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Getting Out of Your Bird Photography Rut

by Greg Basco | August 1, 2014

© Greg BascoAll of us go through a period of low productivity in our photography; we get stuck in a rut. Maybe we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done or perhaps we can’t envision how to do something different than what every other photographer is doing. Even though I initially developed a reputation as a bird photographer, I haven’t done much bird photography in the past couple of years. I’ve worked with a lot of workshop clients of course, but in my own limited photography time I’ve been busy photographing landscapes, environmental wildlife, and plants for a coffee table book project on Costa Rica’s protected areas. Perhaps this is a natural transition because even in my bird photography, I’ve always tried to do things a little differently.

There is a lot of chatter on the Internets these days about whether modern bird photography has become stale and if and how one should try to break out of the mold. Let me state that I don’t know that I agree with the characterization that bird photography has become stale. A number of bird photographers have helped to popularize a certain style emphasizing birds on attractive perches or in neat settings, in mostly frontal light with little shadow, and set off against clean backgrounds. This style can show off very well the beautiful colors of different bird species and even hint to a certain extent at the habitat of said species.

Followers of these photographers, to varying degrees, have sometimes taken this approach to be the gospel of what comprises a good bird photograph. Photos that don’t subscribe to this style often are deemed to be simply incorrect or less worthy than others. I think it’s this misguided application of a bird photography dogma that has made many bird photographers feel boxed in. The spread of this dogma is surprising because many of the photographers who have helped to shape the currently popular style do appreciate different takes on bird subjects and even incorporate some different styles in their own photography.

A well-executed bird photo in the currently popular style described above is a good bird photo, no two ways about it. Just the property of being similar in approach to many other bird photographs does not mean that a great shot in this style is not a great shot. Done well, these photos show off the amazing beauty of the world’s avifauna. Frontal lighting and a clear view of the bird are key for this kind of bird photography, and the resulting images prove attractive for a number of stock photography uses.

Given the prevalence of this approach to bird photography, there are a lot of bird photos out there that look similar to one another. Indeed, as one scrolls through the bird galleries on a forum or on many photographers’ websites, everything can begin to look the same, and anything different immediately jumps off the screen. But just as being similar doesn’t mean being bad, simply being different doesn’t mean being good. Yet I think that there is intrinsic value in trying something different. We all have photographers we admire in different genres, and many of us started out copying their images. This is a great way to gain technical proficiency and learn fieldcraft. Nonetheless, would we prefer to copycat others’ images or to learn something from their approach and technique and then add our own personal touch or style? I know I prefer the latter in my own photography, and I imagine most photographers will agree.

So, how do you make a good and different bird photo? Put differently, how can you produce something that satisfies you as a photographer in trying to be different and express your vision but also is accepted by photographic peers and the viewing public as being a pleasing, visually exciting bird photograph? In this article, I offer five ideas on how to get creative in your bird photography.

Please note that I am not suggesting that incorporating any or all of these five ideas in a bird photo will make it “better” than a good bird photo in the popular style. None of the ideas here constitutes a condemnation of the currently popular approach. (Lawyers may recognize the previous sentence as a disclaimer. It is, so please, nobody sue me!)

Five Ways to Make Your Bird Photos Stand Out

#1 Focus on Composition

The best photos in the popular style can offer pleasing compositions. Nonetheless, I mention composition here because I see many bird photographers buy a good camera and a big lens and then use them to produce frame-filling images of a bird with a clean background. With good equipment and decent technique, this is not that hard to do for many species. More importantly, it rarely makes for a very interesting photograph. Sure, you have the nice colors and details of the bird but in a more abstract sense, all you have is a big, vaguely roundish to oblong shape on top of a horizontal line. This is not all that intriguing in terms of composition! Thinking about composition when taking your photo, however, indicates that you are thinking like an artist, which makes sense. After all, isn’t it the beauty of birds that attracted us to photograph them in the first place?

