This is the first post in what I hope will be a series of interviews with people involved in various professions or activities that intersect with some of my own interests and my job. They may be fellow photographers or others involved with work in nature or wildlife… or maybe something else that I want to learn more about. I hope to gain some insight into their work and help others develop an appreciation and better understanding of what they do. Conversations were conducted via email. In the case of interviews with photographers, all images remain the property of the respective artists and are used with permission. Please respect their copyright.
For my first interview, I obviously needed to chat with a fellow photographer! I chose Judd Patterson, an avid bird photographer based in Florida. Judd is not a full time professional photographer (though you wouldn’t know it from his fine and extensive work), but happens to be employed in a related field, which is partially why I was interested in learning more about his work.
Max Waugh: Since one of the goals of this series of interviews is to give folks an idea of how people get started in our industry, let’s start with the most basic question. How and why did you become a photographer?
Judd Patterson: When I was in elementary school I had a 110 film camera that I would use to capture terrible pictures of people and animals. It was a pretty hopeless pursuit when it came to wildlife photography, but I kept at it and eventually used money from mowing lawns to buy a Pentax film camera and 100-300mm lens. I took on my first “project” in 7th grade and crafted an 11 page document titled “The Magnificent Realm of Salina’s Red Foxes” to follow the exploits of a local fox family. Can you believe it, Max? Once upon a time I was a mammal photographer!
The next big breakthrough came in college when I turned toward the prairie as a location for solace in between classes. That’s when I started to sell occasional prints, and really began to refine my vision. When I moved to Florida the floodgates opened as I explored a new set of landscapes and wildlife.
Max: For the gearheads out there: What’s your favored equipment in the field?
Judd: At the moment you’ll generally find me in the field with my Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 500mm f/4 II lens, and 1.4x TC. It’s a great kit for bird photography, and I like that it fits in my GuraGear bag without taking anything apart (just reversing the lens hood). There are many situations where being able to quickly deploy my gear has netted me great images. A 100-400mm, 5D Mark III, and 16-35mm lens round out my typical kit.
Max: Anyone who spends a little time browsing your work will see that you have a preferred subject: birds. I’ve written about my struggles to get enthusiastic about bird photography, and I find that there’s a large segment of nature photographers who aren’t keen on avian photography (unless there’s an owl or eagle around). So what makes them so appealing to you?
Judd: With approximately 10,000 species worldwide, birds are woven into most of the natural and man-made habitats on the planet. They come in extreme variation from the tiniest hummingbirds to giants like the cassowary and ostrich. They sport the full gamut of colors (even ultraviolet), crazy plumes, ornate horns, elaborate mating rituals, iridescence, strange nesting preferences, and a variety of songs. It doesn’t hurt that birds are therapod dinosaurs as well. Said another way, I enjoy photographing colorful dinosaurs. Really how can you beat that?
Max: You and I were supposed to shoot Peru together, on what was largely a bird photography trip. It was your idea, I believe… but then you couldn’t make it. Why didn’t you use this dinosaur line then to get me more excited about the trip?
Judd: Ha, yes, I think I should have used that line to really get you stoked about the avian diversity of Peru! I definitely wish that I could have made that trip work, and in fact, I still haven’t made it down to Peru. I know that your mammal sightings that trip left a bit to be desired, but you did nail the target Marvelous Spatuletail hummingbird. That bird is certainly still on my dream list!
Max: Is there a particular avian subject that you’ve found to be “more popular” than the rest? Something that you get more requests for, or perhaps a type of bird that gets more traction on social media.
Judd: There is no doubt that certain birds capture immediate interest on social media. Hummingbirds, parrots, toucans, owls, puffins, and woodpeckers come to mind as some of the most popular. But there are a bunch of other lesser known groups that can be just as loved. It’s hard not to get a reaction out of a motmot, sunbird, tody, or turaco too. While colorful or strange birds certainly garner the immediate interest, I try to use engaging compositions and captions to make people curious about other species…even if they are gray or brown!
Max: How did the partnership for Birds in Focus come about?
Judd: Since 2005 BirdsInFocus has been a wonderful partnership with two of my best friends, Bob Gress and David Seibel. We all grew up in Kansas and Bob has long inspired both David and I with his career of nature photography and work with the Great Plains Nature Center. All three of us were looking for a way to promote our photography and we felt that banding together would be beneficial for all. David brings tremendous taxonomic expertise (he has a Ph.D. in ornithology) and I handle much of the website coding and design. Our first big trip was to Costa Rica in 2009, and we’ve now tackled a variety of domestic and international destinations together including Ecuador, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, and Thailand. Bob has been leading tours for a while now, and I suspect that will be a natural avenue of expansion for BirdsInFocus as well.
