4. Composition, background and lighting
It can be hard to define what gives an image the ‘wow’ factor but try to analyse what you find pleasing in your favourite pictures. Typically, ‘wow’ factor photos are composed beautifully, with the subject perfectly placed in the frame, perhaps showing some amazing behaviour. The background will be harmonious and appropriate, and the lighting spot on.
Composition is a very personal thing and bird photography often involves unpredictable subjects requiring quick reactions. But if you have the luxury of time, think about composition before you take an image. Imagine you are painting a picture, perhaps. With painting in mind, there are various guidelines that artists apply to composition and these same principles also work with photography. The focal point (main subject) of the image should be its strongest element with composition and subject placement drawing the viewer’s eye towards it. Using the unwritten ‘rule of thirds’ place the main subject/focal point at one of the intersections of imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds. If the bird is looking ‘into’ the picture rather that ‘out’ of it, so much the better.
Of equal importance to both artists and photographers is the significance of proportions: getting the right relationship between the size of the bird or birds in the frame and surrounding habitat is essential. For example, if the environment in which a bird lives is vast – the open ocean or the desert for example – then you will probably want to convey a sense of scale. Getting this right is the key: if the bird is too large in the frame it may lose environmental ‘context’; too small and it may get ‘lost’ altogether.
Eye-contact with your subject adds a level of intimacy to any image, particularly with species that have forward-facing eyes. This can transform a commendable portrait into something with the ‘wow’ factor. If your subject bird is not looking directly at the camera then your photograph will be enhanced if there is some relevance to where it is looking. Rather than appearing to be staring aimlessly into space, a focussed stare is far more appealing in a portrait image.
Background is as a key element in bird photography. One approach is to ensure the background colour complements the subject but at the other extreme it can be just as valid to provide a striking contrast. Or you could try lighting your subject so that the background is either ½ stop under-exposed or over-exposed when compared to the perfectly exposed subject.
Experiment with depth of field and try to avoid cluttered and complicated backgrounds. The standard approach to bird portraiture would be to use just the right aperture to ensure that every important feature of the bird in question is in focus. But how about using a minimal depth of field with just the bill and eyes in focus and everything else blurred?
Lighting can either make an image ‘work’ or render it worthless in artistic terms. And in the hands of a skilled practitioner it can elevate it from a something eye-catching to a minor masterpiece. The quality of the light is all.
If you are working with sunlight, as a first step try to ensure the sun is directly behind you. This will result in pleasing lighting and is the simplest approach unless you intentionally want to create intense shadows and contrast, which can be distracting. The height of the sun (determined by the time of day, latitude and season) also influences the photographic outcome, because of the colour temperature of the light and the intensity of shadows: the lower the sun the ‘warmer’ the resulting image, because the orange/yellow end of the spectrum predominates. Sunlight in the middle of the day tends to be ‘cold’ with a bluish cast and intense shadows. Ideally take images when the sun is less than 30 degrees above the horizon; 15-25 degrees is the ‘magic’ zone.
As an alternative to full-on lighting, backlit photography can produce stunning results too. Low angle sunlight is again best, and sunrise and sunset shots can be remarkable. Keep checking the results for exposure because you may need to intentionally over-expose backlit shots on occasions, to retain colour and a pleasing exposure.
Do not be afraid to photograph on overcast days. The results can appear rather ‘flat’ (lacking contrast and shadows) but this can be a positive advantage if you have no option but to shoot in the middle of the day when direct sunlight would be harsh.