Should We Clip Bird Wings?

One of the photographic composition questions folks ask themselves is should we clip bird wings in our images or not. This article features a small collection of photographs and discusses some composition choices that can be considered when deciding whether to clip bird wings or not. 

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. A special note of thanks to one of our readers, William Jones, who designed a very slick Excel spreadsheet that I can use to semi-automate my EXIF photo captions! Many thanks William!

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-560

I appreciate that many photographers feel quite strongly that bird images should show the entire bird. I’m of two minds. On one side, I do believe that showing the entire bird does make absolute sense a lot of the time. This approach shows a bird in all of nature’s beauty.

A challenge does exist. Having the background free flowing around the subject bird without any interruption means that the bird itself must be strong enough to command and hold the viewer’s attention. Sometimes an image works, and at other times the subject matter is simply a bit too weak to stand by itself. This can be the case with monochromatic birds like gulls. 

Another part of me has no hesitation clipping the wings of birds in flight in my photographs. I often do this purposely when capturing an image, and I will also clip a bird’s wings in post if I feel it adds creatively to the photograph.

As I was going through some of my bird image archives while working on my upcoming bird photography eBook, I came upon a selection of gull images. I shot many of these images with me positioned very tight in to the subject bird, purposely intending to clip the bird’s wings. Let’s have a look at a few photographs…

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-720

This is a very typical composition that I do when I’m out shooting potential images to be used in a bird photography presentation. Using a standard word slide can be rather mundane, and often doesn’t hold audience attention very well.

To spice things up a bit and to better integrate the subject matter with my content, I’ve been superimposing wording on the ‘open space’ in bird photographs instead.  The open space can be on either side, or across the top or bottom of an image.  I call this a ‘greeting card’ composition as it purposely allows for wording to be superimposed on a portion of the photograph. From that perspective I view this type of composition as a ‘special purpose’ photograph. Here is an example of how I often incorporate wording into this type of composition.

I often shoot this style of composition when working on client projects as well… obviously not with birds in them!

Let’s have a look at a few, simple composition approaches: ‘flow through’, ‘flow and stop’, ‘intimate action’, and ‘full motion stop’.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234 mm, efov 631.8 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-800

Sometimes when photographing a bird that has monochromatic colouring I will try to clip one, or both, of its wings. This is especially true if the bird has its wings extended in a gliding position. Clipping both wings can improve the eye flow of an image by creating easy-to-follow visual entry and exits points in a photo. It can accentuate key aspects of the subject bird, and add some drama. In the photograph above, clipping both of the bird’s wings creates clean eye flow through the image. It also helps to accentuate the yellow, red and black details of the bird. Clipping both wings allows the bird’s head and body to be larger in the frame which adds some drama. I like to think of this as a ‘flow through’ composition.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-640

When photographing birds at a bit of an angle we have the opportunity to clip one of the bird’s wings. When birds are trying to slow down or begin their landing approach, they will often pump their wings in short-stroke, forward movements. This is an ideal time to try what I call a ‘flow and stop’ type of composition. The flow is created by the outstretched wing that you choose to clip in your photograph. This creates an easy-to-follow visual entry point into the photo… acting as a leading line. The stop is caused by the bird’s other wing being thrust forward with its tip often bent inward. Since this wing does not bleed off the photograph it helps to stop a viewer’s eye flow. This type of composition often frames a bird’s head, thus accentuating its beak and facial colouring.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234 mm, efov 631.8 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-560

As the bird gets closer to landing its wing motions become more pronounced. This can lead to very dramatic wing positions, with some being so contorted that they can look almost unnatural. In these situations it can certainly be very effective to photograph the entire bird.

Clipping the bird’s wings is also a good approach as it can create more intimacy with the subject bird and have readers feel closer to the action… a bit of ‘intimate action’ shall we say.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-640

Another situation where you can consider purposely clipping a bird’s wings is when it is close up and you are following it with a fast panning motion. This will tend to blur the background in the photograph a bit more and give the image a feeling of increased speed and motion. Clipping wings, and even the feet of the bird, reduces eye flow through the photograph. This composition approach basically is a ‘full motion stop’ as it forces the viewer’s eye to stop on the subject bird rather than flowing around it in the photograph.  In the image above, the three well spaced yellow highlights (beak and both legs) add to the balance of the image.

Ultimately how we choose to compose our images is a personal decision. One approach isn’t necessarily better than another. It all comes down to our personal style and creative urges.

