Including the Landscape in Bird Photography
Why include the landscape when photographing birds?
Photographing birds in the landscape can often create a more engaging image that tells a better story about your subject’s life. Once bitten by the bird photography bug, it is common to see people struggling to get closer to their elusive target. Unfortunately, it’s not easy when your subject is likely to take flight and disappear at the slightest disturbance. However, what does your image say about the subject if you get close enough to fill the frame with your bird by luck, stealth, or both? Often the answer is nothing but a record of a pretty bird.
Can you tell a better story?
Many bird photography competitions now include a category referred to as ‘birds in the landscape’ or ‘birds in the environment’. The aim of this category is not to capture a landscape photograph with a bird or two in it. Instead, the idea behind this category is to capture an image demonstrating the relationship between the birds and their habitat or environment. In other words, the image communicates something about the subjects’ lives to the viewer.
The hope is that the resulting images will convey the importance of preserving bird habitats and tell the story of their lives. In addition, by raising awareness of the relationship between habitat and survival, the images can draw attention to the threats facing a species through habitat loss.
Conservation is not the only purpose of seeing and illustrating the bigger picture of your subject in bird photography. Often the surrounding environment can add much greater interest to your images. By utilising landscape features in the background and foreground of your image, you can create a more engaging photograph of your subject. Of course, capturing great light is always as important as the subject itself, so that should also be one of your first considerations.
Often the surrounding environment can add much greater interest to your images.
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How much landscape should I include?
Birds vary tremendously in size, so how much of the landscape or environment you should include in an image is a difficult question to answer. For example, if you were to shoot a landscape panorama, you would most likely lose a tiny bird in the composition. However, a larger landscape with a flock of small birds might create a successful image. When photographing birds in the landscape, the first consideration is what aspect of the environment is needed to show the relationship between the subject and the other components of your image. For instance, birds that feed in paddocks of long grass need the grass to be a significant part of the image.
Likewise, a photo of an egret that hunts by stalking fish out in the open on lakes and estuaries would benefit from the expanse of water that provides its prey being included in the image. However, a tiny bird looking for insects amongst the bushes or samphire might only need a smaller area of the environment to tell the story of its hunting and feeding habits.
When photographing birds in the landscape, it is important to include environmental elements that tell the story.
A tiny bird looking for insects amongst the samphire might only need a smaller area of the environment to tell the story of its hunting and feeding habits.
How do you photograph birds in a landscape?
Once you have decided what to include in your image, you need to assess your location, position, and light conditions. The scene in front of you should suggest your chosen camera settings.
The location of the birds will often dictate the direction of the light, so in many cases, you may have no choice. However, whether you choose to have the light behind you, to the side, or in front should always be your first consideration when arriving at a location. When you see birds at a site, decide which direction to approach based on the light and the appeal of the background, visually and in terms of story-telling potential.
Position and Perspective
Birds can be on the ground or the water, at eye level, high in a tree, or up in the sky. Depending on which scenario you are dealing with, including the landscape in your image will require different shooting positions. Unless you are shooting birds similar to you in height, such as emu or ostrich, you need to photograph ground-level birds from a low perspective. This is because when you look down on a subject, the background is very close to them. Not only does this make it difficult to isolate the animal, but it also tells us very little about the bird’s environment. If the bird is further away from you, your position can be higher as long focal lengths flatten out your view with the benefit of distance.
Lowering your perspective when photographing birds in the landscape makes the subject part of the surrounding scene. In visually cluttered environments and those with less desirable elements in front of your subject, getting lower can help you blur foreground elements. Using a single point to focus on the bird’s eye ensures that your attention is drawn straight to the bird.
You can afford to photograph birds flying at eye level or perched in the trees from a standing position. However, birds flying high in the sky rarely have anything in the background to give the image context. Likewise, nothing in a blue sky can tell us more about the environment that provides a home for the bird. Therefore, getting to a higher vantage point may be necessary to include the landscape in your image.
When photographing birds in flight, getting to a higher vantage point may be necessary to include the landscape in your image.
