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