Chapter 8

Field Techniques

In this chapter we’ll go beyond the technological aspects of camera and flash operation (covered in the preceding two chapters) and focus on some of the more practical issues related to shooting in the field.  We’ll cover composition principles (i.e., where you place the bird within the frame), the capturing of interesting poses, and how to use angles and lighting to your advantage.  We’ll also consider some of the more physical aspects of field work, including how to get close to your subject, how to keep the camera steady while tracking the bird, and how to deal with difficult situations such as rain and mud.

8.1 General Composition Principles

Photographers—even those who photograph things other than birds—often talk about composing an image.  Such language implies, of course, that components of an image can, in some manner, be assembled at will into a pleasing whole.  In the controlled setting of a portrait photographer’s private studio, this may well be a viable proposition.  In the field, however, with the bird making its own decisions about whether or not it will assume a pleasing pose in front of one background or another, the notion of composing the image may seem a bit ridiculous.
    Nevertheless, there’s typically quite a lot you can do to influence the overall composition of an impending exposure—perhaps a lot more than you realize.  We’ll start with the position of the bird in the frame—something you can often dictate very simply by changing the imaging angle a few tenths of a degree in the horizontal or vertical directions.  By slightly changing the position of the bird in the frame, you can drastically alter the viewer’s impression of the world that the bird lives in.  Keep in mind that a person seeing your photo for the first time likely knows little or nothing about the precise environment in which that bird was photographed.  What you’re showing him or her is a tiny window on the bird’s world.  From that tiny window he or she then has to imagine what else that world contains.  How you craft the contents of that window can drastically affect how that viewer’s imaginings proceed from there.  That’s the power of creative photography.
    These types of considerations have long been at the forefront of artists’ minds—indeed, far longer than photography has existed as an art form.  Many great minds have considered the problem of artistic composition—whether in oils, inks, or other media—and a handful of useful
rules of thumb have emerged which can help the novice to gain a head start on producing more inspirational images.
    The most well-known of these guidelines is the so-called rule of thirds.  While this very crude heuristic has definite merit as a pedagogic device, we’ll see at length that it has some clear limitations.  Nevertheless, it’ll be worthwhile to spend some time exploring the applicability of this
    Consider the burrowing owl photo below.  The frame has been partitioned into nine equal areas, by dividing both the horizontal and vertical axes into thirds.

Fig. 8.1.1 : The rule of thirds.  After partitioning the horizontal and vertical axes
into thirds, the rule of thirds states that you should try to orient important
components of the scene so as to lie along a division line, or to fall on an
intersection of two division lines (a so-called
power point).  Just keep in
mind that it’s only a rule of thumb—and that no rule in art is inviolate.

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
s axes into thirds.  The intersections of these lines are known as power points, and are preferred locations for important subject features.  In the case of birds, at a very course level we might try to align the bird’s vertical body axis with one of the two vertical lines.  In the image above, I’ve managed to frame the bird in such a way that the bird’s eye almost perfectly coincides with one of the power points (intersection of two guide lines). 
    The hawk image below similarly aligns the bird’s eye with one of the four power points:

Fig. 8.1.2 : Positioning the bird’s eye on a power point.  When the bird
fills this much of the frame, basic constraints such as having a margin
around the bird and giving the bird some space to gaze into can trump
more idealistic considerations.

