Composition is the process of creating an attractive image. When you compose an image, you are doing more than just taking a picture, you are carefully framing a scene or setting a mood. In the case of bird photography, you want your image to intimately capture the bird.
Tips for Composing Excellent Bird Pictures
Composing the Bird Itself
Focus on the bird’s eye, the eye creates a connection between the subject and its viewer – it provides a more intimate view of the bird. The eye is most vividly displayed if a catchlight is created (a catchlight occurs when a light source creates a reflection in the eye of your subject). To create a catchlight, shoot on a sunny day with the bird front-lit.
Get as close to the bird as possible, the closer you are to the bird, the more detail will be displayed in your photograph. Bird photographers are always looking to capture the intricate details that make each species of bird unique – this is best done at close range. In some cases, you will want to fill the entire frame with the bird.
Capture a Variety of Poses: The profile shot is always nice but it is also common, capturing the bird while it is actively doing something (foraging, eating, drinking, bathing, singing, fighting, etc.) adds much more intrigue to the shot. Freezing a bird while its wings are extended - right before it takes off or as it is landing – is always a sought-after pose. The goal of your bird shot should be to give the eventual viewer of the image a glimpse into the life of the bird.
Composing the Background
Clean Background Preferred: elements of the background should complement the bird – not steal its spotlight.
Isolate the bird from distractions: Avoid branches (or other obstacles) in front of or around the bird if possible – they are distracting and can ruin a shot. Remember composition has a lot do with shooting angle, by making minor adjustments in angle you can drastically alter the composition and avoid distractions.
Include Natural Beauty and Colors: Capturing a bird on or near flowers, eating colorful berries, or foraging in a fiery red maple tree add excitement to your shot. Note that many of the native plants that attract the most birds also appear stunning in photos.
List of Stunning Native Plants that Also Attract Birds
Trees & Shrubs: American Elderberry, American Holly, American Mountain Ash, Crabapple, Eastern Red Cedar, Eastern White Pine, Flowering Dogwood, Oak, Maple, Red-Twig Dogwood, Serviceberry, Spicebush, Tulip-Poplar, Wild Cherry, Winterberry
Try for Bokeh: Bokeh is the soft, out-of-focus background blur that many photographers aim to produce their images. Bokeh adds a smoothness to the background, which is said to compliment and contrast the part of the image that is in focus (the subject) very well. To create Bokeh in your images, shoot with the largest aperture possible and do all you can to increase the distance between your subject and elements of the background. In bird photography, this is most easily accomplished by photographing the bird on while it is sitting on an isolated perch, some distance from any obstacles behind it.
Creating a Bird Photography Set
This process involves leading birds (mainly by leaving out bird seed) to a specific spot, that will serve as an attractive setting for photographs. For example, leaving out seeds in a flower garden or underneath an attractive tree. Doing so, allows the photographer great control over the composition of the photo because they control the elements of the background. Another benefit is that the photographer can sit close to the set-up before the birds arrive, this way pictures can be taken at close range (as the photographer does not have to worry about approaching the birds from a distance – which could scare them off.). Note that this scenario generally only applies to birds that commonly accept bird seed and are often seen in backyards (although the month of May/Spring Migration offers the potential to see a greater variety).