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Go beyond the portrait with your bird photography

This image of a Red-winged Blackbird is an example of going beyond the portrait with bird photography. Photo by Marie Read
A backlit male Red-winged Blackbird displays in spring in Ithaca, New York. Photo by Marie Read

By its very nature, a bird is a work of art, right? Surely all we need to do to wow people is portray that avian beauty in the standard way: unobscured, with a clean background, evenly illuminated from the front, and filling the frame. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that the world is already swamped with great bird portraits, thanks to today’s amazing cameras and the ease of sharing on the internet. How can you create something unique and attention-grabbing? The answer is to do things differently. Here are a few ideas. 

1. Shoot toward the sun for drama 

A surefire way to create unique and dramatic bird images is to shoot toward the sun so that your subject is illuminated from behind. Termed “backlighting,” this technique is ideal for birds due to their indistinct edges. Fluffed feathers, elegant plumes and outspread wings can look extraordinary with the sun shining through them. White birds work particularly well, but any species can appear magical when edged by a glowing rim of light.

For success, two things are key. First, assuming clear conditions, shoot only when the sun is very low in the sky because once it gets high enough to reveal the bird’s top surfaces, the intended effect of backlighting is lost. (Yes, backlighting exists when there is light cloud cover, too, but the effect is far more subtle.) Second, for maximum drama, position yourself so a dark background lies behind the subject.

When you combine strong backlighting with bright rather than dark surroundings, the result is a silhouette, reducing the bird to its most graphic form — a simple black shape. Composing with silhouettes needs care. Be sure the main subject does not overlap other dark objects (including other birds); otherwise, the image will be confusing. And wait for the bird to present a profile view so it is recognizable.

High contrast, backlit scenes present an exposure challenge, but don’t let that dissuade you. Today’s cameras make tricky exposures less intimidating. Unlike the optical viewfinders of DSLRs, the electronic viewfinders of mirrorless cameras show you exactly what the camera’s sensor is seeing. So long as the camera’s “Exposure Simulation” setting is enabled, what you see is what you get! (Your DSLR has a similar setting, but you’ll need to switch to “Live View” mode and compose using the rear monitor rather than through the viewfinder.) Adjust your exposure, lighter or darker, until you get the appearance you prefer. It’s often a matter of personal choice.

2. Shoot through vegetation for a painterly look 

You can create eye-catching shots even if the bird is partly obscured by foliage. Shooting through the out-of-focus foreground vegetation can produce a lovely impressionistic appearance. It works best if the bird and the foreground are widely separated. Locate a gap in the vegetation through which the bird is visible and attractively framed by the out-of-focus foreground. Set your aperture to its lowest f/ number to produce a shallow depth of field, then focus on the bird and take the shot. Experiment with your distance from the foreground for different effects: closer will produce a dream-like wash of color; farther away allows intriguing foreground shapes and textures to emerge. A zoom lens is helpful here: Zooming in or out to change focal length has the same effect. 

When shooting through vegetation, you may find that the camera’s autofocus (AF) tries to focus on the foreground rather than on the bird itself. To solve this problem, select the smallest AF area possible — usually a single point — then manually place this AF point on the bird.

3. Compose with the bird small in the frame 

When you spot a beautiful bird, the first inclination is to grab your longest telephoto lens and try to approach the subject for a frame-filling shot. But be different! Think beyond a tightly framed portrait and train your eye to see compositions in which the bird itself is just a small part and the surroundings take prominence. Framing loosely might let you create a powerful environmental portrait, revealing how the particular species interacts with its habitat. In different circumstances, you might make a purely artistic image with the bird as part of a natural or man-made pattern. 

Choosing where to place the bird in the frame is important. Avoid the bullseye look! Centering a small subject makes a very static image. Instead, compose with the bird off-center for a dynamic design to keep the viewer interested. 

When composing with the bird small in the frame, you’ll appreciate the versatility of a zoom telephoto lens. Zooms let you experiment with various compositions without having to change location and possibly flushing the subject.

4. Just add water! 

Water brings a special aesthetic to any photographic genre, and bird photography is no exception. It’s no wonder that species that make a living in or near water are such favorite subjects for our cameras. Whether the intense splashing of territorial geese in mid-chase, the droplets that fly when a duck takes wing or a robin takes a bath, or the crashing surf where shorebirds scurry or terns dive after fish — countless options exist. 

To stop flying water drops in midair, set a fast shutter speed (I often use speeds from 1/1600-1/3200 second). Alternatively, if the water’s moving but the bird is still, experiment with a slower shutter speed to blur the moving water for a more artistic appearance.

Water in motion can be soul-stirring and dramatic, whereas calm, mirror-like water allows perfect reflections to occur. For birds in water, we are generally advised to photograph at or near water level to isolate the subject from the background beautifully. But low-angle shooting is not ideal if you want to show the bird’s reflection. Instead, shoot from a slightly higher vantage point. 

Finally, remember that the reflections of trees, or even buildings, in water can make colorful surroundings for birds. To incorporate them into a composition, you can either change your own position or wait near the colorful water until the bird moves through it.

As you start on your creative journey, remember that to shoot beyond the obvious means opening your eyes and your mind to seeing things differently. Develop an artist’s eye. Experiment, take risks, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. That’s how you learn. Once you allow yourself to stray outside your own comfort zone, you’re on the way toward developing a distinctive style that will stand out from the crowd. 

This article was first published in the “Photographing Birds” column in the January/February 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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Marie Read

Marie Read

Marie Read is an award-winning bird photographer and author. Her photos and articles have appeared in BirdWatching, Living Bird, Nature’s Best, and other magazines. Her latest book, Mastering Bird Photography: The Art, Craft and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior (Rocky Nook), was released in 2019.

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