Cropping images of birds-in-flight with the Rule of Thirds

As photographers we all do our best to really think about the composition of our images and construct them to achieve a sense of balance. When we do this well we are able to control eye flow and create a pleasant viewing experience for people looking at our photographs. To accomplish that we often use the Rule of Thirds in our compositions. Obviously this is much easier to utilize when photographing static subjects such as landscapes and much more difficult to achieve when our subjects are moving.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

BIF cropping image 1

Birds-in-flight can pose an interesting challenge. Some images of birds with their wings in standard flying positions are pretty straightforward in terms of deciding how we want to crop them. If we have a bit of luck we may be able to capture the odd one so that it doesn’t even need to be cropped.

BIF cropping image 2

Many image subjects end up in centre frame, with a bit of ‘head room’ to create a sense of motion and to accentuate the direction in which the bird is flying. It is the details in the image that draw our viewers in and hold them.

BIF cropping image 3

Cropping decisions can become more artistic in nature when we are dealing with images of birds-in-flight in which usual or dramatic wing positions are present. These types of images tend to project more emotion and often a feeling of anticipation of where the bird is heading or what it is going to do. These factors can make cropping decisions more difficult, especially when our favourite captures may not have the subject in the best position in the frame.

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Lately I’ve been using the Rule of Thirds a lot more as a tool to help me with these cropping decisions and I thought some readers may find this topic of interest. I have a series of five images to share. These were all taken with my Nikon 1 V2 and Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 on a very dull, overcast day so I apologize in advance for the quality of the images (especially the out-of-camera jpegs). Many amateur bird photographers, like me, do shoot in less-than-optimal conditions so if nothing else these images are likely representative of the files with which many of us have to work.

With each image set we’ll first look at an out-of-camera jpeg. Then we’ll look at a screen capture showing the original RAW file opened up in OpticsPro 10 on the left hand side. On the right side you’ll see the image after adjustments have been made to it in CS6 and a Rule of Thirds cropping grid applied. The final photograph in each set will be a completed, cropped image.

Since photography is subjective by nature you may, or may not, like the images in the article. And, you may not agree with my cropping rationale. If this is the case I ask that we keep our focus on the intent of the article which is simply to demonstrate how the Rule of Thirds can be used as a cropping tool.

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The photo above is very typical of what we often have to work with, i.e. a bird in the process of landing with its wings in a decent position. We often capture these in centre frame, as part of an AF-C run.

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As you can see in the screen capture above, the challenge with this type of image is to try to give it some sense of anticipation about what will happen next. In this regard the background on the left hand side of the image is ‘dead space’ which is not adding anything to the image.

Looking at the right hand side of the screen capture we can see how I pulled the left border and the top and bottom in tighter, trying to make them equidistant to the bird to form a nice framing around it. Using the Rule of Thirds grid, I had the bird’s left wing touch one cropping line, and its left foot intersect another one. This allowed 1/3 of the right hand side of the image to stay open giving the image some balance. It also allowed the bird’s gaze and beak to be directed at the bottom right-hand corner to help direct potential viewers in terms of where the bird is headed. This forms a subtle ‘corner exit’ for the image.

BIF cropping image 7

If you look carefully at the completed image above and compare it with the original jpeg you’ll notice that I used the dodging tool in CS6 to improve the definition of the bird’s eye. This isn’t always possible, but when it is I take the time to make this finicky adjustment. I also used the hue adjustment in CS6 to add a bit more yellow saturation.

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The image above is another very typical capture. This time the bird is higher up in the frame and the image has very strong left to right flow. There is a stronger feeling of movement with this image than with the first one we examined and we need to consider this when deciding on our final crop.

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Looking at the right hand side of the screen capture we can see that I created equidistant framing on the left side, top and bottom of the image. Since the bird was in flight and moving faster in the image I left more open area on the right hand side of the image to accentuate this feeling. The bird’s right wing tip just touches a Rule of Thirds grid line to help ensure image balance.

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The finished image is cropped tight enough to reveal wing, back and tail detail but is still open enough to give it an ‘airy’ feel to help create strong motion in the image. If you examine the bird’s head you’ll see that I had to create some highlights to better define the bird’s eye with the CS6 dodging tool.

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The image above is quite typical and is a bit trickier because we have another unwanted bird in the frame. This often happens when we try to photograph birds landing.

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Examining the right hand side of the screen capture we again see the use of equidistant framing. This time I used the head of the unwanted gull as my minimum distance. I used the Rule of Thirds grid to position the bird’s left wing and left foot. I didn’t want to bring the bird any further into the middle of the cropped image as it caused a loss of image flow. The cropping I chose enabled the bird’s gaze to exit in the bottom right corner and its left wing points nicely towards the top right corner adding to overall image flow.

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As in the previous finished image samples you’ll see that I made adjustments to the bird’s eye and added some yellow saturation.

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The next sample image above is one that we would often discard because on first blush it is a bit of a jumbled mess with out of focus birds and an ugly cement structure in the corner. I like the wing positions of the bird in this one and the strong sense of motion.

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The right hand side of the screen capture shows a very tight crop. I also had to remove a little bit of the cement structure and a tiny bit of an unwanted bird’s head to make the crop work. To ensure a feeling of speed I purposely left almost half of the frame with ‘open space’. This also allowed me to crop the image so that the body of the bird is very strongly pointing towards the top right corner, creating an exit point for the image. You’ll also notice that the bird’s right wing and beak are positioned on Rule of Thirds’ grid lines.

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Given the small size of my Nikon 1 V2 sensor this crop was a bit too aggressive as you can see in the finished image. You’ll also notice some work done to try to define the bird’s eye.

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Our last image is another typical challenge we face with our captures. Nice wing position and symmetry but a terrible position in the frame that really restricts our cropping potential.

BIF cropping image 18

In the right hand side of the screen capture we can see that I used the tight bottom framing as is but did try to give the image a little more breathing room on the left side and top. The key was not to allow too much and cause the image to look unbalanced. I felt that the image had a very strong geometric line running from the tail in the bottom left to the wing tips in the top right. I used the ‘rule of thirds’ grid to keep three segments open in the bottom right hand portion of the image. I did this to try to create strong contrast with the crop and thus accentuate the strong visual flow of the image from the bird’s tail up to its wing tips.

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Given the unfortunate position of the bird in the original frame I felt this final image ended up working well. You’ll notice, once again, that I spent time making adjustments to the bird’s eye to help the image ‘pop’. I chose not to add any yellow saturation as the bird’s feet are not displayed, and I did not want to detract from the strong contrast in the bird’s wingtips.

I hope this article has adequately demonstrated that the ‘rule of thirds’ can serve as a useful cropping tool for bird-in-flight images.

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Article and images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication of any kind, or adaptation is allowed without written consent.

4 thoughts on “Cropping images of birds-in-flight with the Rule of Thirds”

  1. Hi Thomas,

    Great article. Found your website this morning while feeling discouraged with my Nikon 1 V1 (can’t afford to change gear at this point) and you’ve given me hope! I am a beginner photog and am interested in landscape/animal/macro photography. Love your site. I’ve picked up some tips that I will put to good use this weekend 🙂



    1. Hi Manon,

      Thank you for the positive comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the article and my web site! There are a number of articles on my site that cover your three interest areas so hopefully you will find them interesting. Keep in touch and let us all know how you are making out!


  2. Excellent tips throughout, Thomas!
    I use all these techniques continually in my bird photography 🙂

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