In the pursuit of making artistic bird photos that everyone can enjoy—both birder and non-birder alike—it’s important to think about the scene as a whole and how the parts of the image relate to each other aesthetically. This is the goal of composition: It’s about framing the scene around the bird in such a way that the final image is pleasing to the eye and conveys important context, such as where the bird lives, what it interacts with, or other aspects of its behavior that viewers might find intriguing. Here are a few tips to help you achieve such a a shot.
While composition adds another level of complexity to photography, it also gives you an opportunity to be creative. Try changing your shooting angle or the amount of distance between you and the bird. This can make a big difference in terms of both the amount of the bird’s environment you capture and showing how the bird relates to it. For example, including the berry bush a bird is feeding on, or ripples in the water it is wading through, can convey information about the bird’s life, but also drastically affect the photo’s color balance, geometry and texture, and even mood.
Know the Rule of Thirds
A common pitfall among beginner photographers is to always put the bird in the exact center of the image. It’s an understandable impulse, but one that results in all of your photos looking the same. Instead, experiment with the rule of thirds and place the bird along an invisible line a third of the way from the edge of the image. This is a crude approximation of the golden ratio, a mathematical proportion that appears throughout nature and art, creating a sense of harmony and balance. Experiment with the golden ratio, too, by envisioning the invisible lines a little closer to the center of the frame.
But like any rules of thumb, those are just a rough guideline—a starting point. Because every situation is unique, the ideal framing for any scene depends on the scene itself. Explore different options and see how they look through the viewfinder.
Tell a Story
In addition to composing a visually appealing photo, you should think about what the image will say to people who weren’t there when you took the shot. If the bird is reacting to something (such as a potential predator or prey), capturing that in the image will include viewers in the action and give them a glimpse into the life of that bird. For flight shots, consider whether viewers will benefit more by seeing where the bird is going (by putting more space in front of the bird) or where the bird has been (by, say, including the perch it took off from). People love photos that tell a story.
Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer in art, and the best you can do is to find a composition that you find personally satisfying. Some important questions to ask yourself are: “Does this scene tell an interesting story about the bird? Does it move or inspire me emotionally or intellectually? Does it make me want to go birding?”
Try to avoid rationalizing with canned rules and instead let your visual cortex identify what looks good. Humans are a highly visual species, and our brains excel at telling us what looks pleasing, or when something seems out of balance. The more you learn to listen to your inner artist, the better you’ll get at portraying birds in a way that everyone can enjoy.
William H. Majoros has been studying birds and bird behavior for more than 20 years. This article is adapted from his online reference guide, Secrets of Digital Bird Photography: Tools and Techniques.