A good composition can come in the form of a more loosely framed photograph that includes some surrounding elements. But it can just as easily present itself in a tight graphic shot of a bird’s face. Simply filling the frame with a full body shot of a perched or even flying bird, however, makes it less likely that you will have a pleasing composition unless the bird’s pose itself adds some compositional interest. When I view bird photos, I like to look at thumbnails first. A good photo will jump out because of interesting lines and shape arrangements, even if I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Black and white owl © Greg Basco

Black and White Owl

For this image of a black and white owl near the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, I first wanted to create some shadows to avoid the flashed look so typical of nocturnal owl shots. This I did by using two flashes. An equally important consideration was to introduce some composition. I didn’t want a simple owl on a stick shot 🙂 The owl perched predictably on the branch of a Teak tree, and the branch had a tuft of leaves at the end. I knew that these two elements could, together with the flow of the branch diagonally through the frame, create a pleasing composition. Though the owl and the tuft of leaves are roughly the same size, the brighter owl still becomes the main draw in the image, and the leaves serve as a balancing point. By positioning my flashes carefully to avoid lighting up background vegetation, I was left with a black canvas for what I thought was an elegant studio-type portrait done completely in the wild and with a non-baited subject.

Coppery-headed emerald hummingbird © Greg Basco

Coppery-headed Emerald

When I was in grad school, I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I always loved looking through books of botanical illustrations in the fantastic library there. For this multi-flash hummingbird shot, I wanted an image that evoked a botanical illustration and maybe an Audubon type drawing of birds. I was happy with the look of this image and the strong composition with the flowing lines of the plant.

Brown-hooded parrot © Greg Basco

Brown-hooded parrot

While leading our annual bird photography trip in Costa Rica a couple of years ago, Greg Downing and I set up this perch at a feeder knowing the bromeliads would add a dynamic compositional element. Working my depth of field to include a hint of palm leaves (but not too much!) added interest and even more tropical feel.

#2 Start with the Popular Approach but Add a Twist

The currently popular style has appeal for a reason; the photos do a good job of celebrating the details and colors of birds. Even when shooting in this style, though, I try to add a little twist. This may be as simple as adding in some off-camera flash to give more texture to a bird’s feathers, choosing a background that is darker or lighter than normal, or placing the bird in a different part of the frame than is the norm. Another useful technique is the “shoot-through.” I see many people give up on an avian subject if it’s obscured by vegetation. This is when I start shooting!

Female oriole singing © Greg Basco

Female Oriole Singing in Cloud Forest

I took this image at the feeder in my front yard a few years ago. A large but interesting perch, ambient exposure to darken the natural forest background, multiple off-camera flash to give light and texture on the bird and perch, and the non-traditional placement of the calling bird in the frame all led to a bird setup image that has a pleasing, evocative feel to it and is quite a bit different from many others.

Parakeet pair © Greg Basco

Parakeet Pair

I took this shot at a spot where, over the past few years, I’ve helped a local lodge manager to set up feeders in the gardens at his house. Orange-chinned parakeets often visit, and I wanted a shot with more than one bird. For this reason, I chose an open perch. This shot is not a contest winner or anything, and the composition is not very interesting, but having the two birds engaged with each other and curious about the photographer made for a nice little image. I also very much liked the mottled background, which gives a rainforest feel to the picture.

Curassow © Greg Basco

Curassow

I did this little setup of a normally hard to see bird for one of my workshop groups a couple of years ago and couldn’t resist sneaking a shot myself. The perch is quite nice and appropriate for the species, but that’s typical of the popular approach when done well. The twist here is the busier than normal background, which is I think is integral to the success of the picture because it fills space behind the bird’s head (the composition would be awkward otherwise) and also gives us a good sense of the bird’s rainforest habitat. A more typical, smooth background would make this image a non-starter for me.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird © Greg Basco

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird at Ericaceae flowers

This shot is a case where I’m trying to break out of my own style 🙂 I learned the basic multi-flash hummingbird technique from Greg Downing many years ago and then embarked on a period of experimentation for a while to develop my own style. I settled on a default lighting scheme with four flashes that became known as producing a very natural look. I’ve taken many images in this style and have also seen similar images showing up on the web. So, when I went out last month to do some of my own hummingbird photography for the first time in a couple of years, I was thinking “Do I want to copy myself again or do I want to try something different?” I decided to go for a crazy setup with a bunch of plant elements for depth, a wide aperture, and a mix of natural light and fill-flash. I don’t know if the result is objectively better than a classic multi-flash hummingbird shot but I think it stands on its own, and it’s satisfying to me as the result of trying something different.

