Winter Photo Assignment: Looking Up & Looking Down

Announcing our latest photo assignment, Looking Up & Looking Down! If you missed this past Saturday, check out the details below!

Rules:

  • -The photo must be taken looking up or looking down, simple enough. We don’t want to see any horizon lines or full blown landscapes.
  • -Images must be taken between February 10th and March 15th of 2024.
  • -You may either submit one image looking up or looking down, OR one of each – one looking up and another looking down.
  • -Your image(s) are due Friday, March 15th by 12:00pm (noon). Please email submissions to focus@bergencountycamera.com
  • -Please have your images sized no smaller than 2000 pixel wide/tall in JPEG format

The review session will be held in-store on Saturday, March 16th at 9:30am. Doors open at 9:00 for coffee! As with all of our past Focus Session Assignments, this is a chance to get creative and try new things. We’re not grading you, so have have fun with it. We can’t wait to see what you capture!

Here are some example to get the creative juices flowing. Again, we want you to be creative, so don’t feel the need to replicate any of the following. Just use them as a guide!

November/December Customer Spotlight – Robert Helder

November/December Customer Spotlight – Robert Helder

Welcome to our thirty-fifth Bergen County Camera Customer Spotlight. This monthly posting features a customer who’s made an impression on us. They might have grown in their understanding of photography, gained a mastery of the craft and / or have become a strong advocate of our way of doing business in the world of photography. During the next month you will see this customer’s images displayed on our digital signs in store, in our emails, blog posts and social media.  

Robert Helder is our customer spotlight for the months of November-December. We hope you both enjoy and are inspired by this new addition to In Focus and look forward to your comments and suggestions. Below you will find a gallery containing some of Robert’s images.

About Robert:

Robert Helder has been a friend of the Bergen County Camera team for many years, however, his passion for photography goes back much further. Robert took up photography at a very young age. He did so after seeing his father’s interest in the art form. It remained a hobby throughout his childhood, but really became a passion when he began travelling in early adulthood. Robert spent much of his early 20’s visiting Europe, using a Nikkormat camera to capture images of his travels. This remained his primary focus until, as one does in life, he started a family. Robert’s photography shifted towards capturing precious memories of his kids. His family was his focus for many years and as time went on, photography took a back seat.

It wasn’t until years later that he was introduced to the hawk watch at State Line Lookout. The hawk watch is held annually at the park, where bird watchers and photographers flock to view migrating birds of prey. From hawks and eagles to a local pair of Peregrine Falcons, there was always something to see. A few trips to the lookout and Robert’s passion for photography was rekindled. Since then, he has broadened his horizons, choosing to photograph most of nature has to offer. Whether it be plant or animal, Robert is captivated by it all.

Robert continues to grow as a photographer and continues to visit Bergen County Camera for all his photographic needs. He consistently shoots local parks and nature centers where he finds elusive and hard to find species.

Check out just some of his gallery below to see some of the incredible images he’s captured!

Spring Songbird Workshops

Each Spring, as the temperatures rise, songbirds return to their breeding ranges in North America. Many find their way to the Northeastern U.S. where birders and photographers alike flock to city parks to catch a glimpse of these colorful birds. While these locations make for easier sightings, they’re not always ideal for photography. The birds at these parks are merely stopping by to rest and forage before continuing their journey. They don’t sit still for long, and they seldom come down from the canopy. If they do, they usually visit a water source or feeder. Whatever it is they do, it’s also usually brief.

That is why you wants to find these birds in their preferred nesting habitat. Here, these birds are more consistent and active. Males lay claim to territory by singing from select perches to attract mates and thwart other males. When they hear an intruder, they investigate. When they see an intruder, they take action. They do all of this in a fairly confined area, where they’re movements and behaviors can become predictable to the observational birder. This is where I photograph them.

