Bird Photography Pro Interview: Roland Jordahl

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.

Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten has more than 15 years of experience writing and editing birding and gardening content. As content director of Birds & Blooms, she leads the team of editors and freelance writers sharing tried-and-true advice for nature enthusiasts who love to garden and feed birds in their backyards. Since joining Birds & Blooms 17 years ago, Kirsten has held roles in digital and print, editing direct-to-consumer books, running as many as five magazines at a time, and managing special interest publications. Kirsten has traveled to see amazing North American birds and attended various festivals, including the Sedona Hummingbird Festival, the Rio Grande Bird Festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival, and the Cape May Spring Festival. She has also witnessed the epic sandhill crane migration while on a photography workshop trip to Colorado. Kirsten has participated in several GardenComm and Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conferences and is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. When she's not researching, writing, and editing all things birding and gardening, Kirsten is enjoying the outdoors with her nature-loving family. She and her husband are slowly chipping away at making their small acreage the backyard of their dreams.