Bird Portraiture Considerations

This article shares some bird portraiture considerations and illustrates them primarily with a selection of photographs of a crested caracara.

Every photographer has their own interests and approach with their images. I enjoy getting in ‘close and personal’ with subjects and creating bird portraiture images. Most of the photographs in this article are of a captive crested caracara, captured handheld while I was standing on the steps of a buffet restaurant in Cuba.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-900, full frame capture

One of the first bird portraiture considerations is the angle of the bird’s head. A front angle view as illustrated in the above photograph is typically not particularly effective.

Depending on the species of the bird it can be hard to capture the character of the subject. Also, from a pragmatic standpoint this angle can make it difficult to compose an image with the bird’s eye and beak both in focus. Overall, a front angle can make a bird look weak and rather ‘ho-hum’.

From a post processing perspective, I should note that I used the DxO Smart Lighting Spot Metering tool to help extend the dynamic range, add fill light and improve contrast in the image above. The crested caracara’s right eye was in dark shade. Using the DxO Smart Lighting Spot Metering tool eliminated the need for me to do any dodging with the photograph in post.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 170 mm, efov 340 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-1000, subject distance 1.3 metres

Rather than a front angle view, a straight head-on perspective can help create a feeling of intensity and focus. This still creates challenges in terms of getting both the bird’s eyes and beak in focus. Using an appropriate focal length, aperture and distance to subject are considerations. This photograph above would be been a bit better if I had stopped my lens down to f/7.1 or f/8.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-900, full frame capture

Birds can be very expressive through the position of their heads. Sometimes they can have an inquisitive, almost playful look. Given that the crested caracara is a raptor that feeds on carrion as well as live prey, this did not suit the character of the bird to me.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/25, ISO-1600

Some birds always seem to look cute and inquisitive… as if it is part of their personality.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 208 mm, efov 561.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1250, full frame capture

Positioning a subject bird against an unobstructed background is another bird portraiture consideration. Having an overly busy background can be distracting. To achieve good subject separation when using a smaller sensor camera it is helpful to get in close with a longer focal length, and choose a distant background whenever possible.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 208 mm, efov 561.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1250, full frame capture

An open beak can add some interest to a photograph. Unlike human portraiture subjects that will take direction, birds tend to move about even when perched. Always choose a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the head movement of a subject bird.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 208 mm, efov 561.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-2000, full frame capture

Using a slight downward angle can help reveal nostril details and more of a bird’s lores (the areas between the eyes and nostils). Depending on the species and time of year a bird’s lores can be quite spectacular.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 208 mm, efov 561.6 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-2000, full frame capture

As is the case when doing portraiture work with human subjects, it can be important to pay attention to small details in post. This is a personal choice.

When you compare the two images above you’ll notice that I removed a small nick in the crested caracara’s beak as well as some flecks of debris in the feathers on its forehead feathers.

I don’t often do spot adjustments in post and regularly leave scars, scrapes and other markings on birds if they add character. In this particular case I found the small nick in the caracara’s beak to be overly distracting.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 173 mm, efov 467 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-2800, full frame capture

Bird portraiture considerations also include catch light in the eye of a subject bird. This can add life to a photograph. At times catch light can be distracting if it obscures the pupil of a bird’s eye.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1800, full frame capture

In man-made environments sometimes catch light coming through windows can have an artificial look, or reflect man-made structures in the eye of a bird. This is one of the those bird portraiture considerations that most often come into play in zoos and other captive environments.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-2800, full frame capture

Sometimes a slight shift in the angle of a bird’s head can significantly lessen potential catch light distraction while still adding some life to the eye of a bird. In some cases it could make sense to do some of burning with the catch light in post if it is a bit too strong.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 173 mm, efov 467 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-2800, full frame capture

Some birds, reptiles and sharks, have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane which can be translucent or clear. This provides some additional eye protection while still allowing an animal to see. Photographs with a bird using its nictitating membrane can give it an alien-like appearance.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-1800, full frame capture

Keeping a few bird portraiture considerations in mind can help create some interesting and detailed images of birds. And, help capture some of the essence and character of the species.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-2000, full frame capture, subject distance 5.9 metres, Bird Detection AI

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4 thoughts on “Bird Portraiture Considerations”

  1. Thomas: Outstanding photography! The bird portraits are superb. I shoot a full-frame Nikon but have never been able to get shots this good. Is there an advantage to a small sensor or is it something else? Remarkably free of noise also. Maybe I should be using my Nikon 1 V1 more often!

    1. Hi John,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the images… thanks for your supportive comment!

      I used to shoot with full frame Nikon gear as well, but ended up selling my D800 and a good collection of F-mount glass in July 2015 and never looked back. As you know, every piece of camera equipment comes with some kind of trade-off. The trick is to find gear that best suits one’s needs, then learn to work around whatever trade-offs are present as best one can.

      For what I do, smaller sensor cameras like my Olympus kit and my Nikon 1 gear are a much better fit than full frame. I typically need more, not less, depth-of-field so using shorter focal length lenses with smaller sensor cameras to achieve the efov I need, suit me perfectly. For those times when I do need to create shallow depth-of-field I can usually figure out a way of making my smaller sensor gear work.

      Working in post is different as would be expected. I’ve written numerous articles on this subject, found under the ‘Post Processing’ menu tab. I use DxO PhotoLab 4 as my base RAW processor as I really like the auto lens/body corrections and the DxO Smart Lighting Spot Weighted tool, as well as DeepPRIME noise reduction. I use these tools on all of my images, regardless of the ISO at which they were captured. I make some additional tweaks in PhotoShop CS6, and sometimes in the Nik Collection. I typically finish my bird images off by applying Topaz Denoise AI at the end of my process. Using DxO DeepPRIME at the front of my process and Topaz Denoise AI at the end really does a nice job dealing with noise.

      Hope this brief explanation has helped…

      Tom

      1. Thanks Tom, that helps a lot. You have me charged up to start using my Nikon 1 V1 again. I am 74 and have arthritis which makes hoisting my D810 and bigger lenses a real pain. Using the V1 might make photography fun again for me.

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