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
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
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
Blackbird with zero head angle and nice catchlight - HAP
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
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
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