Note from these two examples that birds at different distances will generally fill different proportions of the imaging frame, and that this has implications for the relative positioning of both major body axes and detailed body features (such as the eyes, which are typically the most important part of the bird, in terms of visual and psychological impact).  Although it may be satisfyingly simple to propose that all birds’ eyes should be positioned at one of the so-called power points implied by the rule of thirds, the stubborn truth is that the rest of the bird’s body typically imposes constraints on the image composition that, while often of lesser rank than that of the positioning of the bird’s eye in frame, still influence the overall notion of compositional optimality.  (Theres also the question of just how powerful these power points really are.  Well get to that later.)
    The image below illustrates some of these issues.  Though the eye has been placed some distance from the nearest power point, the bird’s vertical axis is roughly co-axial with a vertical division line.  Note that the bird is also roughly bounded above and below by the two horizontal division lines.  Whether this is significant is subject to interpretation.  The greenery is largely confined to the top center rectangle and the bottom center rectangle, lending some more symmetry to the image.  The fact that the branch’s endpoints don’t both coincide with a division line works against the overall symmetry somewhat, but composing an image almost always involves some sort of compromise.  Personally, I think I could have shifted the entire image slightly to the right.

Fig. 8.1.3 : The rule of thirds may apply in a number of ways.
This bird’s height is roughly one-third of the frame, the greenery
fits (almost) into two of the nine cells, and the bird’s vertical
axis aligns fairly well with one of the division lines.  The main
branch doesn’t entirely conform, however.

    Let’s move on to the tricolored heron below.  The central axis of the
bird’s anterior half does seem to align fairly well with the vertical guide line, and the axis of the head and beak do seem to average to a conformation nicely intersecting the upper horizontal guide line.  The eye almost falls on a power point.  What I like about this image—forgetting about the division lines for now—is that the bird has a lot of space on the left to look at, and to move into if it so chooses.  That is, the bird’s world—as imagined by the viewer of the image—contains enough space, in the direction that the bird is facing, to possibly account for the bird’s attention being focused where it is. 

Fig. 8.1.4 : Axes and spacing.  Though the bird’s main axis seems fairly
well aligned with one of the division lines, the overall spacing around the
bird seems more significant in this image.  The bird has a comfortable
margin above, below, and to its right, while the direction in which it’s
gazing is wide open, leaving more to the imagination.

Notice also in this image that the water seems to asymptote toward the lower horizontal line.  The bird has a roughly equal amount of space above and below it.  Although it has plenty of space to its left to contemplate, the bird isn’t right up against the edge of the image on the other side.
    Now on to the osprey below.  The bird’s horizontal axis lines up nicely with the lower guide line, and the vertical axis of the wing lines up with the vertical guide line.  As with the previous image, there’s an equal amount of space above and below the bird, and there’s at least some margin (albeit a small one) behind the bird.  I think this bird would look fine slightly forward of its current position, but I think the framing shown as it is could be more dramatic for large prints (20
×30 inches or larger); for smaller prints (8×10 or 11×14) I may indeed prefer to move the bird foward a bit in the frame.

Fig. 8.1.5 : Birds in flight need some place to fly to.  Though this bird’s horizontal
and vertical axes conform well with the rule of thirds, the eye does not fall on a
power point.  More important in this case is that no part of the bird touches the
edge of the frame, while the bird has plenty of space in front of it, leaving
the viewer room to imagine the bird’s trajectory and destination.

     Moving on to the ruddy shelduck below, we see that the bird’s vertical axis is almost perfectly aligned to the vertical guide line on the left.  In addition, the head falls directly on a power point.  The moonlight reflecting in the water has a central axis that doesn’t quite coincide with the other vertical guide line, but is at least close; in this case, moving the moon beam to the right would eliminate the black margin, and would move the bird into the center, both of which I’d prefer not to do.  As in previous images, the bird has comparable upper and lower margins.  I like having this bird centered vertically, since it’s off-center horizontally.  This also works out to keep the bird’s reflection just barely contained in the frame.  Any of these constraints could have been violated to varying degrees, but what matters is the sum of these individual effects
keeping in mind that not all of these individual constraints are equally important.

Fig. 8.1.6 : The bird isn’t the only important element of
the scene.  Here the wide reflection of moonlight helps to
provide balance to the off-center bird.  Enough vertical
spacing is provided to avoid clipping the bird’s reflection.

