Lessons in Success from a 12-Year-Old Bird Photographer


Photography: Lorenzo Rohani

It’s a cold frosty evening on the open mud flats of Boundary Bay, Canada, and bird photographer Lorenzo Rohani is quietly adjusting his camera to capture a Snowy Owl perched fifteen meters in front of him. The birds are rare this far south of the arctic and Lorenzo isn’t alone. A dozen professional wildlife photographers have also gathered nearby, their giant lenses topped by powerful flashes primed to chase away the late shadows. Lorenzo’s plan is simpler. He’ll wait, knee-deep in the wetlands, for the sun to sink below the horizon. Only then, he knows, will the dying natural light cast the owl in a beautiful orange glow. It’s the sort of knowledge that you might expect from a seasoned pro, and the photo his patience produces wins a photography contest run by Time Magazine. But the contest is organized by Time for Kids — and Lorenzo is still only twelve years old.

Lorenzo began his passion for photography three years ago, taking pictures of the birds that visited his yard in the Pacific Northwest. Within a short time, he had been able to document 42 different species, his desire to photograph them inspired as much by his concern for the local wildlife as the beauty of their images.

“There are some really beautiful birds that come to our garden. Pileated Woodpeckers, Cooper’s hawks, and many colorful warblers,” he says. “When people see the photos they are really amazed. The birds are all around us, but it is when people see the photographs that they start to care about them.”

Since that early beginning, Lorenzo’s love of birding and photography has taken him across the country. In his search for the birds he has yet to photograph and the habitats they visit, he has traveled to the Mojave desert, the sagebrush lands of the Columbia Basin, the Quinault rainforest, and even the Pacific Pelagic zone. Birds move quickly so Lorenzo rarely gets a chance to use a tripod. Most of his photos are shot using a hand-held and cumbersome 400mm lens. During a trip to the Alpine meadows of the Cascade Mountains, he had to carry his equipment for ten miles into the backcountry.

Making More than Pocket Money

That professional level of effort is paying off — and not just in the kudos of a stack of beautiful images and occasional competition wins. Despite not having reached his teens, Lorenzo is already a popular paid speaker who addresses members of local Audubon societies, schools and libraries. He leads guided bird walks during which he takes pictures and uses the camera’s viewer magnification to show the detailed features of the various species the group encounters. His book, “A Kid’s Guide to Birding,” is published by Nextfolio. The guides, bookings and sales don’t give him a professional income but they do help to subsidize an expensive hobby and enable him to upgrade his equipment.

I didn’t start out thinking about making money, but I discovered that people would pay me to give presentations,” he says. “I want the money because I really want to get a 500mm lens and that costs a whole lot.”

Much of Lorenzo’s success comes down to his talent for spotting the right shot, his patience to wait for the right conditions and his determination to go wherever the shoot takes him. Those are elements in the success of every photographer and they’re hard to learn. Other lessons though are easier to take on board.

Lorenzo’s knowledge of photography, for example, isn’t the only thing about him that’s precocious. His talks and guided tours make as much use of his understanding of birds as his knowledge of lenses and composition. Although he’s been shooting since the age of nine, he’s been “birding” for much longer and uses his images, and in particular the ability to adjust the fill light in RAW images, to help identify different bird species at different times of year. A recent paid presentation and guided walk at the Puget Sound Bird Fest was particularly meaningful for Lorenzo; he’s been attending the annual bird enthusiast’s festival since he was five. Lorenzo isn’t just a photography enthusiast or even a photographer. He’s a specialist bird photographer with a passion for his subjects that makes acquiring an in-depth knowledge about them enjoyable.

Photography: Michael Rohani

What I’ve learned is that it helps to do a lot of photography and to specialize,” says Lorenzo. “For me, that specialty is birds. I like birds. They are pretty amazing, so it’s fun. But I guess the same would work for someone who is into different stuff.”

When Dad is Your Manager

Networking helps too. Almost immediately after taking up bird photography Lorenzo created a Flickr account and joined a number of bird-related groups, including one that helps with bird identification. He now has over 400 Flickr contacts worldwide and they help him to train his eye, provide advice about equipment and technique and a forum in which to talk about different birds, their environments and how to photograph them.

It also helps that he has plenty of support. Lorenzo’s book was written jointly with his father, Michael, who also helped him to find a publisher, and still helps him to win speaking bookings and to do the sort of promotion necessary to find an audience and spread his name. Few photographers can count on family members to do that for them. Most, in fact, have to balance their self-promotion with a regular job and a family life while still finding the time to head into the field, research their subjects and take the pictures they want. Lorenzo will have schoolwork, which will only get heavier, but he’s fortunate in having a close relative willing to work as a manager and handle his growing photography career.

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