Five Image Characteristics of a Bird Photograph

Introducing the Five Image Characteristics of the Bird Picture Quality Self-Assessment Rubric (QSAR)

Acknowledging that “Great” is in the eye of the beholder, every bird photograph exhibits several Image Characteristics that determine its overall quality.  QSAR identifies the following five Image Characteristics:

  1. Technical Quality
  2. Composition of the Photograph
  3. Artistic Quality of the Photograph
  4. Impact on the Audience
  5. The Bird in its Environment.

QSAR breaks down each Image Characteristic into several Components, which are mapped to the Four Types of Bird Photographs previously described using Levels of Quality.  Let’s take a brief look at each Image Characteristic:

1. Technical Quality

The Technical Quality of a photograph is the first and perhaps most important of the five Image Characteristics.  The Technical Quality of a photograph can be broken down into the following Components:

Focus – The focus on the bird takes place in the field – there is not much that can be done to correct it during post-processing.  The better the focus, the better the image is in the eye of the viewer.

Exposure – This refers to the entire photograph.  Some pictures taken while pointed up at a flying bird the whole frame may be too light (over-exposed).  Other pictures taken in deep shade on a cloudy day may look dark (under-exposed).

Lighting – Different from Exposure, Lighting refers to the amount of light on the bird itself.  When taking a picture of a dark bird that is backlit it may appear too dark while the rest of the image is properly exposed.  Similarly when taking a picture of a white bird the bird’s brightness may cause blowout (so bright that it obscures details) on the bird while the rest of the scene appears properly lit.

Color Contrast – Cameras today do a pretty good job of recording the colors of the image properly.  Where some get into trouble is back in the “studio” by bumping up the Photo Editor’s Saturation or Vibrance too much.  The colors “pop” out, but may actually look unnatural if overdone.

Technical Flaws – Most technical flaws are produced by a dirty lens or camera sensor.  Bits of dust can show up in an image as dark dots on light areas, like the sky.  If the camera had been pointed toward the sun there might be lens reflection flashes on the image.

2. Composition of the Photograph

An image’s composition begins in the field and can be somewhat adjusted back in the “studio.”  The composition of a photograph draws our eyes into the scene.  This Image Characteristic has four Components:

Cropping – When working with the image on their computer, the bird photographer can reduce the amount of space the frame displays or even change the shape of the frame.

Composition – If an image is cropped it gives the bird photographer the opportunity to reposition the bird within the frame to create a pleasing composition.  Many photographers use the Rule-of-Thirds to position the bird where it makes the most impact on the viewer.

Head Position – Being able to clearly see the head of the bird is extremely important.  Aside from the field marks that may be present, if the bird’s head is facing the camera the image is so much more interesting than if the head is facing away.

Body Visibility – There are many ways in which the head and body of a bird can be obscured:  a leaf or a branch, a swell of water in front of a floating bird, or a part of another bird in the way.  The more of the body, and the head in particular, that is visible the better the image.

3. Artistic Quality of the Photograph

Sometimes we don’t think of bird photographs as being artistic – until we see a really great one.  Most of the artistry takes place in the field, where the bird photographer sets up to capture the bird at just the right moment – is the bird looking for a fish or has it just grabbed one?  Is the bird perched on a branch or is it reaching for a colorful berry?  The artistry comes the moment the image is captured; it has two Components:

Originality – Is the final product just like hundreds of other pictures of that species (i.e. a Great Blue Heron standing in water) or is it something not seen before?  Patience for the bird photographer is a key trait in order to get original shots.

The Story Within the Story – It’s fair to say that every bird photograph tells a story, it’s just that some of those stories are so much more interesting than others.  A picture of a warbler perched on a branch isn’t as interesting as a picture of one with a dragonfly in their beak. Not all bird pictures tell a good story, but the ones that do are most welcome on!

4. Impact on the Audience

There is just one Component for this Image CharacteristicImpact.  Impact is very important in order for a bird picture to be considered Award Worthy quality.

Impact – What does the viewer feel when looking at the image?  Is it, “Ho-hum, another picture of an eagle” or is it, “Wow!  Look at the talons on the eagle as it’s about to grab that fish!”

5. The Bird in its Environment

Again, just one Component for this Image Characteristic.  Given the overall concern about the climate and how it is affecting birds this is an appropriate element to look for in bird photographs.

Environment – At the lower levels of quality it defines where the bird’s image has been captured.  Is it at a bird feeder?  Are man-made objects visible around the bird?  At higher levels of quality we want to see the bird’s habitat or its place within the environment.

6. Follows the GBP Guidelines

The QSAR includes one more section that is not related to photographic quality but to’s rules that govern what can and cannot be posted.  It contains two Components:

Ethical Rules – does not accept pictures of dead birds.  It will also not accept photographs that were taken using unethical or inhumane methods.

Technical Rules – These are identified mainly for the benefit of those who are interested in entering their bird photographs in a Photography Contest.  These contests have stringent rules about file size and the degree to which an image can be digitally altered.

Now that we have introduced the Four Types of Bird Photographs and the five Image Characteristics of a bird photograph we will next describe and provide illustrations for each Component.  First up is the Focus section of Technical Quality.

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