Metering and Highlight Alerts
The recommendation for bird photography is often spot metering. However, while it may give you the correct exposure for the bird, we are aiming to include the surroundings. Therefore, I prefer evaluative metering and auto ISO combined with exposure compensation for the bird in difficult variable situations. Often our bird subjects are in flight in the landscape or moving in other ways. When the light and the scene change rapidly during a bird’s flight or movement, it is not easy to adjust your exposure settings quickly in full manual mode.
Auto ISO adjusts quickly to the changing background, increasing the chances of obtaining the correct exposure throughout the bird’s movement. In addition, applying negative or positive exposure compensation for the bird helps maintain the correct settings for the main subject. For example, a white bird flying against a dark location can easily result in an overexposed bird. In this case, I would use negative exposure compensation to avoid losing feather details on the white bird. The resulting background will then be dark, which often enhances the image. However, the aim is to include aspects of the landscape to tell a better story, so a background that needs to be lighter may be counterproductive.
Similarly, dark birds against the sky or a lighter environment tend to silhouette unless you use positive exposure compensation. So, you will need to assess your scene and make deliberate choices to get the correct exposure. Enabling your highlight alert function, which shows blown highlights when you review an image you have taken by blinking, helps determine the correct exposure settings.
Exposing for the brightest areas in your image may result in a very dark background,
Every effort should be made to capture detail in your whites and avoid blown highlights.
Aperture and Focal Length
A landscape photographer would automatically choose a small aperture to get the greatest depth of field and sharpness in the image. However, including a great deal of detail in the background of a photograph that includes birds can overwhelm the subject. Therefore, the focal length of your lens and the distance between the birds and the nearest objects in the environment behind them can affect your choice of aperture. Birds in the distance that are close to the background can benefit from a wide-open aperture. For example, when focusing on your subjects using zoom and telephoto lenses at long focal lengths, grouped objects near each other appear sharper. As a result, it may be challenging to visually separate the birds from the background.
On the other hand, if the birds are close to you and a long way from the scene behind them, the space results in the lens magnifying objects behind your subject, creating a softer, more blurred background. The background can appear closer, an effect known as compression. In this case, you can use a smaller aperture, such as f/8, to increase the depth of field and detail on the birds. Also, choosing a smaller aperture with groups of birds will help get more of them in focus. A soft focus background with little detail tells us very little about the environment. However, it may capture the mood and essence of a scene rather than the details in the setting. This atmosphere, in turn, tells the story of the birds in the image.
A soft focus background without much detail tells us very little about the environment. However, it may capture the mood and essence of a scene, which can help tell the story of the birds in the image.
Landscape photographers aim for a sharp image, so their camera is, more often than not, mounted on a tripod. They may also use a slow shutter speed to capture movement in the water but not in other areas as a result of camera shake. In comparison, while it is possible to use a slow shutter speed to capture birds in flight in a landscape, in most situations, the shutter needs to be fast enough to freeze movement in case your subject takes to the air. Panning with the birds at slower shutter speeds will result in motion blur in the landscape. If that isn’t what you are hoping to achieve, a shutter speed of at least 1/1600s, preferably faster, is desirable to freeze the birds and retain detail in your image’s background.
One shot AF would be the desired focus setting for a landscape photographer, but our primary subject is potentially going to move, so my choice would always be continuous focus. For Canon users, that would be AF- Servo, and for Nikon, AF-C. Other brands of cameras will usually use some variation on AF-C.
In addition, many DSLR and mirrorless camera’s now have subject tracking, which helps to ensure that the main point of focus in the scene remains on the animals in the photograph. Of course, you need to make sure that the subject to detect in your menu has been set to animals or, in particular, birds if you have that option available,
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Teaching yourself to see the bigger picture and compose an image that includes the landscape can be quite an adjustment. However, it can be as simple as training yourself to look first at the birds and the surrounding environment before looking through your lens. All too often, wildlife photographers will immediately raise their lenses and zoom in on a subject without taking the time to assess the scene in front of them. The tunnel vision created by the restrictions of the lens can result in cramped shots that only record the animal’s physical features.
On the other hand, through the power of storytelling, photographing birds in the landscape, and capturing the scene and atmosphere, can be rewarding for both the photographer and the birds.
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