My bird photography aesthetic - part 1

This is my real introductory blog post.  Since my site is mostly devoted to bird photography, I thought I'd start off with an explanation of what I try to accomplish in a bird photo and what I look for in other people's bird photos.

Different genres of photography have different aesthetics.  Landscape photographers, for example, have a specific aesthetic that I don't understand.  Don't get me wrong, often I will see a landscape photo and appreciate the beauty of it but probably for reasons that I don't fully understand.  I don't know what specific aspects to look for that distinguish a good landscape photo from a mediocre one.  I once met a photographer who had a friend who was into food photography.  He would spend an hour taking photos of a single bowl of noodles, arranging and rearranging individual noodles to get the perfect picture.  He had a specific aesthetic - specific aspects of a photo that he felt distinguished a good food photo from a poor one.  Again, I'm sure that at a subconscious level I appreciate the difference but I couldn't tell you why.  The same goes for portrait photography, fashion photography, macro photography, etc.

Likewise, bird photography has an aesthetic to it.  There are numerous elements to a bird photo that I think contribute to its overall quality.  This series of posts is an effort to enumerate these elements and my opinions about each one.  This series of posts is NOT about how use your camera to achieve this aesthetic.  There are so many good sites about using your camera that I have very little to add.


The first topic that I want to cover is post-processing.  Post-processing is the use of a program like Photoshop to alter a photo.  Anybody familiar with Photoshop knows that these alterations can range from minor clean-up to major changes.  I suspect that most wildlife photographers post-process their photos to some extent and I'm no different in that regard.  There may be wildlife photographers out there who don't post-process at all and if they are getting good results then I am incredibly impressed.  There may be photographers for whom it is more important to publish a picture straight out of the camera than for every pixel to be perfect.  If that's their aesthetic then I'm happy for them but I like to polish my photos a bit before publishing them.  That being said, I try not to go overboard on the post-processing.

I nearly always crop my bird photos.  Sometimes I will crop purely as a matter of framing.  Most often, I crop a photo so that the bird fills more of the frame.  It's usually hard to get really close to animals so most of my photos are relatively distant.  I'm just a hobbyist and can't afford a $10,000 super-zoom lens but even then, many birds would still be too far away.  So I crop.

I also will often play with the exposure settings of a photo.  The lighting situation can change quickly in the field.  I usually shoot in full manual mode and sometimes I haven't got enough time to adjust my camera exposure perfectly.  I'm usually not too far off but I do often adjust the exposure up or down a bit in Aperture to get it just right.

Aperture also offers sliders to adjust the highlights and shadows.  A lot of times, especially in harsh lighting conditions, it's hard to get the exposure right for the entire body of the bird.  

Adjusting the shadow detail in Aperture.

Adjusting the shadow detail in Aperture.

This photo shows a fairly extreme example of adjusting the shadow detail that I did in Aperture.  You can see in the original photo on the left that almost no detail can be seen in the wings.  Recovering the shadow areas in Aperture lets you see more detail in the dark areas without overexposing the light areas.

Cropping and adjusting the exposure/shadows/highlights account for 95% of the post-processing that I do to my wildlife photos.  As I said, I try not to go overboard.

Well, that's enough writing for one blog post but there are other aspects of my bird photography aesthetic still left to cover.  I'll be writing more about it as time permits.