For the waterthrush below, we see that the center of the bird’s body is well-centered around a power point, and the water’s horizon is approaching the upper guide line.  There’s a significant color difference between the top third of the image and the bottom two thirds.  Note also that the gully or pocket of water centered around the rightmost vertical guide line in some ways seems to balance out the vertical protrusion on the left that is the bird; this creates a subtle but powerful balanceor perhaps conflictin the image.

Fig. 8.1.7 : Yin and yang.  The water gully below the horizon helps to balance
the positive projection of the bird above the horizon.

In the merganser image below, the bird’s body aligns with the lower horizontal guide line, while the vertical axis of the neck and head come close to aligning with the vertical guide line.  However, the water horizon doesn’t fall on a guide line, and the bird’s eye is nowhere near a power point.  Also, the larger space is behind the bird rather than in front of it, emphasizing where the bird has been rather than where it’s going to.

Fig. 8.1.8 : Past versus present.  Though it’s more common to leave the larger
amount of space in front of the bird, to allow for future trajectories, here
the greater amount of space is behind the subject, emphasizing that the bird
has been traveling for some distance, while also requiring proportionally
more from the viewer’s imagination as to where the bird might be headed.

    This is a good time to remind ourselves that the rule of thirds (as well as the other pointers offered parenthetically along the way) are just rules of thumb—following them doesn’t guarantee perfection, and failing to follow them doesn’t guarantee failure.  In terms of the much-celebrated rule of thirds, the rule itself is actually a crude approximation to the golden ratio, which is believed by many to underpin works by such great artists as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.  The golden ratio (also called the 
divine ratio, or simply phi) places the guide lines approximately 38% and 62% of the way across the canvas; the rule of thirds revises these numbers to approximately 33% and 66%, which are a bit easier to visualize when in the field since they divide the viewfinder into simple thirds.  In either case, the rules are just guidelines (in a figurative and literal sense) to help novices to get started—or for more experienced photographers to fall back upon when the task of finding the right composition proves especially difficult for a particular scene.
    Now let’s consider some cases where the rule of thirds has rather more limited applicability.  The first notable exception is when the entire subject doesn’t fit completely in the frame.  The golden eagle below falls into this category.

Fig. 8.1.9 : Macro subjects make their own rules.  When the bird fills
a rather considerable portion of the frame, the rule of thirds becomes
much less dominant in the overall dynamics of the scene.  Here, the
bird’s vertical axis aligns well with the guide line, but the vertical
spacing is more pragmatic, with a very modest margin above and
enough of the bird’s lower half revealed to adequately define the wing. 

Although the axis implied by the head and neck of this bird does roughly coincide with a vertical guide line, the head lies above the horizontal guide and the eye does not fall on a power point.  In this case, positioning the eye on the closest power point would, in my opinion, ruin the overall balance of foreground (bird) to background, which I think is of paramount importance for this particular image.  Of similar importance in this image is the left-right spacing of the bird: the bird has a lot of space on the left to gaze into, and there’s a goodly margin separating the bird from the rightmost edge of the frame.  It’s also important that none of the vertical lines in the background are positioned close to either edge of the frame.
    The prairie warbler below is also aligned well with the vertical guide line, but again the eye misses the power point.  In this case, lowering the bird to allow the eye to fall on the power point would bring the bird’s body down to the lower edge of the frame, eliminating the branch that the bird is perched on.  For extremely close portrait shots like the golden eagle above, it’s obviously not possible to show what the bird is perched on, but when the bird is small enough to fit in the frame, showing its perch can help the image to make more sense to the viewer.

Fig. 8.1.10 : Space for perching and singing.  A singing bird needs
some space for its sound waves to travel into.  For perching birds,
showing at least some portion of the bird’s perch helps to allay any
(subconscious) fears the viewer may have about the bird’s stability.

