Photo masterclass part 9: Bird portraits

Birds make fabulous photographic subjects. But to get close to your subject you must concentrate on your field skills as much as your photographic ability. 

Photo masterclass part 9: Bird portraits article spread

A beautiful close-up photograph of a bird can offer a multitude of pleasures – character, composition and colour, to name but three. But you’ve got to get close to your subject and this means you must develop your field skills as much as your photographic ability.

Birds make fabulous photographic subjects. They can be found almost everywhere, they are often brightly coloured and they have wonderfully expressive postures.
With so many natural and photographic variables – from the species and vantage point to the quality of light and choice of lens – the range of portrait-making opportunities is phenomenal. You can take shots of an entire bird or exquisite frame-filling images of a small part of its head, and you can shoot it standing still, singing or even sleeping.
One of the greatest challenges of bird portraiture is getting close enough. We all see birds every day, and birders observe them closely through binoculars or telescopes, but taking close-up pictures is another matter altogether.
Some species are large and approachable enough to fill the frame without too much effort, but the vast majority require more time and trouble. Even with a super telephoto lens, it’s often necessary to stalk your quarry or spend hour after hour working from hides. So, in bird portraiture, field skills are as important as photographic skills.
But how do you turn a simple bird portrait into something memorable and breathtaking? As with so many forms of photography, the golden rule is simplicity. The simpler the design, the more powerful the image. But then how do you capture the character of the subject? Must the eyes be in focus? Should the bird be looking straight at the camera?
We’ll be answering all these questions this month – helping you to turn a ‘nice, but so what?’ image into something much more compelling.
MEET THE EXPERT: Tui de Roy, New Zealand
Best known for her photography of the wildlife of the Galápagos Islands, Tui De Roy is as at home with emperor penguins in the Antarctic as with harpy eagles in Peru.
Tui De Roy always takes the time to understand her subjects before photographing them. “I rarely take pictures in the first week of a trip,” she says. “I prefer to observe and get to know the birds before I start shooting.”
This, she believes, is the key to her success. “Sometimes I can’t resist a few ‘insurance’ shots,” she laughs, “just in case I never see the birds again, but for the most part I’m quite restrained.” 
Still a traditional film-shooter who has yet to go digital, Tui rarely pre-visualises a photograph. She prefers to let events and opportunities unfold in the fullness of time. After hours or even days of waiting, her careful observations pay dividends when everything comes together in a critical nanosecond.
Tui believes that an ability to predict the right moment is more important than any amount of planning. “People always think that I must be incredibly patient,” she says. “But patience isn’t the issue when there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing.”
She is currently working on a four-year book project, photographing all 21 albatross species around the world.
“I’ve photographed 16 species so far,” she says. “I’m just off to Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, in the South Atlantic, to photograph three more. That leaves just the Amsterdam albatross and the Indian yellow-nose to complete the project, but they’re both so rare and their breeding grounds so remote they’ll probably be the biggest challenge of all.”
Tui De Roy’s top bird portrait photography tips
  • It’s not what you include – it’s what you exclude
    When Tui was 12, shooting her first wildlife pictures on a borrowed camera in the Galápagos Islands, her father gave her some advice that she has never forgotten: the key to a good picture is not what you include – it’s what you don’t include. Less is more – so make sure everything in the viewfinder really matters.
  • Be sensitive to your subject
    Try to understand what the bird’s life is about and open yourself up to its world by learning to recognise its day-to-day behaviour and its highs and lows. This will give you a heightened awareness that will show in your pictures, enabling you to portray the bird from its own perspective rather than from a human (or outsider’s) point of view.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
Experiment with eye contact
  • Try taking pictures with and without eye contact. When a bird looks straight at the lens, it can evoke a great sense of intimacy and draw the viewer in. But sometimes it’s hard to tell if it was merely curious or if it was staring the camera down out of fear.
  • Make sure the eyes are pin-sharp. Try to focus on the centre of the forehead rather than the end of the beak.
  • Try placing the eyes off-centre, rather than in the middle of the frame, for a more interesting composition. Leave plenty of empty space for the bird’s gaze.


We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here