Photographing wildlife in your own backyard, Q&A with Donald Quintana

As many professional wildlife photographers will tell you, you don't have to go farther than your own backyard to capture fascinating and beautiful wildlife images. Indeed, yards, parks, public beaches and any small patches of green space even amid the bustle of the urban jungle can provide you with fascinating plants and animals to photograph. And what every enthusiastic wildlife photographer will tell you, you learn a great deal about nature in general by analyzing it through the lens.

I have been lucky enough to grow up in an incredible area for wildlife, but it wasn't until picking up a camera that I realized what a wealth of flora and fauna surrounded me. By having a hobby such as photography which provides a reason to look more closely, we can discover so much about the species we share space with, from beauty to behaviors. One photographer who knows this as well as any other is Donald Quintana, a resident of the central coast of California, who turned a hobby into an all-consuming pastime and is all the richer for it.

JH:What draws you to photographing birds?

DQ: I enjoy photographing all sorts of wildlife but I do a lot of bird photography because they are readily available as well as there being a wide variety. There are shorebirds, perching birds, and raptors, all with different behaviors that need to be studied, photographed and shared.

JH: How has a focus on birds expanded your understanding of biodiversity and ecosystems in your local area?

DQ: It has become more obvious to me how dependent all living creatures are upon one another. When something goes awry with one species, it affects the whole ecosystem. In our area we are having a major die off of the Eel Grass in the local estuary, I’ve heard that the loss is as much as 80 percent. Eel Grass is considered a foundation species as it provides many ecological benefits. It provides spawning areas for fish and food for migrating birds such as the Black Brandt. The Black Brant Geese in particular depend on it as a winter food supply. As the Eel Grass has declined, so has the number of Black Brant that come here to winter.

No one is sure what is causing the decline in Eel Grass but one thing is for sure, it’s affecting the whole ecosystem in the Morro Bay [California] estuary. Observing the decline in the number of wintering Black Brant has increased awareness and brought together unusual allies such as duck hunters and local Audubon societies to help replant and restore the Eel Grass beds.

Being out and about photographing the local waterfowl, you can feel the affects of habitat loss and food supply demise. It increases your awareness of the interdependence we all have on one another.

JH: Some of these images make birds look almost like ballerinas. How do you capture the artistic movement of birds?

DQ: Patience is the key. Study the animal for its behaviors then watch and wait for the magic to happen. Capturing the portrait photo isn’t enough anymore; you have to capture behavior.

There is beauty within their movements and if you observe the animals enough, you will see their interrelationships almost as a choreographed dance.

I personally want to try to capture the essence of what the animal is all about. To do this, you have to spend some time with them studying their actions, watching, waiting, it'll happen; you just have to have patience. Sit back and enjoy the performance, capture the moments as they happen.

JH: You are active in guiding photo walks and birding outings. What do you do to encourage people to get out and view wildlife?

DQ: Some of them I drag kicking and screaming out the door, but more about my children later. I do try to show people how amazing animals are through my photography. My greatest enjoyment comes from capturing those fleeting moments in nature that are often missed by the casual observer and sharing them with others. I encourage people to get out and just walk around with a pair of binoculars or their cameras and see what is out and about. Even if they are just sitting in their yard, they can set up some feeding stations and watch the local birds interact.

Sometimes you don’t need to go any further than your own yard to observe wildlife. But, getting out and going for a walk has so many more health benefits. Wildlife is everywhere and if they just get out of their chairs, walk out the door, they’ll begin to feel the health benefits of being out in nature. It’s rejuvenating mentally, spiritually and physically.

JH: What is the best thing you've learned since taking up wildlife photography?

DQ: The best thing that I have learned is that we are all dependent on one another for our survival whether on a personal basis or as a society as a whole. For example: My behavior out in the field affects the animal’s behavior. It is imperative that when out in the field photographing critters, I have as minimal an impact on them as possible. If the animal is relaxed, I’m more likely to capture those moments of behavior that make the photo something that I want to share and people want to see. If people fall in love with the subject of my photos through sharing, hopefully I can influence awareness.

If more people are aware of how beautiful wildlife is, then hopefully they will become involved in preserving that wildlife and the habitat needed to allow those species to thrive.

If we protect and preserve our wildlife and wild lands, then in the long run, we are protecting and preserving ourselves and future generations. It is all interconnected. That I believe is the beauty of wildlife photography and the greatest lesson of all.

Photographing wildlife in your own backyard, Q&A with Donald Quintana
Photographer Don Quintana shows off his extraordinary bird photos and talks about how his hobby brought him closer to nature.

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