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Photography

Local photographer discovers passion in documenting birds, nature

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Orange-chinned parakeets in Costa Rica. December 2020.

Cheryl Johnson thought she only had two bird species in her backyard until she started taking a closer look through the lens of her camera.

That was five years ago.

“Until you start looking, you do not realize the variety that we have here,” Johnson said.

Now, the self-proclaimed “Backyard Bird Nerd” or “Birdographer” has deepened her knowledge of and appreciation for birds and wildlife through a hobby that wasn’t easy to master.

Johnson has had an interest in photography since she was in high school, which she says took a backseat when she got married and had children. During a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago with local photographer couple Buddy and Jerra Lee, she rediscovered her love for image-making.

“Every morning, we would get up and wander around the jungle and take pictures and it reignited this passion in me,” she said.

Though she was getting her sea legs back in the craft, she was still trying to figure out what subjects she liked to photograph the most.

“I knew I liked doing landscapes and things, but I hadn’t really found what it was that was gonna get my engine roaring,” she said.

In 2016, she decided to write a story about a bird walk in Riverside Park for Victoria in Motion, a magazine she published for 11 years with business partner Ingra Sparkman.

“I took my camera with me and I thought, ‘I’ll take pictures of pretty birds because how hard can that be?’” she recalled, before discovering that it was a lot more difficult than she imagined.

Johnson said she was determined to learn how to photograph birds well because she loved seeing photos other photographers were sharing on social media.

“I bought a bigger lens and put food out in my backyard and started taking pictures in my backyard,” she said.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Carolina chickadee in Johnson’s backyard in Victoria. August 2016.

The challenge with photographing birds, Johnson explained, is that they are small and move around quickly. Johnson also wants to give the impression in the image that she’s close, which requires certain gear and a specific skillset.

“If you get close to an animal, they’re gonna scamper off, so you want to be able to feel like you’re close but you’re not really close so you give them their space that they need,” she said.

After lots of practice, Johnson got the hang of documenting birds and fell in love with the stories they tell in photographs.

“With the little birds, they tell a story by looking cute,” she said. “The bigger birds are a lot more expressive. And because you can see more detail, you almost can see facial expressions and attitude with the way they’re standing and the movement.”

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Belted kingfisher at Saxet Lake in Victoria. January 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Orange-crowned warbler at La Lomita Wildlife Photography Ranch in Uvalde. October 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Crested Caracaras at Santa Clara Ranch. March 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Reddish egret at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. May 2020.

After about four years of honing her bird photography, Johnson was approached by a friend to create a photo book of birds for a young relative, which gave her an idea.

“Children’s books typically don’t have photographs, they have illustrations,” she said. “I thought, ‘I wonder how it would work to do a children’s book with photographs?’ So I wrote four.”

Johnson self-published her books and sold a couple hundred copies. Then last year, a national publisher picked up one of her books, which they released in March 2021. It’s been so successful that the publisher decided to pick up three more of her other books.

“It’s amazing to go from this silly little hobby, just playing around to writing these books, to all of a sudden have my books selling thousands of copies on Amazon,” she said.

Johnson hopes her photographs and books encourage people of all ages to appreciate and enjoy nature and inspire them to maybe try their hand at photography themselves.

“Photography is a great hobby,” she said. “There’s so much to learn and it’s so fascinating.”

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Great egret at Invista Wetlands in Victoria County. April 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Spiny glass frog in Costa Rica. December 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

A flock of American avocet at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. October 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Peacock at the Texas Zoo. June 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Keel-billed toucan in Costa Rica. December 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Thistle at INVISTA Wetlands in Victoria County. April 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Alligators at Brazos Bend State Park. March 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Geoffrey tailless bat in Costa Rica. December 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Long-billed thrasher at La Lomita Wildlife Photography Ranch in Uvalde. October 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Red-eyed tree frog in Costa Rica. December 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

White-tailed deer at Goose Island State Park. December 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Roseate spoonbill at INVISTA Wetlands in Victoria County. April 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Yellow-breasted chat at South Llano River State Park. June 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Minnemishinona Falls in Minnesota. September 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Laughing gull in Port Aransas. April 2021.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Royal terns at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. October 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Anhinga at Brazos Bend State Park. March 2018.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Great horned owl in Bayside. April 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Volcano hummingbird in Costa Rica. December 2020.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Long-billed curlew at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. November 2019.

Photographer Feature: Cheryl Johnson

Black skimmers at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. July 2019.

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Emree Weaver is the Chief Photographer at the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at (361) 580-6584 or eweaver@vicad.com.

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