You’re out birding and you see an adorable Mountain Chickadee, busily working over the scrub oak branch looking for a snack. Happily, you’ve got your camera, so you grab a few quick shots. But when you get home and enlarge them on your computer screen, you’re disappointed. The bird is cute, but it’s surrounded by brushy twigs and dead leaves.
As I scroll through photo after photo on my various Facebook photography sites, I’m struck by the stark disparity between the experienced photographers and the obvious beginners. There’s nothing wrong with being a beginner—we all had to start there—but there is a problem if you stay a beginner year after year.
The most obvious element that separates the good photos from the ho-hum ones is what I call “clutter.” Let me give you a couple of examples:
How about this Gray Flycatcher? It’s the same bird, moving around the yard at the inn where we had been staying. Which photo do you like best?
Having too much “background noise” in a photo distracts the viewer from the subject. The first Gray Flycatcher photo is much too busy. The second one may be fine, if you want to know what kind of tree it might perch in. The third is the best view of the bird, but both of these are acceptable.
It’s not always easy to isolate your subject, but it’s well worth your trouble. There are a number of different approaches to doing this.
The most obvious way to focus on the bird is to have no discernible background in the first place. How about shooting the bird against the sky (as with the Sandhill Cranes, above)? The exposure can be a bit tricky, as the sky is usually brighter than the bird’s plumage, but a simple exposure override will fix that. (Take a test picture at the beginning of the day so you’ll know how much to increase your f-stop to expose for the bird.) Of course, birds can be isolated against water (such as this Black-necked Stilt, left), buildings, a green lawn, or other uniform backdrops, too.
Black backgrounds can be created by placing a brightly lit bird against a shadowed backdrop, and then exposing for the bird. Another way to declutter the background is to blur it. Use an aperture large enough to keep the bird sharp, but not so large that the foliage behind it is sharp too. It will take some experimenting with your camera and lens combination. Practice ahead of time so you’ll be ready. This background blur is called bokeh—defined as “the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens.” As a rule, the more expensive the lens, the more aesthetic the bokeh it will produce. Here are some examples of birds against a blurred background:
Finally, instead of eliminating the background, you can intentionally incorporate it into your photo. One way to do this is by creating what is often called an environmental portrait. You’ve seen photographs of people done this way—perhaps playing the piano, engaged in a sport, in their workshop. The picture tells you something about the person more than how they look. Try this technique when photographing birds, like this:
Note that even though these birds share the spotlight with their surroundings, the Rufous Hummingbird, in particular, is isolated against a lovely meld of green and salmon (matching the bird’s plumage).
Not all clutter is in the background. So often, there’s a pile of leaves, dead twigs, or other debris in the way. That’s because birds are smart, and know that it’s safer to hide in the brush than stand where they can clearly be seen. Sometimes we can wait for the bird to move, other times we need to do the moving, approaching the subject from another direction. Of course, that’s the moment when the bird decides to “fly the perch.” We’ve all taken plenty of pictures of empty branches.
When all else fails, a program such as Photoshop may be our only recourse. While I avoid unrealistic oversaturation, “artistic” colors, and stylish effects, I don’t mind using the healing brush or clone tool to eliminate an intrusive branch or two… or even a few tail feathers from another bird nearby. You have to agree that eliminating the extra twig is an improvement in this photo!