Forest falcon on branch © Greg Basco

Forest Falcon

This was one of those encounters that makes bird photography, and nature photography in general, so fun. My friend Doug Brown and I came upon this juvenile barred forest falcon following an army ant swarm in the cloud forest. The shooting was tough as it was late morning direct sunlight. In addition, this area of the forest was light gap that was overgrown with a bamboo thicket, meaning our views of the bird were obstructed. Plus we were getting stung by army ants. But we persisted, and I was lucky to find a window to shoot through. I waited until a cloud floated past the sun and was rewarded with a shot that I think gives more of a sense of the barred forest falcon than any standard clean view would.

#3 Take Photos in “Bad” Light

I’ve never been a fan of the old adage in bird photography to “point your shadow at the subject.” To me, this often will ensure a fairly flat look devoid of shadow and dimensionality. Frontal light is great for showing off all of the colors of a bird but it can obscure feather texture and rob images of the sharpness that angled light gives by creating micro-contrast.

Great green macaw © Greg Basco

Great Green Macaw

Many bird photographers would tell you that this is bad light. I was salivating when I saw this dappled light and shadowed background. To me, it really captured the feel of a macaw in the rainforest. I used just a hint of fill-flash to open up a touch of detail in the shadow areas of the bird. I could have used more fill-flash to completely even out the exposure but that would have killed the shadow, and it would have looked flashed.

Chachalasascape © Greg Basco

Chachalacascape

At first glance, this didn’t seem like a promising bird photo opportunity. The flat cloudy light is coming from behind. The bird is an uninteresting species (dull brown and super common to boot!) and is very small in the frame. Exposing properly for the bird would totally blow the white in the sky. These are the reasons I took it, and it got me a very nice honor a few years ago in the WPOTY contest 🙂

Dry forest pelican © Greg Basco

Dry Forest Pelican

If I posted this on a bird photo forum, I would be likely to read comments stating that I was in the wrong place as I needed to have the light coming from behind me. I could not disagree more with this kind of blanket statement. To me, a successful bird photo does not mean that we need to see all of the colors and field ID markings of a species. That’s what bird guide books are for! I wanted a picture that showed how brown pelicans inhabit tropical dry forested coastlines in Costa Rica. Shooting into the sun in late afternoon gave me that story and evoked a warm, dry forest feeling. It doesn’t matter to me that the front of the bird is underexposed.

High-key stilts © Greg Basco

High-key Stilts

Photographing black-necked stilts in a salt pond beside a mangrove estuary in Costa Rica a few years ago, I deliberately walked around so that my shadow was pointing squarely away from the birds. By shooting into the sun, I was able to wildly overexpose the sunlit water, ensuring a proper exposure for the stilts. A hint of fill-flash also helped to open up shadow detail in the birds. The result is a much more interesting and graphic photo (IMHO!) than I would have gotten if I had put the sun at my back.

#4 Motion for Emotion

Birds move. Indeed, their ability to fly is a principal reason we are fascinated with them. We see a lot of great images of birds in flight in books, magazines, and on the Internet. When conditions lend themselves to it (which is not often in the rainforest!), I’m always up for a good sharp flight shot. Nevertheless, showing movement as blur also can be very effective in portraying motion and adding interest to bird photos. The technique for good bird blurs is exactly the same as it is for sharp flight shots. We need to acquire the bird, maintain focus, and follow through while shooting as the bird moves across our field of view. The difference, of course, is that we are using a slower shutter speed. The result might be an abstract blur or it might be a decently sharp bird with a blurred background. Adding in flash is a great way to get a mix of sharpness and movement. There is a lot of trial and error involved with this technique, and the probability of success is lower than blasting away at fast shutter speeds, but the results can lend some drama to any bird in flight image.

