Cropping Bird Photographs

This article discusses cropping bird photographs and provides a number of sample images to illustrate some approaches that can be used. Photographic composition is very subjective. So, you may, or may not, agree with some of the approaches used in this article. The objective of this posting is simply to illustrate some cropping options that can be considered.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-1600, subject distance 4.5 metres, full frame capture

In our first sample image the subject bird is positioned just to the right of the middle of the frame. This allows some appropriate breathing space on the left hand side of the image given the direction of the sight line of the chickadee. The main issue with this composition is the dead space in the upper third.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-1600, subject distance 4.5 metres, cropped to 4854 pixels on the width

The crop used in this image came in tighter from both the top and right hand side of the original composition. This adds more drama to the body position of the chickadee and gives it a bit more of a 3-D effect. You’ll also notice that we used equidistant composition technique with the head and tail of the bird.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 5 metres, full frame capture

Our next sample image was the result of a ‘turn and shoot’ opportunity. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed this chickadee landing on a V-shaped twig. All I had time to do was fire off some quick images before the bird darted off. There are some interesting triangular shapes that compliment each other. The V-shaped twig. The white cheek colouring of the bird, as well as its black throat feathers. These elements are overshadowed by the thick branch on the right hand side.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 5 metres, cropped to 4026 pixels on the width

By cropping out the thick branch we have simplified the composition, giving the chickadee on its perch more dominance in the image. The head of the chickadee is positioned following ‘rule of thirds’ guidelines, and is pointed towards the open left hand side of the composition.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 5 metres, cropped to 3222 pixels on the height

Cropping bird photographs can be tighter, and also take on a more vertical orientation as we can see in the version above. Once again the chickadee is positioned to the right of centre. We’ve also used equidistant composition technique with its left shoulder and the top of its head. This helps create visual balance.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 6.5 metres, full frame capture

We often find birds perched on angled branches as illustrated in the photograph above. Often these opportunities are best captured as vertical compositions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 6.5 metres, cropped to 3102 pixels on the height

In this case we have cropped the original image into a vertical composition. You’ll notice that we used a corner exit in the bottom left to help create eye flow and anchor the composition.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 6.5 metres, cropped to 3563 pixels on the width

If we wanted to maintain the horizontal orientation, a simple crop primarily on the left hand side, simplifies the composition. The chickadee’s head is positioned following ‘rule of thirds’ guidelines which helps create a feeling of balance in the image.

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-5000, subject distance 4.8 metres, full frame capture

In our fourth sample image we have a chickadee displaying an interesting head angle with nice catch light in the bird’s eye. Unfortunately there are numerous twigs and branches in the photograph which create visual confusion.

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-5000, subject distance 4.8 metres, cropped to 4500 pixels on the width

By cropping in from the left side we were able to eliminate a good deal of visual clutter. You’ll notice a twig in the background acting as a corner exit. It also creates a ‘V’ shape leading back to the subject bird. There is still a fair amount of visual distractions in the compositions so we could crop in even tighter.

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-5000, subject distance 4.8 metres, cropped to 3513 pixels on the width

Tight crops, like the one above, are often quite effective when we photograph small birds against busy backgrounds. Let’s have a look at another set of progressive crops.

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-5000, subject distance 4.8 metres, full frame capture

Cropping bird photographs like the one above sometimes starts with doing a 360-degree scan around the outside edges of the composition. When we do that with the photograph above we very quickly see problems in the right hand upper corner. Not only is there some visual confusion, but also some darker elements which take away from the subject bird.

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-5000, subject distance 4.8 metres,cropped to 4867 pixels on the width

A slight crop to 4867 pixels on the width has cleaned up the top right corner, but the background is still quite busy and distracting.

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-5000, subject distance 4.8 metres, cropped to 4131 pixels on the width

An even tighter crop to 4131 pixels on the width gives our subject bird much more prominence, and eliminates more of the distracting background. With small birds we regularly face this type of challenge as they often perch in more protected areas. Cropping bird photographs of this nature is often most effective when more aggressive cropping is used. Let’s have a look at our final sample image, along with an aggressive crop.

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-4000, subject distance 4.8 metres, full frame capture
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-4000, subject distance 4.8 metres, cropped to 4034 pixels on the width

When cropping bird photographs there are a few simple concepts to keep in mind.

  1. Examine visual clutter in the composition and determine if cropping can simplify the image and give the subject bird more prominence.
  2. Do a 360-degree examination of the outside edges of your photograph to identify anything that interferes visually with your subject bird.
  3. Maintain some free space in the direction of the bird’s gaze.
  4. Utilize ‘rule of thirds’ guidelines where possible.
  5. Use corner exits and equidistant composition technique where possible to improve eye flow and create balance in the composition.

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. Crops are noted where appropriate.

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