The Black-shouldered Kite
Looking at composition in bird photography
The second Bird Photography Workshop was held at the Barwon Heads Community Arts Garden on 23rd October 2016. It dealt with two essential areas of bird photography.
The main topic was composition and in particular the unique challenges of composition for bird photography. It was intended to be an introduction to the key concepts of composition rather than a set of ‘tips’.
The second topic was ‘using panning to photograph birds in flight.
Composition includes all the things the photographer does to construct the image.
- Composition in bird photography is made more complex by the unpredictability of birds
- Composition can of course occur before, during or after the shot and often at all three
The contribution you make to composition before you start photographing involves the decisions you make as you see your subject for the first time. The bird may be a long way off or just a short distance away. As you approach the subject and eventually pick a spot to photograph from you will probably be:
- Anticipating what will happen and waiting
- Looking at the background and deciding whether to move slightly to frame the subject better, especially with regard to potential distractions in the background
- Choosing whether to use your camera to take a vertical or a horizontal shot
The contribution you make to composition during the process of taking photographs involves
- Selecting the point(s) your auto-focus should prioritise. This usually involves trying to make sure the eyes of the bird are in focus
- How tightly you frame the shot
- Considering the way the light is illuminating the bird
- Applying some of the ‘conventions’ of photography (more of this later)
- Paying attention to way the image looks relative to the background
After (Post Production)
Birds can often be quite unpredictable.As a result quite a lot of your composition may have to happen after the image has been recorded. This frequently involves:
- Cropping the image
- Correcting the framing
- Adding or removing space
- Changing visual elements or using software like Photoshop to apply a variety of filters or adjustments to reorganise the way the image appears.
To explore composition fully, we need to talk about:
- the conventions, (1)
- the aesthetics (2, 3 & 4)
- the philosophy behind it all (5)
- and how to bring it all together to improve (6)
In other words: what generally works, how should it look and what are we aiming to achieve anyway?
Exploring levels of complexity *
There are a number of levels of complexity in composition. There are disturbingly few books which discuss photographic composition. Michael Freeman’s Book: The Photographer’s Eye [ilex Press 2007 ISBN-10:0-240-80934-3] is a notable exception. It deals with:
- Conventions and the image frame
- The design of the shot
- The graphic elements within the shot
- The colour relationships
- The artistic intent of the image
- The process
* While I recommend you look at the book, it is much longer than we have space for here. I is also a book about photography generally, not bird photography. The following are some observations in which I explore how the concepts raised in the book relate to bird photography.
Conventions aren’t rules but it is not unusual to hear people talking about them as if they were. Conventions are the way things are often done because they nearly always work pretty well.
You may have heard of ‘the rule of thirds’ or ‘the golden section’ they are useful guides to the first level of producing a pleasing composition.
The rule of thirds
The idea here is that images seem to work better if your subject is placed on one of the key intersections of an imaginary grid dividing up the frame. If the image is in the centre it can look static and lifeless. On the other hand placing it slightly to one side and part way up the frame can create a different dynamic which draws the eye into the subject and creates a subtle connection between the subject and the context that seems to work well.
When cropping an image in programs like Photoshop, the ‘rule of thirds’ grid is automatically shown and can be used to help determine how to place the subject in the frame.
Wikipedia explains the “rule of thirds” as the proposition that “an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections”
The Golden Ratio
The golden ratio may at first seem very similar to the ‘rule of thirds’. It is in many ways a much more powerful guide to the way composition can be used to map a pathway for the eye to follow as it explores the image.
Just 2 days after our workshop was held the web-site “Bokeh- Digital Rev” published and interesting article entitled: Why The Golden Ratio Is Better Than The Rule Of Thirds
The article compares the two approaches. It is an interesting article. John Sparkman’s article is not about bird photography but it provides some important clues to great composition.
One of the limitations of the rule of thirds is that it does not provide much help with establishing the importance of rest of the image.
Applying the Golden Spiral to one of my images of the White-faced Heron
Of course there are other photographic tips and conventions. It is worthwhile searching the internet for these. A brief search is likely to produce several you may not have heard of like:
- ‘the rule of odds’,
- ‘fill the frame’
- ‘provide breathing space’
- ‘when the light is bright, go tight’
- ‘to show speed – slow it down’
Here are some links:
2. The design of the image
This refers to how you alter things like perspective, patterns and texture to construct a particular aesthetic.
Perspective, is a powerful example of the use of design principles. Changing the height you are at can produce more effective images.