Egret dawn © Greg Basco

Egret Dawn

I employed flash and a slow shutter speed (1/10 of a second) for this image of cattle egrets flying up a rainforest river at the crack of dawn. Lining myself up against a shaded part of the forest on the opposite riverbank ensured dark water with faint green reflections.

Snow geese © Greg Basco

Snow Goose Canvas

Here’s a non-Costa Rica image. I took this at the Bosque del Apache (New Mexico, USA) during one of the famed blast-offs where thousands of geese suddenly take to the air. This blast-off was triggered by a coyote lurking at the edge of the field where the geese were feeding. I went for a wide view and a slow shutter speed and even moved the camera slightly up and down while panning. The effect gave a canvas-like texture to the image that I really liked.

Macaw in flight with motion © Greg Basco

Macaw Motion

I had enough light here to pull off a sharp flight shot of this scarlet macaw. But instead of doing that, I stopped down my aperture and lowered my ISO to yield a slower shutter speed. Flash in manual mode added a bit of pop and sharpness to the macaw while maintaining the blurred background that resulted from panning.

Concentration © Greg Basco

Concentration

Including motion in an image does not always mean catching the subject moving. Here is one of my all-time favorite bird images that I have in my collection. While out shooting and working on The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography with my friend Glenn Bartley a couple of years ago, we came across this fasciated tiger heron fishing in a rushing river in late afternoon light. I framed loosely to take an image that showed silky water with an intensely focused bird. The exposure was 5 seconds or so! I like it because of the complementary colors and the juxtaposition of moving water and stock still subject.

#5 Include the Surroundings

Composing loosely, whether with a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens, is quite difficult because good compositions are hard to find in nature. These types of shots, often called birdscapes, are basically landscapes with a bird or birds in the frame. And like any landscape, the shot needs to have compositional elements and light that would be interesting without a bird in it. Finding and recognizing the right combination of elements at the moment there is a bird in the frame means thinking less like a bird photographer than simply like a nature photographer.

In images that include more surroundings and thus a sense of habitat, I don’t find it important that a species is recognizable. In fact, not only do I find it unimportant, I don’t think that having a recognizable species makes for a better birdscape. Put differently, in my opinion, a good birdscape where a bird species is unrecognizable is not good in spite of this fact; it’s simply a good image. Whether to make the bird recognizable in a birdscape will depend on the photographer’s intent and the lighting conditions. If there is great backlight in a scene, I don’t feel the need to fill in the front of the bird to bring the shadow side up to where there is detail. If the light is more overcast, then simply capturing the available dynamic range will reveal pleasing subject detail.

Understanding exposure will play a key role in successful birdscapes because you’ll need to juggle mixed light situations and possible disparities in light levels between sky and foreground. Where a landscape photographer might do HDR or blend exposures, including a bird in the scene usually means that we will need to get the image in one shot to avoid movement issues. If at all possible when I see a potential birdscape that presents me with exposure issues, I’m thinking of how to incorporate a graduated neutral density filter and/or flash to help solve dynamic range problems.

Frigate birds nesting © Greg Basco

Frigate birds nesting

This image was a classic example of having to deal with some challenging conditions for a birdscape. First, getting to the island where these birds nest was a chore. I headed out on a boat before dawn and then scaled the most inhospitable island slope I’ve ever encountered before trying to walk on vine roots about two feet off the rocky ground of the island’s top plateau. Cool place but I’ll be very happy if I never have to go there again! Once there, finding a good composition and then waiting patiently for the birds to feel comfortable with me was the next order of business. The sky was quite a bit brighter than the birds I wanted to photograph, so that meant a graduated neutral density filter on my wide angle lens. That helped but then I needed to tame some shadows from the increasingly contrasty light as the sun rose in the sky. On-board fill-flash took care of that problem by softening the shadows on the main bird’s face. After that it was focus and shoot handheld until got something I thought was pretty good. Scrambling down the island hillside was the last challenge, and afterward a nice breakfast before heading out to hike to the top of a hill in a nearby national park for some landscape shooting.

