Lexington photojournalist David Stephenson became fascinated with pedigreed pigeons as a young boy. Today he combines his two passions, racing pigeons and using his camera to capture their beauty in mid-flight. On Instagram, he is known as “The Pigeon Photographer.”
“If you were to look at the list of the Top 10 smartest animals, you’ll find that a pigeon is on that list,” said Stephenson.
Raising pedigreed pigeons isn’t unlike raising racehorses: They’re in demand and sell for top dollar. Stephenson has a coop in his Lexington backyard where he raises his birds. Depending on the time of year, Stephenson has at least 30 and as many as 60 racing pigeons, or homing pigeons. Babies are ready to race 5-6 months after birth.
The birds get leg bands at 6-7 days old. “It’s essentially their serial number for life,” Stephenson said. “Later, when they get a little bit older, and they start their training they get an electronic band.” That band has a chip that is read when the pigeon crosses an electronic pad on returning home from a race.
In racing, pigeons are released at the same time from a designated location, and then find their way home. “We just take the time in the air divided by their distance, and then we know their speed. So the fastest bird wins.”
Homing ability means they can find their way home from hundreds, sometimes a thousand miles away, Stephenson said. The pedigreed pigeons are a lot like Thoroughbreds, he said. “They have a high level of endurance. They are very fast,” he said.
“Now visually, people looking at them may think it’s just a street pigeon. They can’t really tell. But when you really see them up close and you see how truly, really beautiful they are and how streamlined they are–they’re like arrows that will just dart through the sky.”
Stephenson has had a passion for photography and pigeons since he was a child. “They’re just stunningly beautiful subjects to take pictures of,” he said. “In all kinds of conditions.”
He created The Pigeon Photographer website initially to sell stock photos to pay for bags of feed and training expenses. Audubon magazine found the website and requested a photo. “And I had it because some of the pictures I’m shooting look like they were shot in a studio,” Stephenson said.
The photos are actually shot in the loft of the coop. The photos capture the birds in mid-flight against a black backdrop.
“I think by isolating them it really removes the distraction of the background. That is my goal, to show people the beauty of the birds, especially in flight, because the birds are so fast, and the wing flaps are so fast, that we can’t see what’s happening.
“So with the shutter speeds that we use and the lights that we use, we can stop that. And we can show the beauty and the formation of what’s happening with their wings and the tail and the head and the feathers.”
He realized after a year that there might be a market for his work beyond stock photos. He produced a calendar with his photos, and has done four them now. He has thousands of followers on Facebook and Instagram.
“As it turns out, people like good pictures of pigeons,” he said. “Who knew?”