Monday, July 23, 2018

7 elements of an artistic bird photo

Artistic or Documentation? What makes a good bird photo?

I came to bird photography from bird watching. I wanted to share what I was seeing with others. I was interested in documenting identification marks and behaviors. My goal was to take photos of birds I came across while I was birding--especially rare or hard-to-identify birds. I wanted "verifiable objective evidence" more than "art." And my usual birding routine was to walk a mile or two of trails during an hour or two in the morning. Setting up a photo for artistic appeal was not a primary consideration and, in fact, was not even possible until I upgraded my camera at the end of June 2018 with the Canon 7D Mark ii.

I've been adding photos to my eBird checklists since they first allowed them. Many of my photos reached the highest, 5-star, quality level. According to eBird the 5-star rating applies to common or rare birds. They are: "The best images possible. The birds should be sharp and well-lit, have a clean background, good composition, and be posed well." Such wonderful documentation photos meeting this definition may still not necessarily be artistically great photos.

What more is needed?

Once I ordered my new camera I started watching a lot of Arthur Morris/Canon YouTube videos. Recently I've been watching the Wildlife Inspired YouTube channel. A recent upload was: "We were all Beginner Wildlife Photographers Once," Wildlife Inspired, April 25, 2018.

In this hour plus video, Ray Hennessy and Scott Keys share their photos and discuss the aspects of artistic bird photography.

One point I heard, here and elsewhere (non-photography), was that beginners over-value their (skill/knowledge/expertise). They don't know how much they don't know. Thus they think they are better than they are. This could apply to driving a car, being a doctor, or creating artistic bird photos.

"Make a decision between the birder in you and the photographer in you." It is a joy to wander around watching birds while carrying a camera to document the birds you see. However, you are unlikely to create many truly artistic bird photos without forethought and planning. It requires being in the right place at the right time, planning for the light, creating the composition, and waiting for the bird.

Most of my bird photography is opportunistic. Even if I make plans to photograph a particular species, I haven't put advanced thought into the light and pose and composition that I want to capture. And I rarely spend more than 10 minutes with any one individual bird. But I've started to learn how to do so. None of the items presented here are of my own originality. In fact, I may never actually go on a photo shooting outing specifically for artistic shots. However, when the opportunity presents itself, I can make my documentation photos more artistic following these guidelines.

These, then, are what I understand to be the 7 components of an artistic bird photo.

1) Focus--
In nearly all cases, the eyes need to be open and sharply focused. A bright spot of sun or sky should reflect as a "catch light" in the bird's eye. Even if the back half of the bird is out-of-focus, if the eyes are sharp, most people consider the bird in focus. Silhouettes and some action shots might not show the eyes, but these are an exception. Flash can cause "steel eye" in birds. It is like "red eye" in people.

2) Light--
One of Arthur Morris's mantras is "point your shadow at the bird." I find, though, that a bit of shadow on one side can make the bird look more 3-dimensional and less flat. Most wildlife photographers want to shoot in "golden hour" light--just after sunrise and just before sunset with soft yellow light without the harsh shadows of full daylight. Strong daylight causes harsh shadows--the bird's eye will be shaded from overhead sun by the bird's brow. Or, the bird may choose to shade its eyes in the shadow of a branch or leaf. On the other hand, overcast conditions can provide soft light with few shadows as long as it lasts--even all day. And inclement weather (rain or snow) can provide interesting artistic opportunities as well.

3) Foreground and background--
The background will make or break your photo. A smooth out-of-focus background is pleasing to many bird photographers. A gradient is often pleasing. Clouds in the blue sky are frequently mentioned as desirable, rather than a solid blue sky. Sometimes all it takes is moving a few feet left or right to rid the frame of a distracting element. Bright out-of-focus building colors or unnatural geometric shapes--especially in water reflections--can really detract attention from the bird. Bright spots of light in the background are also a nuisance. In general, blur the background by shooting wide open aperture for shallow depth of field. Then get the camera closer to the bird and the background farther from the bird.

4) Perspective--
Don't shoot down, or up, at a bird. Get intimate with the bird by shooting at bird's eye level and joining the bird's world. This may mean laying on your belly to get the shot.

5) Action--
The BOAS ("bird on a stick") pose can often provide that nice clean background, but tends to be boring because of its commonness. Look to record interesting behaviors--feeding, singing, mating, flying--anything that gives life to your subject and tells a story.

6) Composition and cropping--
There are a lots of bird composition "rules." Learn them and use them frequently, but look for opportunities to create an interesting composition by breaking them. The "rule of thirds" breaks your photo into thirds horizontally and vertically, with points of interest on the intersections. Your bird should not be dead center in the frame, but probably on one of these thirds intersections. Most of the photos considered best have the body of the bird and the face facing the camera. If possible, the bird should be looking at the camera. In general, if you crop closely, the bird should have more space in front and above the head than the tail. The more you crop, the poorer the photo quality. If smaller in frame, compositions often look better with the bird facing into the frame rather than looking out of the frame. Try vertical or more square crops rather than the horizontal crop. Try small-in-frame "habitat" shots. Try head-on shots, not just profile shots. Experiment.