If you’d like to try your hand at songbird photography, why not do so with a little guidance. This Spring, join me, Matt Malwitz, for an in-the-field songbird photography workshop. This won’t be your typical “point and shoot” type of workshop either. I want to teach you a thing or two. During this outing, we’ll cover my process of find and photographing these birds. We’ll discuss how to find and identify songbirds, how to approach and move around wildlife, and different photographic techniques, all while photographing birds in the field.

Our goal will be to capture stunning images of two or three species, prioritizing quality shots over quantity of birds. We won’t get good looks at everything, and some birds are trickier than others, but that’s all part of the fun. As the saying goes, “if it were easy, everyone would do it”. So, why not give bird photography a chance.

Spaces are limited, so choose your date soon.

Sign up here. 

For more information on songbird photography, why not check out our webinar here.

All the best,

Matt 

Bird Photography: Grasshopper Sparrow

Whether on a backyard bird feeder or on the streets of Manhattan, you’ve likely seen a Sparrow. Many associate the term solely with the common nuisance species, the House Sparrow. These birds are known to nest in the eaves of homes. However, upon further inspection, one can start to note differences in the birds they simply call “Sparrow”. Nearly 50 species of Sparrow exist in North America. Of them, 19 can be spotted in New Jersey alone. Some are migratory, while others remain in the Garden State Year-round. Of the migratory species, one had caught my interest in recent years. The Grasshopper Sparrow.

Nikon D850, NIKKOR 500mm f/4G VR – f/4.0 – 1/4000 – ISO 800

About the Bird: 

Introducing, the Grasshopper Sparrow. This is not your typical backyard bird. Instead, this sparrow is highly habitat specific. The Grasshopper Sparrow is a grassland bird, preferring patchy meadows with little to no shrub cover. This allows this species to freely move across the ground. You heard correctly; this bird is primarily a ground dweller. Here, they forage and prey upon insects and such. True to their name, these Sparrows do eat plenty of grasshoppers, though they will also eat beetles, spiders, caterpillars, and such. Surprisingly, their hankering for grasshoppers is not what earned them their name. In fact, it is the grasshopper like song they emit. 

A buzzy trill, their song is much quieter than most common sparrows. It is also only when singing that these birds show themselves. From the top of a stalk, they make their presence known to rival males and potential mates. If all goes well, the singing male will attract a female and thwart intruding males. Then the nest making begins. Nests are located on the ground and usually consist of a mix of grass, hair and other fine materials. The nest is a typical bowl, though it is usually covered in a dome of dense vegetation, allowing access only from the side. Once completed, the nest can house about half a dozen eggs. Each egg is more important than the last as this species is in steep decline.

With an ever-shrinking habitat, the Grasshopper Sparrow is increasingly more difficult to find. Since the mid 20th century, its population has drastically declined. Populations have declined as much as 97 percent in New York State alone. This is mostly due to habitat loss. This is largely due to land development and vegetation succession. These occurrences lead to grasslands becoming smaller, fragmented and as a result, less favorable to the Grasshopper Sparrow. Luckily, this species responds positively to a number of human agricultural management activities such as scheduled mowing, grazing and controlled burns. The old practice of turning marshes into landfills has also had a surprisingly positive effect on grassland species. While detrimental to marshland species, most of these landfills were eventually isolated and capped. This created prime grassland habitat where species like Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark and of course, the Grasshopper Sparrow could thrive once again.

Grasshopper Sparrow on Milkweed – Nikon D850, NIKKOR 500mm f/4G VR – f/4.0 – 1/4000 – ISO 800

How I Got the Shot: 

With any wildlife photography, I recommend a starting lens no less than 300mm. A basic 70-300mm kit lens will suffice. That being said, if there’s one type of bird that pushes us to longer focal lengths, it’s songbirds. An APS-C, or “cropped”, sensor paired with such a zoom will provide some relief, though you’ll learn quickly if a longer lens is needed. I was shooting with a 500mm prime lens for most of my outings with these birds. I found this lens paired with a full frame DSLR just long enough to get the results I was after. I personally like some empty space in my images, but it’s a look that’s not for everyone. Someone equipped with a 600mm lens and an APS-C body would have gotten much closer results.

