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Bird Photography Rules Can Guide You
Article and Photography by Peter Wallack

There is one book amongst a handful respected as a guide to people starting into bird photography. That author makes it clear that after all the rules for composition and using light he
presents that many of the best 23 images of birds in his book actually break the rules so it becomes important to discuss a rule or two here and when the exception would be important.

Using direct sun at low angles at the beginning and end of the day right over the back of your head will give you bird images without shadows in dramatic glowing light; however, side lighting when there is a slight cast over the direct sun will avoid shadows and give you a more three dimensional image.

Small birds in the trees have to be helped with flash fill and unnatural perch with bait set-ups to capture but the results are very flat looking images.

Small birds can be caught with greater difficulty in lighter natural situations during migrations or just by spending enough time out in the field. These same small birds usually require 500 mm lenses at $8000, or 600 mm lenses at $16,000, with 2x teleconverters for 35 mm cameras which are the only cameras and their digital equivalents which have enough mobility to capture most bird images. There are the bigger birds from the size of ducks, many shorebirds, birds of prey, swamp and wading birds up to the huge Great Blue Heron and White Pelicans which all can be found in good Florida light in Sanibel. For these birds using a Canon EOS 3 or IV with the 100 to 400 IS lens has given me more images and because of the zero set up time for 400 mm or 560 mm, I have even captured grackles, Eastern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, and Warblers with the 100-400 IS alone or with the 1.4x II TC giving me 560 mm handheld. Birds further away can be shot with the 2.0x II TC stacked over the 1.4x II TC and between the 100-400 IS lens for a reach of 1120 mm. All that equipment is under $5,000 compared to the typical pro-birders $20,000 to $30,000 of equipment. This is not to mention their mobility is a fraction of mine and their set up time is often 3 to 4 times as long.

I wear a photographer's vest with two lens pockets for the teleconverters and I can fit a 28-80mm lens in with the 1.4x. A $32 L.L. Bean 16 inch deep by 13 inch wide back pack holds my Manfretto Carbon Fiber tripod with its Arca Swiss B-1 ball head which I use once I go past the 560 mm to either 800 mm with the Canon body, 2x II and 100-400 IS, or for the 1120mm reach with the stacked teleconverters in front of the 100-400 IS lens.

I walk around ready to get fliers and nearby birds instantaneously and birds at a more relaxed distance within three minutes it takes to draw out and set up my tripod and making the teleconverter mounts necessary.

The rules of shadows in wings, chopping wings, leaving off legs or other parts of birds have all seen a change from rejection to acceptance on the only avian photo forum critique at Even black eyes on birds when it is in a graceful behavior is not a problem there any longer as the group matures with an interest in birds as fine art subject matter and not just specimens for birders manuals. Personally, I am delighted and present the following birds with comments as to where on the specimen to art continuum my images may fall.

American OystercatcherThe American Oystercatcher fits the traditional specimen shot with the addition of the bird's feet being surrounded by the gentle small waves to give action to the image. I shot this at 7:30 AM on the causeway with the sun right in back of me. I have gotten many other shorebirds in the same area the same way. I use my mini-van as a blind and roll into position slowly. This was shot at 560 with the 1.4 x II TC on the body in front of the IS lens with the aperture fully opened to 8.0 and the speed at 750th. This type of shot needs the bird isolated against the Out Of Focus Background. I like the water but some photographers would have gotten out of the car and put the tripod on the lowest setting to get a sky blue image at the lose of the environmental water on feet and water OOF (out of focus) as the more environmental background. Make your own decisions here and do not be influenced by WOW and KILLER SHOT by excluding environmental information when the BG (background) is not totally pleasing and an artificial looking color blur.

Anhinga on BoughThe "Anhinga on Bough" image above was digitally created by two hours of carefully masking of the bird on the bough and its reflection. The awful dark water and sky were replaced by a uniform color that almost could be both water and sky. Here is where creativity gives that simple pleasant artificial BG and some foreground as well without altering the natural subject.

This used to be taboo on the avian forum mentioned but is now used along with clone stamping and other tools to clean up messy environments which are extraneous to the actual bird image.

The "Great Blue Heron Bust" shot above was achieved after working with the bird for over 30 minutes. My buddy Jim Yike was there withGreat Blue Heron Bust me and he was fairly amazed that the bird was so cooperative but on Sanibel Island there has been protection and care of these birds for over 100 years so some have actually grown to trust people. This shoot was taken out of the good light of early and late day zone but worked anyway because of a thin layer of cloud over the sun and a mostly otherwise blue sky. This allowed me to use side lighting and get tremendously dimensionality.

Great Egret on the Rocks at Blind PassThe "Great Egret on the Rocks at Blind Pass" was a similar situation of a trusting bird combined with very favorable lighting conditions which enabled me to shot more towards the sun than away at about a 135 degrees off into the clouded over sun angle. A storm had just cleared and there was golden light from behind me bouncing off a cloud as the low almost sunset sun had a clear path to that cloud behind me. This created an almost studio like umbrella shot. Again, the book mentioned before would have been better to have mentioned that the natural light source can bounce off clouds and affectively act as the sun over your head behind you. Analyzing weather effects on diffusing light so you can shoot the whole day or on changing the direction of golden light is a skill photographers working outside all should develop. Paris is famous for its fair weather clouds at low altitudes allowing for photography without shadows from almost any direction much of the time. By the way, I had to leave and return to the rocks to exchange my telephoto for a 28-80 mm lens for this shot.