Post Processing Note:
As is my normal practice I ran these RAW files through one of my DxO PhotoLab presets, then exported a DNG file into CS6. What made post processing of these images different was that my very first adjustment in CS6 was the Black slider, followed by the White slider. Working with these two sliders first enabled me to immediately create higher visual contrast with these images, then fine tune them with other adjustments in CS6.

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection. All photographs were capturing using a frame rate of 10 fps.

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8 thoughts on “Should We Clip Bird Wings?”

  1. I don’t stop by as i’d like but I always find your views illuminating, even provocative.

    speaking only from my own perspective let me relate my experience with cropping. a few of my shots have made it to publication and/or display.

    when those shots are judged /used by groups looking for specimen images I have found the static, full body examples are the ones that survive the culling process. those tend to be the shots I find least interesting.

    the shots with more drama tend to end up on people’s walls. those images are often cropped to catch a dynamic moment and the extraneous environmental detail is removed to create what I find to be a stronger, more exciting image.

    that said, you have to determine what your audience wants or do what you like and hope an audience finds you.

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion Craig… and thanks for dropping by the website!

      You bring up some good points about the objective that a photographer may have for their work. Some folks have told me that there are occasions where an image won’t even be considered in particular competitions unless the entire bird has been captured in the photograph. Folks would need to research these parameters before entering their work for consideration. I agree that quite often it is a cropped image that finds its way on people’s walls due to the added drama that this type of composition can create.

      I’ve been putting in a lot of hours the past while working on my upcoming bird photography eBook. It was interesting to go back and look at my own work over time. I have a mix of full body photographs and bleed images. Unless I’ve captured a bird in a very interesting action pose, I find the bleed images to be far more dramatic. 🙂 We call have our preferences of course!

      Tom

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for this article, especially interesting as I faced this dilemma several times myself. I am leaning towards clipping wings (or other parts) whenever the composition allows or requires it. I also had cases when the bird’s activity was particularly interesting on a photo that missed some parts (like wings or legs)…. Not the best solution but one can save those photos capturing an interesting moment with some deficit.
    I was wondering if you could show some selected photos through processing. It would be interesting to see the camera originals of some of your best photos where cropping, noise and sharpness adjustments, and other post steps improved the camera original significantly, in your view. Even better if there is an intermediate step that could be shown….
    One of the challenges where one (at least myself) need to gain experience is to see and be able to select those camera originals which has the best post potentials. It would be interesting to see some of your camera originals in a before/after comparison. I am nowhere near your experience with Nikon 1 system that is why some of your incredible photos makes me wonder how it was possible with the little camera that still could …. I apologize if you had such a post already that I have not found. You have an extensive article collection that still amazes me but requires a lot of time to read through and understand :).
    Keep up the excellent work !
    K

    1. Hi Karoly,

      I’m glad that the article was helpful for you. The Post Processing section of my website has a wide variety of articles that provide the kinds of details you requested. I did a quick scan this evening to see if there was one that may follow your request. I think this link will take you to an article with a number of adjustments detailed as well as showing progressive stages of the image in post:

      https://smallsensorphotography.com/working-with-a-sample-landscape-image-in-post

      This article has a lot of details on adjustments as well:

      https://smallsensorphotography.com/surfer-wiping-out

      I’ve never professed to be any kind of an expert with post processing so I’m not sure that I am the best resource for this type of detailed information. I use a collection of three programs DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection, and use some adjustments from each program when I do work in post. Since most people would not use a combination of the same three programs I use, a detailed step-by-step article would probably not be very relevant.

      Tom

  3. Thanks for the shout out. Always glad to help, and in some small way repay the help you have given to me and many of your other readers.
    As for clipping wings, I personally prefer not to; however there are times it can’t be helped. Also, it can occur that the bird is carrying something in its beak, or with its claws, and that therefore becomes the attention point of the photo; so a closer crop that highlights that will result in cropped wings.
    Of the photos in this article, the one that bothers me is photo #2, as there is so much “dead space” on the left hand side of the photo. I would have cropped out most of the dead space, even though it would have resulted in a non-standard sized photo. Try looking at the photo as is, then holding up your left hand to block out most of the dead space, and see how the “feeling” of the photo changes. To me it becomes more “intimate” or “involved” without the dead space. My usual 2 cents worth.

    1. Hi William,

      Thanks for adding your perspectives! With regards to photo #2, this type of composition should be viewed as a ‘special purpose’ image in that it was never intended to be viewed without wording superimposed on it. I have added an example of exactly how I would use that particular style of composition to the article in order to better illustrate the concept.

      Tom

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