Bird Photography 101: Foregrounds and Backgrounds


WC isn’t sure he has the skills to blog about photography. But incomplete knowledge has never stopped WC from blogging at length before. And, during a long, cold and, above all, dark winter, it gives WC and excuse to post bird photos. So let’s atlk about something beginners frequently overlook: the foreground and background of a photo.

This is a Green Heron in Costa Rica, not an especially unusual bird (and badly mis-named, besides). But this one was perched up in a dead shrub with a colorfully flowered stream bank behind him. Here’s an overview.

Bird too small, background too busy

Bird too small, background too busy (f6.3, 1/160)

The bird, the subject of the photo, is nearly lost against the busy background. The bird needs to be larger in the photo, and the background needs to be out of focus. The terrain wasn’t very helpful. Getting closer from this angle would have involved wading into a swamp, never a good idea in the tropics.

So, retreat from the bird, scramble around to another point, slightly closer.

Background still too busy, colorful background lost (f5.7, 1/160)

Background still too busy, colorful background lost (f5.7, 1/160)

There was one other possible angle, but it involved a tradeoff: a busy foreground but a better foreground. It was also a really dicey perch, especially while using a tripod.

Nicer background, cluttered foreground, tail out of focus (f4.5, 1/320)

Nicer background, cluttered foreground, tail out of focus (f4.5, 1/320)

The perch is pointed almost straight at the camera, and it’s pretty distracting. That out of focus branch by the bill is also annoying. But the background is pretty much what WC was shooting for. There were no other possible angles and, shortly after this shot, the bird got bored and flew off. But the third photos, for all its flaws, is much stronger than the first two.

Background and foreground matter. Where the situation permits, try to get both composed so as to minimize their impact on your subject. If you can’t manage both, choose the one that hurts the photo the least. But the important thing is to be aware of them. Take them into account.

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One thought on “Bird Photography 101: Foregrounds and Backgrounds

  1. Excellent technical information and amazing photos. We have green herons here in Virginia, but it’s nice to get a detailed up close and personal look at one, even if he is a ‘foreigner’! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your beautiful photos

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