Bird Photography Rules Can Guide You
Article and Photography by Peter Wallack
There is one book amongst a handful respected
as a guide to people starting into bird photography. That author
makes it clear that after all the rules for composition and using
presents that many of the best 23 images of birds in his book
actually break the rules so it becomes important to discuss a
rule or two here and when the exception would be important.
Using direct sun at low angles at the beginning
and end of the day right over the back of your head will give
you bird images without shadows in dramatic glowing light; however,
side lighting when there is a slight cast over the direct sun
will avoid shadows and give you a more three dimensional image.
Small birds in the trees have to be helped with
flash fill and unnatural perch with bait set-ups to capture but
the results are very flat looking images.
Small birds can be caught with greater difficulty in lighter
natural situations during migrations or just by spending enough
time out in the field. These same small birds usually require
500 mm lenses at $8000, or 600 mm lenses at $16,000, with 2x teleconverters
for 35 mm cameras which are the only cameras and their digital
equivalents which have enough mobility to capture most bird images.
There are the bigger birds from the size of ducks, many shorebirds,
birds of prey, swamp and wading birds up to the huge Great Blue
Heron and White Pelicans which all can be found in good Florida
light in Sanibel. For these birds using a Canon EOS 3 or IV with
the 100 to 400 IS lens has given me more images and because of
the zero set up time for 400 mm or 560 mm, I have even captured
grackles, Eastern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, and Warblers
with the 100-400 IS alone or with the 1.4x II TC giving me 560
mm handheld. Birds further away can be shot with the 2.0x II TC
stacked over the 1.4x II TC and between the 100-400 IS lens for
a reach of 1120 mm. All that equipment is under $5,000 compared
to the typical pro-birders $20,000 to $30,000 of equipment. This
is not to mention their mobility is a fraction of mine and their
set up time is often 3 to 4 times as long.
I wear a photographer's vest with two lens pockets for the teleconverters
and I can fit a 28-80mm lens in with the 1.4x. A $32 L.L. Bean
16 inch deep by 13 inch wide back pack holds my Manfretto Carbon
Fiber tripod with its Arca Swiss B-1 ball head which I use once
I go past the 560 mm to either 800 mm with the Canon body, 2x
II and 100-400 IS, or for the 1120mm reach with the stacked teleconverters
in front of the 100-400 IS lens.
I walk around ready to get fliers and nearby birds instantaneously
and birds at a more relaxed distance within three minutes it takes
to draw out and set up my tripod and making the teleconverter
The rules of shadows in wings, chopping wings, leaving off legs
or other parts of birds have all seen a change from rejection
to acceptance on the only avian photo forum critique at naturephotographers.net.
Even black eyes on birds when it is in a graceful behavior is
not a problem there any longer as the group matures with an interest
in birds as fine art subject matter and not just specimens for
birders manuals. Personally, I am delighted and present the following
birds with comments as to where on the specimen to art continuum
my images may fall.
American Oystercatcher fits the traditional specimen shot with
the addition of the bird's feet being surrounded by the gentle
small waves to give action to the image. I shot this at 7:30 AM
on the causeway with the sun right in back of me. I have gotten
many other shorebirds in the same area the same way. I use my
mini-van as a blind and roll into position slowly. This was shot
at 560 with the 1.4 x II TC on the body in front of the IS lens
with the aperture fully opened to 8.0 and the speed at 750th.
This type of shot needs the bird isolated against the Out Of Focus
Background. I like the water but some photographers would have
gotten out of the car and put the tripod on the lowest setting
to get a sky blue image at the lose of the environmental water
on feet and water OOF (out of focus) as the more environmental
background. Make your own decisions here and do not be influenced
by WOW and KILLER SHOT by excluding environmental information
when the BG (background) is not totally pleasing and an artificial
looking color blur.
"Anhinga on Bough" image above was digitally created
by two hours of carefully masking of the bird on the bough and
its reflection. The awful dark water and sky were replaced by
a uniform color that almost could be both water and sky. Here
is where creativity gives that simple pleasant artificial BG and
some foreground as well without altering the natural subject.
This used to be taboo on the avian forum mentioned but is now
used along with clone stamping and other tools to clean up messy
environments which are extraneous to the actual bird image.
The "Great Blue Heron Bust" shot above was achieved
after working with the bird for over 30 minutes. My buddy Jim
Yike was there with
me and he was fairly amazed that the bird was so cooperative but
on Sanibel Island there has been protection and care of these
birds for over 100 years so some have actually grown to trust
people. This shoot was taken out of the good light of early and
late day zone but worked anyway because of a thin layer of cloud
over the sun and a mostly otherwise blue sky. This allowed me
to use side lighting and get tremendously dimensionality.
"Great Egret on the Rocks at Blind Pass" was a similar
situation of a trusting bird combined with very favorable lighting
conditions which enabled me to shot more towards the sun than
away at about a 135 degrees off into the clouded over sun angle.