In terms of the zoom level, note that the bird is large enough to show significant feather detail, but is small enough to avoid touching any of the edges of the image.  Also, since this bird is singing, positioning the bird on the right allows its song to propagate (in the mind of the viewer) toward the left for some distances before leaving the frame.  The latter consideration falls under what some would call the dynamics of the image—i.e., what the viewer imagines as happening after the instant in time frozen by the image.
    In the junco image below, the bird’s vertical axis misses the guide line, but in this case I specifically wanted the bird to be far over toward the right margin, to give the viewer more landscape on the left to contemplate (to help emphasize the smallness of the bird).  There is, however, some space separating the bird from the rightmost edge of the frame, which I consider a nearly inviolable constraint for most bird photographs.

Fig. 8.1.11 : Exploring the extremes in spacing.  Very little of this image
supports the rule of thirds. My main concerns in choosing this composition
were that the subject not touch any edge of the frame, that the bird have a
(relatively) wide landscape to gaze over, and that the color and space
distribution give the impression of a small bird in a rather larger world.

The bird’s body does coincide nicely with the lower horizontal guide line, but I don’t consider that to be very important in this case.  The slope of the land and the one-third / two-thirds balance between foreground and background are obvious contributors to the overall aesthetics in this image.
    For the magnolia warbler below, the rule of thirds contributes very little: though the power point falls within the bird’s body, I don’t consider that very important in this case (except for the fact that it keeps the bird out of the very center of the image).  The important features here are that the bird has plenty of space in front of it, but has at least ample margins on the other sides as well. 

Fig. 8.1.12 : Symmetry and complexity.  Branches and diffuse background
patterns can contribute as much as the positioning of the main subject,
in terms of the overall balance and stability of the scene.

Note that the positioning of the main branch (that the bird is perched on) does often come into play in composing bird photos.  Perfectly horizontal branches often don’t look very good, while branches at odd angles can contribute a deeper symmetry to the overall image geometry.
    For the snowy egret below, though the bird’s vertical axis does line up nicely with the vertical guide line, I think what’s more important is the amount of space around the bird, the entry point of the bird’s legs into the water, and the overall color distribution.  Although I could have positioned the bird higher in the frame (thereby making marginally greater use of the upper horizontal guide line), that would have eliminated the thin band of blue sky at the top of the frame and allowed greater dominance of the blue of the water at the bottom, thereby changing the overall color distribution.  In this case, however, I probably didn’t have time to consider all of those issues when shooting, since I was just trying to keep the subject in focus and to capture the bird with its head at a nice angle and the legs in a non-crossing configuration.

Fig. 8.1.13 : A complex balancing act.  Small changes in framing can
have significant implications for the overall impact of the scene, including
the color distribution of the background, the overall horizontal and vertical
balance of the salient features in the scene, and the psychological ramifications
relating to the bird and its perceived behavioral dynamics.

    As one final example in the context of the rule of thirds, consider the mynah shown below.  The body axis intersects with the vertical guide line, but the significance of this is somewhat doubtful.  More important in this photo is the space distribution.  The spacing on the left and right of the bird, in this case, follows a different sort of rule of thirds, with the space behind the bird taking up roughly half as much area as the space in front of the bird.  Also, the bird has some room above its head (which is always important), and the subtle background gradient has enough space on the left for the black to turn light again before reaching the edge of the frame.

Fig. 8.1.14 : Applying the rule of thirds in a slightly different manner.
This mynah divides the background roughly into thirds, but in a
non-rectilinear fashion.  Giving the bird enough headroom while
showing enough of its lower body, and retaining the lightening of
the background on the left were my main constraints for this shot.

    When the subject is extremely close, sometimes all you can do is try to capture an abstract composition involving the bird’s head.  In the pelican photo below, it may be difficult for viewers to immediately tell what kind of bird this is, and that may enhance their curiosity.  I’ve intentionally omitted the grid lines from this photo so you can concentrate on observing the non-rectilinear proportions in the image—such as the proportion of feathered body surface to skin, the proportion of lighted surface to shadowed surface, and the relative positions and sizes of the green background regions.  These proportions aren’t necessarily perfect in this particular instance, but this should at least serve as an example of what you can do with the distribution of textures and colors in an image via creative framing (where framing in this case refers to composition and bird placement, not to the addition of an outer wooden frame).

