By Marie Read
Whether beautiful or bizarre, colorful or cryptic, exuberant or elusive, birds captivate us with their spirited ways and fascinating lifestyles. It’s no wonder they top the list of favorite subjects for many nature photographers. That’s been true since the dawn of nature photography, even more so since the digital age brought getting great photos within reach of anyone with a camera. The result is a world saturated with gorgeous bird imagery. So, how do you create images that stand out from the crowd? Once you’ve mastered the classic portrait, take your photos to the next level: make more meaningful images by showing the bird in its habitat or by capturing its behavior. Here are a few tips to help you.
It’s happened to all of us: you’re clicking away gleefully, enthralled by the gorgeous bird in your viewfinder. But when you play back the images, you realize you’ve somehow overlooked that annoying twig apparently growing out of its head! In a classic portrait nothing should draw attention away from the bird itself so be sure to check what’s behind and around it before you press the shutter button. The background need not be smooth and featureless but you definitely want to avoid distracting elements behind the bird’s head. Check for stray branches, bold horizon lines, or very bright or dark spots. Raise your tripod slightly up or down or move from side to side to change the juxtaposition of the elements in the frame. Alternatively, wait until the bird moves into cleaner surroundings or against a more distant backdrop. Or try attaching a teleconverter to the lens to throw distracting background elements out of focus.
Occasionally something that at first seems distracting can be worked into a composition. The bright spot behind the cedar waxwing in the opening image was on the left of the frame when I first composed the shot. I nudged my tripod over a few inches to reposition the highlight directly behind the bird giving a halo-like appearance.
Include the habitat for story-telling images
Going beyond portraits, there are various ways to create more meaningful photos. One powerful strategy is to let the bird’s habitat be an important part of the image. Not only does this allow you to tell stories with your photos—telling the viewer where the bird lives and how it interacts with and is affected by its surroundings—but it also gives you more freedom to make compelling compositions.
In my favorite shot of a black oystercatcher the bird takes up only a small part of the frame. It’s surrounded by the varied colors and textures of seaweed as it forages along the rocky intertidal zone of the Pacific Northwest, while the moving water hints at the incoming tide.
Pay attention to the composition for these bird-in-habitat shots. Avoid the boring bulls-eye look! The smaller the bird is in the frame, the more important it is to keep it out of the center of the composition. Instead, place the bird off-center (use the classic “rule of thirds” to guide you if you like) to create a dynamic composition that will keep the viewer interested.
To capture behavior, first understand your subject
One of the best ways to improve your bird photography is to develop a deep understanding of birds. Be ever curious about avian life history and behavior, because with information comes predictability, the basis of many a good photo opportunity.
You need to know two types of information: species’ behavior and individual habits. The former includes the range of typical activities that all members of the species do and that you might want to capture, such as courtship displays (for instance the red-breasted merganser’s “salute-curtsey” display shown), nesting behaviors and feeding methods. You can glean this information from books and online resources such as Birds of North America Online (https://birdsna.org).
Equally important are the day-to-day habits of the very individuals you plan to photograph. Get to know the locals by being a bird watcher as much as you are a bird photographer. Notice repeated patterns of activity…where do the local birds feed, rest, or bathe? Which perches do they prefer? Do they have regular flight paths? Are they there only at certain times of day? From which direction is the best light? These things let you know where and when to position yourself (or set up a blind if need be) for the best opportunities. Time spent in the field, observing individual birds closely and discovering their ways for yourself—even without a camera in your hand—has the added benefit of training you to notice birds’ subtle body language, something that can help you capture the decisive moment.
Anticipate by Reading Birds’ Body Language
Spend enough time with birds in the field and you’ll begin to recognize the subtle behavioral cues they give when something is about to happen. Perhaps the best known are pre-flight cues: postures that signal a bird’s intention to take wing. For instance, before taking off eagles, spoonbills, and herons crouch and may poop; swimming waterfowl (such as the cinnamon teal shown) sit up tall and flip their heads around agitatedly; cranes lean forward distinctively. Pay attention to these signals and be ready to fire off a burst of shots.
You can predict certain courtship behaviors too. Two Western or Clark’s grebes swimming toward each with heads held low and giving raspy calls will shortly run in synchrony across the water in their “rushing” display. Duck courtship displays are difficult to predict and very brief, often taking just a second or two. Noticing the subtle cues preceding them is challenging. Mallard drakes may give subtle head shakes before displaying, while Red-breasted Mergansers, goldeneye, and ruddy ducks may simply hesitate briefly as they swim along, the only cue you’ll get! Recognizing such signals and having fast reflexes are the secret to capturing the action.
Optimize your autofocus system
Birds are always on the move: preening, feeding, running around (or swimming if they’re aquatic) and, of course, flying. Even at rest they constantly make slight head movements to keep a wary eye on their surroundings. For that reason, it pays to take full advantage of your camera’s autofocus (AF) system. Let’s consider AF mode, AF area, and fine-tuning AF performance.
First select the AF mode intended for moving subjects. This directs the camera to focus continuously as the subject-to-camera distance changes. Manufacturers’ terminology varies. For Canon it is AI Servo, for Nikon AF-C.
Next, choose the optimal AF area for the situation. Distributed across your camera’s sensor field is an array of AF points, ranging in number from a dozen or fewer in entry-level cameras to hundreds in professional bodies. You can limit which AF points are active by manually selecting a single point or an area varying in size from a small cluster of points to a large zone. Alternatively you can let the camera choose automatically from all available points.
For that all-important tack sharp eye, the goal is to place the AF point over the bird’s face but depending on how large the bird is in the frame and how fast it is moving this is no trivial task! Let the camera help you. I tend to use a single AF point only for stationary subjects. For birds in flight or otherwise moving fast I use an AF point cluster (Canon’s AF Point Expansion or Nikon’s Dynamic Area AF mode) as I did for the Barn Swallow banking in midair shown. For fast erratic fliers such as nighthawks or small terns it’s hard enough to keep the bird in the frame, and the fully automatic option may work best (Canon’s Automatic AF Point Selection, Nikon’s Auto-Area AF or Group Area AF).
Finally, many cameras give you the option of fine-tuning AF performance to match the characteristics of subject movement. Consider, for instance, a great blue heron flying smoothly in a straight line versus the erratic stop/start action and sudden twists and turns of a foraging reddish egret. In Canon cameras, AF fine-tuning is done by means of the AF Configuration Tool, a drop-down menu offering several preset combinations of three parameters (Tracking sensitivity, Acceleration/deceleration tracking, and AF pt auto switching). For Nikon users it’s achieved via the Focus Tracking with Lock-on menu. Other camera brands have similar settings. Read your user guide carefully to understand the effects of these adjustments. AF fine-tuning adjustments are explained in detail in the Birds in Flight chapter of my book Mastering Bird Photography (see below).
Digital technology has opened up a world of possibilities for bird photographers. For me it means the freedom and confidence to take photographic risks. Whether it’s creative use of shutter speed, lighting or composition, let yourself experiment. And if some fast action happens, don’t hesitate—shoot! You might get something special like a Red-winged Blackbird taking flight. If not there’s always the delete key!
Above all, have fun!
Marie Read is a professional wildlife photographer based near Ithaca, NY. Her images and articles about birds and their lives appear in magazines and books (including her own titles) worldwide. Her latest book is Mastering Bird Photography: the Art, Craft and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior, available through Rocky Nook.