Look or shoot?

Steve and Lisa go birding

Steve and I birding in Utah.   (Photo credit: Jolie Gordon)

When I first began birding with my husband I was carrying around a little point-and-shoot Kodak camera. Steve had the binoculars and I was tagging along as he explained the basics of bird identification, but it wasn’t sticking. Instead, I took pictures of birds and when I’d get home I’d find that the American Avocet I found wading in the water ended up looking like a little speck in the distance.

So then I moved to a DSLR and a 300 mm lens. All of a sudden I was able to capture the birds I was finding and actually see them after I transferred them to my computer. And cropping in seemed easier with the DSLR’s better clarity. So, on all our adventures Steve continued to carry the binoculars and I would haul the camera around and snap pictures. (And on tough hikes, Steve would be a gentleman and carry my camera for me.)

Often, I would peer through my camera’s viewfinder to get a close look at the bird. I was perfectly satisfied with carrying on this way, traveling the world and taking photos of birds, but still not being able to identify them. I felt a little like an outsider on group birding trips, as I wasn’t very skilled at identification.

Even though I wasn’t officially a birder, I was taking photos of birds, which made Steve and I a good team. We had loads of pictures to remind us of our trips both abroad and at home.


Last year Steve asked me what I wanted for my birthday. “Binoculars,” I said. “Ones like you have.”

So now I was carrying both a camera and binoculars. Our next adventure was back to Panama and after two days of faking it (read: I couldn’t see at all through my binoculars) I sheepishly asked Steve to teach me how to use my binoculars. It took a lot of courage to tell my husband that I didn’t know how to do something any boy scout could do. So one afternoon, we sat on the veranda off our room at Canopy Lodge and Steve gave me a lesson on how to look through my binoculars at a Rufous Motmot that was quietly feeding on a banana that was laid out on one of the feeders.

I found I could actually see more with the binoculars than I could looking through my camera’s view finder and it all began to be clear to me. I could see the Motmot’s eyes look around and see where he might go next. The light and the colors were also better than what a viewfinder showed me. Looking was stronger than stealing a photo. Being able to I.D. a bird by settling in on it with your binoculars gives you a sense of connecting with the bird in the moment–not later when you’ve uploaded the picture to your computer.


On that same trip to Panama there was a moment when there were eight Chestnut Mandibled Toucans each performing their mating call, sounding more like the bark of sea lions, throwing their part banana, part chocolate-colored oversized bills in the air as they called. I fumbled with my camera and couldn’t get the video button to work because I had never used it before. Sadly, my battery had died on my iPhone so I couldn’t get a recording there either. So rather than getting frustrated, I stood there and looked out at the toucans and took it all in like I was drinking in their sound. I then pulled my binoculars up to my eyes and focused on one toucan in particular and watched him call in earnest. He was here competing with seven other toucans for the oft chance to score. This was a spectacular moment that no photo or video could match.

I didn’t realize how much I was missing when I was concerned with lighting or a branch that was obstructing the bird or that the bird was turning with his butt toward me. Taking photos (particularly of warblers) would turn a good birding trip into a frustrating one for me and I was missing out of the joy by letting my camera dictate the success of a birding trip.

I still take the camera, of course, but I come home with far fewer photos because I enjoy looking through my binoculars so much more. In the last several months, I think Steve would agree that my ability to I.D. birds has improved.

Yes, there are moments that I wonder, should I shoot the camera or look through the binoculars? It boils down to this: Rarely would I be disappointed if I go for the binoculars first.

Do you prefer to take a photo or go for the binoculars? Let me know in the comments below. I’m very curious.