May 5, 2011
White-tailed Hawk bringing snake to nestlings
White-tailed Hawk bringing snake to nestlings
To paraphrase a famous quotation, good bird photography is like pornography—I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.  Here are six things I see in good bird photography--light, focus, composition, exposure, background, and action.  In that order!

LIGHT--There’s a reason why birders have difficulty identifying backlit birds.  Good front lighting provides finer detail, richer color, and better contrast.
Six Words Of Advice—Point your shadow at the bird!

FOCUS—Think about your optometrist’s eye chart.  The eye hurries over blurred borders and is drawn to sharp edges.  Novelty T-shirts with fuzzy lettering are hard to even look at.  Bird photographers hand holding telephoto lenses are practicing self-delusion.
Six Words Of Advice—Get over yourself!  Use a tripod! 

COMPOSITION—The bird doesn’t have to be in the center of the frame, but it has to be central to the image.  It has to attract your eye and you have to see its eye.  You’ll never see a portrait artist posing his subject looking the other way.
Six Words Of Advice—Delete key, a great photographic tool!

EXPOSURE—Your camera’s light meter is easily fooled.  It wants everything to be a nice, neutral shade of gray, but you’re trying to capture a colorful world.  If you’re having exposure issues, try this fun mental exercise.  Imagine you have to photograph a Common Raven in snow and then a Snow Goose on a coal pile.  Think about how you would use exposure compensation to properly expose those birds in these scenarios at either end of the reflectivity spectrum.
Six Words Of Advice—Light meters measure reflectivity, not light!

BACKGROUND—Busy is not better.  Stuff going on around and behind your subject detracts from its visual interest.  Move.  Often changing your position by just a few feet will clean up that background.  And don’t forget telephoto lenses aren’t just for bringing birds in closer.  Shooting them with a wide open aperture can clean up that busy background by throwing it out of focus.
Six Words Of Advice—Clean backgrounds will pop your subject!

ACTION—Portraits can be beautiful, but they’re not dynamic.  They don’t tell a bird’s story.  Action, even just a flight shot, records behavior and speaks to a bird’s niche in the environment, its lifestyle, its natural history, its uniqueness. 
Six Words Of Advice—Be patient!  Wait for the action!

The image accompanying this column looks like good bird photography to me.  I was patient and I was lucky.  I took it using a vehicle as a blind.  A nifty way to shoot telephoto lenses from your car is to set up your tripod right in the seat with you, wrestling the legs into different angles and different lengths and bracing them against the floorboards, seats, and console to provide the stable base a telephoto lens demands.

Six Words Of Advice—Use the restroom before setting up!