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Developing an Artist's Eye

Learn the elements of effective picture composition and the quality of your bird photographs will soar


By Tim Gallagher

How can I take great pictures of birds? Few questions in the field of photography are as difficult to answer as this one. It's easy to provide technical advice, but photography has an added element that defies an easy formula. It involves having an eye for composition, a feel for color and shape, and other esoteric qualities. Anyone can take technically correct, field-guide-quality shots of birds, but it takes a special knack to turn the image of a bird in your viewfinder into a work of art.


Some people are born with an artist's eye. They're capable of visualizing a great picture and then shooting it. The rest of us must learn the hard way by reading "how-to" books, studying the work of photographers we admire, and by trial and error. My high school photography teacher used to take us to art museums to look at classic paintings, illustrations, and even sculptures. He reasoned that these other art forms, in which the artist has complete control over lighting, shape, texture, and color, would provide a more graphic example than a photograph of the principles of composition. Later in class, our teacher would project slides of the works we'd seen and quiz us on what the artist was trying to achieve: What is the point of interest? How is it emphasized?

Though you may not want to spend hours in an art museum, poring over paintings, you should look at a lot of wildlife photographs. Pick up some magazines and go through them slowly, scrutinizing every picture. Which ones appeal to you and why? What can you do in your own pictures to recreate the effects these photographers have achieved?

Bird photographers take their greatest pictures when they've gone beyond the point of having to think about composition--they have an intimate knowledge of the species they're photographing and an intuitive feel for how best to illustrate the things that make this bird unique--however, there are some basic guidelines you should know up front as you start taking pictures of birds.

Lighting

To begin, look at the elements you have to work with. Foremost is light--the angle, intensity, and hue of your light source can make or break a picture. The most pleasing natural light occurs in the morning and late afternoon. The angle of the light is perfect and the sunlight is warm and subdued, bringing out all the color and texture of your subject's plumage. At midday on a bright, clear day it's hard to take a good photograph. The sun is at its zenith, in terms of its angle in the sky and its intensity. Pictures taken in these conditions have too much contrast, with washed-out light-colored areas and black shadows.

I prefer to take pictures with the sun behind me--not directly at my back, which tends to create a flat image of the bird, but to one side so that the bird casts a shadow; this adds a three-dimensional quality to a picture. It's much more difficult to take a good picture of a back-lit bird, unless you just want a silhouette of your subject.

Framing the image

Another important compositional element is the framing of a picture. Should you position the bird at the center of the viewfinder, or would the shot be more dynamic if you shifted your point of view to one side or the other, or up or down? Should you move in closer to your subject (or use a more powerful lens), or would the picture be more visually interesting if you backed off and included more vegetation?

As a general rule, pictures with the point of interest placed dead center tend to be boring. When we view a picture, our eyes are naturally drawn to the center. If the bird is stuck right there, we have no reason to look anywhere else in the picture, and we quickly tire of the image. If, on the other hand, the bird is at the left side of a horizontal picture, looking toward the right, we create a dynamic interplay that draws our vision repeatedly from the bird to the center in a circular motion. Always try to frame the shot so that the bird is looking into the picture. It looks odd if the bird is right up against the side, staring at the edge of the picture. If the bird is flying, have plenty of space in front of it, so it appears that the bird has somewhere to go.

Composition

Other objects framed in your picture can enhance or detract from its composition. Branches, shrubbery, rocks, and other things around the bird can be distracting. I know it's sometimes hard to keep track of the foreground and background when you're doing a major juggling act just trying to follow a bird and keep it in focus, but it's important to avoid ruining a shot by having a branch right behind the bird, looking like its growing out of its head, or a piece of trash sitting in plain view.

Try to take a second to evaluate a shot before you snap the shutter. Does the tangle of shrubbery behind the bird clutter the picture? Try zooming in on the bird to eliminate some of it. Or open up your camera's aperture more, which can turn the background into an out-of-focus blur. Are any other potentially distracting objects near the bird? Perhaps a brightly colored flower? Maybe you can change your angle a little and eliminate the flower. Or, better yet, figure out an interesting way to incorporate it into your picture. I think pictures of birds are always infinitely better if you can find creative ways to incorporate the bird's habitat into the shot.

Camera Angle

Related to framing is camera angle. How low or high you position your camera is especially significant. If you're taking pictures of shorebirds, for example, and you're shooting down at them from your full height, you can't adequately convey what it is to be a shorebird. You need to lay down in the mud with them, eye to eye. Sometimes it's impossible to get on the same level as a bird, especially if it's up in the treetops, but it's something you should always try to achieve.

Having a tilted horizon line in your picture is a common pitfall, which is easy to avoid by installing a focusing screen with a grid etched on it into your camera. Then you can check the alignment of the horizon with one of the grid lines before taking a picture. You should also avoid placing the horizon line in the middle of a picture. This cuts the picture in half and usually looks terrible, unless you're shooting a reflection of a bird in water. It's better to frame the horizon line in the top or bottom third of your photograph.

Focus

Focus is a major element in photographic design. You can use focus to isolate one bird in a massive flock or perhaps one body part of a single bird. Sometimes it's impossible to get an entire bird in focus. When in doubt, always focus on the eye--the window to the inner life of any living thing. You may not necessarily end up with a great shot if just the eye is in focus, but if the eye is not in focus, the picture will definitely not be a keeper.

You have all these elements to work with in creating the image you're after: light and shadow, framing, camera angle, and focus, as well as color, shape, texture, motion, and more. These are your raw materials. How you employ them is what sets your work apart from everyone else's. The key to improving as a bird photographer is to spend a lot of time in the field and shoot plenty of film. But do take the time to think about what you're doing. Make every trip to the field a learning experience. Constantly experiment with your photography. Find out what works for you. Put your own mark on your work. A good picture tells a lot about the person who took it. It can capture your sense of humor, your empathy for the subject, perhaps even your outlook on life. No one sees things in quite the same way as you. Always strive to be original in your picture taking, and you'll never be disappointed with your results.

Tim Gallagher is Editor-in-Chief of Living Bird magazine.