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Pet Bird Photography For Everybody
(not just professionals!)

By Mimi Walling - August 3, 2003

What makes a good bird photograph?

  1. The bird is well-lit.
  2. The bird is sharp, ESPECIALLY the eye.
  3. The bird does not blend in with the background, meaning:
    1. The background is not busy.
    2. The background is blurred while the bird is in sharp focus.
    3. The background does not overwhelm the bird with color or distractions.

If you have an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera (on which you can change lenses), some of the above problems can be fixed simply by making the camera and lens do the work.

However, if you have a point-and-shoot camera, you can first plan ahead and compensate for not having the ability to adjust your lens and camera settings. Point-and-shoot cameras have a meter inside just like an SLR camera, but you just can't see it working.

NOTE: My examples use natural outdoor light, so you should try these suggestions ONLY if you are CERTAIN that your bird is well-clipped, or is trained to fly back to you.

Let's look at some less-than-perfect results and see how the photograph can be improved...

Problem # 1 - When you get your photos back from the lab, the bird is really dark, too dark for you to see it, but the background looks great.

This is a very common problem, but it can be prevented by knowing how to position your bird / person / dog / cat, and how to position your own self with the camera!

(Of course, you may end up with a nice silhouette of your bird, and that may be a happy accident. Just tell everybody that you planned it that way!)

Every camera is very smart, sometimes too smart for its own good. A camera's meter looks at the scene and tries to make the largest area look good. So, you've got a small medium-green bird sitting on a perch with the bright sky as a background. What happens is that the camera sees that large sky area - and thinks you want to take a picture of the sky - and wants to make it look good for you, so it makes the sky dark enough so that the film can record it properly. The problem is, the camera also darkens the bird by the same amount. However, since the bird looked good to begin with, you didn't want the camera to make any adjustments.

(The main way for photographers to override the camera's little mind is to use a SLR camera on a "manual" setting and compensate for the difference in brightness, but that's not part of my talk today)

What you have to do is position the bird so that the background behind it is about the same brightness as the bird, or even a little darker. Making the bird a big portion of the photograph will help, too, although you may not be able to focus if you get too close. Another trick would be to turn on your flash, because that will make the bird brighter, which makes it closer to the brightness of the sky in the background. Still another trick is for you to stand on something so that the camera is pointing slightly down at the bird. This makes the camera point toward the grass and trees, which are more likely to be the same brightness as the bird, rather than pointing directly at the bright sky.

Bad photo results: bird on perch, bright white clouds in background.
Good photo results: bird on perch, green hedge or gray wall in background

Problem #2 - The opposite problem: The bird is so bright on the print that it's virtually white, but the background came out really nice.

In this case the camera meter looks at the large area of dark background and adjusts things so that the background looks "good" to it (medium lightness). That increase in lightness will make the bird too bright now, since the bird looked good in the first place.

Solution? Same as above: Find a place to position the bird so that the background is about the same brightness as the bird. If it's a white bird, the background should be light to medium in brightness. If it's a dark bird, the background should be medium to dark in brightness. Remember that green is always good. The camera's meter likes the green of leaves and grass. Don't confuse color with brightness. The camera's meter only sees "brightness", not color.

Ok, what else bad can happen?

Problem #3 - You can hardly tell the bird from the background because there is so much clutter. Power lines, swing sets, trash cans, people that weren't there when you took the picture!

Well, you can always buy a professional background, but I don't think that's what you are going to do. So, we'll use what is available and plan ahead.

(The SLR camera lens can be set at F5.6 or F8.0 and the background will be blurred, while the bird stays sharp).

But for the rest of us... Find a place where the background can be far, far away from your bird on the perch. Like at least across the street distance - 30 feet. Again, a hedge or group of trees is ideal due to the fact that the camera's meter "likes" the green of leaves. You should be as close as possible to the bird but (of course) the camera must still able to focus. (Make sure that your background only has the leaves in it - no sky. It is a fact that your eye goes first to the brightest area of a picture. You want the brightest area to be your bird, NOT the background!) If you have a telephoto option on your camera, make sure you're using it. The further away you are from the background, the more blurred it will appear on film.

p.s. Professional-quality photographs don't just "happen". They are planned in advance!

Now, how about that less-than-desirable head-on shot of your bird?

Maybe you could improve things a little more...

I like to have the bird's back facing me, with the bird's head turned so I get a head profile. On most birds, the back and tail feathers are more colorful than the breast and stomach. Put the bird on the perch facing away from you, then have someone off to the side call to the bird so the beak faces sideways, producing a nice profile.

Make yourself a posing perch and get the bird used to it before you take him outside and ask him to stand on it. In fact, you can use it every day as another perch. This perch should be wood so it looks natural (and not too dark and not too light…..) and it should look like an upside-down "J" or "L". The area where the bird will stand should not be very big (no more than 3" to 4" long), or the bird will move from one side to another and it may be difficult to keep him in the viewfinder.

Another thing that looks unprofessional is scraggly tail feathers! Give your bird a good shower or two before you take your photographs. Drench your bird with warm water and you'll see it busy preening all day long. I either bring my birds into the shower with me on a shower perch or I use a spray bottle of water, heated up in the microwave, out on the back porch a few days before I have a photo shoot in mind. That's the key - planning in advance!

Here are some things to remember:

  1. A green hedge or tree background is always good because:
    • The camera's meter "likes" the green of plants.
    • It looks natural for a bird to have green behind it.
  2. Never photograph your bird in the shade with a sunny area behind it.
  3. If the bird's eye is not sharp, throw out the photo!
  4. Getting 1 to 3 great photos out of a roll of 36 is not bad. Birds wiggle a lot!
  5. Patience, patience, patience. Let the bird act naturally, but BE READY to click.
  6. If you have a tripod, ALWAYS use it.
  7. If your camera will accept a cable release, ALWAYS use it on your tripod.
  8. The further away your background, the more it will be blurred.
  9. 100-speed film will give you sharpest results, BUT you need to photograph in bright light and / or possibly use flash, yes, even outdoors (or else you will end up with overall too-dark and/or blurry results).
  10. Birds generally do well for 20 minutes, then need a break. Don't go more than an hour and 15 minutes. Try again next week.

Great reference book: The Art of Bird Photography, by Arthur Morris. This book is aimed at wild bird photography, but it contains all the principles of taking outdoor photos of virtually anything. www.birdsasart.com. Artie also offers l-day and multiple-day workshops in Florida and many other locations. I have been to four multiple-day workshops and learned more at each one.

© Miriam B. Walling / We Shoot Birds

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