The Birdwoman of Benicia
If there’s a crowd of people on a Saturday afternoon outside the doorway of the HQ Gallery on First Street, chances are, popular nature photographer Ok Kyong Hanrahan is on duty and has hung her remarkable wildlife images outside for visitors to see. Her crisp, vibrantly colorful photographs capture images of hummingbirds in flight, ospreys and red-tailed hawks catching their prey, a rare bald eagle feeding its young, and other local scenery.
Hanrahan first began sharing her photos two years ago on Facebook in the Benicia Beauty group. She was surprised by the positive feedback she received, which motivated her to work hard improving her craft. In 2020, she accepted an invitation to join the HQ Gallery, where she has increased her following. “I am so flattered to know that so many people now have my work hanging in their homes.”
“I have always been interested in photography, but it took me a while to get into it seriously,” said Hanrahan. “My early motivation was around photographing rock concert performances, but these opportunities did not come often, so I began shooting nature scenes and found that bird photography was what I really enjoyed the most.” Friend and fellow gallery member Ebbie Navas admiringly calls Ok Kyong the “birdwoman of Benicia” for her extensive knowledge of the local bird species, which she gained mainly through internet research. “While I also enjoy shooting landscapes and wildlife in general, birds are the most fascinating to me because of the incredible variety of species in our local area, and the different behavior patterns they have,” says Hanrahan.
A Benicia resident since 2003, Hanrahan grew up in a suburb of Ulsan, in the southeast of South Korea.
She attended the Pusan University of Foreign Studies where she majored in Japanese and English. After graduation she worked at the Officer’s Club at the US Army base in Pusan, where she met her husband Kevin in 1989. They moved to the US in 1991.
Hanrahan is mostly self-taught. She got her first serious DSLR, a Canon 70D, in 2013, and now uses the Canon R5. Her favorite lens is the 600mm f/4L lens, as well as the 70-200mm f/2.8L and 24-70mm f/2.8L lenses. “I have not taken any formal photography classes, but I do learn some skills and get some ideas from online courses. Mostly, I just try to learn from experience, making mistakes, and lots of practice. The photos I like the best are anthropomorphic: the ones where you can sense some personality of the animal, possibly humorous, where you feel like you know what the animal is thinking.”
On a typical day, Hanrahan takes her camera out once or twice, in the early morning and/or the late afternoon, to get the best light.
“Benicia has so many great locations for wildlife photography, and I will head to a spot depending on the tide level and what kind of wildlife I hope to capture.” Her “go-to birding spots” include the Benicia Marina for Night Herons and Green Herons, and anywhere along the waterfront or marshes for Great or Snowy Egrets. She photographs pelicans, kites, hawks, and ospreys at the Benicia State Recreation Area.
Hanrahan has equipped a Sprinter van for off-road use, allowing her to get into some rough and muddy places. “I use it as a mobile blind, because birds are sometimes easily scared by people, but not as much by vehicles. The Sprinter is ideal because I can stand at full height and shoot with a tripod, and it is roomy enough to carry a lot of gear for shoots or display racks for art shows.” She calls her van the “Vogelfanger,” which is German for “birdcatcher,” the character in Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Hanrahan remains humble and unassuming, despite her growing following.
“The response has been so great that I am now opening my own studio in the Headquarters Building of the Benicia Arsenal.” In addition to providing a space to hang additional inventory for showing by appointment or an occasional reception, the studio will allow her to clear the mat boards and other photography supplies taking over her dining room and garage. To view more of her photography, visit http://www.okkyongphoto.com/ or facebook.com/okkyongphoto, or come by the HQ Gallery, where she is the featured artist for February, at 333D First Street, in Benicia.