Image Characteristic 2 – Content: Composition Component

Composition Counts

In this section we define and illustrate Component 7. Composition of the QSAR (Bird Picture Quality Self-Assessment Rubric).

7. Composition

Post-processing cropping removes space around the bird, but more importantly, it also gives the photographer the opportunity to include or exclude elements within the frame and to place the bird in a position where it is most prominently displayed.  Let’s go through each Level of Quality for Composition with some example pics and see which of the Four Types of Bird Photograph each result in.

Level of Quality 1: The composition contains elements that distract = Documenting Shot or Good Bird Photo

Let’s face it, unless it is a BIF (Bird in Flight) shot, things can obscure parts of the bird.  Branches, leaves, other birds, and swells of water can and will get in the way.  Other times there are objects within the frame that compete with the bird for the viewer’s attention.  Anything that distracts the viewer away from the bird reduces the quality of the photograph.  During the cropping process it may be possible to minimize some distractions; if not, another image within the series might work better.

Our first example shows the power of a slight crop to eliminate a distracting element.  The first photograph of the Winter Wren has a stalk along the left side of the photograph; it is out of focus and takes our attention away from the bird.  The picture below it has been cropped just enough to eliminate the stalk so we can focus on the Wren.  The first picture would be judged to be a Good Bird Photo and the cropped shot a GreatBirdPic.


Our next example is of a female Orchard Oriole on a stalk of Echanacea (Cone Flower).  Nice pic but that blade of grass right across the bird – the bill and head in particular – reduces the overall quality of the pic to a Good Bird Shot.  No amount of cropping can eliminate this distraction.


Here’s a pretty little Pine Warbler – sitting atop a huge limb!  The limb is so big it distracts our attention away from the bird.  The bird is small within the frame yielding a Good Bird Shot quality bird photograph.


Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait until the bird is in a less obscured view – select a photograph in the series that contains less distracting elements.  Some Yellow-headed Blackbirds were perched in the reeds.  I took lots of pics in an attempt to get one that didn’t have anything obscuring the bird.  The first pic below is representative of some of the obscured images and below it one in which the bird is unobscured.


Here’s another example of waiting for the bird to clear a distraction.  This rare (for our area) Ruff was walking on the opposite bank and was right in front of a white plastic bag  – very distracting.  Waiting a few moments the Ruff walked on to allow me to get a better picture.

When birds are perched in a tree I often look at it through my binoculars (I get a better view of the bird than through the camera’s viewfinder) before shooting to see if there are any branches obscuring the bird.  If so, I change my position and recheck with the binoculars to see if the new approach angle has fewer obstructions.  Look at the two photographs of the Bald Eagle below.  The first one has some branches running across the body and into the head.  By shifting my position a few yards to the side I was able to get an angle that didn’t include the branches.  The change in quality is minimal (still a Good Bird Photo) but still an improvement.


Level of Quality 2: The composition draws the viewer’s eye to the bird or to the bird’s action = GreatBirdPic

When cropping (I use Ligthroom) I pay particular attention to the Rule of Thirds.  Below is a screen shot of a Northern Parula while I was cropping the photograph.

You’ll notice two vertical white lines which divide the image into three vertical strips, and two horizontal white lines which divide the image into three horizontal strips. The Rule of Thirds states that a viewer’s eye is drawn along those vertical and horizontal lines and especially to the four nexus points where the vertical and horizontal lines meet around the center.   I use these lines every time I crop a picture to line up the bird where it is most prominent.  I will provide a tutorial on the Rule of Thirds in the future but if you would like to learn more about it now you can go to this excellent article by Nature Photography Simplified entitled Rule of Thirds for Bird Photography.

When cropping the photograph above, I had lots of choices.  Look at the cropped photographs below; the first one is centered on the bird, the second one places the bird on the left, the third one places the bird on the right.  Which one do you think works the best?


I like them all, but I like the last one the best because the leaves on the left balance the bird on the right.

Let’s take a look now at an action shot.  Below is a Common Goldeneye kicking up a storm to attract a mate.  The first photograph used the default 4X6 aspect ratio.  Note that you can see the kick and some spray.  Below that is the same photograph but with the horizontal crop widened so all of the splashing water is revealed – a much more interesting photograph.


Take a look now at the pair of Ostriches below.  The first picture gives us a pretty good view of the birds.  The wider shot includes the huge Baobab tree, and now the viewer knows were are in Africa on the savannah.  The large tree does not distract but gives context to where the shot was taken.


Here’s one more set of photographs to illustrate the power of the crop.  The first one of the Common Merganser has the bird centered.  A pretty good pic, but by shifting the bird to the left it gives the viewer the illusion that the bird is flying into the open space.  A tiny change but it presents more of a sense of action.


One more example of how to draw your viewer’s attention to the bird uses the background to help frame the bird.  Oftentimes when the bird is perched the sky is the background, like in this picture of a Dickcissel below:


The bird is interesting but the background sky is blah.  It provides no context to where it is and it makes the whole photograph duller.  By shifting my position a few feet I was able to bring the distant trees into view for the background.  It’s almost the same shot, but with the interesting background the entire picture is warmer and easier to look at.   Both pictures are good; the second one is better.


Level of Quality 3: The photograph’s composition helps tell a story = Award Worthy

As seen in the Common Goldeneye and Ostrich examples above, sometime widening the crop to include what’s around the bird can help tell a story about where the bird is and what it’s doing.  When the viewer looks at a photograph and comes away with a sense of the narrative the bird is a part of, it could be an Award Worthy shot.  

Returning to our Common Yellowthroat, the first picture below is uncropped.  By carefully applying the Rule of Thirds while cropping and noting that the shape of the flower resembles a cup holding the bird, the second photograph is brought into the Award Worthy category.


Here’s our Semipalmated Sandpiper again but this time look at it from a Composition point of view. The bird is nice and sharp and we can even see its webbed feet.  What we also see is the green seaweed clinging to the rocks and the splash of Lake Michigan coming up from below.  The photograph gives us the opportunity to create a narrative of what the bird is experiencing.


In conclusion, cropping defines what is included inside the frame but positioning the bird and other elements within the frame is an art.  I spend much of my time during post-processing cropping each picture to reveal the bird in the best position.  By including or excluding part of a photograph the quality of the final product can be degraded or elevated.

Our next two QSAR Components are 8. Head Position and 9. Body visibility.

Stay Safe.  Go Birding.  Take Pics.  Share Here.  Repeat.


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