I am sure many of you have already heard me say that second to the subject the background is the most important element of any bird photo. In a world of long lenses and wide apertures it is fairly easy to isolate the subject and achieve a creamy blurred background, but you will also want to play with working some elements in the background to make the whole scene more interesting. It takes a lot more effort. Lets take a look at a few things to consider when adding elements to the background.
The photo at the top is one of my favorites. It is not actually the shot I was trying to get but I think it works better than the one I was trying to get. The bird in the background helps to tell the story. One thing about these Sandhill Cranes, when they are feeding there are always two or more birds acting as lookouts watching for coyotes and other predators that might emerge from the brush line. This image illustrates that behavior. While the bird at the front is still the main subject the second bird shows vigilance in both directions. The image I was shooting for was actually a left and right profile. I spent quite a while watching these birds waiting for that moment to develop. When it did things weren’t just right and in the end I felt the quarter turn left and right made for a stronger composition. Below is the image I was going for originally. While it does tell the story of the birds behavior far better, in my opinion, it does not have the same impact as the top picture. Also note that I didn’t stop down further in an effort to capture focus on the second bird. To me it was not needed, all I wanted to do is have the viewer know a bird is looking in the other direction.
This photo has a very strong and interesting background and I think for a lot of people the background will actually become the subject. Two birds flying out of the New Mexico sunset and towards the spectacular orange and red clouds. At the very least it competes with the birds for your attention. It shows that there are times when you will need to decide if the background is going to become the main subject and the bird as a secondary. One thing will always hold true, a striking image is a striking image regardless of what element is the striking part. Striking images hold attention and get looked at.
Here is an example of something that does not work. Three big faults. One, the image is not level. The camera was level but the branch was not therefore the image was not. If I were to rotate the picture then I would have lost even more of the bird in the background. Second, the bird in the background is cut off. I took a lot of photos of this scene some of which had a full image of the bird in the background. That shows that patience pays. Work the shot until you get what you are looking for and in the end you will have more keepers. Third, the background has un-even lighting. Yes Virginia, I knew there were shadows when I set up the shot but I was going for a scene where that second bird was a tad overexposed the I could burn down the whole upper half of the background. Also, that one band of shadow would have been fairly easy to clone out. One other thing you may notice about this photo is that I stopped down to f13. Normally I wouldn’t go that far but in this case I was very close, within ten feet, of the subject and even at smaller apertures you will still get blurring of the background.
One thing that all the photographs have in common is they were pre-visualized to become reality and that was only made through patience and a good understanding of how the subjects behave. Working the fundamentals always pays off in the end.
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Ciao!! (because somebody has to)