Max: I, and many other professional photographers, lament the “death” of the stock industry due to oversaturation and microstock. Nonetheless, it was important for me to build a pretty robust stock photo engine when I redesigned my own website, at the very least to make my work searchable and more accessible. Ironically, this has probably translated more to print sales than licenses sold. The BiF website hosts a pretty impressive collection of avian stock images. Without asking for any specifics, would you say the BiF site has been fairly successful from a business standpoint, or have you also noticed that it’s more difficult to land sales with the changing industry landscape?
Judd: There is no doubt that our website has helped us connect with customers and sell images, but I’d be lying if I said it has met all of our dreams. As you mention, the market is incredibly competitive. We often find that we get called in to “cleanup” for book and magazine projects when they need just a few, very specific images. We are actively reaching out to more editors, and we hope that in the future we can become a primary source for a few projects.
Max: Not everyone may realize this, but you’re not a full time photographer. Is that a career goal for you?
Judd: Yes, and no. I’ve always dreamed of pursuing nature photography full time, but I can’t argue with the stability of a day job that lets me take time off for a few trips a year. There are days when I’m trapped behind a desk that my mind definitely wanders, but I do truly love what I do. The mission of the National Park Service—to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system… for future generations—is truly enviable and I’m proud of the work that we do in some of the true jewels of the continent. So long story, short, I’m content, but I’m watching and keeping my options open!
Max: As you hinted, your main job is actually with the National Park Service. What do you do for the NPS?
Judd: Yes, I’m a Data Manager/Biologist for the South Florida/Caribbean Network of the National Park Service. We have active projects in 7 parks in South Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many parks are stretched very thin and management needs more information to make sound decisions. That’s often where my office steps in and tries to fill the gap. Currently our monitoring projects include topics like exotic plants, coral reefs, marine fish, mangrove/marsh ecotone movement, and colonial birds.
Max: Have you found that there are any insights, advantages or perks you get as an NPS employee that help your photography?
Judd: It’s certainly helpful to constantly be exposed to new studies and amazing researchers. I know that my knowledge about marine environments in particular has really increased as a result of some of the career biologists that I work with on a daily basis. Any photographs that I take while I’m on the clock are considered in the public domain, so I do all of my photography on my time off.
Max: So you purposely avoid photographing in the field—unless the job absolutely requires it—due to copyright issues? I think most photographers who care about ownership and image rights understand that. Have you ever had requests from work to take pictures that put you in a position to either turn them down or ask for additional compensation (similar to what you might negotiate for a normal image license or shoot “on assignment”)?
Judd: I don’t purposely avoid photography at work, but it’s seldom asked of me. A few years back I took photos for the D.C. office when the NPS Director was in town, and that was really quite novel and fun. But my main point was that as a federal employee I don’t own any of the photos that I take while I’m on duty. Just like anyone else, however, I’m free to roam through our national parks and lands on my own time…and that’s what I love to do!
Max: There’s been a lot more talk about our national parks and public lands in general the last several months due to the new administration (and, perhaps more importantly when it comes to policy-making: a unified Congress). The new government is pushing things in one direction, attempting to loosen regulations, distance policy-making from scientific research, or lessen protections on our wild species. There’s been resistance to this, including the establishment of the “Alt National Park Service” social media feeds. So—without getting yourself in any trouble—can you offer a general sense of how things may have changed at NPS recently since the new year?
Judd: I think this question is best left to a conversation over a beer. 🙂
Max: We hear a lot about the local environmental issues tied to some of these political decisions. Globally, there’s more and more news about poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking. But one underreported issue that hits home in your neck of the woods in Florida is the introduction of invasive species. What’s going on with the Burmese python?
Judd: There are a variety of NPS and university researchers asking the very same question. I wish I could say that we are winning the battle against this invasive, but the Burmese python seems firmly entrenched. Everglades National Park has removed more than 2,000 pythons and other groups have removed even more from surrounding land. Most are between 5-8 feet in length, but a number have been over 15 feet and several have been found with deer and alligators inside. It’s incredibly unlikely that the average visitor to the Everglades will see a python. In fact, in all my years of exploring, I’ve only found two. However, surveys indicate that they are taking a terrible toll on some birds like rails, and all of the small mammals. Various groups are actively seeking better control and trapping methods, but this challenge is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. If you are good at catching snakes, get a permit and come on down!
Max: You mention a permit. I assume that means that anyone, including yourself as an NPS employee, can’t just take it upon themselves to cull an invasive species (especially on park land). Did you report these sightings, and is there some sort of protocol for visitors who may happen upon a python in the area?
Judd: Yup, most wildlife species (even invasives) are regulated by state wildlife agencies. To prevent a free-for-all there is a python permit process that allows removal of pythons from a number of state wildlife management areas. I reported my sightings through the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (ECISMA) website. This multi-agency group tracks hundreds of invasive plants and animals in South Florida and depending upon the severity of the threat a response can be initiated within minutes! Any pythons seen within Everglades National Park should be reported to the nearest ranger or through the ECISMA website/app.