7) Editing--
Always shoot in RAW and make minor exposure adjustments in the post-processing. But always try to set your camera to make the best possible exposure for each shot. Some lenses are notorious for sucking dust into the camera sensor. So you may do clone stamping of sky or water to remove dust spots. "Contest editing" will only allow very minor edits to the original. Some photographers will edit out unsightly branches or insert clouds into an all-blue sky to make an artistic photo. Whether you choose to make such major changes to the original is up to you. Just be sure to acknowledge it.

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Now I'll try to objectively review some of my better photos. I'll discuss both what is right and what is not-so-good about each photo. Please remember that in most cases I wasn't trying to make artistic photos, but some turned out good anyway.

Redhead. Oceanside, California. 22 February 2015.
1/100, f/7.1 @ 400mm, ISO 400
What makes the Redhead above a good photo? Focus is sharp, even hand held at 1/100th of a second (my older camera didn't allow me to create good photos at higher ISO or wider f-stop). The day was overcast so there are no harsh shadows. The light reflection in the background is not ideal, but not overly distracting. I was able to shoot very low, eye-level with the duck. The bird is looking at me with slight head turn. This is a crop of about 80% of the original. There was another piece of a duck in the frame to the upper right that I cropped away. Other than some minor adjustments to exposure, no editing was done. Sadly, I no longer have the original RAW file.

Snowy Egret
Snowy Egret. Escondido, California. 13 December 2017.
1/500, f/7.1 @310 mm, ISO 400
This Snowy Egret is not super sharp because of the slow shutter speed, but the golden early morning light is very pleasing and desirable. Flight shots are always nice. Ideally, it would have been better for the bird to fly into the sun, so the breast wouldn't be in shadow. The background is perhaps a bit strong. Some photographers may have chosen to edit and soften the contrast of the watery background. This is not a full frame. I could have easily cropped so the bird was moved farther down and to the right to conform more to the rule of thirds, but it's not too bad the way it is.

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit. Newport, Oregon. 11 September 2009.
1/1250, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 400
If this Marbled Godwit was just standing there in the water it would not have been a very good photo. It is the open-winged pose, with the tension of anticipatory action, and splash of water on the leg, that makes this photo. The harsh light and shadow on the breast and face, in early afternoon is somewhat alleviated by sunlight reflected up from the water. There's no catch light in the eye. But it is the backlit primaries on the wing that really saves it, I think. The background fades away nicely, and is a great contrasting color. And I was as low as I could get without being in the water. The crop is more squared than most, to balance the wing. I could have cropped differently so the bird was more to the lower left of frame with more water to the right. This came from a series of photos of a rare Hudsonian Godwit (eBird checklist here) in among a flock of Marbled Godwits. I found a place on the shore and waited an hour for the tide to come in and push the bird closer to me. To get this pose was not as hard as you may think. I observed that the birds were resting on one leg. When the little tidal surge of waves came in the birds lost balance slightly and opened their wings to balance. I just waited for it.

California Gnatcatcher
California Gnatcatcher on California buckwheat. Escondido, California. 11 October 2017.
1/200, f/7.1 @400mm, ISO 400
California Gnatcatchers are an endangered species found in coastal sage scrub in the San Diego region. I actually see them quite often in the local areas I go birding. And when I do, I always try to get a photo. This one turned out quite good. I especially like the interesting foreground stalks of California buckwheat that blur quickly into the background. The plant shape and texture is as much the subject as the bird. The earth tones match the gray and black of the bird. I think the focus is sharper on the tail--slightly behind the plane of the head. So the focus is not as crisp as it could be on the face. There might also be a bit of softness due to camera shake at the slow shutter speed. The early morning light is soft, perhaps slightly overcast as the shadows are present but not obvious. The perspective is good--pretty much level with the bird's head. There's no apparent action in this photo, but the bird is constantly on the move. I've cropped fairly heavily to remove more vegetation on both sides of the present crop. The crop is taller (more square) than the other crops on this page. I've put the left side of the body on the vertical line of the left third of the frame. The bird's pose is nice, but the head is tilted slightly away, looking ever-so-slightly behind. I have another shot with better head angle, but softer focus (eBird checklist with photos here). If I think about it much longer I may actually like the other photo better, despite the softer focus only noticeable when viewed at full size. With small birds in trees or brush you don't have as much control of the artistic elements. You can be out at the right time of day and facing the correct sun angle. But other factors are only in the control of the bird. If given a choice, the bird will always make you look into the sun! You just have to take lots of photos as the bird moves around. Look for openings and cleaner backgrounds, even while taking the shots. Overcast is better than sunny when shooting birds in the brush or branches when harsh shadows will ruin the shot. Territorial singing birds in spring will often remain out in the open on an exposed perch. That's the time to plan a specific shoot.

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