We had the pleasure of sitting down with Scott Keys, a very talented avian photographer based out of Eastern Pennsylvania to discuss birds and native plants. You may recognize his Instagram handle “skeysimages” where he has a large following, for good reason. He integrates bird photography, native plants, fun photos competitions, and light-hearted humour into a fantastic platform where everyone is welcome.
Something that Scott is exceptionally skilled at is integrating the surrounding environment into his photography. We had a fantastic discussion about the techniques Scott uses to create these beautiful compositions, how he transitioned into this specific shooting style, and how it bloomed into another passion of Scott’s… native plants!
Birds and Native Plants with Scott Keys- Introduction
First, we chatted with Scott about how he first got involved in the world of Bird Photography. We are always so interested to hear how people find their way into this very specific type of art – everyone always has a unique story.
Q: So Scott, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, and how you got into the world of wildlife photography!
A: Yeah, so I live in Allentown, Pennsylvania, we call it the Lehigh Valley. It’s a magnificent spot for what I do. So geographically, I’m about 2 hours from the Jersey Shore. I can go down south for about an hour, then I’m in Delaware, and then about an hour north of me is the Pocono Mountains. I’m also at the northern breeding range for a lot of species. There’s this mountain ridge near me called the Kittatinny Ridge And it kind of flows down into the Appalachian and at elevation, there are tons of these breeding warblers that hang around here. So geographically, Eastern Pennsylvania where I live is just a gold mine. Not necessarily because it’s great for any one thing, but within an hour or so I get this tremendous diversity of birds which is obviously what I do.
I think I started in 2013. Instantly addicted. I knew nothing about photography. I wasn’t a photographer who took up birding and I wasn’t a birder who took up photography, as I know a lot of people do. So for me, it was everything at once. I was all in, self-taught. I can’t imagine how many thousands of hours of youtube videos I’ve watched on both photoshop and whatever birds or nature or wildlife is out there.
I always tell the story. I went with my kids to shoot Hawks at Hawk Mountain. It was the first time I photographed a bird with a 200 millimeter lens. I did not know one thing about birds, not a thing. So I go to Hawk Mountain because it’s called Hawk Mountain and they’re supposed to be hawks, flying all over the place. It’s the middle of July, there’s not one Hawk anywhere. We see one Turkey Vulture. I’m like, this place is lame. Then, this little Black-and-White Warbler jumped up in front of me. I take a picture, and I get home, and I am out of my mind. I literally googled “zebra bird”, you get all kinds of birds. But then I see the Black-and-White Warbler. I immediately thought that’s what this was. It was a Black-and-White Warbler. Then I start reading, I just got really curious about birds and birding and that was it, I was in.
Birds and Native Plants with Scott Keys- Tips for Great Composition
Q: As an amateur, what kind of advice would you give to someone trying to incorporate the environment into their shots and create these beautiful compositions?
A: Yeah. So there are three keys, I think, that make good photographs in general for birds or songbirds.
- Lighting– The first one is shooting in good light. Now that doesn’t matter for environmental or tight portrait. I mean, that’s just kind of the standard. Good light is good light.
- Perspective– What is really challenging with bird photography, probably more so than any other genre is perspective. It’s almost assumed that when you’re shooting another human or even if you’re shooting big game like Elk and Moose, your focal plane is normally right at eye level. But with birds, it’s completely different ballgame. Very rarely do you get birds in the same focal plane as your eye and so the typical perspective is to look up or to look down. So the first thing I always talk to people about when they’re talking about how to create really interesting images is think about your perspective, and can you find eye level perspective?
- Location– I’ve become a firm believer that locations are maybe the most important thing to bird photography, finding these really nice locations where you can get eye level looks. So hills or elevation or shooting off of a mountain where you get these backdrops. Getting perspective is really, really critical.
Something else I talk about is stopping focusing on the subject, which is the exact opposite of what a birder wants to do. So when I talk to people about this, I say, see through the bird or see through the subject. Just start looking at everything else except the bird, whatever you can see in your viewfinder. Sometimes you’re going to wait for the bird to move into a better spot but most of the time it’s about you setting up in spots that are just going to give you that. Eventually, I’ll find locations where if birds were to come through here, this would be a great area. Or I know birds hang around or breed in this part of the park, and I know this area of the park photographs much better than this area of the park.
I have a patch of hemlocks near me, and there are some Canada Warblers that kind of breed in that area. They like the Rhododendron. There’s this area where the Hemlock and Rhododendron meet, so they’ll jump from one side to the other. In the midst, I can get them eye level because Canada Warblers aren’t high canopy dwellers. If I can get them in the Hemlock, it looks way better than when I get them in the Rhododendron. So I’m able to kind of show the environment. There are times when tight portraits work, and I like tight portraits, and I don’t mind it if it’s in good light, I’ll do it, but I really like to show the environment.
