Birds in Habitat

by | December 31, 2007

© Marie ReadFor compelling bird photos, go beyond portraits. An animated thread recently discussed whether or not “boring” would be a valid bird image critique. As bird photographers, it’s a good exercise for us to consider what draws viewers to a particular bird photograph—colorful subject, eye contact, tack-sharp feather detail, beautiful light? There’s another way a bird can be compelling: when it’s portrayed in its environment. One of my early mentors gave me some sound advice: “A great nature photograph tells you something about your subject, besides what it looks like.” Including the bird’s habitat in the photograph is one powerful way to do that.

Loons © Marie Read

Digital cameras, ever-better auto focus technology, and superb telephoto lenses have made it easier than ever before to get technically perfect bird photos. On the downside, simple portraits are now a dime a dozen. Even shots of birds in flight that were to-die-for a decade ago are now becoming commonplace, especially those against a clear blue sky. But many bird photographers still aim for the classic full-frame portrait against a clean, out-of-focus background, a style that documents what the bird looks like but little else. And—dare I say it?—a style that’s fast becoming boring!

By making an environmental portrait, on the other hand, the photographer tells the viewer something about the bird: where and how it lives its life and the way it interacts with, and is influenced by, the place it calls home. In other words, including the habitat lets the photographer tell a story.

This is great news for those stricken with lens envy or presented with a subject that can’t be approached close enough to fill the frame. Take heart, and turn that erstwhile inadequacy to your advantage! Look at the scene as a whole—the bird and its surroundings. Are there elements in the environment, in addition to the main subject, that you can include to fill the space in the frame to create an interestingly composed and meaningful image? It’s true that these kinds of images are more challenging to make than the usual portraits, but the results are well worth the time.

Harlequin duck © Marie Read

Consider my experience shooting wintering Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Light, New Jersey. Many portraits of these gorgeous, easily approached birds have been taken over the years, including awesome headshots with every feather sharply defined. Stunning though those images are, they tell you little about the bird and the environmental forces with which it contends during its winter sojourn as a marine inhabitant. The Harlequin Duck makes a living by diving to forage in intertidal and subtidal zones, prying crabs, mollusks, and other marine invertebrates from underwater rocks. In doing so, it is exposed to the intense buffeting of the surf against the rocky coastline.

Several days into my trip, I’d shot the standard stuff: Harlequins perched, sleeping, swimming, preening, close-ups—everything that had already been done by numerous photographers before me. Yet I yearned for something different, something more meaningful. Then I noticed one male Harlequin perched on a rock with crashing waves around him, keeping his composure while surrounded by the power of the ocean. Despite the fact that the bird filled only a small part of the frame, it struck me that this was the situation I was seeking—a Harlequin in its habitat. So I began making exposures, timing my shutter release to coincide with waves breaking against the rock. Using a fast shutter speed, I finally nailed one particularly strong wave in mid crash that surrounded the duck with flying water.

Including the habitat in bird photographs offers another plus: the potential to compose in a more creative way. By its very shape, a frame-filling bird defines the photo’s orientation, that is, whether it is vertical (sometimes called portrait format) or horizontal (landscape format). A full-frame woodpecker on a tree trunk is hard to fit into anything but a vertical format, whereas a frame-filling loon on water best fits a horizontal. They’re compositional dead-ends. When the bird takes up only a small portion of the frame there are no such constraints. Depending on other elements present, the image might work well in either orientation. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron standing straight and tall would best fit a vertical composition, but a more distant view of the bird stalking through a stand of mangroves hunting crabs might look best as a horizontal.

This newfound compositional freedom comes with a challenge, though: the photographer now has to decide where to put the bird. The first thing to remember when the main subject is small is to avoid putting it in the middle of the frame. For a more dynamic design that will hold your viewer’s attention, compose with the bird off-center. That’s what I did when I noticed a Sora emerging from a California marsh late one winter afternoon. Looking down from a boardwalk, I was struck as much by the pattern and reflections of cattail leaves in the water as I was by the Sora itself. So I composed the frame with bird off to one side, using the floating cattails and their reflections as a design element.

To help you decide where to place an off-center subject, try applying the Rule of Thirds. Using imaginary lines, roughly divide your frame into three in both the horizontal and the vertical planes, as shown in the image of a Song Sparrow perched on a Phragmites stem. Compose so that your bird is located over one of the so-called power points, the places where any two lines intersect. It’s also best to have the bird facing or moving into, not out of, the frame. With fast-moving birds, of course it’s hard enough to keep focused on the bird and get a sharp image without having to worry about composition too, so practice with slower-moving or static subjects.

Rule of thirds © Marie Read

If you can include another element—particularly something meaningful to the bird’s lifestyle—as a balance for the main subject, so much the better. Diagonal lines make dynamic designs, so watch for birds perched on diagonal tree limbs and plant stems.

Sometimes nature offers you a moody landscape in which the individual birds are quite small—a flock of birds flying over a mountain range or a distant loon family on a misty lake, for instance. Instead of being frustrated that the birds are too far away for a frame-filling portrait, try switching to a short lens and taking it all in to create a birdscape. A zoom lens is a great help for critically framing your birdscape if moving closer isn’t possible. I used a 28-105 mm zoom to portray this Common Loon pair and their chick in a misty sunrise.

My final advice for bird-in-habitat photos is to learn as much as you can about bird life history and avian ecology. That knowledge can help you recognize biologically meaningful situations, thereby influencing your decision about what to include or omit from your frame. One winter, I photographed a male Pileated Woodpecker as it excavated for food in a beech trunk. At first I felt frustrated because, no matter where I moved, dead leaves on an adjacent beech sapling partially obscured the trunk near where the bird was working. Furthermore, a polypore fungus growing through the bark threatened to distract attention from the bird.

Then I realized that, by including all these elements, my photo represented a complex web of ecological interactions. The fungus had caused the beech’s internal decay. The rotting beech wood was infested with carpenter ants, which the woodpecker was exposing with its hammering. Even the dead leaves played a role in identifying the tree species, since beech saplings are unique in that they hold their dead leaves all winter.

Coincidentally, the editor of a forestry magazine contacted me a few weeks later searching for a photo that encompassed these very elements—woodpecker, beech trunk, polypore fungus—for an article about the declining health of beech forests. I had just the photo to fit her needs!

So next time you head out to photograph the beauty of birds, try to include their habitat. Birds don’t live in a vacuum; they live in and interact with their environment. Showing the bird-habitat relationship in your photographs is a compelling way to help others understand and appreciate the fascinating complexity of the natural world. And it will help your photos be a cut above the crowd.

Adapted from “Putting Birds In Their Place,” by Marie Read, Living Bird, Summer 2007.

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