Bird Photography Off the Beaten Path

by Fabiola Forns | August 28, 2010

© Fabiola FornsBird photography is my passion and has been for many years now. There is nothing I enjoy more than finding a bird and then capturing an image of it, the way I had dreamed. Creating beautiful bird pictures can be very rewarding and sometimes I want to push the envelope a bit and create something out of the ordinary.

Once you learn the basic rules for creating a successful bird image, it’s natural to try to get off the beaten path. I like to create an image that follows the rules and defies them at the same time. My personal challenge is to be creative in a manner that still appeals to the majority of the viewers.

I have a few images that I would like to share with you, as well as my process in creating them, that I feel are “off the beaten path.”

Color Wash #1

Color wash © Fabiola Forns

I had used the color wash technique with flowers, but this was my first try with birds.

Color wash refers to placing a solid object between you and your subject, in a way that only the color of the out of focus object remains, partially covering your subject, but showing the latter as if it was covered with a veil.

The egret image above was captured from the ground, using a beach rock as my veil.

I used f/8, 1/400 and ISO 500. The image below shows me making the composition with the rock. Minimal processing was applied, with no contrast added to keep the veiled effect.

Photographing shorebird © Alfred Forns

Again, using the vegetation very close to the camera can provide for a very painterly look, almost diffusing the entire subject. This look does not need a lot of contrast, basically just darkening the pupil slightly, if you must. Image captured at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Color Wash #2

Color wash 2 © Fabiola Forns

This time I will use sand as my “veil,” lying in the surf, naturally lower than my subject, supporting the lens on a camera pouch, and trying for the subject to look as if it was coming out of a cloud. Of course, in the original capture, the blacks look faded because of the veil, just increase them back to normal at conversion.

Color Wash #3

Color wash #3 © Fabiola Forns

High Key

High key © Fabiola Forns

Working against the light can be handled two ways:

  1. Exposing for ambient and using flash to put detail in the subject that is in the shade in relation to the sun, or
  2. The high key approach, exposing for the subject.

This technique blows the background to white, creating a very sophisticated look. High key may be an acquired taste, not preferred by everyone. This image is cropped from a horizontal 21 megapixel file, again with minimum processing.

Creating Stars

Creating stars © Fabiola Forns

Another way to work against the light is to go for a silhouette. When the sun is getting low on the horizon, you place the subject in the light trail, using a very small aperture, like f/22, that will create a starburst in some lenses. I worked in Aperture value, experimenting with different compensation. The one I liked the best, this one, was + 0.3 EV.

I thought the bleeding of the stars into the silhouette was interesting. I applied minimal processing, and I was able to frame in camera, with no need to crop.

Chaotic Blurs

Chaotic blurs © Fabiola Forns

Whenever there is a feeding frenzy, natural or provoked, using Shutter priority can lead to a dynamic image. This was captured at 1/40 of a second and processed creatively, eliminating a couple of distracting elements on the right margin and using some Nik color filters to substitute for the poor available light.

That Out-of-Focus Moon

Moon out of focus © Fabiola Forns

Our eyes are able to focus on our subject and the moon at the same time. Unfortunately, depth of field is not as perfect in our modern lenses. In a case like this, if I wanted to duplicate what my eyes saw, capturing two images with different focal points and merging them into one image would be my approach. Placing the subject in the upper corner and looking out of the picture will give the main role to the Moon, my subject of choice in this image.

Flash as main light

Well, almost. Technically, our background should be all black, but after sunset, we can create very dramatic flight effects with the help of flash, keeping in mind that when it’s darker, a bit of flash goes a long way. The exposure of your subject comes all from the flash; ambient has nothing to do with it. You expose the ambient for the sky, flash for the subject.

Setting flash for ETTL © Fabiola Forns

Setting the flash for ETTL should help you obtain the right amount of flash.

Going for the Rim Light

Rim light © Fabiola Forns

Last, but not least, capturing and exposing for the rim light can lead to an attractive picture. This time, the subject would be almost a silhouette, with the rim providing the tracing of the bird’s shape. In this case, the backlit bill provides interest.

It’s fun to get off the beaten path. I find that unusual approaches energize me. They force me to get out of the unconscious rut of continually reusing the same methods for making my images. I hope this article motivates you to try something a little bit unconventional, even if it is just for fun. Hopefully it will help you open your mind to new possibilities and contribute to your growth as a photographer.

About the Author

Love for nature has always inspired this artistically inclined woman, who, after dabbling in other fields as creative writing, music and oil painting, has found her true call in photography. Fabiola holds a degree in Human Resources from St. Thomas University in Miami and teaches photography at Miami-Dade College. As a 2007 winner of the Birds category in the prestigious Windland Smith Rice International Awards, she constantly strives for creativity in her work. She and her husband, Alfred Forns, are a team that complement each other - you can see their work at

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