Birds and Native Plants with Scott Keys- Native Plants
Q: So Scott, tell us a bit about your passion for native plants and how that evolved beyond just photography.
A: A few years ago is I posted an image that I really liked. It was a yellow warbler on this vine and I thought the composition was beautiful. Then, someone in the comments says, “it’s a shame it’s on an invasive multi-flora rose”. I was curious what is this guy talking about, so I go and I google multi-flora rose, and I thought, well, that doesn’t sound good.
So I start looking and I’ve got wineberry, stilt grass, garlic mustard, every honeysuckle, which is another nasty invasive. I’ve got every invasive plant in the world on my property. I just read about invasive species and native species and their benefits and all this other stuff and I decided, all right, I’m done. I’m going to rip it all out. This was three years ago. I committed to five years to see if I could transplant the invasive species into native species. I spent two years just researching plants and buying plants, trying them out. Some go here, some go there, some work, some didn’t. I’ve planted 120 different native species on my 1-acre property. Some species didn’t work, most of them did, though I was pretty impressed that most of the species I planted worked.
Q: So, what kind of changes did you see on your property so far?
A: So here’s what I started to see. One, a much bigger diversity of pollinators. So I started to see butterflies, which I had never seen. I realized that I did have some native plants here and as I got rid of the invasive and kept after it, some of the native stuff was just in the woods behind my house it started coming up naturally. The third part of this was, after removing invasives and planting natives, was adding water. I did test this last year with a drip, and just the sound of that alone brought birds in. I put a little birdbath on the edge of my woods and all of a sudden I used to get wood thrush coming in. Then migration was occurring, I would get warblers coming into the area. Some of them would come and use the birdbath, but then others would just hang around the property. People think sometimes, okay, I’ll put in plants, and birds will come to the plants. That’s really not how it works. What happens is you put in the plants and the bugs come, then when the bugs come, the birds come.
Birds and Native Plants with Scott Keys- Photo Story
Q: So in these interviews we sometimes like to select one photo and ask you to tell the story behind it. You mentioned that a photo you took of an Indigo Bunting on bergamot was one of your favorite photos from 2021, can you tell us a bit about that?
A: It was really neat. So there’s a field that I use to go to that’s got a mix of native and invasive plants. I hadn’t been back there in a while. I didn’t realize I was in the same spot that I was years ago because it looked much different. So before, this area was kind of an Orchard with grass, and it was nothing really pretty about it. I was standing where they had restored the habitat. Somebody intentionally had clearly come in and tried to restore this into some kind of a meadow. They had planted two major plants that I saw were Heliopsis, which is a kind of a nice sunflower type plant. And then this Bergamot, I think they would call this one Eastern Bergamot or Monarda fistulosa. I was looking at this field, and I thought, oh, this is really cool. Somebody actually is trying to bring back native plants. Bunting and Common Yellowthroats are the typical birds that would hang around there. And so, sure enough, this guy was popping around a little bit. The cool thing about Bunting is they like to be on the top, so they like to sing from the top. It just so happened that they would hit the tallest of these things, which is great for me because I’m shooting now just over the top of the field. That was a big success story, not just for me as a photographer, but you saw the payback was now there’s a little ecosystem for birds, due to this commitment to plant native species and restore that habitat.
Scott on bird photography, his connection with nature, and giving back:
So when I do this whole photography thing, at some point, I started to feel like if I’m going to take from the wildlife a little bit, I got to try to give back a little bit. The giveback was I’ll try to get a little more involved with native plants. So, I’ve got my audience on Instagram. It was like, okay, here’s the pretty birds, and by the way, you should plant Bergamot in your backyard. Or hey, here’s a hummingbird picture. Oh, by the way, if you put Cardinal flowers in your backyard, you might get some. Sometimes wildlife photographers forget that taking these pictures is about more than just taking cool photos, but about the appreciation for wildlife and the environments they’re living in.
Gear Scott Uses:
Connect with Scott
Thanks again to Scott for taking the time to meet with us and talk birds and native plants! Scott shared so much valuable information and tips, but you can find even more content like this on his youtube page:
Scott also has a Patreon where you can sign up to get personalized tips and guidance from Scott on your own photography, as well as other benefits such as print discounts. You can find his Patreon here:
Thanks for reading, you may also be interested in our other blogs such as Camera Gear Recommendations.