9.3 Backgrounds

One of the hardest things to control when shooting birds in your yard is the background.  If, for example, you happen to live across the street from a disco club, then you may have to deal with many of your photos having neon colors in the background.  Even neighboring houses can mar an image by introducing rectilinear shapes into the background (even if they’re largely out of focus).  I’ve actually found the red of neighboring brick buildings to sometimes introduce very nice colors into my backgrounds, though some postprocessing in Photoshop is often necessary to eliminate any unnatural shapes.
    There are several ways to manipulate the backgrounds of your yardbird photos.  Of course, in the field you’d have the option of changing the angle by moving your camera, but if you’re shooting out through a window in your home the angles available to you will generally be more constrained.  For small subjects such as hummingbirds, you can hang a large sheet of  fabric behind the feeder or behind a commonly-used perch; as long as the backdrop is far enough back from the bird to be rendered out-of-focus, a reasonably aesthetic effect may be achieved for shallow-DOF photos. 

Fig. 9.3.1 : If you know where the bird is going to be (such as at a feeder or
on a popular perch), you can control the background by hanging a backdrop.
Solid colors tend to look monotonous and unnatural, though this is less true for
some velvet-like fabrics like the one pictured above.

    In the figure above, I’ve draped a large sheet of velvet-textured fabric between two trees.  Notice the fairly extreme nonuniformity in the coloration of the backdrop, due to texture and lighting effects; fabrics with similar degrees of complex variation can produce more interesting backgrounds than simple colored fabrics, since they mimic the nonrepetitive complexity of many surfaces encountered in nature.  Spending an hour browsing at your local textiles outlet should turn up some interesting possibilities.  Just keep in mind that different fabrics will respond differently to flash (if you happen to be a flash user).
    Another interesting possibility for obtaining artificial backgrounds for bird photography is to visit your local hunting supply shop and browse through their selection of camouflage tents and similar products.  For the top image in the figure below, the background was achieved via use of a portable hunting
blind—really just a large piece of camouflage fabric draped between two trees—that I bought for about $10 at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Fig. 9.3.2 : If you don’t like the background, you can replace it
in Photoshop.  Top: the original image; the background pattern
was created by a camouflage backdrop draped behind the bird.
Bottom: the resulting image after replacing the background in
Photoshop.  The new background was taken from an out-of-
focus shot of a forest, obtained specifically for this purpose.

    The bottom portion of the above figure shows the image that resulted when I replaced the background in Photoshop.  This powerful postprocessing technique is described in detail in Part III of this book.  For the present discussion, simply note several things: first, that changing the background can radically change the overall impact of the image; second, that changing the background via software can be manually less laborious than trying to do so via the hanging of backdrops (and affords greater control over color dynamics); and finally, that backgrounds cloned in via software are infinitely less constrained, since you can get them from literally anywhere.
    Even if your yard affords a fairly diverse array of aesthetic backgrounds, a bit of manipulation in postprocessing can be useful when shooting yardbirds.  In the figure below, the top image features a fairly good background, in my opinion: it’s got some nice color, features a bit of subtle texture, and lacks any obvious anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) artifacts.  Compare this to the bottom portion of the same figure.

Fig. 9.3.3 : Sometimes the background is good enough, but there are man-made objects
you’d like to get rid of.  Two minutes in Photoshop is all that was required to erase this
suet feeder (bottom image), producing a more natural looking scene (top image).

    In the bottom portion of the above figure, you can see the suet cage that I edited out when producing the top image in the figure.  This editing took about three minutes in Photoshop, using the clone tool (see Chapter 11).  Basically, the clone tool allows you to rapidly copy textures from one part of the image to another.  In this case, I copied some of the tree texture from the lower part of the tree to the region occluded by the suet cage.  I similarly painted in some background texture from another part of the image onto the leftmost portion of the suet cage.  This example merely serves to show that relatively minor defects in backgrounds can be corrected in postprocess using powerful software such as Photoshop (or similar programs); in many cases, these corrections can be achieved, by the experienced user, in no more than a few minutes.  A similar example is illustrated below.

Fig. 9.3.4 : Another example of erasing man-made objects from the scene.
In this case, the resulting image also appears more dramatic, because all
attention is focused on the bird in flight.  (The bottom image has also been
processed to reduce noise, and to lighten the bird’s underside).

    In the above example I’ve again cloned out the suet cage to produce a more naturalistic image; I’ve also reduced the noise a bit via Photoshop’s noise-reduction filter, and brightened the bird’s ventral side via Photoshop’s highlights and shadows tool.  There are two things to note about the corrected image shown above.  First, while the second image may appear more dramatic than the first, it’s not as apparent in the second image what the bird is actually doing; in the top image, it’s clear that the bird is coming in for a landing on the suet feeder.  Second, if you look at the tree branch and trunk in both images, you’ll notice that they seem more faded in the bottom image.  This is due to the use of aggressive noise reduction in Photoshop, which reduced the surface detail in the branch and tree trunk quite substantially; greater care in postprocessing this image could have mitigated this effect.  It’s also interesting to note that aggressive noise reduction in the bottom image has still left very noticeable amounts of noise in the lower portions of the image; advanced noise reduction techniques are described in Part III of this book.
    Finally, just keep in mind that your lens’ diaphram (i.e., aperture control) constitutes a useful tool for manipulating backgrounds in images.  As you’ll recall from Chapter 3.7, wider apertures produce a shallower depth of field (DOF) at a given distance, though increasing the distance to the subject increases the DOF for a given aperture.  A shallow DOF helps to isolate the subject from its background, often resulting in somewhat more pleasing backgrounds, but when taken to extremes a shallow DOF can result in parts of the bird being out of focus (and remember that a wider DOF can help to mask any focusing errors that occur due either to poor camera AF or due to limitations in manual focusing).

Fig. 9.3.5 : Though it takes more work and may not pay off immediately,
planting interesting trees and bushes in your yard can result in long-term
benefits.  Anything that bears berries can both attract the birds and provide
nice scenery for your photos.