Leica Stories: Keith Hansen

Interview by Steve N.G. Howell

As Steve Howell notes, one of the nice things about living in the small town on Bolinas is that it is also home to birder and bird artist extraordinaire Keith Hansen, whose gallery-studio downtown is the hub of the local birding scene. Keith has a well-worn Lecia scope, and has self-built a wonderful rig on which he mounts a video camera to capture any and all ornithological moments. Visitors to his gallery can view real-time video of birds outside the window, as the video-scope setup is linked to a large screen. This also means that if a rare bird pops in (and they do a lot!), Keith can switch to record mode and “nail that puppy” as he says. For example, he has documented 3 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at his feeder, of about only 14 recorded in the state of California. The rest of us would still be fumbling for a camera and the bird would have got away! At Keith’s gallery the other day I asked him about his Leica scope.

The artist at work

The artist at work

SNGH: How long have you had the scope, which model is it, and why did you pick that one?

KH: Well, it was back sometime in the late 1990s, and it’s the Leica Televid 77. I simply picked this one because it was the first scope I had ever seen with such a GIANT ocular lens and delicious image. I was immediately hooked. I grew up on older scopes with their “dime sized” eyepieces. This 50-cent-eyepiece-sized monster gave me unimagined brightness, field of view, and clarity. Plus it just looked cool! Its futuristic design seemed like, as someone once said, “Something a Klingon would go into battle with!”

Keith Hansen demonstrates the set-up in the field

Keith Hansen demonstrates the set-up in the field

SNGH: How long did it take to figure out the video camera equipment?

KH: It evolved. Once I had my “Beast of Bird’n,” I attempted to take hand-held video through it but with limited success. While greatly enlarged, the image was shaky and rather hard to watch. Then at a bird symposium I discovered a camera mount, designed to hold a camera body with a large telephoto lens. I thought that might work for my scope, but when it arrived I was bummed to realize it wouldn’t fit, until… I flipped the entire mount BACKWARDS and then it worked! Now I have a steady platform with which to film. What makes this scope work so well is that it has a straight lens (mandatory for this set up) with, as mentioned before, a very large 20x eyepiece. The cool thing about this is you can simply plug your camera into a TV or monitor and it shows whatever the scope is pointing at, live.

Real-time video of sparrows on the roof outside!

Real-time video of sparrows on the roof outside!

SNGH: Over what sort of distance can you obtain usable video images?

KH: Well, I have video of Jupiter’s moons as well as video of kids jumping up and down, as seen reflected in the eyeball of their dog! Minimum zoom is, however, the best for clarity. Nice footage of any bird within 100 meters is easily obtained and quite usable.

SNGH: How does video help with creating images for your artwork?

KH: With video, I can watch a bird move until it gets into just the right position that I’m looking for, and then I can freeze the frame to provide reference material to show any number of things that are difficult to find elsewhere – like the color of underwing coverts, or how iridescence flows across a hummingbird’s gorget and the like.

The set-up in the gallery

The set-up in the gallery

SNGH: How much video have you taken through the scope?

KH: Wow, well, I have all my cassette tapes copied to digital and catalogued by species, so I can find what I need. It’s certainly close to 100 hours of video, capturing over 800 bird species, from the U.S. to Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Keith recently finished a “life sentence” (16 years!) creating masterful illustrations for the recently published Birds of the Sierra Nevada, by Ted Beedy and Ed Pandolfino (University of California Press 2013). The text is a wonderful overview of the distribution and natural history of sierra birds, each account adorned by Keith’s vivid artwork. More of Keith’s work can be viewed at his website: keithhansen.com. And here’s an example of rarity documentation taken with his Leica scope and set-up, mouth-watering footage of the first Common Cuckoo recorded in California in September 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKE4pzgv1qU

The latest work, hot off the press!

The latest work, hot off the press!

 

Want more information? Here are a few links:

Keith Hansen’s Gallery

The new book! Birds of the Sierra Nevada

Keith will be the Keynote speaker at this year’s Godwit Days festival