With 466 entries in the 2009 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest — including photos of exotic species from around the world — the competition was fierce. But when the dust had settled and the votes were tallied, it turned out that Deb Harder's toughest competition was ... Deb Harder.

With 466 entries in the 2009 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest — including photos of exotic species from around the world — the competition was fierce. But when the dust had settled and the votes were tallied, it turned out that Deb Harder's toughest competition was ... Deb Harder.

For the second year in a row, a single photographer submitted two photos that impressed the judges enough to win. But because the rules allow only one prize per contestant, Harder will have to settle for the grand prize for her shot of a crane skittering across the water at the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, taken in late November.

First place goes to Tara Behnke of Medford for a photo of a rufous hummingbird, which earned her an Olympus Stylus 1050sw waterproof camera from Total Camera and Video.

Second place is awarded to Jenny Grimm of Rogue River for a photo of thousands of snow geese at Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge. Grimm wins a $100 gift certificate from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Harder's photo of a golden-crowned sparrow, taken in her east Medford backyard in March, earned enough votes to finish first, but Harder isn't complaining about winning only a Vortex Nomad 20-60x60 spotting scope from Wild Birds Unlimited.

"I enter photo contests all the time, and I've finished second before, but never the grand prize," she says. "I'm very surprised, actually. It's absolutely thrilling."

Harder has been a photographer at heart since her college days, but it wasn't until 2006 that she began devoting her energies to perfecting the craft.

"For Christmas in 2006, my husband bought me my first digital SLR camera," she recalls. "That's when I really decided to get into it."

Harder and her husband, Dave, a veterinarian, operated Jackson Animal Hospital for 14 years, which limited the amount of time she could spend with a camera.

"We were the only two employees at first," she says. "When we sold it two-and-a-half years ago, we had four doctors and 23 employees."

With her new camera and a change in life direction, Harder began taking photography classes and workshops whenever possible. Her winning shot of the sandhill crane was taken during a photography workshop in New Mexico.

Harder describes herself as primarily a landscape photographer. But she is quickly gaining enthusiasm for wildlife imagery.

"There's quite a learning curve," she says. "With landscape photography you're thinking a lot about depth of field, and the ISO is always 100 or 200.

"But with wildlife, you really have to learn the art of panning. And you start to learn the behavior of the birds."

She also had to use a very fast shutter, which called for further adjustments, she says. On her trip to New Mexico, Harder, who normally uses a 200-400mm lens, rented a 500 mm "to get that extra reach."

Her winning photo came after "hundreds and hundreds of shots," she says, "and 1/1000 was the minimum shutter speed to get that sharp focus. To do that you have to increase the ISO, but if you go too much, you have grainy photos which, to me, as a landscape photographer, is horrifying."

For budding photographers, Harder counsels patience, which is what it took to capture the image of the golden-crowned sparrow.

"I was in my backyard — we're up at 2,800 feet — and the snow was coming down," she says. "I just sat there for hours and studied where the birds were landing, which trees. The early-morning light was just hitting the bird in the breast, so all of the elements were there."

The gorgeous image of a common sparrow taken in her own backyard should let aspiring photographers know they don't need to visit exotic locales to capture stunning images.

"They always tell you your best images are usually local because you know the area," says Harder, who has been spending a lot of time lately shooting birds at the Denman Wildlife Area. "You get your best shots when you study an area and learn where the birds are, where they go and what they do."

Reach Mail Tribune Features Editor David Smigelski at 541-776-8784 or dsmigelski@mailtribune.com.