The Pigeon Photographer was featured in the November 1, 2013 edition of the Racing Pigeon Digest. The story was written by a good friend and former Herald-Leader colleague, Maryjean Wall. Below you can see the pages as they appeared in The Digest.
By Maryjean Wall
In the slipstream of a crush of rushing wings, the camera clicks. It’s going to be a good day. David Stephenson has caught the perfect light as he releases pigeons for a training flight.
You could call Stephenson a two-fisted pigeon guy. From the one hand he releases his birds, sending them along their way towards the rising sun. In the other hand he holds his photo gear du jour: today this might be a remote shutter release triggering a camera on a tripod. On another day his gear might be as simple as a camera phone.
Stephenson, 43, of Lexington, Ky., is a professional photographer who also races birds. When he combines his two pursuits, the results can be spectacular. He recently organized his best work on a new website, ThePigeonPhotographer.com, and began offering a photo wall calendar in October.
Among his reasons for creating the web site was to help people find his pictures better and allow anyone to license images of racing pigeons in an affordable – and legitimate – way. He also hopes it will deter people from taking photos without permission off the internet.
In the bigger picture, “I want to create a new way of seeing our racing pigeons,” he said. “I’m not excited by seeing the same type of photos over and over. They’re often not particularly flattering and the birds all start to look the same. I like to see beauty and character in my birds. We in the sport know our pigeons are beautiful. I hope others, by seeing my photos, may begin to see that beauty, too.”
Stephenson has stamped this site with the same creativity and energy that has brought him multiple awards for his photography – and for the racing pigeons that he, his wife, Angie, and daughter, Tory, raise at his Kastle Loft.
“David is turning the flight of the pigeon into art,” said Charles Bertram, chief photographer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. “He is seeing pigeons in a way the naked eye would never see. Of every photo of a pigeon ever taken, his work is going to be up there at the top.”
Five years ago, when Stephenson was well established in his photojournalism career, he returned after a long hiatus to pigeon racing. He had never really lost interest in birds throughout that time; he just never felt that any of the places he lived were suitable for building a loft.
He recalls his initial interest in birds. He acquired his first birds – doves – when in junior high school because a neighbor kept doves. Then he discovered that still another neighbor kept racing pigeons. Stephenson took to the pigeons right away. “I was enamored with fact that you could let pigeons out and they would come back,” he said.
Stephenson’s family moved from Lexington to Berea, Ky. (home of Berea College) when he began high school. His late father, John Stephenson, was president of the college and so David was able to build a small loft behind the President’s House. “I worked and paid for my birds and loft,” he said, citing the late Loftus Green of Lexington as his pigeon source. Following high school in Berea, a baccalaureate from Western Kentucky University, and stints as either a photographer or photo editor in Connecticut, Wyoming, Chicago, and finally, as a staff photographer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, Stephenson returned to the racing pigeon world.
Once again, 25 years later, he acquired some pigeons from his original source, Loftus Green, a lifetime member of the Lexington Racing Pigeon Club.
“What happened was I took my daughter to a children’s movie called Valiant,” he said. “The movie was about homing pigeons and their effort to deliver life-saving messages during World War II. That totally reignited my interest.”
He built a starter loft in his back yard. Two years later he replaced it with a larger loft, measuring 8×15 feet with 3 sections. He flies with two families: Koopman’s and the Wittenbuik and Shadow lines of M & D Evans Vandenabeele’s. Among his most recent awards are a club Champion Bird and the club’s Average Speed for both the 2013 Old Bird and Young Bird seasons. One of his birds finished second in a Gulf Coast Homing Club 150-mile race while handled by Jim Combs. The same bird was in the money in last year’s Gulf Coast Classic. He has a new son of M & D Evans’ Eisenhower he has high hopes for and is already seeing great results and in more than one loft. He has nine pairs of breeders and raises 30-40 young birds. He sends six to 10 birds annually to out-of-area races. Stephenson is now the President of the Lexington Racing Pigeon Club and designed and manages the club’s website, www.lexingtonracingpigeonclub.org.
In 2009 Stephenson left his staff position at the Lexington Herald-Leader to pursue freelance photography and take the position of Photojournalism Adviser for the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. Since then, he has expanded his range of photography and multimedia work. This has complimented his innovations in bird photography.
He has constructed a mobile studio for photography inside lofts. His Facebook page reached more than 2,000 “likes” in just a few weeks, and his Twitter and Instagram accounts likewise are becoming substantial, allowing him to share his work across the globe. He organized his work “to help people find me and the pictures easier” and “hopefully to make a little money to help pay for feed.” His work paid off quickly, when Audubon magazine published one of his pigeon photos in the March-April 2013 magazine. He also had a photo selected for the popular NBCnews.com Week in Pictures slideshow. He’s had university researchers and book publishers also license his photos.
Stephenson’s increasing presence on the Web, whether it is his own work or designing sites for other pigeon flyers, is taking his own pigeon ownership into a new dimension. Every time he goes to his loft he now has some kind of camera with him, even if it is only a camera phone. He always has a professional camera on hand when he releases his pigeons to train. Most recently he is shooting slow-motion video of his birds with a Go Pro.
As Bertram said, “His work transcends pigeon photography and becomes art.”
The pigeons bring their wings together in Stephenson’s photos and you can almost hear the clap.
You can find David’s photos and 2014 Pigeon Calendar on the web at The PigeonPhotographer.com. If you want to follow him on social media, you have many choices, including Facebook (The Pigeon Photographer), Instagram (@thepigeonphotographer) and Twitter (@ThePigeonPhotog). His website for his racing loft and birds is KastleLoft.com.
Here are David Stephenson’s tips for photographing your pigeons on a training flight: There are two good options for getting photos: One is upon release and the other is of the birds flying overhead. Set up your camera on a tripod with a remote shutter control release.
Anticipate where your birds will fly upon release and prefocus on that spot. Set the shutter speed on a fast setting, at least 1,000 or more, which will be necessary to freeze the motion in the image. The fast shutter speed will require a lot of light, which means the f-stop will be set at a low number, 2.8 or 4.5. After the birds leave the baskets, you will need a zoom lens, because the birds won’t fly close to you for very long. Follow the birds and hope they cross into a spot with a good background. And practice, practice, practice.
If tripods and remote shutter releases aren’t in the cards, you can still get good photos even with a cell phone. Try to anticipate where the birds will be going and put yourself at the best angle to capture it. Get low to the ground and have an interesting, clean background. Get closer.
“Shoot a lot,” Stephenson said. “I’ve shot hundreds of photos (on a single training flight), liking only a few. Take your camera every time you train. If you don’t like what you get one day, try it from a different angle next time. I change perspectives all the time, often lying on the ground. I rarely get it on the first try. Some sunrise silhouettes I shot for an entire season before I got one or two I liked.”
Also, spend some time outside the loft with the birds. That is when they will show their true character and in a more natural setting. The light is almost always better and stronger outside the loft, too. A longer lens helps in this setting.
Stephenson is often asked in emails about the type of camera he uses. Stephenson uses professional models of Canon camera bodies but he said any DSLR will work, as long as you have enough light. He currently uses two Canon 5D Mark III’s. The lens range he works with is from 14 mm to 600 mm. If you don’t have a DSLR, a camera phone will work in the right circumstances, he said. You just need good light, good timing and a willingness to learn from your mistakes.