Fig. 8.1.15 : A study in proportions: feather to skin, sunlit to
shadowed, and foreground to background.  These aren’t all
perfectly proportioned here, but they give the
viewer something to contemplate—in addition to wondering
what kind of bird they’re looking at.

    While all of these considerations involving divine proportions and golden ratios may indeed have some merit in both the analysis and construction of artistic images, in the field there’s typically not enough time to think through these things systematically.  In the field I’m usually happy just to get an in-focus, properly exposed image, which I might later be able to crop (in Photoshop) into a pleasing composition.  Even in those rare occasions when the bird is so extremely cooperative that I can think about composition, I never do so (explicitly) in terms of grid lines or mathematical relations.  Instead, I just search through the possibilities for framing the subject and scenery until I see something that strikes me as especially pleasing.  In many cases I intentionally blank my mind, letting the primitive instincts of my visual cortex have free reign.
    Finally, let’s consider the size of the bird in the frame.  If you have a zoom lens (or can change lenses or add teleconverters) or can easily move closer to the bird or further away, then you’ll typically be faced with having to decide how much
zooming (whether via the lens’ zoom or via your biological foot zoom) to apply before taking the shot.  In most cases, this is just another aesthetic consideration.  However, if you intend to make prints of your images, it’s sometimes good to add a little extra space around the outside of the frame, to account for any cropping that will be applied by the printing process.  This is primarily a concern when making canvas wraps (see sections 14.1 and 14.2), in which case parts of the image will be wrapped around the sides of the underlying wooden frame.  When making canvas wraps, printers often stretch the canvas a bit further than necessary, to ensure that no white canvas is showing around the edges; this can sometimes result in the bird being closer to an edge than you’d like, possibly even wrapping around onto the side panel.  Adding a wide margin when taking the shot can help to avoid this problem.  For traditional, framed and matted prints, this is less of an issue, because the mat typically only covers a thin margin around the outside of the image.
    All of the foregoing composition techniques can be used either in the field (with an especially cooperative bird) or later during postprocessing, when trying to decide how to crop the image around the subject.  For fast-moving birds such as warblers, I virtually never think of composition in the field; when dealing with such small birds, there’s typically plenty of room around the bird in the frame, affording much flexibility for creative cropping later in postprocess.  In these cases I’ll generally use the center focus point and just keep the subject in the center of the frame.  During postprocessing I can decide whether to leave the bird in the center or to crop off-center.  Even with an 8 or 10 megapixel camera you’ll often be able to crop the image fairly aggressively, at least for images intended for viewing on a computer (e.g., via web pages on the internet).
    Although the position of the bird in the frame is obviously of prime importance in bird photography, there are other important aspects of image composition that need to be considered.  We’ll address several of these in the next two sections of this chapter.  For now, just keep in mind that scene composition is an artistic consideration, and as such is entirely up to you as the artist.  As an artist, it’s your right to choose whatever composition feels best to you, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to compose your images according to how someone else thinks you should compose them.  Adhering too closely to the prescriptions of other photographers is likely to lead to images that are stylistically identical to the thousands of images already published by the current crop of so-called
experts and professionals.   That’s fine, if that’s what you want to do.  In fact, imitating the old masters can be a great way to start out, but in time you’ll likely feel the urge to exercise your own creativity, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to supress that creativity in order to satisfy someone else’s rules about how bird photos should look.  Think of your photographic activities as an opportunity to explore your own artistic vision and instincts, rather than as a prescriptive activity dictated by a handful of experts.  Remember that there are no rules in art.  Following any set of rules can lead, in the long term, to stagnation.  Above all, remember that art—even photographic art—is something that you can do in pursuit of your own personal happiness—whatever that means for you as an individual.