Waterfall swallows © Greg Basco

Waterfall Swallows

While out shooting with my friend Jon Fuller of Moab Photo Tours early this year, I got this nice little shot that’s basically about a tall waterfall in a cloud forest. The palm tree gives a sense of tropical place, and this would have been a nice photo without any birds. The addition of the diving swallows, which are not recognizable as a species, just adds a little extra element. I considered trying to get in tighter on the swallows but then thought the photo would be better by using my 70-300 mm zoom lens at 70 mm, as this produced a photo that shows little birds bathing in a tall cloud forest waterfall. That’s a better story I think than a tight shot of a bird flying against a whitish background.

Lone duck © Greg Basco

Lone Duck

I was out with my friend Keith Bauer a couple of years ago for a waterfall in the tropical dry forest. We found this creek and at the base of a rock face was a lone whistling duck, which is something one doesn’t see very often. It was a nice setting so Keith and I both started with our medium zoom lenses, looking for nice compositions and employing slow shutter speeds (I think this one was 2 seconds or so) to get some blur to the moving water while the duck stayed still. We eventually got to the waterfall and took some good pictures, but this little birdscape was a great bonus 🙂

Palms and heron © Greg Basco

Palms & Heron

While in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park shooting for my coffee table book last year, I had a number of photographic goals. Among them was a shot of the bare-throated tiger heron, a very common and photogenic member of the area’s avifauna. I didn’t want just a tight shot though; I really wanted an image that showed the lush vegetation of the park but included a heron. I was rewarded one morning when the motor failed on the boat I was in. While drifting around waiting for a mechanic to reach us, a tiger heron flew into a palm tree that was draped with a nice green vine. I shot some photos as soon as the heron flew in, but as we drifted away, I was able to include more of the scene for a pleasing composition. For me, it’s an image that really gives the deep forest, Amazon sort of feel that is the essence of Tortuguero. More importantly, my book publisher agreed 🙂

Pelican reef © Greg Basco

Pelican Reef

While photographing coastal scenics from an ultralight plane for my coffee table book earlier this year, I always had an eye out for flying birds. I framed this shot loosely and placed the flying birds on the lower right power point for a pleasing composition. The inclusion of the coral reef gives a nice sense of place, and a polarizing filter helped to deepen the colors of the water.

Conclusion

I hope that this article has given you some ideas for getting of your bird photography rut. When I do bird photography, I don’t really think of it as bird photography. That is, I’m not trying to take a photograph that shows exactly what the bird looks like. As I do when I photograph a frog, a mushroom, a monkey, or a landscape, I try to depict my subject in a way that expresses something about the subject or about the way I feel upon encountering a given subject. The next time you’re out photographing birds, think less like a bird photographer and simply more like a photographer!

About the Author

Greg Basco lives and works in Costa Rica where he photographs the rainforest. His photos have been awarded in both the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition and the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Competition (most recently winning the Art in Nature category in the latter). He is co-author of the popular e-book The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography and recently finished a coffee table book titled National Parks of Costa Rica.

He is co-founder of a new conservation photography organization called The Tropical Conservation Photography Group which will work to provide photographic support for local and national conservation and sustainable development efforts in Costa Rica. When he is not out photographing, he leads photo workshops in Latin America, including a number of popular Costa Rica tours through NatureScapes.

You can see more of Greg's work on his website at www.deepgreenphotography.com.

14 thoughts on “Getting Out of Your Bird Photography Rut

  1. In low light situations like those in forests, how do you get the birds sharp?
    Birds I shoot are constantly moving around, be it just the head, and I can’t get them sharp with low speeds.
    Are you just taking so many shots in these situations that you at times get lucky with a bird being still long enough? or how do you do?

    Wonderful feeling in your shots.

  2. Just like your ebook, this is a very thorough and honest treatment of technique, illustrated with spectacular images and the use of flash, when needed. Well done and really informative!

  3. Perfect! What great timing for this article. The “net” has been rumbling about this very topic for a while.

    About two years ago I started making “include the surroundings” bird images. This year I’m adding IR to that style of image. It’s got to be fun… there has to be that “oh moment” to keep the creativity flowing and this article speaks to that very clearly.

  4. Excellent relevant article to share with. That Heron shot on palm tree is my favorite. However your very focus on the inclusion of habitat with some composition & different non-photogenic light is really superb. TFS.

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