Bird Photography: A few more tips

Pete photo of YCNH @EvergladesNP 31dec07 LAH 751This is the last (at least for a while) post in my series on better bird photography. If you missed the earlier posts, just type “bird photography” into the search box at right. I guess you could call these the odds and ends I didn’t mention earlier!

I think of line as the path my focus takes as it moves through a photo. Where do I look first? Where do my eyes go from there? In these examples, my eyes follow an S-curve as I look at the Swan Goose, while they move diagonally through the photo of the Black-necked Stilt. There’s a reason that pictures of meandering rivers and paths are so popular. We visit all parts of the image as we wind our way through.

Swan Goose_SDWildAnimalPark_LAH_9027_filteredBlack-necked Stilt_CaboRojoNWR-PR_20100527_LAH_4725

Remember the age-old concept of a foreground, middle ground, and background? The foreground gives us a stable place from which the view the scene. The middle ground might contain the subject. Add the background and the combined effect is one of depth—a 3-D impression conveyed by a 2-D image. Here’s an example of how this might work in a photograph of Sandhill Cranes:

Sandhill CranesTexture
We tend to think of birds as sleek, preened and put together, but that’s not always the case. Some birds are fluffy, others have coarser feathers. Sometimes they’re sopping wet. Side light helps to capture texture; so does presenting your photo in black and white. And, sharpness is essential!

Kookaburra_DenverZoo_LAH_1554 Kori Bustard_DenverZoo_LAH_1711

Here are some other things to watch out for:

Check your edges. When we’re focused on a bird, excited about snapping that shutter, it’s hard to remember to check the edges of your photo. Sometimes, there just isn’t time! Happily, programs such as Photoshop are adept at removing unwanted bits and pieces, as you can see here:

Scarlet Ibis_edge_LAH_3628 Scarlet Ibis_DenverZoo_20091007_LAH_3628


Avoid bright spots. The human eye can see many more levels of light than the camera. What appears merely a bit more bright to us can be glaring in a photograph. This is especially a problem when bright sunlight is shining through some foliage behind the bird, as on the left. Try to make sure your background, in particular, is evenly lit, as the right photo shows.

4x6 Steller's Jay_7996Steller's Jay_BlkForest_20100424_LAH_3438

Watch for shadows. Similarly, we may not even notice the shadow on the bird, but the camera will. Sometimes we can lighten the dark area in post-processing, but it’s a hassle and doesn’t always give satisfactory results.

Song Sparrow_RiperianPres-GilbertAZ_20100514_LAH_2785Chilean Flamingo_DenverZoo_20091007_LAH_3652

Post Processing
This brings me to my last point. Rare indeed is the photographer who takes perfect pictures every time; post processing is a must. Even Ansel Adams “fixed” his photographs in the darkroom.

If you’re at all serious about your photography, you should be shooting .RAW (.NEF for Nikon). RAW files contain much more information than do .JPGs. (That’s why they’re larger, too.) As a result, RAW images give you more leeway in editing. For example, you might be able to salvage an over- or under exposed RAW picture; with a JPG you’d just have to throw it away.

And if you do shoot .RAW, you simply have to sharpen your images. The camera won’t do that for you, as it did with jpegs. A bit of judicious work on the computer—burning and dodging, eliminating distractions, highlighting that catch light in the bird’s eye—can make the difference between a so-so picture and one that stands out. Here’s just one example from my files, to give you the idea of how much difference a bit of touch-up can make:

Before:Black-bellied Whistling-Duck_Brownsville-TX_LAH_3889o

After:Black-bellied Whlstling-Duck_Brownsville-TX_LAH_3889eHopefully I’ve inspired you to take more, and better, bird photos. If you ever make the cover of National Geographic, put in a good word for me, okay?
Photos, from the top: Husband Pete photographing a Great Blue Heron, (Everglades NP, FL); Swan Goose (San Diego Wild Animal Park), Black-necked Stilt (Puerto Rico); Sandhill Cranes (San Luis Valley, CO); Kookaburra (DenverZoo), Kori Bustard (DenverZoo); Scarlet Ibis (Denver Zoo); Steller’s Jay (Black Forest, CO); Song Sparrow (Gilbert, AZ), American Flamingo (Denver Zoo); Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (Brownsville, TX).

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