Ibis in Water"Ibis in Water" is a case where I blurred one area with much work and clone stamped in that blur since the water BG was distracting and unpleasant. Again, the bird was never digitally altered. This is now being accepted by the professional bird photographers who frequent whereas last May 2001 a moderator there stated unequivocally not to use any of the tools of Photoshop 6.0.

"Laughing Gull" follows the long established rules but again a photographer has the choice of using the tripod at the lowest heightLaughing Gull with a real expensive long lens to get that KILLER uniform artificial blur as opposed to the more traditional fine art photography technique of controlling the DOF (depth of field) to get environmental information while still separating out the bird from the BG simply and cleanly. By the way, when the "KILLER" uniform blur BG doesn't lose environmental information I do like it myself.

Laughing Gull with Big Fish"Laughing Gull with Big Fish" has an immediacy and timing impossible to achieve working with the heavier 600 mm with 2 x instead of the handheld 100-400 IS with 1.4 x. There is over 14 pounds more weight with the heavier longer 600 mm lens.

Osprey Balancing"Osprey Balancing" is probably still considered too steep of an angle by most professional bird photographers and for where they are selling, when they sell, I can understand their point of view; however, the circus high wire act and the beauty of the graceful position of the right wing plus the intense concentration on the bird's face were just too irresistible from a fine art composition point of view for me to ignore the shot.


Red-Bellied Wood Pecker"Red-Bellied Wood Pecker" is another of those compositions thatwould be out of the box for most pro bird photographers but it delights me with an incredible presentation of the fanned wing, thewell presented and intensely focused head of the bird, and the beauty of the tree itself. This is the way these birds are seen mostly as well and to wait for the vertical up and down position seems more anthropomorphic than natural.


Reddish Egret "Reddish Egret" and wrapped for warmth follows all the rules of the old ways except that for some they would probably like to see the bird larger in the frame. That is no problem when you are working in Photoshop or TIFF but it does lower the quality of the j.peg format. This brings me to an important point. Any fine art image or image for printing will not be in j.peg when sold. Therefore, it needs to be stated here that j.peg is an artificially compressed degraded version of an original to fit it through the wires and get the image on the Internet. A real reviewer of these images must keep in mind that as good as they look here, they are actually much better when enlarged or booked or printed for a calendar.

Roseate Spoonbill at Sunset"Roseate Spoonbill at Sunset" is an example of the Canon EOS 3 with the 1.4x II and the 2.0x II stacked in front of the 100-400 IS. When I posted this in September 2001 found this image so sharp that some members and moderators are now even stacking a third 2.0x II teleconverter with their 600 mm lenses to get over 3000mm reach for face shots of birds at a distance. A year ago getting the whole bird was the standard operating procedure. It is nice to see creativity and art making bird photography so much more interesting, varied, and with real impact. It is an understandable evolution from the bird photographer's identification job for science to a broader approach now that that job has been virtually completed.

"Roseate Spoonbills Feeding" is another example of a bird working with me from 20 to 24 feet for over 30 minutes. I actuallyRoseate Spoonbills Feeding got some e-mail from my friends at telling me how easy bird photography was on Sanibel. Well, I have yet to have them prove that with their posts. I tell you about this because if you want to learn bird photography is not a bad place to spend some time. But remember your dealing with all sorts of individuals and some write critiques that are really not related to the stated goals of the forum although most of the people there I would welcome to shoot with me on Sanibel at any time in the future.

Snowy Egret Skim Fishing"Snowy Egret Skim Fishing" is not a well-documented behavior. I saw a dozen Snowies flying across the first pond on the right as you enter Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve. They dip their bills into the water about ten inches deep as they continue to fly. This leaves lots of wholes that last a second when a group of three or four make a feeding pass. Perhaps this behavior has been overlooked because a year ago the owner of was instructing me to wait till the birds were still to get sharper images. Be very careful about the advice you take for there is a price to not critically thinking for yourself.

Snowy Egret Preening"Snowy Egret Preening" is probably my best bird image in all of a dozen professional photographers opinions I have sort out. Michael A. Reichmann of Luminous Landscape called it stunning in an e-mail to me. Why then would a moderator of the avian forum rate this average and reject it so strongly others were intimidated from commenting? Well you see you cannot see the eyes and the one book and instructor he has had states that the eyes always must be showing. Ridiculous is as ridiculous says. Many bird eyes are so small or black they hardly give us a view into the bird's soul as they say you will find if the image includes the eyes. Soul being a religious concept, I just will not touch that. However, I believe a wonderful bowing bird presenting his wing in glorious feather position and detail is like someone said to me- "A one in a million shot."

About the Author: Peter started taking photographs for academic slide shows in the early 70s and ended up in Soho Photo Gallery by the late 70s. Cooperative Galleries and Art Shows were his forums for landscapes with man, landscapes, and world cultures images. By the 90s so much of his work was world cultures in developing lands that he called his business "Ends of The Earth Photography". In 1999, after contracting to buy his retirement house in Sanibel Island, Florida, a paradise for bird photographers, he transformed himself into a bird photography with a little help from other professional bird photographers.

Peter will have his writings and images in Nature Photographer, Winter 2002, and regularly in Sanibel's Nature Guide.

You can see more of Peter's work in his Profotos Portfolio:
Click to see Peter's Profotos Portfolio

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