10 Composition Tips for Better Bird Photos

Mass gaggle of snow geese in flight

These snow geese have similar body angle and distance creating a pattern of birds in flight

As I mentioned in my first post on how to take better bird photos, there are more than 10 basic tips (and more than 20).  I’ve covered focus and exposure in the first post (which I have recently updated). But like all photos, good composition—what you see within the frame—is the difference between making a compelling photo and having a ho-hum snapshot.  Composition helps tell the story.  It gives visual interest as it guides the viewers eye through the frame. It can emphasize or hide objects.  And it’s not just where in the frame you place the bird.

What makes a better bird photo?

There’s more to a good bird photo than simply capturing cool bird behavior.  The photo must tell a story that connects to the viewer. Without the story and emotion, it’s just a snapshot.  It is not easy to photograph birds.  There will be many frustrations, which only makes the good photos that much a sweeter reward.

Photographing birds in the wild

Like wildlife photography, you have to shoot the animal where it is, which may not be ideal.  Birds can be very skittish and are easily scared.  If you find a bird that you’ve wanted to photograph, be sure to get a couple of shots as best you can from your first point of view, then consider moving around for a better angle.  Take photos from a blind or out a car window so the birds are less likely to notice you.

One of the best ways to be less conspicuous, is to keep your distance.  While I will go into camera gear in another post, it is important to get the longest high quality lens that you can afford (consider renting a lens if you don’t photograph bird often).  A higher quality lens will take sharper photos.  If you try to take a photo with a lens that isn’t long enough to magnify the bird sufficiently, the photo will be grainy and it won’t be possible to sharpen it to the point you will be happy with the picture.

  1. The background makes or breaks the shot. This may be the most important tip to remember.  A brown duck will get lost when it’s in front of a stand of dried reeds. Look for an angle where the bird is against a contrasting color. If the background and foreground are both in the shade, look for an angle where there is more light on the bird or the background (if you want to silhouette the bird). Check to be sure there aren’t any items in the background—houses, cars, man-made structures—that take your eye away from the bird, unless it’s part of the story you are telling.  You want the viewer’s eye to go to the bird, and for it to stand out.If you notice a busy background:
    – Get up higher to shoot down at the bird so the ground or water becomes the background.- Get lower or move right or left so the sky becomes the background.- Set the lowest aperture possible for your lens and use a long telephoto to blur the background.  Be sure to focus on the bird’s eye as its beak may be out of focus with a really low aperture.- Shoot from an angle where the bird is far away from anything in its background. 

    The reeds in the background makes it hard for the viewer’s eye to see the swans faces. The shoreline visually cuts through them.


    Swans on frozen lake.

    By raising the camera up and shooting down, the swans have a relatively clean background of the ice beneath their feet.


  2. Pay attention to the foreground.  Often birds are in trees. While it may not be possible to get around every small branch, try to move around as much as you can so no branch is in front of the bird as you don’t want the branch to visually “cut the bird in two.”  If branches are unavoidable, take extra care that the branch doesn’t cross the eye, face, or beak of the bird.  You may be able to clone out a small branch in post processing if the shot is otherwise good.When shooting closer to the ground, your brain may be focussing on the bird in front of you and not notice weed or other objects in the foreground. Be sure to scan the edges of the frame in the viewfinder.
    horned owl pair in a tree

    This is an extreme example of branches in the way. A pair of Owls are behind the mass of twigs

    Great horned owl in tree

    Walk around until you get a clearer view. If there is only a twig or two in the way, you can clone it out in post processing.

  3. Pay attention to how groups of birds overlap in the photo.  Be sure to pick a main bird as the subject of your photo and let the placement of the other birds guide the viewer’s eye to the main bird. If another bird’s legs are visible but you don’t see its head, it’ll distract from the main bird’s clean composition.  Step right or left to try another angle or choose a wider aperture for a shorter depth of field (blur the other bird). Except when shooting for a pattern of group of birds, isolate the main bird subject from others. (See lead photo)

    Sandhill Crane Platt River Nebraska Wings up

    The light on this sandhill crane helps it stand out from other birds, but the body and legs of the bird behind it distracts from the composition of this photo.

