How to Capture Amazing Bird Photography Compositions

How to compose amazing bird photos

I first fell in love with bird photography when I was thirteen years old. I didn’t have any fancy equipment, just a little point-and-shoot camera that I had received for my birthday, and my first images – taken during a summer family vacation and featuring seagulls on the beach – were abysmal for a variety of reasons: the light was poor, the exposures were off, the birds were blurry, and the compositions were uninspiring.

But while I soon learned to deal with my lighting and camera settings issues, creating compelling bird photography compositions was a more frustrating problem. To a beginner like myself, learning to compose good images – that is, mastering the art of framing each scene and positioning its constituent elements in a way that felt right – seemed difficult to grasp.

It’s been over a decade since I first started taking composition seriously. Since then, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m happy to share that the problem of composing outstanding bird photos isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it might seem. Yes, developing your sense of composition is a gradual process, but there are plenty of tips and techniques you can use to start capturing high-level bird images right away.

That’s what I offer in this article: my best advice for crafting avian images with outstanding compositions, developed and clarified over 13+ years as a passionate bird photographer. These are the techniques I wish I had known when I first got started, and I’m confident they’ll set you on a path to success.

Sound good? Let’s dive right in.

1. Emphasize your main subject

Bird photography composition tips

The main subject in a photo is the thing that matters most in the image – the thing that draws you to the scene in the first place, the thing that you want to show the viewer. And the first step toward good compositions is to identify and then emphasize that main subject.

So as you approach a new scene, ask yourself: What matters most to me here? What do I want to show the viewer? And then make every compositional decision in pursuit of that goal.

Not every photo has a clear main subject (e.g., a landscape might feature all sorts of equally interesting plants, trees, mountains, etc.), but in bird photography, nearly every image features one (or more) birds as the main subject.

Therefore, you must do what you can to ensure that the bird stands out in the frame. You must do what you can to ensure everything else in the photo emphasizes and enhances the bird.

So how do you do that?

A few simple ways, starting with:

2. Simplify the entire composition

Bird photography composition tips

If your composition is chaotic, then the viewer is going to get lost. And that’s absolutely not what you want.

Instead, aim to simplify the composition as much as possible. The best compositions tend to include a bird and a background. That’s it.

While it’s possible to create beautiful shots by including additional birds or interesting features (e.g., shells, flowers), I recommend avoiding that as much as possible, especially when you’re starting out. These mess up compositions more often than they enhance them.

Also, in the interest of simplicity: If there’s anything in the frame that’s distracting, get rid of it. Make sure there are no branches behind the bird. Make sure there’s nothing in the background that dominates the frame or draws the eye. That’s how you’ll keep your bird photography compositions beautiful!

And speaking of backgrounds:

3. Aim for a uniform, simple background that makes the bird pop

If you want beautiful bird photography compositions, then you need a beautiful background. What does this involve?

First, the best bird photography backgrounds are simple. They’re also uniform. Like this:

Bird photography composition tips

Notice how the background is a nice uniform color.

It keeps the attention on the bird. It doesn’t distract.

To create a background like this, you want to start by ensuring a large separation between the bird and the background. One trick is to get down low, on the bird’s level; this will cause the ground behind the bird to fall away, creating a more distant background.

You should also make sure you use a decently wide aperture, such as f/5.6 or f/6.3 (the particulars depend on the size of your bird, because you don’t want to accidentally make parts of the bird soft!).

Finally, you should ensure that the background doesn’t include small bursts of color that catch the eye. Before you take a shot, look behind your bird, and ask yourself: Will anything in the background dominate the frame? Will anything pull the viewer away from the bird?

If the answer is “Yes,” then you should consider moving slightly to the left or right so that you’re no longer stuck with a distracting background.

4. Use the rule of thirds to position the bird (or the bird’s eye)

Now that you know how to capture beautiful backgrounds, it’s time to look at your main subject and how to position it.

Generally speaking, you’ll have a single bird in your photos. And you need to position this bird carefully.

You don’t want to put it smack-dab in the middle of the frame. That’s a recipe for a boring, static composition.

Instead, I recommend you place the bird so that its eye falls along a rule of thirds power point.

