Photographer Liron Gertsman didn’t intend to photograph a pair of preening Rock Pigeons while out birding one day—he just set out to look for birds. Along the way, he ended up with a shot that wowed the judges of the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards and earned him the grand prize. On a different excursion, an intentional capture of a Northern Hawk Owl also won him an honorable mention in the competition.
This isn’t the first time the 23-year-old nature photographer based in British Columbia won the Audubon Photography Awards. In fact, at just 17 years old in 2018, Gertsman swept the youth category. Gertsman is not only passionate about photographing birds—he also wants others to feel inspired to photograph them and frequently leads bird and nature tours to teach others how to do this.
To learn more about his passion for bird photography and how he captured those winning shots, we chatted with Gertsman on Instagram. You can watch the entire interview here. A curated version of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is included below.
How did you capture that beautiful photo of two Rock Pigeons preening that won you the grand prize in this year's Audubon Photography Awards?
When I approach bird and wildlife photography, I go out with a very specific kind of idea in mind, a photo that I want to get. But with this picture, it went a little bit differently. Instead of heading out that day with the intention of photographing pigeons, I was just out looking for birds, and I spotted this pair of pigeons sitting on a little post next to a wooden pier. I was immediately struck by the fact that they were being hit by beautiful light. The backdrop behind them was kind of deep in the dark shadows of the pier, so I knew that if I aligned my shot with that dark background, I'd be able to create almost a studio-like effect for the shot. I lined up the shot and the pigeons were allopreening, which is this really beautiful behavior where they groom each other somewhat affectionately. I went in for a close-up and captured this. I really loved how the light made those turquoises and purples in their iridescent feathers really glow and highlighted their beautiful orange eyes.
I also want to add that I thought it was kind of neat that this image was selected because pigeons are a bird that anyone can photograph, right? This is one of the most widespread birds in the world. There was no need to go trek off to some distant place and be traipsing through the forest. This is an urban bird, and I think it really goes to show that there's incredible natural beauty to be found even in the middle of the city. And there’s great photography potential no matter where you have access to in the world.
What about that Northern Hawk Owl that won an honorable mention in the professional category?
The Northern Hawk Owl photo was completely different because unlike the Rock Pigeons found in the middle of the city, the Northern Hawk Owl is rare and hard to find. And in the photo, the hawk owl was at the tip of this tree covered in frost, a beautiful setting for photography. But a lot of effort went into that. I had found a pair frequenting a really large territory, like ten square miles. In order to find them every day I was on my snowshoes in the middle of winter, and it was well below freezing. I'm traipsing through the snow, and the snow is so deep that with every single step, I was pretty much sinking down to my knees…So those Northern Hawk Owls really made me put the work in. Unlike the pigeons, in this case, I had an idea of the photo that I was going for. I wanted the birds to be small and framed and photographed within the context of their environment because they live in a spectacular environment, and I wanted to showcase that in the photo.
What led you to become a bird and nature photographer?
I largely attribute my passion for birds and photography to the access that I had to the outdoors as a child. I didn't grow up in a remote place in the middle of nowhere. I grew up here in the city of Vancouver, but in Vancouver, we have great access to green spaces. There's a lot of parks, and as a five-year-old and younger, my parents would take me out to those parks. We happened to be located on the Pacific Flyway, a bird migration superhighway, so there was always lots to see. And I think it was just having that access to nature where I would encounter birds right in my neighborhood as a kid that really made me fall in love with birds and the natural world and photography. My parents had a little point-and-shoot camera that they would use to take pictures of the family, and I would take that camera and use it to take pictures of the ducks and the crows in the city parks.
Why do you think that bird photography is so important?
I do think bird photography is really important because when you look at the world today, obviously not everything is perhaps as it should be. There's concerning things happening, whether that's loss of important bird habitat, changes in the climate—there’s a lot of issues that birds face. And I just barely scratched the surface there. But where bird photography comes in is that I do think that if people are going to want to protect birds and to protect the habitats that they live in, which are also really important natural spaces for us as humans, they need to see [them]. It's great to be able to go out in person and experience birds and nature in person, but I do think that people have limited time. Nature might not be accessible for everyone, but where a lot of people can experience the natural world these days is on the Internet, on social media. As a bird photographer, I feel that I have a role to capture what I see and a duty to share those pictures so I can perhaps show people how incredible, beautiful, and worth protecting birds are—and maybe even capture some more emotional and powerful images from a photojournalistic perspective to really shed a light on some of the issues that birds face.
Let's talk about ethics. What are some ways that you practice ethical bird photography while out in the field?
That's a really important subject to talk about because as bird photographers, we're trying to be ambassadors for birds. We're trying to help birds. So when we're photographing them, we do want to make sure we're doing so in a way that is having as little of an impact as possible. When I'm out looking for birds and photographing birds, my goal is to try to leave the bird behaving similarly to how I found it. If I find a bird, I don't want [it] to fly away because I got too close or because I disturbed it in some way. So it's all about, in my opinion, monitoring behaviors and making sure the bird is acting naturally—it’s not looking alert all of a sudden when I show up. And fortunately, Audubon has amazing ethical bird photography guidelines, which I think are really good guidebooks to learn all about the ethical approach to bird photography.