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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Steel

The fundamentals of a good bird photograph

What makes a good bird photograph? The truth is there really isn't a formula. This section isn't a tutorial, the internet is flooded with those, this is just my views on what makes a compelling and interesting image. That being said I hope in some way these insights are helpful and inspiring! I have broken this section down into the seven aspects I think help contribute to creating a powerful bird photograph. Some images may have a few of these factors, while others can have all seven!

Environment and Positioning I have put this one first on the list because I think it is the fundamentals of creating an interesting image. I will start with the environment. When I say environment I don't necessarily mean landscape, I mean the stuff that fills the frame (technical term!). The trees, the rocks, the leaves the grass, etc. Your subject, in bird photography more than any other, is so perfectly evolved to fit into its own unique environment, that the environment defines it. Some birds have long bills to dig out worms from the soil, others have webbed feet to swim through the water, so it is nonsensical to me that when you photograph that subject, you photograph how it interacts within its environment. This is where positioning comes in. Your job as a photographer is not only to get yourself in the right position, but to also capture the subject in the most aesthetically pleasing way within a frame. Take time to think about what looks best and maneuver yourself to make that happen.

Lighting This is the fundamentals of photography. While there are a million different ways to harness light, the emphasis here is to be aware of it. Experiment, and always make sure you are thinking about the impact of it. Don't underestimate the power of clever and unique lighting! Whenever you get to a sighting, see how the sunlight falls on the area, if it doesn't look good, figure out how to adjust and maneuver. 

Mood and Tone This is a part of photography that really is hard to explain, I could reduce it to its simplistic form and use worlds like colour or style, but it is far more than that. A great photograph is more than all its elements combined, it is a feeling conveyed. More and more I find myself attracted to shots that capture mood over subject matter. To each person this means something different, so think about what makes a great visual image for you.

Action Sometimes it is just an amazing moment that creates a successful image. The more time you spend in the field, the greater your chances of capturing them are. Just remember that an amazing moment doesn't always make for a beautiful picture, as they very rarely happen in perfect light or in a beautiful setting. This is important because sometimes the excitement of seeing something unfold, clouds your judgment to critique your own image. As a result, I often keep these images from public view until the excitement has worn off, at times this is months later.

Composition As I said earlier, I don't want this to be a tutorial on techniques, but it is impossible to give a breakdown of what makes a great image without talking about composition. So often composition is reduced to the way a subject is framed, I think a much better way to look at it is how a subject sits within a frame. I could write a whole essay on composition rules and then another essay on why they should be ignored, maybe at some point I will. For now, I will say this; A subject should sit comfortably in the photograph. whether that is looking into open space, in a third of the frame, with leading lines, etc, that is determined by each moment. Only you can decide the story you want to tell, but the way you frame that subject is how you create a miniature split-second world. The composition is the photograph! So think carefully before holding down the shutter button.

Interaction One of the most important lessons I learned through my time working in the filming industry was the power of "two shots". When two subjects come together and share a moment that links their lives together. I have noticed that this is something rarely focused on within bird photography, but such a powerful tool in storytelling. Watch how subjects interact with each other, and document it! To me, this is what makes an interesting image to look at. 

Technique Last but certainly not least, technique! Now I am not talking about the correct setting, or necessarily your skills as a photographer, I am talking about using clever ways of capturing unique images. There is nothing that stops me in my tracks when scrolling through Instagram more than an image that makes me go "wow how did they do that". Learn the rules and then make sure you are constantly using them in new and interesting ways. Try new techniques and apply them in ways that may not have been thought of! 


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