Example 1: Photos taken at the same height as the bird can take the viewer into the world of bird (lie down on the sand for a shorebird shot, for birds in flight, can you find a way to get up to their level?)
Example 2: Photos taken of a flock of birds will emphasise patterns and textures as design elements.
3. The graphic elements within the shot
A key part of deciding what makes a successful composition is the graphic elements within the shot.
- What shapes, lines, curves or visual elements does the image contain?
- What lines or forms does it show.
- How do these shapes draw the eye into the composition?
- How do they help construct the way the image works?
Example 1: When selecting images of a bird in flight, which wing position is most interesting? (Wings up, mid way, down?) Lets assume you have several images of the same bird in flight, as I did with the White-faced heron above. In this case I like the image with the wings at the mid point because of the shape it makes.
Example 2: If the bird is on a branch, is the pose of the bird OK? Sometimes other visual elements can complement the subject or it can be too distracting, despite the pose being good. When composing an image you need to consider:
- How disruptive is the background?
- Does it add to or detract from the composition?
This may mean that you adjust your angle of view to change the image slightly.
An example of recomposing to avoid a slightly distracting branch in the background in the image on the left. In the image on the right the branch is less of a distraction.
Birds can be extremely colourful. How their colours interact with the background is an essential part of composition. Showing the colour and the spectacle of different birds is one of the joys of great bird photography.
Colour plays a key role in the both the biology, and the identification of birds. It is also a key part of the mating displays of birds. The opportunity to capture the range of colours and the diversity of birds is one of the key attractions of bird photography.
One of the key components of a successful composition of a bird photograph is therefore how well it coveys the colours of the bird.
The double eyed fig parrot is a very small colourful Australian bird. The aim of the composition (left) is simply to show that.
- A bird flying across a clear blue sky can have an entirely different visual impact than a bird flying across a cloudy sky.
- The way light strikes the bird is an important compositional element. You can adjust this by:
- Adjusting where you stand relative to the light
- Moving so that key colours of the bird are shown
5. The artistic impact of the photograph
We all admire photographs which have a strong artistic impact. In bird photography, photos that have an artistic impact are those which do one or more of the following:
- capture a decisive moment,
- show something revealing about the subject,
- tell a story,
- or have a strong sense of place.
Capturing a decisive moment takes practice and luck.
If your photograph successfully communicates any one of these, then:
- all the other considerations are either accounted for
- or they are irrelevant for that photo
It is well worth considering what this means from a photographic point of view.
Camera shutters normally open for fractions of second but each photograph reflects all the experience as well as the history and the intent of the photographer
6. How does it all work together?
Not surprisingly, these components we have looked at so far, must all work together. The final phase is understanding photography as a process and its ability to change things.
This may seem like a bit of a side track but it is an important one because we take photography for granted but we shouldn’t. It has had a profound impact on us all.
In his book “Photography Changes Everything” Marvin Heiferman explores the impact of photography as a medium. In summary he explores the way it has changed:
- What we want
- What we see
- Who we are
- What we do
- Where we go
- What we remember
It is worth considering how bird photography can and does play a significant role in any or all of the above. The answer may be different for each of us but asking the question is certainly worthwhile because it will help to establish why we do what we do.
Composition and creativity
Composition requires creativity and imagination.
- Sometimes the photographer consciously hunts for an exact set of circumstances or watches them unfolding and knows exactly what to do.
- Sometimes they create the image from related parts (Like focus stacking)
- Much more often however, the bird photographer reacts to things that there has been almost no time to anticipate or plan for.
- Photography can offer feedback about composition, but it is too easy to overlook the messages.
Composition and Feedback
Photography can offer feedback about composition, but it is too easy to overlook the messages. Analysing the feedback is the key to producing better results next time. There are several ways to get useful feedback. Personally I find printing is a surprisingly effective way of sifting through and deciding which images I really like. I mount my images on large pin-boards on my home as well as making frames for some. I also make calendars each year. Here are some tips on how to get feedback:
- have a close look at and compare your images during the process of moving them on to your computer
- organise and rate your images (and review them as you do)
- seek a critical audience
- make a study of what you are looking for [Web searches]
- select images to print or to post on an organised web-site
- Cameras and lenses are just the tools of trade
- Good composition always reflects the artistic understanding of the photographer
- Gaining a good grounding in the key concepts of artistic terminology and concepts should be part of your endeavour
- Research and study will also pay dividends
- While there are no ‘rules’, and conventions may be asking to be broken, doing so is never worthwhile until you fully understand them and know how doing so will help you achieve your goals
- There is enormous scope to be creative in the way you communicate with photography