Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Photographing wild birds Part 7

In my earlier tutorials on photographing wild birds I have covered points 1 to 5 on my list of common errors:
1) Subject too distant.
2) Subject not in focus
3) Blur due to subject movement - motion blur
4) Blur due to camera movement
5) Incorrect exposure
6) Little consideration given to lighting or composition

Let's now carry on moving down to the last item on the list and finding counters to these issues.

6) Lighting and composition

Importance of light

The quality of the light is what gives our images vibrance and life. Painters know it and as a photographer you need to "see" the light and use it to your advantage. I hope to give you a few basic pointers here.

Below is a "nearly" shot of a pied kingfisher hovering. You will notice that the wings are shading the face and body of the bird so the shot hasn't worked. The bird needs to be facing in the other direction (I was willing it to do so, but it didn't co-operate). Sometimes lighting from behind can be effective if it shines through the wings. But in this case it is destined for the bin. A solution would have been fill-flash to lift the shadows on the dark side - if one was fitted to the camera at the time - unfortunately it wasn't !

A flash fitted with a fresnel screen is a useful accessory when photographing birds that are on the "wrong side" of the light. The Better Beamer is a flash extender for use with telephoto lenses and focuses the beam at long distances. The flash can then provide an extra 2-3 stops of light. If you use the flash as a fill-in you will probably first need to get the flash off of the camera with a remote shoe cord on an extension arm to prevent the bird equivalent of "red eye". Next you need to set the camera to Av mode and reduce the output of your flash so it underexposes the flash exposure by about 11/3 stops. You need to apply flash exposure compensation either in the camera or on the flash gun to achieve this. If you don't do this your bird will look obviously "flashed". If you get it right, nobody will know that the shot was taken with flash but the dark shadows will be gone. The exposure of the general scene is still set in the usual way for available light as if flash was not used. I should add here that when flash is used as fill in Av mode, it does nothing to freeze the motion of the subject as it would if it were used as the sole light source,
In the next picture of a maribou stork the light direction is wrong again. The light is coming from the left and the bird's wings are in the light and its head is in the shade The image is also far too cramped over to the right of the frame. It always looks better when the subject has space to move into.

The next shot is a big improvement has corrected the faults on the above shot. Not the prettiest of birds really is it ?

The best way to get nice conventionally-lit portraits is to have the sun directly behind you so your shadow points at the bird. Be prepared to move your feet if the sun or the bird changes position.

Backlighting can also provide some very interesting images but you have to watch out for lens flare if the sun is pointing towards you so be sure to use the lens hood. It is often best to have the sun at a few degrees to the side of you rather than immediately behind your subject. With the bee-eaters below the sun was between 10 and 11 o'clock from the shooting position.

Backlit bee-eaters

Little egret catching a fish - silhouette

Sunset silhouettes like the egret above are easy to create, just take your exposure from the background and your subject will be underexposed. You must keep the sun out of the shot when you are taking the exposure. If you experiment with purposely underexposing a little more you will get more saturated colours.


The first rule of composition is to simplify the image. Less is more. Busy backgrounds, twigs crossing the subject, bright distracting items or blobs of colour are all undesirable.

Nice bird, shame about the background.

The general rules of composition as covered in my tutorial composition 1 and composition 2 are as relevant to birds as any other subject, so you might like to have a read of them if you haven't done so already.

The importance of head angle and the head angle police (HAP)

Head angle police is a term that has grown up on the Birdphotographers.net website as an amusing and appropriate term. What it is getting at is that birds look best when they are looking either directly to the side or with their heads angled a few degrees towards the camera. It is an offence to the HAP as soon as the bird looks a few degrees away, as it looks as though it is disinterested or is frightened and is about to depart away from us. If the angle is good and the lighting is right you will get a catchlight in the eye which really brings an eye to life and pleases the HAP no end.

Blackbird with zero head angle and nice catchlight - HAP pass

Fieldfare head angled towards us a few degrees - HAP pass

Song thrush tiny head angle towards us and good catchlight - HAP pass

Felony against the HAP - Bird looking a few degrees away

Another HAP felony - Can you hear those sirens ?
To add to the crime, small birds rarely look good on grass as it
looks cluttered and out of focus blades are never pretty.

The next shot of a weaver bird was never going to work, The head angle is wrong - there is a look of disinterest about the bird. In addition there is a twig crossing the bird's chest - it is really important to look out for those. The final nail in the coffin is the out of focus leaves in the foreground which is casting a haze on the right side of the image.

OK officer, I'll come quietly.

The importance of viewpoint

Poor viewpoint is another error frequently made. If a bird is high up in a tree and you point the lens up at it, it is highly unlikely that you will end up with a satisfactory shot. Similarly if you are shooting down at a bird from a standing position, this is obvious in the image and looks bad. The best shots are always taken near to eye level. This may entail laying on the ground or getting a high vantage point.The longer the lens that you use, the less the angle of inclination appears however, so you can often get away with shooting a reasonably distant bird with a 500mm lens in the standing position that looks OK whereas you wouldn't get away with this with a 300mm lens at a closer distance.

Taking the classic bird on a stick

What an awful derogatory term. But it is pretty descriptive! By this I mean getting a nice sharp shot of a perched bird with a perfectly smooth and clear pastel background. For some people this is the holy grail of bird photography, for others it is seen as just being boring as it says nothing about the bird's surroundings. Personally I really like these minimalist portraits as they really show the bird with no distracting clutter and although they are taken in the wild, they have a studio look about them.

Long-tailed tit - a classic "bird on a stick" shot

To take the bird on a stick, the most important thing is to be close to your subject but the background needs to be as far away as possible and reasonably uniform - such as the grass bank behind the long-tailed tit above. Shoot with the lens at its maximum aperture setting or just stopped down a fraction and then any camera plus a lens of 300mm should achieve this kind of shot.

You have to use a wide aperture which minimises depth of field and throws the background out of focus. Focus on the bird's eye, but remember that if your magnification is high that you might need to stop the lens down a little to get all of the bird in focus - if that is your aim.

It really helps to have a long telephoto lens as the longer the focal length, the more the background blurs. It is much easier to get this shot with a 500mm f4 lens than a 400mm 5.6 lens as you are getting the double whammy of greater focal length and larger maximum aperture. You can get the same sort of shot with a 300mm f2.8 lens used wide open at closer range. Adding a teleconverter will extend the focal length. Adding a 1.4x converter to the 300mm f2.8mm will yield a 420mm f4 lens which will also blur the background well if used wide open.

Bokeh is a property of lens aberrations and aperture shape causing some lens designs to blur the image in a way that is pleasing to the eye, while others produce blurring that is unpleasant or distracting.The super telephoto lenses have beautiful bokeh - their out of focus backgrounds are naturally very smooth in texture and this goes a long way towards creating good bird portraits.

A full frame camera is not essential, but it will give you less depth of field (blur the background) when used at the same field of view as a crop camera. To get the same field of view you will need to get closer to your subject to fill the frame to the same extent. Due to the natuer of birds, this is not always possible of course.