Nick Kanakis uses the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens to pique people’s interest in conservation through bird photography.
By Jenn Gidman
Images By Nick Kanakis
Nick Kanakis has been a lifelong naturalist, starting when he was a boy and obsessed with insects and birds. Once he got to college, he took more of an academic interest, diving more deeply into larger theories and processes of ecology and conservation. “One day I decided it would be fun to bring a camera with me and show people what goes into the fieldwork,” he says. “That’s how I started taking pictures of the subjects that had long been in front of me.”
After college, Nick turned to more hands-on conservation, including work with the National Audubon Society in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “We deal with a lot of different birds, not just in the Dallas area, but globally,” he says. “For me, the photography aspect has been a critical component in getting people interested in our conservation initiatives. I don’t think I could communicate as effectively the work I’m doing with Audubon without the accompanying photos.”
A few years ago, Nick purchased his first Tamron 150-600mm lens. “That’s when I really started showing off images that were aesthetically pleasing to grab people’s attention,” he says. More recently he got his hands on the new Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens, which has taken the previous version’s versatility, image sharpness, and clarity to new levels.
“I shoot a mix of photos, depending on the situation,” Nick says. “If I’m doing a birding tour, for example, I’ll typically be on a monopod or shooting handheld. But if I’m trying to nail down some shots for a more specific project, I’m usually on a tripod with a gimbal. The versatility of the 150-600 in all of those cases is phenomenal. I brought it with me last summer to Tibet, and I was able to capture everything from butterflies right under my nose to hawks and eagles soaring high up in the sky.”
The light weight of the lens—it’s just over 70 ounces—is also key for roving photographers like Nick. “I mostly work out of the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas, but I also do a lot of traveling around the country and internationally, including to Ecuador and China, and being able to carry that lens around all day is very helpful,” he says. “Plus, when I shoot handheld, I use the Vibration Compensation (VC) feature, which definitely adds a lot of stability and keeps my images sharp.”
Nick’s main goal when he’s trying to capture a bird portrait is to show them in their natural habitat. “I want the viewer to really get a gist for the species I’m exhibiting,” he says. “Even if it’s a fairly common bird, I want to show something about that bird—a pose or behavior, maybe—that you’d only see from a birder’s perspective, when the bird is relaxed. Kind of like a secretive, behind-the-curtains observation. If it’s a more exotic bird, like a tropical hummingbird, I want to show off what’s unique about it, and the environment it’s in. In those cases I’ll shy away from clean blue or green backgrounds.”
One of the biggest components to successful bird photography is knowing their habits and patterns. “Typically I’ll spend some time birding in a location prior to photographing them, without my camera, just to familiarize myself with the site and to see what the most active spots for the birds are,” Nick says. “Then when it’s time to photograph them, I’ll just wait until they emerge. I’ll usually hide out in a portable, camouflaged blind, so they can act naturally and do their thing without me getting in the way.”
Nick tries to get at eye level with his winged subjects. “If it’s a bird on the ground, for example, like a small songbird, I’ll often be on the ground with it,” he says. “But it really is up to the bird at that point. If getting a photo would require me to disturb the habitat or the bird, then I’ll just enjoy watching them and not even try to get the shot.”
His composition is situation-specific, but he’ll often wait for the bird to approach a perch or other area where he knows they’ll be stationary for a few moments. “I’ll compose around that scene, usually switching into Live View to get a better feel for the composition, rather than simply trying to anticipate what the bird might do,” he says.
When he’s trying to capture birds in groups, rather than individual posers, Nick will seek out patterns to add visual interest to the photo. “Flight patterns, for instance,” he says. “The other day I was photographing a bunch of turkey vultures flying through, and from a distance, they formed an almost tornadic swirl. I wanted to break out that elemental shape they were forming. Otherwise, they would’ve looked like a mass of blobs.”
Read on for a brief description of some of Nick’s latest photos, from Dallas to the deepest parts of Ecuador:
This photo of American avocets was taken at the Bolivar Flats bird sanctuary, part of the Houston Audubon network. It’s a world-class shorebird area. When I’m trying to capture an image of a group of shorebirds like this, as previously mentioned, I’ll look for some organization in their pattern. There wasn’t any organization I could see here, so I waited for one bird to pull out of the flock so I could blur out the primary group and extract that one bird as the main focus. I just settled down in the mud and waited for the outlier to emerge.
I was in a very remote part of the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan called Xinlong County for a conservation project, mapping spots that will be future protected areas. The entire plateau was covered in flowers. I saw this black redstart hopping around close to where a nearby nomad camp was set up and just waited for it to land in the flowers. I wanted to give it the backdrop of a classic Tibetan prairie look, with a burst of color added in from the flowers.
This flame-faced tanager was at a feeding station in a region called Choco in western Ecuador, at a place called the Mashpi Amagusa Reserve. This reserve is an excellent example in that country of grassroots conservation efforts that have led to a huge uptick in ecotourism and financing for the Choco region, among the most biodiverse and endangered. I thought a good way to introduce this species to people through imagery was to show an intimate look at the rainforest canopy at eye level.
This photo of a Napo sabrewing, a type of hummingbird, was also taken in Ecuador in an area called Sumaco, on the grounds of another famous ecoresort called Wildsumaco. It’s also a heavily threatened ecosystem. This bird is very emblematic of the region, and quite restricted to a tiny strip of Amazonian rainforest that stretches just a bit into Colombia. It’s an endangered species, which is why I wanted to show it embedded in its natural forest habitat with that swirly bokeh.
The first part of the name of this bird, the prothonotary warbler, was inspired by the bright yellow robes that papal clerks in the Roman Catholic Church (prothonotaries) used to wear. It’s a breeding species that only nests in flooded hardwood forests, which is a heavily endangered ecosystem in the US. It’s something we’re really trying to save—not just the bird itself, but its habitat. I took this in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. I wanted to show this particular prothonotary without much background distraction so it would pop, hopefully intriguing individuals who aren’t familiar with the species.
I took this photo at a famous wading bird sanctuary called Smith Oaks. It’s got platforms set up where you can look right down and view herons, egrets, and other birds, including these roseate spoonbills. It’s a striking, often-photographed bird, but they’re also very gangly, clumsy, and awkward. I’ve captured some portraits of the birds that make them look very elegant, but this time I wanted to bring out more of their awkwardness—so I waited for them to run into each other while negotiating a perch. This picture was the result.
As its name suggests, the solitary sandpiper is usually not hanging around with other birds. They’re typically found in heavily forested wetlands and ponds, which the green color of the water suggests in this photo taken in Dallas. Once again, I wanted this bird to be shown just on its own, with a clean background and no distractions.
I spotted this wire-crested thorntail in the same habitat as the Napo sabrewing, in Sumaco. It’s classified as a “near threatened” species, confined to just a small strip in the eastern Amazonian foothills in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. It’s also an incredibly strange-looking species, which is why I wanted to avoid showing too much background in this photo taken at a hummingbird feeding station. I wanted a simple portrait that showed off its distinctness, particularly emphasizing that little thread that looks like a mohawk.
To see more of Nick Kanakis’ work, go to https://nickkanakis.com/.