When most of us started out in nature photography our main drive was to find and photograph our subjects. That’s exactly what we did; we photographed them without giving any thought to the composition of the image. What we did was create, at best, documentation shots. There was clutter in the image, objects in front of and behind the subject, this and that were all wrong. When I was beginning, upon seeing shots from the photographers I respected I can remember thinking “man he is so lucky, the bird landed in just the right spot for him”. I didn’t realize that it was the photographer that probably made the shot good and there was little luck involved. I, like many others I would imagine, took a while to figure that I did indeed have a fair amount of control over how my images would come out. It isn’t all luck after all. What I would like to do is to offer some tips and explanations on how to create your own luck and make the shot.
So how do we go about controlling nature? Well we don’t, instead we work with nature and what it is offering us. There are always many ways to look at something. We need to use our eyes to see not only the subject but how the subject really looks. At first we may see a bird setting on a branch. If it is the first time we have seen this species, the excitement grows. As the excitement grows our objectivity seems to go down. We don’t see the twigs blocking the breast of the bird. We miss that the background is just a mess of clutter. We are so excited that we just don’t see these things. That is until we slow down and really think about the shot we are going to take.
There are many things we can control or use to our advantage, let’s look at how we can do that. In the preceding example, we were so excited to see a lifer that we really didn’t think about what we were seeing. When you first spot the subject take a careful look through the viewfinder and really think about what you are seeing. Look really closely, is there a fine stick between the lens and the subject? Is there some foreground blur of objects blocking the subject? Take the time to look carefully; it is so very easy to overlook this kind of thing out in the field. Okay there is a stick in the way so now you have to reposition yourself. Now that you have a clear shot pay attention to the background. Is it too busy? Are there distracting elements to it such as bright spots, twigs that appear to be coming out of the subject’s body? Will the bokeh be complimentary?
Sometimes moving left or right, up or down just a little bit can make all the difference in the world. Other times it is a timing issue. Recently I was photographing Pelicans on a rocky shoreline overlooking the surf line. I had the Pelican nicely composed, posed and positioned, the sea and rocks in the background created a wonderfully complimentary bokeh. I was just about to press the shutter when the waves crashed changing the background from a nice mottled background to bright foamy white! The white background would have been blown out by the sun absolutely ruining the shot.
Timing can also be an issue when it is windy. The background and the foregrounds both are quite dynamic on a windy day. Keep that in mind and time your shutter releases accordingly. The subject’s position and or pose are something else you have to keep in mind. Most of the time you want to have as much of the bird in focus that you can. How you can control this is either with the subject’s position or you aperture. As for the former having the subject as parallel as possible to the cameras sensor is key. Another aspect to keep in mind is isolation of the subject.
Shots with multiple birds, for example, are a lot more difficult to pull off. Yes they can work sometimes, usually with the secondary birds playing a supporting role to the main subject or adding symmetry. The difficulty with more than one subject is getting all of the subjects in focus. Shots of a train of birds in flight work wonderfully well if all of the birds are nice and sharp. If some of the birds are out of focus the image may not work as well. One way to use multiple subjects is to have one of them in the near background in semi focus, therefore supporting the subject that is nicely focused. When you don’t want multiple subjects sometimes a small change in your position will isolate the subject from the ones around it creating a nice clean shot.
The last item I will address is lighting. Of course we want the sun to be at our back if that is possible. When approaching a subject keep that in mind, line yourself up with the light early on during your approach. Keep checking the subject as you get closer, often a slight change in angle will pull more details out of what you are shooting. A bit of angle on the light brings up some shadows that help to define the fine details.