Finding My Style of Bird Photography

This quarter I have been doing a bird photography study. I wrote a previous article on some basic tips I found when researching bird photography as well as an article on the history of bird guides. My goal in this article is to reflect on my experience and talk about my own style and some of the things I have discovered over this course.

Showcase The Environment

A lot of professional bird photography celebrates the ability to get a crisp image of a bird with a soft background. Light in these images turns into intersecting circles in an effect called bokeh. To achieve this look, the background needs to be out of focus or far enough away that it can blend well. This is a lovely effect, yet it does not mean that you should throw out texture all together. I found while exploring my own bird photography I enjoyed bringing in elements of the environment almost as much as the birds themselves.

Goldfinch on sock feeder
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-640, f/6.3, 1/640

This photo of a goldfinch shows an example of a bokeh effect.

Walla Walla and its surrounding area is full of grassy plains, tall trees, long trains, and farming supplies. Each of these things can add interest to a photo and provide context to the image. In this picture of a Say’s Phoebe, the farm equipment adds interest and pattern to the image which is further highlighted by the curve of the hill. These elements combine to make a dynamic story behind the image, beyond just the crispness of the photo.

Say's Phoebe flying to the right away from swirly farm equipment on a golden brown plane.
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-500, f/7.1, 1/1250

Likewise, this Osprey is well lit and in focus and can easily hold the composition by himself, yet the motion of the tree branches helps to give context and guide the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Charming Osprey atop twisting branches
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-500, f/7.1, 1/3200

Celebrate Texture

It is hard to beat a clean, crisp picture of a bird in good light. You can see the details of their feathers, the reflection in their eye, and water droplets on their backs. If you can get close enough to the bird to get a clean shot, then why not fill the frame? These ducks from the park were both very cooperative and allowed me to get very close. I love the texture on their wings and seeing the plant matter on their bills.

Duck with grass on his bill
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-500, f/5.6, 1/1000
Black and white duck with black and orange feet
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-800, f/5.6, 1/1250

The bird’s environment can also be a good source of texture. From tree bark to the roofs of buildings, birds find all sorts of interesting things to land on. This Yellow Headed Black Bird photo is a good example of some of the textures you can find. Don’t be afraid of man-made structures! Just because your subject is natural does not mean that they are confined to only natural spaces, so why should we as photographers?

Yellow Headed Blackbird atop wooden roof surveying his kingdom
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-320, f/7.1, 1/1000

These Starlings hanging out in the gutter (as they should) are more interesting because they engage with the structure around them and not just the branch of a tree. This other Starling in isolation allows its own texture and style to be the center of attention. In my photography, I aim to celebrate both of these worlds.

Starlings hanging out in a gutter
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-1000, f/5.6, 1/800
Starling as the star of the show
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-400, f/6.3, 1/500

Introduce Movement

When I started this study, I found several professional photographers who confidently posted blurry bird photos. I was a bit shocked. A fuzzy image was not what I had in mind when I thought about high quality bird photos. However, what these photographers were doing that I have come to appreciate is introducing a sense of motion. By having a slightly lower shutter speed you can introduce motion blur into your photos. Usually, we want to freeze the action, but if you freeze everything but the wing tips, that can bring the viewers attention back to the bird’s center and introduce a feeling of movement.

This dove is in focus, but you can see the movement in its wings due to the tips being blurred in addition to its dynamic pose.

Dove in flight
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-640, f/6.3, 1/3200

Another way to introduce movement is in the environment of the subject. In this photo the bird is sitting perfectly still so I was able to use a much lower shutter speed giving the branches in the foreground an interesting texture. The crispness of the bird draws the viewer back even as they explore the motion of the environment.

House Sparrow in a bird feeder shaped like a house
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-400, f/6.3, 1/320

Get Creative in Post

Photography has the added feature of allowing for postproduction and modification. I personally like a more natural edit. This means correcting for over or under exposure and color. However, sometimes further production can enhance the quality of the photo or bring something else to it. If you get a photo of high quality, you may wish to try blacking out the background or experimenting with color. High quality gives you a lot of flexibility for experimentation.

This photo is the same duck as before but with the background blacked out. This highlights the bird in isolation making its texture pop even more. I was inspired to try this look by a series of photos on @caperelux’s Instagram where he blacked out all but the white part of the birds and left the eye in color. While I did not take it to this extreme, this shows you some range you can get with this kind of effect.

Black and white duck on blacked out background

Some other things you can try in post-production are bird collages (such as those which Crossley puts together), mixing media by adding in text or sheet music, changing the color, and more. A lot of what sets you apart as a photographer is in postproduction. What is your goal and what is the story you hope to tell?

This photo is very busy, and I wanted to keep the texture but still highlight the bird. One way of accomplishing this is to add a vignette to one side. In this way you can still stay true to color but draw your viewer to the bird. Note: when doing post processing be aware of where you plan to use the photograph. If you plan on entering a competition, make sure to check their rules so that you can put together your best shot but not break any rules.

bird obscured by sticks
Same as before but with vignette around the lower right edge

Canon EOS 80D, ISO-640, f/7.1, 1/1600

Take The Shot

For every bird picture here, there is about 50 I deleted and another 30 which I kept and choose not to post. Quantity does not mean quality, but quantity does give you the opportunity to find hidden gems. If a bird is being cooperative, spend some time. Try different angles, explore different settings, and optimize your shot. Even if it turns out to be a dud, you just got better and learned something for the next time. A bad picture is not a waste, it is an opportunity to learn. So, keep going out and finding your own style.