A storm had just cleared and there was golden light from behind
me bouncing off a cloud as the low almost sunset sun had a clear
path to that cloud behind me. This created an almost studio like
umbrella shot. Again, the book mentioned before would have been
better to have mentioned that the natural light source can bounce
off clouds and affectively act as the sun over your head behind
you. Analyzing weather effects on diffusing light so you can shoot
the whole day or on changing the direction of golden light is
a skill photographers working outside all should develop. Paris
is famous for its fair weather clouds at low altitudes allowing
for photography without shadows from almost any direction much
of the time. By the way, I had to leave and return to the rocks
to exchange my telephoto for a 28-80 mm lens for this shot.
in Water" is a case where I blurred one area with much work
and clone stamped in that blur since the water BG was distracting
and unpleasant. Again, the bird was never digitally altered. This
is now being accepted by the professional bird photographers who
frequent naturephotographers.net whereas last May 2001 a moderator
there stated unequivocally not to use any of the tools of Photoshop
"Laughing Gull" follows the long established rules
but again a photographer has the choice of using the tripod at
the lowest height
with a real expensive long lens to get that KILLER uniform artificial
blur as opposed to the more traditional fine art photography technique
of controlling the DOF (depth of field) to get environmental information
while still separating out the bird from the BG simply and cleanly.
By the way, when the "KILLER" uniform blur BG doesn't
lose environmental information I do like it myself.
Gull with Big Fish" has an immediacy and timing impossible
to achieve working with the heavier 600 mm with 2 x instead of
the handheld 100-400 IS with 1.4 x. There is over 14 pounds more
weight with the heavier longer 600 mm lens.
Balancing" is probably still considered too steep of an angle
by most professional bird photographers and for where they are
selling, when they sell, I can understand their point of view;
however, the circus high wire act and the beauty of the graceful
position of the right wing plus the intense concentration on the
bird's face were just too irresistible from a fine art composition
point of view for me to ignore the shot.
Wood Pecker" is another of those compositions thatwould be
out of the box for most pro bird photographers but it delights
me with an incredible presentation of the fanned wing, thewell
presented and intensely focused head of the bird, and the beauty
of the tree itself. This is the way these birds are seen mostly
as well and to wait for the vertical up and down position seems
more anthropomorphic than natural.
"Reddish Egret" and wrapped for warmth follows all the
rules of the old ways except that for some they would probably like
to see the bird larger in the frame. That is no problem when you
are working in Photoshop or TIFF but it does lower the quality of
the j.peg format. This brings me to an important point. Any fine
art image or image for printing will not be in j.peg when sold.
Therefore, it needs to be stated here that j.peg is an artificially
compressed degraded version of an original to fit it through the
wires and get the image on the Internet. A real reviewer of these
images must keep in mind that as good as they look here, they are
actually much better when enlarged or booked or printed for a calendar.
Spoonbill at Sunset" is an example of the Canon EOS 3 with
the 1.4x II and the 2.0x II stacked in front of the 100-400 IS.
When I posted this in September 2001 Naturephotographers.net found
this image so sharp that some members and moderators are now even
stacking a third 2.0x II teleconverter with their 600 mm lenses
to get over 3000mm reach for face shots of birds at a distance.
A year ago getting the whole bird was the standard operating procedure.
It is nice to see creativity and art making bird photography so
much more interesting, varied, and with real impact. It is an
understandable evolution from the bird photographer's identification
job for science to a broader approach now that that job has been
"Roseate Spoonbills Feeding" is another example of a
bird working with me from 20 to 24 feet for over 30 minutes. I
got some e-mail from my friends at naturephotographers.net telling
me how easy bird photography was on Sanibel. Well, I have yet
to have them prove that with their posts. I tell you about this
because if you want to learn bird photography naturephotographers.net
is not a bad place to spend some time. But remember your dealing
with all sorts of individuals and some write critiques that are
really not related to the stated goals of the forum although most
of the people there I would welcome to shoot with me on Sanibel
at any time in the future.
Egret Skim Fishing" is not a well-documented behavior. I
saw a dozen Snowies flying across the first pond on the right
as you enter Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve. They dip
their bills into the water about ten inches deep as they continue
to fly. This leaves lots of wholes that last a second when a group
of three or four make a feeding pass. Perhaps this behavior has
been overlooked because a year ago the owner of naturephotographers.net
was instructing me to wait till the birds were still to get sharper
images. Be very careful about the advice you take for there is
a price to not critically thinking for yourself.
Egret Preening" is probably my best bird image in all of
a dozen professional photographers opinions I have sort out. Michael
A. Reichmann of Luminous Landscape called it stunning in an e-mail
to me. Why then would a moderator of the avian forum rate this
average and reject it so strongly others were intimidated from
commenting? Well you see you cannot see the eyes and the one book
and instructor he has had states that the eyes always must be
showing. Ridiculous is as ridiculous says. Many bird eyes are
so small or black they hardly give us a view into the bird's soul
as they say you will find if the image includes the eyes. Soul
being a religious concept, I just will not touch that. However,
I believe a wonderful bowing bird presenting his wing in glorious
feather position and detail is like someone said to me- "A
one in a million shot."
About the Author: Peter
started taking photographs for academic slide shows in the early
70s and ended up in Soho Photo Gallery by the late 70s. Cooperative
Galleries and Art Shows were his forums for landscapes with man,
landscapes, and world cultures images. By the 90s so much of his
work was world cultures in developing lands that he called his
business "Ends of The Earth Photography". In 1999, after
contracting to buy his retirement house in Sanibel Island, Florida,
a paradise for bird photographers, he transformed himself into
a bird photography with a little help from other professional
Peter will have his writings and images in
Nature Photographer, Winter 2002, and regularly in Sanibel's Nature
You can see more of Peter's work in his Profotos Portfolio:
to see Peter's Profotos Portfolio