All of us go through a period of low productivity in our photography; we get stuck in a rut. Maybe we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done or perhaps we can’t envision how to do something different than what every other photographer is doing. Even though I used to be a moderator on the birds forum at NatureScapes (I stepped down because of time limitations) and seem to have a certain reputation as a bird photographer, I haven’t done much bird photography in the past few years. I’ve worked with a lot of workshop clients of course, but in my own limited photography time I’ve been busy with more landscapes and plants for a coffee table book project on Costa Rica’s protected areas. Perhaps this is a natural transition because even in my bird photography, I’ve always tried to do things a little differently.
There is a lot of chatter on the Internets these days about whether modern bird photography has become stale and if and how one should try to break out of the mold. Let me state that I don’t know that I agree with the characterization that bird photography has become stale. A number of bird photographers have helped to popularize a certain style emphasizing birds on attractive perches or in neat settings, in mostly frontal light with little shadow, and set off against clean backgrounds. This style can show off very well the beautiful details of different bird species and even hint to a certain extent at the habitat of said species.
Followers of these photographers, to varying degrees, have sometimes taken this approach to be the gospel of what comprises a good bird photograph. Photos that don’t subscribe to this style often are deemed to be simply incorrect or less worthy than others. I think it’s this misguided application of a bird photography dogma that has made many bird photographers feel boxed in. The spread of this dogma is surprising because many of the photographers who have helped to shape the currently popular style do appreciate different takes on bird subjects and even incorporate some different styles in their own photography.
A well-executed bird photo in the currently popular style described above is a good bird photo, no two ways about it. Just the property of being similar in approach to many other bird photographs does not mean that a great shot in this style is not a great shot. Done well, these photos show off the amazing beauty of the world’s avifauna. If you are shooting for stock with the intention of selling your images for bird guides and the like, composition, mood, and interesting lighting likely take a big backseat to simply showing what the bird looks like. Frontal lighting and a clear view of the bird are key if this is your intention.
Given the prevalence of this approach to bird photography, there are a lot of bird photos out there that look similar to one another. Indeed, as one scrolls through the bird galleries on a forum or on many photographers’ websites, everything starts to look the same, and anything different immediately jumps off the screen. But just as being similar doesn’t mean being bad, simply being different doesn’t mean being good. Yet I think that there is intrinsic value in trying something different. We all have photographers we admire in different genres. But would we prefer to copycat their images or to learn something from their approach and technique and then add our own personal touch or style? I know I prefer the latter in my own photography, and I imagine most photographers will agree.
So, how do you make a good and different bird photo? Put differently, how can you produce something that satisfies you as a photographer in trying to be different but also is accepted by photographic peers and the viewing public as being a pleasing, visually exciting bird photograph? In this blog post, I offer five ideas on how to get creative in your bird photography. Please note that I am not suggesting that incorporating any or all of these five ideas in a bird photo will make it better than a good bird photo in the popular style. None of the ideas here constitutes a condemnation of the currently popular approach. (Lawyers may recognize the previous sentence as a disclaimer. It is, so please, nobody sue me!) Nonetheless, note that if everyone followed my advice below and started making bird photos in this style, we’d probably be having the same conversation but we would be trying to break out of the different/creative mold
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Five Ways to Make Your Bird Photos Stand Out
#1 Focus on Composition
The best photos in the popular style will boast pleasing compositions. Nonetheless, I mention composition here because I see many bird photographers buy a good camera and a big lens and then use them to produce frame-filling images of a bird with a clean background. With good equipment and good technique, this is not that hard to do for many species. More importantly, it rarely makes for a very interesting photograph. Sure you have the nice colors and details of the bird but in a more abstract sense, all you have is a big, vaguely roundish to oblong shape on top of a horizontal line with little negative space. This is not all that intriguing in terms of composition. Thinking about composition when taking your photo, however, indicates that you are thinking like an artist, which makes sense. After all, isn’t it the beauty of birds that attracted us to photograph them in the first place?
