How Bird Photographers Shey Smith and Tatyana Soto Developed Their Passion

Smith and Soto talked with us about all things bird photography, including how they took the leap to chase after their passion.
Shey Smith (left) and Tatyana Soto (right)

A movement organized by The BlackAFInSTEM Collective, Black Birders Week highlights and amplifies Black birders through week-long activities. As a supporter of Black Birders Week 2022, one of the ways that Audubon celebrated its third annual event was by hosting a conversation on Instagram with Black bird photographers Shey Smith and Tatyana Soto.

During our conversation, we talked about all things bird photography, including their personal photography journeys and what bird photography means to them. Read an excerpt from our talk below, and then watch the full interview here. 

Audubon: Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to start your journey into the bird photography world?

Soto: In 2020, I moved to Indiana for graduate school, and I didn't really know anyone. I moved during the height of the pandemic, so I was looking for hobbies that were easy and safe to do at the time. My professor suggested I visit Jasper Pulaski—a major hotspot for Sandhill Cranes in Indiana. That experience was a spark for me to enjoy watching bird behavior.

Soon I bought a bridge camera, which was a big investment for me at the time. Then I met a small group of bird photographers and noticed what they could do with their gear that I couldn't really do with mine. I took a big leap to buy a mirrorless camera and a nice lens, and since then, bird photography has been my huge obsession. It’s been so much fun learning about the birds, joining a community, and growing my skills as a photographer.

Smith: I started to get into birding after the incident with Christian Cooper in 2020, and I realized ‘wow, Black people actually do this—this is stuff that we can do.’ So I decided to go out and see what I could find. At the time, all I had with me was a 100-millimeter lens that I thought was going to be enough. I found that birding in June could be pretty discouraging since migration had ended, and I couldn’t find much activity.

Suddenly, I noticed a flash of yellow in a bush, and I ended up snapping some really blurry, distant photos of two Yellow Warblers. I realized that I could find really cool birds like this one just down the street—and I wondered, ‘what else can I find?’ I knew that a 100-millimeter lens wasn’t going to cut it, so I invested in a longer lens and quickly discovered that there was so much more to spot just around the corner.

A: What do you hope your viewers will take away from your images?

Soto: In my Instagram captions, I try to include some information about the species or the story of how I captured the photo. When I include the story, it shows that this is one out of the thousands of photos that I take in a day and that you're not guaranteed to get a good photo every time you go out. When I educate people about the species, I sometimes get comments from those who say, ‘I never knew that.’ What I enjoy most is talking about birds with others, learning about other people's interactions with that same species, and finding how hard it was for them to get a shot of it. So that's what I want people to take away from my photos, too.

Smith: I think the biggest thing I want people to take away is that you don't have to go very far to find birds. You might not find all the birds that you set out to see—but just around the corner, you can find many different species at the right time of year. So getting people interested in going out to their local park or trail and seeing what's out there is a big focus for me. That's why I focus my efforts locally, and I'm still amazed about how much we can see in my own region.

A: How do you feel that your identities as Black photographers and as a Black woman photographer add to how you photograph birds?

Smith: When I first started birdwatching, I read the piece ‘9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher’ by J. Drew Lanham. One of the rules that stood out the most was ‘the black birds are your birds.’ It was the idea that even birds that are black are often maligned, ignored, and vilified. I soon realized that it resonates very much with a person of color. I pay attention to the Red-winged Blackbirds, the grackles, and the crows—but I extend it even further to other bird species that people typically don't fancy, like the sparrows, flycatchers, and other non-colorful birds. I think that mindset allows me to see the beauty in all of them.

I also do that to remind myself how that applies to people, too. I wrote a post for last year's Black Birders Week about a Red-winged Blackbird. I think most people probably thought it was about a bird, but it's not. It's about people—how we look at people and how we treat them. We need to realize that people are individuals. We're not all the same. Despite what we look like and what reaction that might trigger, we have different personalities, intelligence, and beauty. You should give us a chance. I like to give those kinds of birds a spotlight and showcase them in a beautiful way, so that people can look at them and appreciate them like I do.

Soto: I think mainly it's more of the places I choose to visit and photograph. If there's a rare bird in a flooded field in the middle of nowhere, I'm a little bit less inclined to go out and photograph it on my own. I think that's what's important about finding fellow bird photographers and being able to feel safer in an area where you might not feel as safe as if you were alone.

Shey also made a really beautiful point that I like. When I see people tearing apart Brown-headed Cowbirds on local Facebook birding pages, it breaks my heart because they've evolved to have a really cool strategy, and it's not their fault that they're forced into more urbanized areas to parasitize other bird's nests.

A: What's the best part of being a bird photographer?

Smith: I talked about the mental health benefits of photographing birds—being able to get that reset and the ability to use my creativity energizes me, keeps me going forward, and activates my brain. I also want to photograph birds in a way that people have never seen before—with my own spin and style. That’s what keeps me going and growing. 

I also get to see the reactions that people have when they see a bird that could be a few minutes down the road, since they have no idea that all these different birds are nearby. Seeing these reactions is something that's very beneficial and fruitful for me. I look forward to when people tell me these things because I get to engage with them and talk about birds, too.

Soto: I think the best part for me is the creativity. I never thought of myself as a creative person growing up—and to finally find something that I can feel creative with, while challenging myself and continuing to learn, is really important. 

I also like the community—we all follow the same people and comment and share each other’s posts. It’s really inspiring to have not met any of these people in person but still feel fairly close. We tell each other our stories about how we didn’t get the shot, but that we’re still posting something really great, even though it’s not exactly what we wanted to capture. I think the community is really what drives me along with creativity.

Be sure to follow Shey Smith and Tatyana Soto’s bird photography journeys through their Instagram accounts. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.