Tips For Making Your Subject Stand Out

As a bird photographer, I always prefer to see birds perched or flying against colorful backgrounds that accentuate their beauty. As beautiful as birds are, in bird photography that almost amounts to nothing if one does not take into consideration that it is in the hands of the photographer to bring birds to life thru carefully crafted images. I say this because, to most people, birds are distant moving or sitting subjects. Many photographers go into a shooting spree when they see a bird, often not taking the background behind it into consideration. By virtue of considering and practicing the following concepts, your bird images can go from looking ordinary to spectacular.

Canon 5D Mark III / 600mm / 1/160 @ f/8 / Gitzo Tripod / Common Kingfisher

Canon 5D Mark III / 600mm / 1/160 @ f/8 / Gitzo Tripod / Common Kingfisher

Distracting objects in the background just look bad and draw focus away from the bird, essentially making it look ordinary.

 Canon 7D Mark II / 600mm / 1/125 @ f/9 / Fill Flash / Gitzo Tripod / Common Kingfisher

Canon 7D Mark II / 600mm / 1/125 @ f/9 / fill Flash / Gitzo Tripod / Common Kingfisher

Change Your Perspective – Look behind the bird and see if there is an area where with a clean patch. This means you may have to go lower, higher, and side-to-side to find a position to ensure the bird’s perch is away from any background distraction. Birds are creatures of habit and often return to the same area; so frame the image and wait. Always think about and look at the elements that will distract your audience from the bird; eliminate these elements while framing the image. Both of the images above are of the Common Kingfisher. It’s evident that the second image clearly makes the same bird look very attractive due to the cleaner green background.

Canon IDX / 600mm / 1/800 @ f/8 / Fill Flash / Coppersmith Barbet

Canon IDX / 600mm / 1/800 @ f/8 / Fill Flash / Coppersmith Barbet

Get Creative with Depth of Field – When using a telephoto lens, take into consideration that a large aperture gives you a shallow depth of field and throws the background out of focus. While a clean background may be pleasing, it can also make your images look redundant and boring. It’s ideal to use DOF to your advantage and to get creative. By closing down the aperture, essentially increasing the f-stop number, you can introduce some amount of the background with a subtle and creative effect. A textured look with varied tones can be pleasing and can complement the bird. By simply moving slightly to the left, I was able to bring in some distant tree branches behind the Coppersmith Barbet.

Canon IDX I 600mm / 1/100 @ f/5.6 / Hand Held / Streaked Spiderhunter

Canon IDX I 600mm / 1/100 @ f/5.6 / Hand Held / Streaked Spiderhunter

Avoid Blue Skies – Unless there is a spectacular aerial fight or action happening between some birds, generally avoid the friendly blue skies. It’s much more appealing to show the bird in its habitat; it tells a story about the bird’s life and where it spends its time hunting or feeding. In the image above, I waited until the Streaked Spiderhunter came out from a nearby tree and flew onto the hanging tree vines, which these birds frequent for feeding and lookouts. As soon as I got eye contact, I pressed the shutter.

It’s extremely important to keep in mind that, when photographing birds, the background is just as important. The background complements the bird and accentuates its beauty as well as helps tell its story. Next time, before you press the shutter, pay attention to the background and think how it will impact your images.

About Author Gaurav Mittal

Gaurav Mittal is a professional bird photographer and a blogger who grew up with a passion for nature and wildlife in his native birthplace of New Delhi, India. Gaurav migrated to the U.S. at the age of fifteen. After completing his college, he pursued a career in tax consulting in the Washington D.C. area. It was, however the love for the birds that eventually brought the focus back in his life and a determination to follow his heart, to be a bird photographer. Gaurav’s passion for photographing birds began in 2011 in Bosque Del Apache, New Mexico where observing the Sandhill Cranes brought a sense of harmony and a new vision to him. A moment he captured and fondly calls, “Kissed in The Mist” left him with a vision to continue on further and explore and learn about birds and how he can present their beauty through photography. His desire to be a top class bird photographer has led him to places such as Bharatpur, Bosque, Alaska, New York, Costa Rica and Florida.

  • Daniel

    it would be interesting to discuss some post processing techniques for bird photography. I also noticed the the f stop is pretty slow for some shots, which would make me think… blurry photos and yet the photos are perfectly sharp.

    • Gaurav Mittal

      Thanks for this question, I’m glad it came up.

      There is more to shooting sharp images in the field than relying on post-processing techniques to correct any focus issue. If your shooting techniques are sound then it is possible to shoot sharp at slower shutter speeds.

      When shooting small birds, your equipment should be mounted on a tripod for maximum stability.

      If birds are sitting still for more than a few seconds, it is quite possible to shoot sharp at slower shutter speeds.

      When shooting with long fixed focal length lenses such as a 500, 600, or 800mm lens, the depth of field is very shallow. For most of the images, I was shooting close to the birds, in those situations shooting wide open can leave some parts of the bird a bit out of focus, I choose to stop down so I could push the DOF and sharpness just a bit more, hence you see apertures of f/8.0, f/9.0

      It is equally important to have patience, this means waiting for hours at a time so you can come away with many images.This also increases your chances of having more than one sharp shot. Birds will become comfortable once they know that you will maintain a certain distance and will sit for longer durations on a perch.

      Finally, when it comes to post-processing, one should not rely on sharpening filter to do the job, they are there to help add some punch to the image if needed. Minimal amount of sharpening was applied to the images.

      Blurry photos when sharpened, will show halos, artifacts and loss of details.

      I hope this helps.

      • Daniel

        Thanks for the reply, this is good insight. I have been using a 400mm with a monopod. Usually at f8/9. Had some mixed results. I usually shoot small birds.