Bird Photography Pro Interview: Roland Jordahl


Each month, we sit down with one of our favorite photographers for a snapshot interview of the person behind the lens. This month, professional photographer Roland Jordahl tells us about his journey as a nature photographer, while teaching us a few valuable lessons he’s learned along the way.

Painted Bunting

This perfect shot of a painted bunting appeared with many more of Roland’s incredible bird photos in the February/March 2009 article “Behind the Lens: Roland Jordahl.”

How did you become a nature photographer?

Since 1949, when I was 14 years old, I have had a love for nature and wildlife.  I spent many hours in woodland areas and on lakes hunting and fishing.  I developed an early interest in the great variety of birds, flowers and mammals.  My mother raised a variety of flowers which I enjoyed seeing and later photographing.  It was then I purchased my first camera, a Spartus folding camera.  This was in Lake Benton, Minnesota, and the camera cost me $9.50.

When attending college at Mankato State Teacher’s College in Mankato, MN., I purchased my first 35mm camera.  When stationed in Puerto Rico for almost 2 years in the Army, I purchased my first professional camera: a twin reflex Rolleiflex.  I began photographing landscapes, flowers and several weddings.

After the Army, I purchased some Nikon equipment, including some telephoto lenses.  Wow! Then I was really able to begin photographing birds, mammals, flowers, insects, etc.

What does photography give back to you?

The challenge to capture great images of wildlife and nature gives me a sense of accomplishment and also provides excitement, enjoyment and relaxation for me.  Being out in nature gives me a time and place to meditate on all the beautiful creations that God has provided.  Capturing great photos is good for body, mind and soul.  It is most satisfying when others appreciate and enjoy my efforts and the countless hours spent out in the field that go into bird photography.

Do you have a favorite technique or effect? And if so, why do you find it compelling?

The qualities of patience and persistence are required to obtain good photos of any subject.  One should study the behavior of the birds, mammals, and insects you wish to photograph.  With a bad back and other health related problems, I do take many of my photos from my vehicle.  Morning and evening are exciting times to photograph birds and mammals as they are more active.

I also enjoy the morning light, and prefer an overcast but bright light when photographing white birds such as white pelicans and trumpeter swans.  I like to blend in with the environment when out photographing.  I prefer a windless condition when photographing landscapes, flowers, spider webs, etc.

Do you have a few tips to share with aspiring photographers?

  • Use of a good tripod will improve your pictures.
  • Study and use basic rules of composition when photographing, such as the rule of thirds.
  • Knowledge of subjects to be photographed is helpful.  Study and do your homework.
  • Best light for birds is a frontal light.
  • Light is a very important element in photography.  Keep the sun at your back.
  • Early hours of the day and later hours in the afternoon are the best times to photograph.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected to happen.  Anticipate!
  • Watch the backgrounds.  You don’t want a distracting background.
  • A larger aperture with telephoto lens provides a shallow depth of field, which is good.
  • Be a good photo editor: toss the less-than-perfect exposures.
  • Get as close as possible to your subject.
  • Digital “film” is cheap, so take multiple photos of your subject exposures, angles, etc.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Always keep a camera handy.
  • Join a photo club in your area, and take some photo classes.
  • Better to underexpose a bit than overexpose.
  • Blend in with the environment when photographing wildlife.  Use portable blinds, or photograph from your vehicle.
  • Try to capture the decisive moment.
  • Practice panning to follow moving subjects.
  • Strive to have the eyes sharp on the birds you are photographing.
  • Lean how to use your photo gear before you head into the field.  Study the camera’s manual.
  • Change your perspective. For example, get down low when photographing birds on ground.
  • Respect the birds, birders, and other photographers when out photographing.

 What is your favorite camera feature or piece of equipment, and why?