Next comes lighting. I always recommend shooting in the first hours of daylight or the last few with the sun either to my back or facing me directly. This varies on what effect I’m going for with my images. More often than not, you’ll want the sun on your back as it is in the image above. We call this shooting on “Sun-angle”. Shooting in these hours not only provides the most pleasing light, it also happens to be cooler, which in turn, makes for active wildlife. It’s also worth shooting when the sun isn’t visible at all. Overcast days provide soft, diffuse light that can be pleasing throughout the day. In fact, I prefer to shoot on these days for most other songbirds I photograph.

As this species prefers life on the ground, finding one in the open was quite the challenge. As luck would have it, this patch of grassland habitat harbored a number of singing males. This resulted in territorial skirmishes between neighboring birds. Once a male had successfully chased the intruder off, it would perch atop a grass stalk and sing. The height of the grass allowed me to crouch down and remain almost invisible from the height of the sparrow. As this is not a heavily visited location, the birds were not accustomed to human presence. I had to tread carefully. Once in position, I remained in the area for much of the evening. By sitting as still as possible, I managed to photograph three individual males.

As stated above, if there’s one time and place you want the longest lens possible, it’s here. Songbirds, especially these sparrows, are small and skittish. As stated above, I spent most of the shoot crouching along the fields edge to stay hidden. I also got low as to shoot from my subjects eye-level. Being at the same level as your subject is essential to engaging your audience. It’s scenarios like these where super-telephoto zooms are ideal. If the bird comes closer, you can always zoom out without moving and startling the bird. These lenses also tend to be lighter than their prime counterparts, although new mirrorless lenses as well as Nikon’s Phased Fresnel optics are narrowing the margin.

A major aspect I made sure to check before situating myself, was the backgrounds. I made sure to keep an eye out for bright objects in the distance. Any one distracting element can throw the whole composition off, and I try to avoid removing spots in post as much as possible. A wide aperture and the vast field ultimately made for a nice, smooth background. Remember, the farther away the background, the blurrier it will become. As long as you’re using a long lens, this occurs regardless of aperture.

Once I was set up, I could begin thinking about positioning the bird in the frame. If you’ve attended one of my focus sessions at BCC, you’ve heard me talk about the rule of thirds time and time again. This is for good reason. All too often I see images with the bird or animal smack dab in the middle of the frame. There is a time and place for this, but more often than not, it’s not ideal. By positioning the bird in the lower right third of this image, it gives a sense of space. The bird is singing into the emptiness of the frame, allowing the viewer to imagine what lies ahead. This empty space is often referred to as “dead” space. Learn to use it well, and you’ll be on the path to strong compositions. If you can’t do this in the heat of the moment, remember, you can always crop in post. The beauty of modern cameras is their resolution. You can crop with little to no image degradation. I would be lying if I said I nailed the composition in-camera every time. I crop most if not all of my images to some degree.

Nikon D850, NIKKOR 500mm f/4G VR – f/4.0 – 1/1600 – ISO 400

Lastly, always prioritize the well-being of your subject. Allow space for the birds to feed, sing, and go about their business uninterrupted. Don’t panic if you accidentally flush a bird. We’ve all done it. Learn from it and avoid doing so in the future. Where applicable, stay on designated trails and respect boundaries. Wildlife refuges and parks are riddled with trails and roads for authority and park staff use. Authorized personnel signs mean authorized personnel only. Do not enter. Where trails are narrow or simply do not exist, watch your step. Many animals, not just the Grasshopper Sparrow, nest on the ground and don’t shy away from leaving young on or near trails. Be careful, wear your sunscreen and insect repellent, but also have fun with it.

If you’re interested in learning more about my bird photography techniques and outings, click here for more. We will be adding in-the-field workshops to our website in the near future, so stay tuned. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for updates.

All the best,

Matt