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Birds are a favorite subject of many nature photographers. We’re enamored with them for their natural beauty, diversity in shape, size and behavior, and challenge to capture the iconic shot. Good bird photography begins with knowing the subject’s behavior. What it eats, where and when it feeds, its flight pattern, in what direction it takes off and its agitation signals are all facts you should know to increase the potential of obtaining great shots.
As with many other subjects, factors that contribute to the success of a good bird photo are composition, lighting and how you handle the background. Depending where the bird perches or decides to stand can make or break the potential image. Branches or other natural elements can become major distractions, especially if they’re across the front or growing out of the heads or other parts of the subject. Waiting for the bird to walk to a better location or perch on a branch that’s free of distractions is often necessary.
Given the thousands of exposures of birds that are made on a daily basis, I suggest you try to make yours different. Wait for your subject to perform some sort of behavior. Preening is something birds do on a regular basis, and it makes a more interesting image than if the bird is simply standing there. Courtship rituals are great to capture as the males perform for their partners. Other gestures or actions to look for are feeding, wing flapping and bathing.
Birds in flight are great subjects, especially when photographed in the early or late light of sunrise and sunset. Front light provides a warm wash of color that’s spectacular. Sidelight isn't as advantageous, but it provides texture and reveals a lit and shadow side. If there are clouds that provide gorgeous color, silhouetted images passing in front make very dramatic photographs.
Compositionally, try to avoid placing the bird in the center of the image. Whether you’re creating flight shots or images of the birds in their environment, an off-center placement is stronger. If you fill the frame with the subject, place the eye in the upper portion of the frame if you’re making a vertical. If you’re shooting a horizontal, try placing the bird on the left or right side of the frame, depending on what way the head is turned. Get down to the same level of the bird. Shooting down at an angle makes the bird diminutive, resulting in an image with less impact.