A 'Birds of India' feature

Bird Photography for beginners - II by Sumit Sen                                       

Part - IV                                                                                       


In my opinion, it is composition that makes or breaks a bird image. You can shoot birds correctly and make sharp, detailed and eye-catching images, but you can ruin all the effort by poorly composing the image that you print or post. Much of the appeal of an avian image comes from naturalness, the beauty of the bird in its own little world! Generally successful compositions aim to capture the bird in that world and there are some prescriptions that help in making that happen. We will discuss those below.

But composition is ultimately a matter of individual choice, taste and artistic considerations, and as such it is entirely up to you as the artist to choose whatever composition feels best for you, and you alone. These suggestions are just to help the beginner understand thoughts that go into composing bird images and will hopefully raise their awareness about this key element of bird photography when shooting and presenting them.

A word on achieving composition first. Birds are most unlikely to help you make the best composition possible. You have to do it yourself through positioning, camera techniques and intelligent cropping. With the advent of high megapixel cameras. cropping to taste is now easy both for web posts and print jobs. Given how hard it is to get a focused and properly exposed bird shot, my general recommendation is to get the best shot possible given the circumstances and then compose the image for presentation to your taste in the computer. In case you have an extremely cooperative subject, you can search through the possibilities for framing the subject and scenery to your liking in camera. But such opportunities are rare. As far as I am concerned, in most cases I use the center focus point and just keep the subject in the center of the frame and concentrate on pose, eye-contact etc. This can result in boring and static images though. So back home I crop to my taste. This can be very aggressive if the image is meant for web use and less so if I am looking for print results. For only print objectives one generally needs to choose alternate focus points or focus manually because cropping can lead to unacceptable image quality. I don't do either, and instead lock focus and re-frame! It works for me! So my recommendation is to use both techniques depending on circumstances and subject. For example central focus will work best with small birds which are filling around 25% of the frame, and larger subjects will allow you to focus differently. I'd recommend using both of these techniques in combination to get the composition you want.

What are the most important considerations to keep in mind when framing a bird whether in the camera or during post-processing? The most important is where you place the bird in the frame. Do you place it bang in the middle or off centre? What do you do if the bird has its head turned in the opposite direction? Do you think that bigger is better? What is the golden rule of composition? These and other questions play a critical role in professional quality composition. But first, don't forget to cut off the feet or the tail or the beak. That is usually beyond salvage! ( I say "usually" with reason :) )

Give the bird space! Space creates impact and lets the bird 'look into' or 'move into'. I have seen hundreds of bird images like the one below. The bird is boxed in and cramped! Here bigger is not better.

Bronze-winged Jacana, immature
Bird is too large in the frame and looks cramped

Giving the bird space leads to a more natural appearance and a pleasing composition. Leave a bigger gap in the front in the direction the bird is facing than behind it. Sometimes extra space can create additional impact and a more powerful image. Try it!

Bronze-winged Jacana, adult

Space to look into or move into works best in most cases

Red-crested Pochard. Space versus none!


If the bird is facing you, look for a central composition. That usually works well. Ditto, if the bird has its head turned in the opposite direction.

Lesser Whistling Duck
Head and body facing in opposite directions. Centering the whole bird normally gives the best result.

When working with reflections, think of the reflection as a part of the subject and compose accordingly.

Great Egret
Treat the reflection and the bird as a single unit for purposes of composition

Most bird images work well if the bird occupies about 50% of the frame. A little less or more (40-60%) is fine too depending on overall considerations like angle of shot, shape of bird, other elements in the frame etc.. But too small and the bird is lost, too big the bird is cramped.

Too small

Too Large

Looks right!
All images of a Marsh Harrier

The best orientation often depends on the subject and the nature of the image. Tall birds do well in vertical mode, and things like ducks and geese fit in comfortably in the landscape orientation. Of course, some would look good in either portrait or landscape while a few pictures don't really suit either and would perhaps look better in a square. Most of the time you just need to make your own mind of how you want to go. But remember that most magazine cover images are portrait! :)


This Brown-headed Gull looks good in portrait orientation

because of the outstretched wings and front-facing shot

Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a "rule of thumb" or guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as paintings, photographs and designs. The guideline proposes 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. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would. [Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thirds] .
Like in most other forms of photography, the correct use of these instructive strategies has some merit in bird photography too, though with clear limitations. The idea behind the rule of thirds is that major compositional features of an image should, to the extent possible, align with the imaginary vertical or horizontal lines that divide the image‚Äôs axes into thirds. The intersections of these lines are known as power points, and are preferred location placing the focal point of a picture. Eyes are often considered the focus point in bird photography in the case of birds, and the eye placed at a power point may create more energy and interest than otherwise, or so the theory goes! In the case of the example below it seems to work, with the image on the left appearing more pleasing than the one on the right.

Red Avadavat - alternate compositions

Same image on the 1/3rds grid:

Note, near intersection of power point with the eye

But that is my opinion. However, don't get hung up on the 1/3 rule. Some pictures just don't suit it. It is of greater help to those who are struggling with compositions than for those who already have a style. Experienced photographers only fall back upon the rule of thirds when the task of finding the right composition proves especially difficult for a particular scene. Any case here are some examples.

asic things like space around the bird etc. can often be more important than
the placement of the eye on the power point

Aligning the
bird's main axis with one of the division lines is a nice way of
composing such images.

Merging or Aliasing
Merging or aliasing happens when a part of the bird, especially the beak, lines up with some feature of the background or part of the bird and confuses the viewer by interrupting the outline.  Merging should be avoided in almost all cases because it affects the overall aesthetics of the image.

Male Purple Sunbirds
In both cases the beak loses its aesthetics because of merging issues

Look for factors such as line, shape, pattern, colour and texture to give your image a more artistic feel.

Final word: Composition dictates what appeals. But the first person the image has to appeal to, is you! So while guidelines can be useful, they are just that. Use them if they increase the appeal to you and ignore them if you like what you do yourself. End of the day it as all about having fun!

The next part deals with specialty tools.




A presentation by Sumit Sen; September 2012
Image copyright with the photographers. All rights reserved.

 Last updated 17 Sep 2012