like to see that part of the world through your lens.
    I, too, started to pay more attention to all the birds passing through my garden and started a project a few years ago about my garden (flowers and birds in different seasons). I became friends with a pair of pigeons that watch me everyday, come rain or shine, from the same brunch, of the same tree right outside my kitchen window. If I forget to feed them, they knock on the window.
    I took quite nice pictures of them with my 80-200 mm Canon EF but, as you said, I always think that a longer and brighter lens would be more useful.

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      I think this will end with a book you can purchase. However, it won’t be a photobook and won’t show you what New Mexico is really about. The project is based on the idea of making an undefinable book. There will be science, photography, history, etc.

  2. Well, since you’re now doing gear reviews 🙂 how do you set the AF on your X-H2 to track the damn things? I can’t get my Xt-5 to track birds effectively yet, so I end up with single point AF and take 50000 shots to get one…

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  3. Dan. I haven’t been smitten with the birding bug, yet! I have been using the X-H2S and glass including the awesome 200mm F2 for action sports, particularly rugby. I’m enjoying the direction you’re travelling, the shifter site, videos and your writing. Keep entertaining and informing us. Sam in Northern Ireland.

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