  1. As much as possible try to shoot at the bird’s eye level.  This may mean lying on the ground to photograph small shore birds. It’s seldom practical that you can get up high to shoot a bird in a tree.  Instead, use your longer lens and photograph the tree from farther away so you aren’t pointing up too much.Staying further from a tree is also important to not disturb a bird.  Raptors—owls, hawks and eagles will scare and leave the tree if you get too close.
    dramatic bald eagle in tree

    By shooting from a distance, this eagle’s eye is relatively even with the height of the camera.

  2. The bird’s eye is very important in the photo. Try to compose your photo so that the eye is at one of the intersecting line grids in your viewfinder that represents the rule of thirds.  Always give room in the frame in front of the bird when it is looking right or left. The viewer’s eyes will look where the bird is looking, guiding them through the frame. A 3/4 head position where you get both eyes in the photo, is better than a profile.  If the bird is looking at something—prey, the water, another bird—include what they are looking at in the shot for a more interesting story.

    2 year old juvenile bald eagle in tree

    Placing the bird’s eye at an intersection of rule of thirds adds visual drama.

  3. Keep the horizon straight.  There are few exceptions to the rule.  Use the guide lines or leveler in your camera’s viewfinder. While you can fix this in post processing, you may lose critical parts of the photo when you level it.When birds are flying level across the sky left or right, line up the back of the bird with the horizon/ grid lines. If the birds are taking off or landing, allow the birds to be in the natural position.

    crooked swan flying photo

    The horizon is crooked and the flight of swans is too. This can be fixed but try to keep your camera level.

  4. The bird’s movement or action in a photo is more interesting than a perched bird. A bird that is walking, hunting, dancing, getting ready for take off, fighting or otherwise doing birdy actions will engage the viewer and create a story for a better photo. Interesting birds that are perched (called BOAB or bird on a branch by bird photographers) can make for a good photo.  Try to frame it with leaves or interesting branches.

    Squawking two year old juvenile bald eagle

    A little action adds interest to a BOAB (bird on a branch) photo.

  5. Choose a simple photo or one that shows the environment.  There are different stories to tell about birds.  One is about the beauty of the bird or interesting behavior where you will want to isolate the bird and create a simple photo with as few distracting elements as possible (think sky or water/ground background).The other photo story about a bird is about the bird and its environment.  Do your best to pay attention to the background behind the bird, otherwise, create a landscape shot that includes a bird. (I’ll cover best practices for landscape photography in another tips article.)

    heron on branch Lake Naivasha Kenya

    The lines of the heron and branch create an almost Japanese print quality. It could be anywhere

  6. Wait for interesting action.  Again, get that first shot off as soon as possible. If the bird is hasn’t flown off, stay focussed on the bird and keep watching.  Take photos with the bird’s head at different angles.  If a bird starts doing something interesting, take continuous photos so you get the perfect angle, action, or relationship between the bird and other parts of the photo (a berry in the air as the bird eats it or get the front of the fish instead of a weird side angle).  When you can stay and shoot a bird without it flying off, it’s a gift from your avian subject, accept it and make the most of it.

    juvenile bald eagle fights adult bald eagle for prey

    One eagle was eating his kill. We waited until some action happened

  7. Practice, practice, practice. In the world of photography, photographing wildlife is one of the most challenging subjects you can choose. Because birds can quickly fly away (and usually will) they are among the hardest types of wildlife you can shoot.  Practice whenever you get a chance—in your backyard, shoot the pigeons in the city, etc.

Understanding the basics of bird behavior and getting the right equipment will improve your bird photography as well.  Guess I’ll have to write a couple more articles.


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