  • Cameras:  Canon EOS 7D and Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • Lenses:  Canon EF 500mm, f/4, Canon EF 300mm, f/4L, Canon EF Macro 3.5L, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L, and a Sigma DG 50-500mm, f/4.6-6.3, APO, HSM.
  • Tripod:  Gitzo and Bogen-Manfrotto carbon
  • The Canon 7D with my 500mm and Sigma 50-500mm lenses are great for photographing birds, mammals and other wildlife.  With longer lenses and wider apertures, one can better control the depth of focus and get good out-of-focus backgrounds.
  • I use my Canon 5D Mark II with all of the above lenses.  I especially use the Canon 5D Mark II, and my Canon 24-105mm lens when doing landscapes and flowers.  Also used with the Canon 5D is the Canon EF 180mm macro lens for insects and flowers.

When camera is on the tripod, live view is a wonderful feature to study and focus on a variety of subjects.  Live view also aids in focusing when camera is on a tripod.  I also enjoy my cameras’ ability to capture bursts of photos.  And sometimes I will use a Hoodman Hoodloupe, which enables critical analysis of a subject on the LCD monitor in the field.

Have you taken your photography beyond taking pictures?

My wife and I have taken trips to Europe, Alaska, Florida, Texas, and plenty of places in-between.  I’ve published a coffee table book of photos taken in Florida. I’m presently working on a book on Maplewood State Park located in Minnesota.  I’ve given numerous PowerPoint presentations to photo clubs, garden clubs, church groups, birding clubs, rotary groups and others.

I’ve sold many bird photography greeting cards to various vendors.  Many of my better prints have been framed or printed on canvas.  I continue to have photo exhibits in our area.  In the past I’ve taught photography classes. Photography has been a special interest in most of my life.

What’s in the future for you?

Back problems and many trips to a Cancer Center for my MDS disease have definitely slowed me down.  Next to my wife and family, photography remains an important part of my life.  Photography keeps me going.  I continue to give thanks for each and every day.  I keep submitting a few stories and photos to magazines, especially to Birds & Blooms.  I continue to take better pictures and enjoy seeing a few of my efforts used in various publications.

Professional Photographer Roland Jordahl

Professional photographer Roland Jordahl doing what he does best—and does incredibly well. So well, in fact, that there are birdhouses and feeders that feature his photos! Check out the Roland Jordahl series at The Backyard Bird Company.

  1. Crystal Gray says

    I hope to use some of this in taking pictures. I am not close to being good but I love watching and photographing the birds. I am disabled with stage 4 colon cancer and stuck home so I have the birds as a hobby.

    • Dan R Wolf says

      Hi Crystal
      I have had Colon Cancer 3 times since I was 27y/o. My second time was stage 4 at 34y/o. I feel the trick to beating cancer in my case was keeping a positive attitude. My third Colon Caner was after radiation and chemotherapy. At 36 how could that happen? I am 57y/o now and also find bird watchin from my house very relaxing and beneficial. I lost my job two years ago due to residual abdominal problems related to radiation treatment which caused me to be in the hospital many times. A positive attitude and my grand kids keep me going. I also do photography so I feel we have a conection or at least know what each other has gone thru. Keep up your photography and get outside to listen to the birds music. Gods speed.
      I hope this helps you, you to can beat it with a positive attitude.

    • Roland Jordahl says

      Hello Crystal,
      Just wanted to thank you for your comment regarding my article. Very sorry to hear that you have stage 4 colon cancer, and I wish you the very best. I have the MDS disease which has slowed me down. I just drop it a gear, keep trucking, and give thanks at the end of each day for another good day. God Bless.

  2. Cleone says

    We love Jordy! We are so blessed to have a man with such keen photographic skills and all-around good humor live in lakes country of MN! Thank you Jordy!

  3. Paula Huiras says

    Very interesting story about Roland Jordahl. In order to be good/great at something you need to practice, practice and practice (some talent also helps) and Jordy sure did it. Congrats!

  4. says

    There was a wonderful relationship developed behind the photo of the painted bunting. I thank you Jordy for all these years of being my friend. Kirk DeVries, The Backyard Bird Company.

