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Meet One of Ohio's Best Nature Photographers: Jim McCormac

A sense of wonder has fueled Jim McCormac’s second act as one of Ohio’s best nature photographers.

Randy Edwards
Cooper's hawk

The Cooper’s hawk glares into the photographer’s lens with a ferocity that disturbs human sensibilities. One can imagine the terror this intense visage strikes in the rapidly beating heart of a tiny songbird. The raptor, common in Ohio, had dropped into the Worthington backyard of Jim McCormac, who was ready at an open window with a telephoto lens.

The hawk was keyed in on a mixed flock of overwintering birds that had taken refuge in an evergreen bush and perhaps was too intent on its prey to be bothered by the photographer who waited, and maneuvered, until he had just the shot he wanted. “The bird glaring directly at me,” McCormac wrote in his blog, “so that the portrait would show what an unlucky songbird might see in its last moments.”

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Jim McCormac at Scioto Audubon Metro Park

A botanist by training who retired five years ago from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, McCormac, 59, has not stopped sharing his love for Ohio’s wildlife, especially its birds. And while he is self-taught and didn’t take photography seriously until he was nearly 40, he has developed a devoted following as a photographer of all things with wings. Or paws or hooves, for that matter.

Ian Adams, one of the best-known photographers of Ohio’s natural and human landscapes, has watched McCormac’s photo artistry develop and is impressed. “He’s become one of the best wildlife photographers in Ohio [and] one of Ohio’s finest ambassadors for nature,” Adams says. Indeed, long before he began honing his photo skills, McCormac used his pulpit at ODNR to proclaim his bullishness on Ohio’s nature. His blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, averages between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors a month. He writes a biweekly nature column for The Columbus Dispatch and, until COVID interrupted, he enjoyed a robust speaking schedule. His first venture into publishing, in 2004, was a field guide to Ohio birds. Another, “Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage,” features photos by Gary Meszaros and won an Ohioana Book Award in 2010.

Gray fox

Currently in production is McCormac’s first book featuring an extensive collection of his photos; it’s tentatively titled “Gardening for Moths in the Midwest.” As with everything he writes, McCormac wants the book to do more than impart encyclopedic information about its subject. He wants to inspire a love for creatures and an understanding of how they fit into their natural systems. Moth species, particularly their caterpillars, “tie into overall ecology in an epic way” as an important food source for many other creatures.

“Without moths, a lot of our birds would be in deep trouble, and some of our moths are struggling,” McCormac says.

Rosy maple moth

Subject expertise, equipment and lighting may be the keys to good photography, but what makes McCormac’s work such a success may be something less tangible, says Paul Knoop, an Ohio naturalist known for his 30-plus years at Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm outside Dayton.

“Jim has such a terrific sense of wonder,” Knoop says. “It’s almost childlike, and although he’s best known as a birder, he’s equally fascinated by the spider, the millipedes. They all intrigue him, and he’ll take any chance he gets to share that wonder with people who want to learn.”

How to Become a Better Photographer

Jim McCormac’s advice to aspiring nature photographers can be boiled down to three deceptively simple maxims:

Know your subject

Whether it’s knowing how to tell a muskrat lodge from a beaver lodge, or which birds feed on the ground and which in trees, opportunities for capturing photos of critters come from a thorough understanding of their behavior. “By the time I picked up a camera, I already knew how to approach the subjects, where to find them, the nuances of bird behavior,” McCormac says. Accumulating his level of knowledge takes a lifetime, but every bit helps.

Be an expert in your equipment

You might have an expensive new mirrorless camera with a 400mm telephoto lens, or you might be using the camera included in your iPhone. Regardless, you should know everything about that equipment and be practiced at composition and changing the shutter speed. When photographing wildlife, “You cannot think about this stuff. You have to act instinctively. The window of opportunity is sometimes just seconds.”

Light is everything

Different subjects require different light, and a photographer can’t always choose, but knowing what you need and when to expect it is key. When he travels to a new location, McCormac uses Google Earth and other applications to anticipate the sunlight and shadows he will encounter. Birds, McCormac says, require bright but indirect light. “Early morning sunshine behind you on a bright day is perfect, but as the sun goes up, I switch to other subjects.” Dark, even ominous clouds are preferred for landscapes.

This story is from the March 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.