Beyond Birds on Branches: five ideas to spice up your bird photography - Part one
If you are on social media, you have seen it. In fact, if you are a bird photographer you might have done it. It goes something like this: find a pretty bird, get it to land on a ‘bespoke’ perch (the mossier the better), make sure you have a clear background, take a photo, crop in, boost the colour, post it to social media and Bob’s your uncle: sit back and watch the ‘likes’ and gushing compliments flow in.
But ‘bird on branch’ images are like a tub of decadent toffee-crunch ice-cream, if you have too much you can start to feel queasy. They are, as one person described them to me, the ‘fast-food’ of bird photography.
The best bird photos, like the best food, require patience and perseverance to create, an eye for quality and presentation and the use of only natural ingredients; and they leave the ‘viewer’ wanting to come back again and again for another helping. Each photo is different. Each photo tells a story.
So, are you ready to spice up your bird photography and go beyond birds on branch images? Then here are ten ideas to help you get started.
1) Backgrounds: Look through the bird, not at it
We are often so focussed on the bird (pun intended), that we overlook the fact that the background can be a crucial element. Most bird photography workshops and guides will tell you that a good background is one that is blurred, neutral and ‘distraction’ free.
But when you think about backgrounds, you should be thinking about more than just making it ‘distraction free’. A good background doesn’t just ‘not distract’ from the bird, it compliments or enhances the bird, sometimes elevating what would otherwise be an ordinary photo into something truly extraordinary.
So how do you do it? Learning to look through the bird, not at it, is a good start. Is there a colour, pattern, shape or scene that could compliment or contrast with the bird? If so, use that to create an extra dimension to the image.
What colour is the bird? Is it red? Then try photographing it against something else red, or better still, yellow! Imagine a scarlet robin in a flowering golden wattle? Or a crimson chat in a field of canola? Or a Splendid Fairy-wren in a bed of camellia petals? When you open your eyes to the world beyond the bird, the possibilities are endless.
Is it easy to do? Not always. Sometimes you’ll just have to reposition yourself to get the more interesting shot. At other times, it might take hours, days or even years to get the shot you envisage. But remember, it’s the images you work hardest for that invariably give the greatest rewards.
2) Action: Always be Prepared
I was once asked why I used a shutter speed of 1/2500 sec with a high ISO to take an image of a stationary bird on a branch. The answer was: because I was waiting for it to do something. And by doing something, I meant doing anything (other than standing still), whether it be a tilt of the head, preening, hopping on one leg, taking off or yawning, I wanted that little bit of ‘extra’ dynamism to give energy to the image and/or personality to the bird.
One of the by-products of taking bird on branch photos is that often photographers try to maximise image quality (keeping digital noise to a minimum) by using a lower ISO and thereby a slower shutter speed. The bird is still anyway so what is the problem?
The problem is that if you set a slower shutter speed for bird on branch photos, you will never be able to capture the interesting stuff.
A bird doing something is telling us a story that a stationary bird in a static pose can seldom do. The classic ‘action’ shot we tend to think of when it comes to birds is that of a bird in flight. But when I say capture some action, it doesn’t even need to be as dramatic as that.
Preening, for example, is not a revolutionary concept, but take a look around: how many of the photos you see are of preening birds? Hardly any, considering how often the birds are doing it. This is a shame, because there is an aesthetic quality to a preening bird that has the potential to create some beautiful images.
Other action shots can come from researching and/or observing bird behaviour. During breeding season, you get the potential for not only courting behaviour but lots of fights – and let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy seeing a good coot fight?
The trick is to be ready for it by always setting a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze the action. If you need to go high on the ISO, then just do it. Don’t wait until you see movement before you change your settings. If you do, you’ll likely miss the best shots.
3) Change up the Angles
When was the last time you thought about the ‘angle’ from which you’re taking your photograph? And by angle I don’t just mean standing versus lying down.
Last year I stayed in Waikerie, South Australia, on the banks of the Murray River. At the lookout, you can stand close to the edge of the cliff and look directly down over the vegetation to the waters below. This was the perfect opportunity to try and photograph birds from a different angle.
There were Australian pelicans, rosellas, several species of honeyeaters, a gaggle of babblers and magpie-larks, one of which I managed to snap in flight. You might have seen many photos of magpie-larks, but how many were taken of the bird from above?
You don’t need cliffs to do it either. Any bridge or platform which elevates you above the bird will do. Research good places with plenty of birdlife near you, grab your camera and experiment. Change it up.
If heights are not your thing, then how about depths? Birds in Australia are rarely photographed underwater. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it can be done. If you have the equipment, the time and the opportunity then why not give it a go? If nothing else, you would be observing behaviours rarely seen by most people and you may even come away with some truly unique and exciting images.
4) Attention to Detail
For years there seemed to be some unwritten rule in the world of bird photography that a bird photo had to include the bird, the whole bird and nothing but the whole bird. Luckily those days are over.
Photo competitions now embrace images of all parts of a bird, from a mosaic of feather detail, to wayward feet to a single peering eye, you name it, you can zoom in and make it a photo all on its own. The key is to make it artistic or otherwise interesting.
If you are looking for inspiration, then browse through the finalists in the Attention to Detail category of the Bird Photographer of the Year (UK) Awards (BPOTY). It will open your eyes to a whole new, and very exciting, world of bird photography.
5) Zoom out: Birds in the Environment
Recently I have been using my 100-400mm zoom lens rather than my 600mm F4 prime. Why? Because I have realised that, by only using a long focal length, I have become myopic in my vision. Sometimes you need to remind yourself to step back, and take a look at the bigger picture, literally.
Birds or animals in the environment have become a popular category in photo competitions for good reasons: These images offer an insight into the life of a bird, where it lives, its relative size etc, that you can never get from a closely cropped bird on a branch shot.
So your challenge is to zoom out and take photos where the bird only comprises a small part of the image. Don’t just show me the bird; show me its life.
Look out for part two next week.
About the author: Georgina Steytler is an award winning nature photographer with a passion for ethics and bird conservation. You can see more of her work at georginasteytler.com.au.