A good composition can come in the form of a more loosely framed photograph that includes some surrounding elements. But it can just as easily present itself in a tight graphic shot of a bird’s face (my friend Greg Downing is very good at making great photos in this way). Simply filling the frame with a full body shot of a perched or even flying bird, however, makes it less likely that you will have a pleasing composition unless the bird’s pose itself adds some compositional interest. When I view bird photos, I like to look at thumbnails first. A good photo will jump out because of interesting lines and shape arrangements, even if I don’t know what I’m looking at!
#2 Start with the Popular Approach but Add a Twist
The popular style has appeal for a reason; the photos do a good job of celebrating the details and colors of birds. Even when shooting in this style, though, I try to add a little twist. This may be as simple as adding in some off-camera flash to give more texture to a bird’s feathers, choosing a background that is darker or lighter than normal, or placing the bird in a different part of the frame than is the norm. Another useful technique is the “shoot-through.” I see many people give up on an avian subject if it’s obscured by vegetation. This is when I start shooting!
#3 take photos in “bad” light
I’ve never been a fan of the old adage in bird photography to “point your shadow at the subject.” To me, this often will ensure a fairly flat look devoid of shadow and dimensionality. Frontal light is great for showing off all of the colors of a bird but it obscures feather texture. Not following this rule is in fact what led me to light my multiple-flash hummingbird photos the way I do. I think that looking for angled light can increase apparent sharpness and drama in bird photos.
#4 motion for emotion
Birds move. Indeed, their ability to fly is a principal reason we are fascinated with them. We see a lot of great images of birds in flight in books, magazines, and on the Internet. When conditions lend themselves to it (which is not often in the rainforest!), I’m always up for a good sharp flight shot. Nevertheless, showing movement as blur also can be very effective in portraying motion and adding interest to bird photos. The technique for good bird blurs is exactly the same as it is for sharp flight shots. We need to acquire the bird, maintain focus, and follow through while shooting as the bird moves across our field of view. The difference, of course, is that we are using a slower shutter speed. The result might be an abstract blur or it might be a decently sharp bird with a blurred background. Adding in flash is a great way to get a mix of sharpness and movement. There is a lot of trial and error involved with this technique, and the probablility of success is lower than blasting away at fast shutter speeds, but the results can lend some drama to any bird in flight image
#5 include the surroundings
Composing loosely, whether with a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens, is quite difficult because good compositions are hard to find in nature. These types of shots, often called birdscapes, are basically landscapes with a bird or birds in the frame. And like any landscape, the shot needs to have compositional elements and light that would be interesting without a bird in it. Finding and recognizing the right combination of elements at the moment there is a bird in the frame means thinking less like a bird photographer than simply like a nature photographer.
In images that include more surroundings and thus a sense of habitat, I don’t find it important that a species is recognizable. In fact, not only do I find it unimportant, I don’t think that having a recognizable species makes for a better birdscape. Put differently, in my opinion, a good birdscape where a bird species is unrecognizable is not good in spite of this fact; it’s simply a good image. Whether to make the bird recognizable in a birdscape will depend on the photographer’s intent and the lighting conditions. If there is great backlight in a scene, I don’t feel the need to fill in the front of the bird to bring the shadow side up to where there is detail. If the light is more overcast, then simply capturing the available dynamic range will reveal pleasing subject detail.
Understanding exposure will play a key role in successful birdscapes because you’ll need to juggle mixed light situations and possible disparities in light levels between sky and foreground. Where a landscape photographer might do HDR or blend exposures, including a bird in the scene usually means that we will need to get the image in one shot to avoid movement issues. If at all possible when I see a potential birdscape that presents me with exposure issues, I’m thinking of how to incorporate a graduated neutral density filter and/or flash to help solve dynamic range problems
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and that it gives you some ideas for your own bird photography. If you want to learn more of these techniques, consider joining me for one of my workshops. And please leave a comment below if you’re in the mood.
Cheers from Costa Rica!