What turns a bird picture into a work of art? A magazine recently asked me and other photographers who had been honored by Audubon that question. I’m certain we gave them enough material to fill a how-to book. But they were looking only for a short article, so little of it ended up in print. Here’s what would have gone into my chapter.
Try not to bird only by GPS
It is frustrating to travel somewhere or spend an entire day on photography and have nothing incredible to show for it. That’s why I — like nearly every professional I know — has done some research or hired a guide when traveling somewhere for the first time. But I also don’t know any serious professional who relies on research alone.
When you rely on research, you’re relying on someone else’s vision. And in my experience, when you set out looking for something specific, that’s all you’re likely to see. Your mind gets fixated on seeing that. If you’re not careful, you can miss noticing other wonderful things that are all around you.
Sites that share GPS coordinates of “rare” birds can make it easier to get shots of hard-to-find subjects, but my most creative work usually results from discovering my own opportunities. And that’s a skill that comes with practice. Try going out without expectations. See what there is to see.
If you do use or share coordinates, be careful. Birds or other animals can be stressed when they’re surrounded by eager photographers who are all after the same shot.
Be a curious student
Take the time to learn about the subjects you photograph. Photography is about being in the right place at the right time. There's always a certain amount of luck involved, but the more you know about your subject, the more you can stack the odds in your favor.
Too many people get hung up on camera settings, as if those provide some magical recipe for success. Knowing your subject helps you unlock truly magical opportunities.
My image of the bald eagle, fox and rabbit in flight was a product of that kind of knowledge. I knew bald eagles are thieves, so when I saw one flying toward the fox kit, I knew there was potential for some action. If I didn’t know that, I probably would have missed the shot as I was there to photograph foxes and already had a huge library of eagle images.
Learn the language of art
Study art — even art that has nothing to do with birding. Visual art has its own language and it's worth taking the time to learn it.
Find a painting that moves you and think about why it has such an impact on you. This process will help you create more expressive images that in turn connect with other people.
Impressionist paintings have helped me learn to appreciate relationships between colors. The work of Georgia O’Keeffe has taught me to notice the beauty of shapes.
While not my favorite type of art, even studying Renaissance-era portraits when I’ve come across them in museums has given me ideas. This portrait of a barred owl was inspired by that classical style.
There are some rules, but they can be broken
There are a few technical rules for making a good bird photograph. The image should be sharp, the bird’s eyes should be in focus, and no important features should be cropped off.
To create a sharp image, you generally need a shutter speed that’s 1/1500 of a second or faster. You can put your camera in shutter-priority mode and set that as your speed. If there’s enough light, you may want to go even faster. This image of an osprey was captured at 1/8000 in order to maximize sharpness. It’s such a fast bird that a slower shutter speed would have blurred its wings, although I typically like that effect. It’s my style, and I think it makes the images come alive more.
Modern mirrorless cameras, like the Canon R5 and R6 and the Sony Alpha 1 can automatically detect and focus on a bird’s eye. I have some hands-on experience with the R5 and have found that the capability works most of the time. Most of my bird photographs, however, are taken with cameras that don’t have that feature. I typically work by manually specifying a small autofocus zone and using the joystick or smart controller to adjust its position while I’m shooting.
But also don’t be afraid to occasionally break the rules. I sometimes enjoy capturing the motion of animals. This pelican picture was captured using a shutter speed of 1/5 — exceptionally slow for wildlife photography. I wouldn’t do that for every shot, of course, but I wanted to illustrate motion, so it made sense to break the speed rule.
This applies to your choice of lenses, too. The rule seems to be that you should always use the strongest telephoto lens you have so that the bird fills the frame. While I do use my 600mm lens a lot, sometimes shorter lenses result in more interesting photos. They can help you show more of the environment the bird lives in. They can also help you pair the bird with interesting geometry.
I've written about this before, but the lesson is to think about what you want you find interesting in a scene and what you really want to communicate. If the typical rules don't allow you to convey that, don't be afraid to do something different.
“Boring” birds can be beautiful
While owls, eagles and osprey may get all the “likes” on social media, there are thousands of other birds that are worthy of attention. Often, they’re easier to find and more cooperative.
I particularly enjoy photographing chickadees and juncos, birds that you can find at any backyard bird feeder. Other times I’ll go to city or regional parks and photograph any bird that I run across.
Given proper attention, any bird can be a beautiful subject. Besides, your practice with them will help you build your skills so that you can take better pictures when you run across an owl, eagle or osprey.
Have any tips of your own? Feel free to share them in the comments.