Water plays a key role in the lives of all bird species and, for some, makes up the environment in which they spend the majority of their lives. Many people – myself included – have a special fondness for aquatic environments and the bird families they support: wildfowl, waders, gulls, terns, auks, herons, egrets, rails, grebes, the list goes on. These bird families all make excellent photographic subjects but, to capture them at their best, you need to be able to make effective use of water as an element of your compositions.
Understanding how to make the most of water in your bird photos will help you to create some of the most stunning images, whether it’s a perfect reflection of an elegant wader, the drama of a seabird on a rough sea or the splashes of a bird bathing.
In this tutorial, I aim to cover the many different ways that water can contribute to an image, and explain the techniques you can use in each case. I’m not aware of this having been done before, so here goes…
Bird portraits tend to be of two distinct types: environmental shots in which the bird is shown in the context of its natural habitat and minimalist shots in which the bird is shown in a simple composition isolated from the background.
For environmental shots of aquatic birds, water is an essential ingredient, as shown in the following images.
For portrait shots, water (especially calm water) can be used to form a uniform, uncluttered background that helps the subject to stand out.
As a background, the colour and tone of water can vary hugely depending on what it reflects. This can be used to create backdrops that complement and emphasize the colours in your subject.
The tone (brightness) of the water can also be used to establish different moods in your images...
Mood is also affected by the 'texture' of the water...
As an aesthetic point, I would recommend trying to photograph birds against water that has a relatively even tone. Where the water has high-contrast reflections of, for example, background vegetation, the bird tends to become ‘lost’. This can normally be avoided by either waiting for the bird to move into a different spot or shifting your position horizontally or vertically. This will also help you to take well-focused shots as your camera’s autofocus will be less likely to lock on to the patterns in the water.
On a technical note, you need to be particularly careful when processing images featuring water backgrounds as these can be very unforgiving of excessive sharpening or noise reduction. Areas of high contrast such as water ripples or, in particular, water droplets/splashes can easily become over-sharpened, whilst noise reduction software can smooth out low-contrast areas, making them look ‘plasticky’.
My recommendation is to keep your ISO settings as low as possible so that noise reduction is not needed and then to use selective editing to sharpen the bird(s) without risking the background becoming over-sharpened. If light levels are so low that you're forced to use higher ISO settings, you may need to put more work into post-processing to get clean, natural-looking water. I sometimes apply different levels of sharpening and noise reduction to different parts of the water surface.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that water can be used to create atmospheric silhouettes, especially at sunrise or sunset.
Capturing reflections is one of the best ways of adding interest to bird images.
This technique can be used for flight shots as well as static portraits...
As described in Tutorial 6: Basic Composition, where the reflection is clear, the bird-and-reflection combination should be treated as a single unit when placing the subject within the frame. Where there is no reflection, you should concentrate on the position of the birds themselves and, where there is an indistinct reflection, you can use your own judgment about whether or not to take account of the reflection in the composition.
As a further technical point, it’s especially important with reflection shots to ensure the reflection extends along a true vertical line below the bird. If this was not achieved in camera at the time of shooting, it can be corrected later in your image editor by rotating during cropping.
Before we leave the subject of reflections, there is one more special situation in which reflections can add to the aesthetics of your images. This is where light is reflected up off the water on to the bird itself. As well as filling in shadow areas on the underside of the bird (which softens the unflattering 'top-lit' look), this can throw pleasing bands of reflected sunlight on to the bird.
In the above examples, water appeared as a solid body such as a lake, sea or river. Another way to include water in your bird images, though, is in the form of splashes and droplets created by the activity of the birds, such as taking off and landing, feeding, bathing and so on.
To end this tutorial, I'll throw in a few more ideas about how you could incorporate various forms of water into your bird photos. To provide examples of these would make the tutorial too long (and there are some of these images I haven't yet got), so I'll just include these in a list:
Include water arising from meteorological conditions: rain, snow, ice, fog or mist.
Birds surrounded by dew in the grass can be especially effective when back-lit.
Include other wet surfaces, such as mudflats or a beach as the tide recedes.
Birds bathing in - or drinking from - puddles or bird baths can work well, again especially when back-lit or where they include reflections.
Freezing birds such as Kingfishers and Gannets as they plunge-dive is challenging, but can make spectacular images.
Similarly for Ospreys/Sea-Eagles grabbing fish using their talons or Swallows/Skimmers breaking the surface of the water with their beaks.
Anyway, I hope I've given you some food for thought about how your bird images can better utilise water as a compositional element.
If you're interested in getting some assistance with your bird photography, contact me. I'd be happy to give advice or to sign you up for one of my Bird Photography Workshops.