  5. Maxine Adams says

    I have known Jordy for many years. He is one of the best nature photographers I ever met and just a extraordinary person. Those of us who live in his neck of the woods count ourselves fortunate to have such easy access to his work. Wish you all the best Jordy, keep up the good work.

  6. Sabuj kumar Dutta says

    Dear sir,
    Iam from Bangladesh.I like birds & photography. I think yours tips help me to enjoy birding & photography.
    Thank you.

  7. Mike Caudle says

    Mr. Jordahl, first, let me thank you for serving our nation in uniform. I, too, am an Army veteran, having retired in 1994. I now work at Texas A&M University and am 66. I fully understand the back issues, as I have serious issues myself. I have long been interested in photography, and the career in the Army gave me many opportunities to see many interesting places and things I’ll probably retire in about four years, and I intend to spend more time in photography, much like you are doing. Nothing compares with being out in nature and absorbing God’s beautiful creation with my eyes and my camera. People such as you are an inspiration to people such as me. In case you’re interested, sir, here is my Flickr site: Simply open “Sets” at the top of the page and you’ll see my interests, including the outdoors. Your comments would be appreciated, as you can comment on any of the photos when you view them. I pray for your cancer to be cured. May you continue to share God’s creation with the rest of us. Mike Caudle, Bryan, TX

  8. Lorna G. Beyers says

    I have fond memories of Mr. Jordahl coming to my restaurant on the north bluff of Lake Benton where he took many photos. He had his father’s sense of humor. This location was wonderful for taking photos as the restaurant was nestled above the oak trees. Thanks much for the article. Thank God for Roland!
    Lorna G. Beyers

    • Roland Jordahl says

      Hello Lorna. Thank you for your wonderful comments regarding my article in Birds & Blooms blog. Much appreciated. I have many fond memories of my home town Lake Benton.
      Roland Jordahl

  9. Judy Gates says

    I don’t have a hugh camera, but my digital is new & takes good photos. Thanks for the valuable tips. Proper lighting and lots of editing. My first camera was a Brownie I won selling seeds in the 50’s. Favorite subjects are Grandkids, Family and the horses, dogs cats and ,of course, Birds and Flowers. The challenge is birds and kids. They are always on the move.

  10. Judy Gates says

    Thanks for the valuable tips on lighting and editing. My first camera was a Brownie I won from selling garden seeds in the 50’s.
    Favorite subjects: Grandkids, animals, birds and flowers. Most challenging: Kids and birds. Always on the move.

  11. Jean Bowman says

    Having been in Fergus Falls just 10 years I am still “new” but was introduced to Jordy’s work almost right away. I so admire his talent, eye and ability to communicate the beauty and even a sense of “feeling” with his photographs. I am not a photographer but really respect and simply enjoy great pictures. I come from a journalism background and the ability to tell a story or educate through photography is very compelling. Jordy, thank you for sharing your gifts with the rest of us. Coffee’s on my when you get home.

    • Roland Jordahl says

      Hello Jean,
      Really appreciated seeing your comments regarding the story that Birds & Blooms had on their blog. I was very honored that I was selected. I’ve been with B&B since the inception of the magaine. It would be great having coffee again with you in Fergus Falls. I’ll certainly touch base with you when it would work out.
      Roland Jordahl

  12. C. Benton says

    Thank you for this interesting article. I have only recently taken up bird watching. I was so amazed by them that I had to take their pictures. So now i’ve taken up photography as well. Continued success, Roland! I share your passion.

  13. Traci Stansby says

    I had the great honor of meeting Mr. Jordahl and his wife in Feb. 2013 in Rockport/Fulton TX. Such wonderful people and Mr. Jordahl you are an AMAZING photographer. I loved listening to your photography tales and won’t forget the bear cub. Best wishes from Michigan.

  14. Marybeth Potts says

    I was honored to have Roland do the photos and article that appeared about my gardens in 2002 in your magazine. Not only does he have amazing talent, he is one of the most wonderful, sensitive, intelligent and humorous human beings I have ever met. It was an experience I will never forget because it wasn’t just someone doing an article, he really cared. I think the world of him!

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