Max: So, I’ll give you a little credit. You don’t only photograph birds. Sometimes I’ll see a nice furry critter pic or a landscape pop up on one of your sites, so I know you at least appreciate them. 😉 And you’re lucky enough to come face to face with one of the Americas’ rarer cat species. Tell us about your run-in with the Florida panther.
Judd: I won’t deny it, my Florida Panther sighting was one of the most exciting Florida moments I’ve experienced so far (ghost orchids, American Flamingos, and hatchling crocodiles would also be included on that list). I had just completed a very long day of hiking in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and was driving my friend back to his vehicle. As my headlights cut through the pitch black I saw two eyes blinking in the darkness ahead. As we eased closer on the gravel road I could see the form of a large cat get up and slowly walk to the side…the long tail made my jaw drop. The panther gave us another look and then leapt into the vegetation along the road. The next thing I remember was throwing open the door and stepping forward into the headlights hoping to catch another glimpse. Through the euphoria it slowly dawned on me that this cat was likely just a few feet away (there was a deep canal it probably didn’t want to cross) and encountering a “cornered” panther at night would be inadvisable! I retreated to the car and pinched myself!
Max: Do you have a favorite bird? Personally, I’m a sucker for owls, about the only bird I’d want to photograph over a lot of predatory mammals. Is there something you’d “drop everything for?”
Judd: I have a favorite bird for just about every state, country, or area I visit. Trying to roll that all up into an overall favorite is almost impossible, but I did take a stab at listing 10 of my favorites (5 that I’ve already seen and 5 that I really hope to see).
- Cuban Tody – this would complete the 5 tody species for me
- Kagu – strange forest bird in its own family
- Kakapo – flightless parrot on offshore islands in New Zealand
- Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise – wow, just wow
- Himalayan Monal – is this bird missing any colors?
Max: Since I’m speaking with an ardent bird photographer, I’m tempted to get your take on a couple issue that spark a lot of debate in bird photography circles these days. I’m not going to bother with baiting, because it’s a gray area that everyone interprets very differently. But tell me how you feel about using flash on birds. I’ve visited some areas (e.g., the Galapagos) where the use of flash is prohibited. Some folks believe using flash on nocturnal species like owls is harmful, while others dismiss that notion. What’s your take on the use of flash, and, as a biologist, have you gleaned any additional insight about it?
Judd: I do use flash for some of photographs, but I’ll admit to a strong preference for natural light whenever possible. I think a hard and fast flash rule is elusive. Each situation can be different, and it’s important to consider the intensity of flash needed, the reaction of the animal, local rules, number of others photographing this animal, and other factors before using flash. I remember reading this article on Naturescapes a number of years back, where a medical doctor and veterinarian provided a few perspectives that I found useful. Above all it is our duty as photographers to minimize disturbance to our subjects. In many situations we are no longer acting alone, and the collective impacts of simultaneous or consecutive photographers must become part of our decision-making process.
Max: What are your future photography goals? Any specific destinations or subjects at the top of the wish list?
Judd: Madagascar, Uganda, New Guinea, New Caledonia, Cuba, Australia (again), Brazil. Should I stop now? I have a spreadsheet of more than 150 locations that I would like to explore…so I better get going!
Over the past few years the story of endemic, island birds has really caught my attention. There are so many tremendous stories to be told from the adaptive radiation of Hawaiian honeycreepers to fill many niches, to the existence of the Hispaniolan Crossbill high in the Caribbean pine forests of the Dominican Republic. These island birds are generally threatened or endangered and I would like to play a part in introducing them to the world so that they can be protected.
Max: A spreadsheet, huh? So, like any good birder, you have a checklist. Do you find that this is what dictates your travel choices? Checking more species off the list? With that many locations to go, I assume you can pick and choose spots that offer a greater variety of new species for you, but perhaps there are other factors involved?
Judd: I definitely have a natural tendency to log and store what I see. What once was a little field notebook has morphed into geotagging, eBird, iNaturalist and other tools. While finding areas that offer the maximum number of new species is sometimes a consideration, I am also an avid airline points/miles collector and love to plan trips that maximize my miles. Some of my best deals so far are a $2.50 ticket to Nome, Alaska, and Darwin, Australia for $3.60! I find myself increasingly torn between brand new locations dotted across the globe, and some of my all time favorite spots like a prairie trail in Kansas or a remote road on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska.
Max: Finally, do you have any tips or advice—it could be about gear, techniques, business or otherwise—for aspiring or novice photographers?
Judd: As I honed my photography during college I fell in love with the Konza Prairie, a research station owned by The Nature Conservancy in Kansas. After a couple years of exploring, I knew that area like the back of my hand and I photographed everything I could find including landscapes, flowers, birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. Many of those images are still favorites and are definitely my most frequently sold images. I love my ability to travel the world, but all my trips are too short to learn the moods and details of a place like I did at Konza. Don’t neglect diving deeply into a local patch. I think the resulting portfolio will be a treasure both to yourself and others.