What are the rule of thirds power points? They’re simply points that sit a third of the way into the frame, both vertically and horizontally. The eye in this photo, for instance, falls along a power point:

Bird photography composition tips

It’s a third of the way down, and a third of the way from the left.

The rule of thirds is misnamed; it’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. You don’t have to follow it obsessively. But it’s a great way to keep the frame balanced while also ensuring that each shot feels dynamic!

5. Point the bird into the frame to add movement

I’ve talked about positioning your main subject using the rule of thirds, but there’s another aspect to positioning that you should always, always consider:

The direction the bird is pointing.

You see, most bird photos have some empty space in the frame. And when they do, you want to point the bird into the empty space, rather than away from it, like this:

Bird photography composition tips

By making sure the bird is looking into the empty space, it adds a sense of completeness to the shot, and it also adds a sense of motion. The viewer’s eye follows the bird’s line of sight, and everything feels satisfying. (This is sometimes referred to as the rule of space.)

Whereas if you point the bird out of the frame, the whole shot feels tense. The viewer wants to know what’s outside the frame, and there’s no resolution in sight.

That’s why bird photographers love to point the bird into the frame! It’s a great way to keep the image satisfying and engaging.

However, as with the rule of thirds, it’s important to remember that this is a guideline, not a fixed rule; you can certainly capture well-composed bird images without following this technique (in fact, many of the images in this article actually break this rule…).

6. Capture the bird in a creative pose for increased interest

Now, when it comes to bird photography, you can capture birds in a normal standing pose. And that’ll get you some nice photos.

But sometimes that just isn’t enough.

If you want to create truly creative bird photography, you often need to go beyond the simple standing pose and capture the bird doing something interesting.

Preening birds, for instance, look really interesting. They appear wonderfully tranquil as they clean their feathers:

Bird photography composition tips

Birds that are sleeping also give off a sense of peace that I love.

You can also go for action shots: Birds feeding, for instance, can create a lot of interest. You can capture photos of birds that are about to catch food, are currently catching food, or have just caught food. (Think of a bird with a huge fish in its mouth. It’s guaranteed to add interest!)

You can also go for shots of birds fighting or, as is a common bird photography practice, shots of birds flying. Photographing birds in flight can be a challenge, but it can be very rewarding, too!

So whenever possible, don’t just take a standard bird photo. Go beyond this. Make something unique!

7. Fill the frame

Bird photography composition tips

One of the most difficult parts of bird photography is actually getting close to willing subjects, and it’s the reason that many shooters invest in expensive super-telephoto lenses that reach 500mm, 600mm, and more.

But even with a long lens, you’ll still have to work to capture close-up bird photos; that’s why many beginners end up capturing shots that show distant birds that are tiny in the frame.

However, as I mentioned above, you always want to make sure you emphasize the main subject of each photo – and if the bird is just a small speck in the frame, it certainly won’t be emphasized.

Therefore, I encourage you to always aim for a frame-filling bird image. Of course, you can create beautiful shots that include both the bird and its surrounding environment, but those images require ultra-flattering backgrounds that complement the bird even when in focus. It’s often much more effective to fill the frame with the bird and cut out any background distractions in the process.

There are a number of ways to ensure frame-filling bird compositions. You can use blinds, you can learn to stalk birds, you can learn bird behavior and lie in wait, you can get a super-telephoto lens, or you can frequent areas where birds are relatively tame. You’ll often find yourself using several of these approaches in combination (as I mentioned above, even a super-telephoto lens often isn’t enough to get frame-filling bird shots!).

One caveat: As you aim for frame-filling photos, always keep the bird’s welfare in mind. Don’t distress the bird in pursuit of your shot; it’s just not worth it.

A quick guide to amazing bird photography compositions: final words

You should now have a sense of the best ways to capture beautiful bird photography compositions.

And remember:

Getting amazing compositions doesn’t have to be hard. Just keep in mind the tips I’ve shared, do a bit of practicing with some nearby subjects, and you’ll be taking stunning photos in no time at all!

Now over to you:

Have other tips for gorgeous bird photography compositions that I missed? Share them in the comments below!


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