What Makes a Great Bird Portrait? « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

What Makes a Great Bird Portrait?

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This image of a perched adult Bald Eagle was created with the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X III TC and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400: 1/500 sec. at f/8 set manually after histogram/flashing highlights check.

What Makes a Great Bird Portrait?

Today we will take a closer look at the image above. It was featured in a recent blog post here.

What makes this an outstanding portrait?

  • The subject is beautiful. Even in Homer, adult eagles with clean white heads are tough to come by.
  • The perch, with its yellow lichens, has character.
  • The perch is angled. Introducing diagonals into your images is always a plus.
  • The soft blue background complements the subject perfectly
  • The out-of-focus background does not have any distracting elements.
  • The soft blue streaks at the bottom add to the image.
  • The very soft o-of dark band at the top serves as a frame.
  • The three quarters facing portrait shows off the bird and its breast feathers nicely.
  • The 45 degree head angle is perfect for this pose.
  • The feet and the talons are clearly visible.
  • The soft light is quite pleasing.
  • The image is sharp and properly exposed.
  • The WHITEs are bright yet detailed.
  • With the bird a bit back in the frame, the composition works well.

Can you add anything to the list? All of the principles detailed above (and tons more) are discussed in detail in The Art of Bird Photograph II (916 pages on CD only).

Here is a challenge for eagle-eyed readers. Can you find the difference between the image above and the nearly identical one that I posted here originally?

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear that I used to create the image above. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon EF 1.4X III TC. This new TC is designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. The very best professional digital camera body that I have ever used.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo 3530 LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
Double Bubble Leve.l You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am on a tripod and not using flash.
Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable.

16 comments to What Makes a Great Bird Portrait?

  • avatar ROBERT E LEWIS


  • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Thanks Becky!

  • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Hey David, I agree with a lot of what you said. Backgrounds that feature soft out-of-focus patterns can be very pleasing and artistic. Anyone who says that such backgrounds are bad BOKEH simply does not know what Bokeh is. Bad BOKEH features jangly seemingly over-sharpened detail (even though the image has not been sharpened).

    There are dozens and dozens of types and kinds of distracting background elements. Most common are branches sticking into or protruding from the subject and unusually light or dark areas that often do the same. There are lots more; you will generally know them when you see them. Soft out-of-focus leaves and branches that frame the subject nicely can work well for me. Your questions are quite general; I would simply advice that you study the images posted in the Bulletins and on the blog to learn more about the types of backgrounds that I like. And also, see today’s blog post 🙂

  • avatar Thom Howd

    I would add to the list:

    The feet are staggered in position at different levels on the perch. This staggered foot placement automatically impacts the posture of the bird which introduces an element of tension in the posture of the bird. The staggered foot placement generally yields a pose from a slight lean to the more dramatic high alert poses where the eagle lowers its head to a forward postion.

    Open snags are my favorite for photographing perched bald eagles and often they arey incorporate a brigh blue sky background. While snags are my favorite perch for photographing bald eagles, even a slanted/angled branch often yields the samed staggered foot placement as we see in the image you posted.

    The portrait you posted shows the bald eagle in a relaxed at ease pose. Capturing a perched eagle in an open-mouthed calling pose adds another dimension or element to a bald eagle portrait which many find more compelling than a bald eagle in a passive, resting pose.

    The soft light in the image you posted is very diffused and has no distracting shadows. Still a low angled directional sunlight raking across the chest of a perched bald eagle can add some fine feather shadows and intriguing texture and shape to such portraits. I just add this to as a reminder to other photogs that the direction of light and the presence of shadows is a choice in telling the story. One is not necessarily better than the other, just as people portrait photographers employ a variety of lighting schemes when photographing clients.

    My added input is all just my humble opinion. I would be glad to send a few sample eagle images along to illustrate what I am trying to convey in words.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hey Thom, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yeah, it would have been nice if this bird had called but it just sat there for an hour posing…. I am not a big fan of sidelight–raking or otherwise–for bird photography…. The next really good one that I see will be the first. We would love to see some of your eagle images posted in the Avian Gallery on BPN.

  • To get a portrait like this one is the ultimate challenge . . . and then a tad bit of tweaking makes it even “better.” But I find that people who don’t know anything about bird photography have been known to say, “That’s boring . . . it’s just the bird.” To each his own. Conservation and environmental people most often want the natural habitat to be shown in the image. To them, reeds, plants, branches, etc. are not distractions but rather make the image whole for their purposes. For me, the Bald Eagle shot (as a portrait) is divine. The bird is so majestic and beautifully displayed.

  • Well, I’m not trying to be loose – just acknowledging that we all have different thresholds for what counts as distracting. My favorite style of background is that when it seems to be like a painting – there’s just enough detail to make out what things are, but it’s very clearly out of focus and does not grab your immediate attention. While there are people that agree with my preference, I’ve also heard others criticize that sort of background as being “bad bokeh” and distracting. Those people want nothing less than a background that is a pure swath of colors, with nothing that can be distinguished among them. I can appreciate that style, too, but that’s not the point – the point is that some people have a very low threshold for what counts as distracting.

    Do you have any thoughts for what counts as a distracting background? When you want to incorporate the background, what sorts of features do you look for?

  • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Good eagle-eyes also by Joel and Becky 🙂

  • avatar Bill Richardson

    2 more: getting detail in the darks while retaining detail in the whites (eagles are tough on this!); no noise. Beautiful exposure.

  • That is indeed a stunning photo. As far as artistic appreciation goes, I somewhat disagree with the fifth point that the background must be completely free of distracting elements (although I suppose we all have different definitions for what constitutes “distracting”). You want the background to be out of focus enough that it doesn’t occupy the viewer’s immediate attention, for certain, but once the eye has given attention to the bird I think it’s nice if there’s something in the rest of the photo to give some attention to. It helps to give a feel for the environment that the bird was in, and in a way it helps to bring the viewer “there.”

    So this plain blue background is pleasing and certainly shifts full attention to the eagle. Yet when I compare this to some of your other shots where the background was slightly busier – containing patterns, colors, and textures – I prefer the others. Those shots provided me with a feel for the environment. Here, I can’t tell what the blue is. Snow? Water of some sort – an ocean? A river? A lake? The sky (what time of day)? A blue sheet? 😉

    Granted, as photographers we have different goals in mind, and even each viewer may want something different. Some simply want to see the bird, and photos like this, with an even-toned background, fit that bill. As for me, since I like being outdoors, I want to be “taken there” by the photo. Without that additional context of the surroundings, I’m still grounded in front of my computer screen.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      David, Though this image is certainly created in the BAA style–tight and graphic with a clean background, do know that I like environmental portraits and the occasional wide image as much as the next guy. I only make them when surroundings are beautiful. If the backgrounds are busy, distracting, and chaotic, I try to clean things up. I think that you are being a bit loose with your choice of vocabulary–if your preference really is for images with “distracting” background elements and for those with “busy” backgrounds, then that is your problem 🙂

      Each of us gets to choose their own style.

  • avatar Jon

    Artie the difference between the two images is the small splinter on the log between the two feet.

  • You removed a very small distracting projection from the perch that was between the eagle’s talons.

    Perfect is perfect. It’s perfect.

  • avatar Joel DeYoung

    Thanks for posting your though process on what makes a great bird portrait. I really don’t have anything to add. 🙂

    In regards to your question on what is different in the two photos, all I can see is that you removed a piece of something (wood splinter?) from near the talons. Not an easy thing to see.