Photographer Ben MacDougall

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The New England area is home to the most amazing variety of birdlife – some species of which are shy and not often seen. Local Ben MacDougall explains that it takes considerable patience to capture photographs of our diverse birdlife … but when you see his beautiful photos, you can see that patience is definitely worth the effort!

Hi Ben. What’s your background in the New England area – and which part of it do you call home?

I have lived in the Armidale region for just under 20 years. As a 21-year-old, I most definitely call Armidale and the New England home for me.

How did you develop an interest in photography?

My interest in photography came second to my interest in wildlife. In primary school I would love reading through Steve Parish books. Then, when I was around 10 years old, my old man bought himself a fixed-lens digital camera, which I would borrow to photograph scorpions, bees and other bugs around the house. 

Throughout high school I didn’t do much photography, until around four years ago, when Dad rekindled my interest. As a keen photographer himself, Dad has played a huge role in inspiring me to get out and shoot. Whenever I am unsure whether to go out, he will always reply, “Do it, or you’ll regret it”. 

The biggest lesson I have learnt in photography is that each great photograph starts with getting off your backside and going to a location to make it work. 

What do you find particularly interesting about birds … and what do you most like about photographing them?

Although all birds have a beak and two wings, they are so incredibly diverse. Different shapes, sizes, colours, calls and behaviours all make each species unique. I believe photographing a bird allows you to stop and take a moment to fully appreciate it for what it is – whether that be the brilliant colours of a rosella, or the powerful stare of a raptor – they’re all interesting in their own way.

Photographing wildlife that is often quite small – and can move very quickly! – must be fraught with a few challenges. How do you overcome this?

There is a lot of patience required, that’s for sure. Each time I go to a location, I spend a lot of time studying different species’ behaviour and where they like to hang out or where they are nesting. Learning different bird calls has also helped me identify what birds may be around without seeing them. 

I’ll then set up my tripod, sit down, and wait patiently for that perfect moment. It can be very frustrating when it doesn’t work out. However, whenever I spend time in the bush, even if I don’t get a good shot, I always come home wiser – whether it be finding a new spot to return to later, or expanding my understanding of a species’ behaviour – so I can position myself better next time.

Other times it comes down to pure luck and being in the right spot at the right time – planned or not. Having said this, you make your own luck by making the effort to get out into the bush and spend time with a camera in-hand.

Because wildlife subjects do move very quickly, being able to capture those fleeting moments on camera is extremely rewarding and makes it all worthwhile.

Having moved to the New England area recently myself, I’ve noticed what an enormous variety of bird life we have here. Many species are similar to what I experienced on the coast, but there are so many different types too!

What are some the more unusual or rarer birds you’ve been able to photography locally?

In the New England region we are lucky to have a few inland lagoons, which attract a huge diversity of interesting and peculiar species of birds. I have photographed Red-Necked Avocets locally. These are by no means rare, but do have an amazing and unusual beak. 

I was also lucky enough to photograph a family of Superb Fairywrens last year with chicks that had only just left their nest. This was definitely a rare experience. 

What do you find are the best types of camera/lens combos to use when you’re out and about photographing?

I use a Nikon D7200 with a Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 lens when photographing wildlife. The long focal length lens is beneficial, as I don’t have to be too close to the subject to get a good shot. Today’s DSLRs have incredible autofocus, fast shutter speeds and low-light performance, which all contribute to being able to get a great shot.

What are some of the other subjects/places you like to shoot (and why)?

I enjoy visiting Dangars Lagoon and Little Lllangothlin Lagoon to photograph water birds. Both locations are important breeding sites for inland water birds and can be teeming with wildlife when full – unfortunately, the current drought has hindered this. 

I also love visiting national parks in the New England – particularly Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and New England National Park. Not only are they home to many bird species, but they also offer spectacular vistas of gorge country and waterfalls that I love photographing too.

When I contacted you about this interview, you were out camping. How often do you escape to the bush or coast for adventures like this – and what do you most enjoy about leaving civilisation behind?

Not often enough! I try to do a bushwalk once a week, photographing birds along the way, or go to a location to sit and photograph birds for a few hours. I find there is something therapeutic about being in the bush without other human contact. Watching wildlife go about their day-to-day business undisturbed by my presence or visiting lookouts over vast gorge country puts life back into perspective a bit.

What’s something you’d like to achieve with your photography over the next 12 months?

I would really like to tick more species off my “to photograph” list; in particular, the rare and elusive Rose Robin (found in New England National Park), as well as Australia’s largest bird of prey, the Wedge-Tailed Eagle. It is one feat to spot a bird, but to take a great photo is an enormous challenge.

Where can we see more examples of your photographic work?

I regularly post photographs of birds on my Instagram @ben__macdougall. I also regularly post photographs of wildlife and landscapes on my Flickr account – most of which are all from the New England region.

Thanks Ben.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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