What makes a great bird image?

Welcome to issue 8 of the Flack’s Photography newsletters!

Thanks so much for your continued support and interest! I have really appreciated all the kind emails and encouragement I have received over the last 7 issues, and love that so many of you have been in touch.

To all the new subscribers, please note that issues 1 to 7 can be found on our website at www.theflacks.co.za.

During the month of October, I was privileged to present Birdlife South Africa’s webinar on “Pushing the boundaries in your bird photography”. The webinar focused on my personal journey in bird photography and outlined what I think are the basics to achieving a great bird image, some common compositional techniques that I use in my own photographs as well as the areas in which I am pushing myself to be more creative. For those that missed the talk you can watch it on YouTube at the following link: Richard Flack – Pushing the boundaries in your bird photography.

Off the back of this webinar and with the content fresh in my mind, I thought I would spend this newsletter unpacking, in more detail, what I believe makes a great bird image, and using some of my favourite pictures to illustrate approaches and techniques that have helped me along the way. Given that I was asked to keep the webinar free of technical details, I thought it would also help to add my camera settings to this more in-depth account. As always, I look forward to your feedback on the content that follows!

Great bird images evoke emotion

It goes without saying that a great bird image needs to be strong technically and has to have a composition that works, but what separates a great image from a good image, at least in my opinion, is the degree of emotion it evokes in the people that view it. As well known wildlife photographer, Tin Man Lee says, great images “stir emotion”. This really resonates with me when it comes to taking great bird images, as my heart’s desire is to have my audience feel and experience the same deep emotions I have when I am in absorbed in the natural world and capturing the incredible bird species it has to offer.

The emotions and response can be wide and varied, from being awestruck by the sheer beauty of the bird and its environment, to being shocked or delighted at the surprising revelations of a bird’s behaviour, to feeling a strong human connection to the subject and the scene or to feeling a flood of joy from being taking on a trip down memory lane. Whatever the response, I believe it is these emotions and the heights they reach that separate great images from all others.

Caption: Warbler in the Mist
Subject & Location
: Lesser Swamp Warbler @ Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel, South Africa
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1250| 1/1000s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

This image was recently sold as a limited edition print to support the “Prints for Wildlife” campaign, which raised over $600,000 for conservation in Africa earlier this year. The framing of the reeds, the subtle, pink hues and the back lighting created by the sun breaking through the mist behind the bird, make it one of my all time favourite images. For me, it captures the true nature of this skulking warbler and his reed bed habitat.

To achieve this connection with your audience there are a few approaches which seem to consistently work, and it is the purpose of this newsletter to try and unpack some of them and hopefully give you some thoughts, inspiration and encouragement for your own images.

Capturing the unexpected: This approach to wildlife or bird photography looks to drive an emotional response in your audience through capturing an image that surprises or shocks them by presenting the unexpected. For example, when an image portrays a bird (or animal) behaving like a human or when a bird interacts with a much larger animal in an intimate manner or when a bird demonstrates behaviour that seems odd or unusual.

A great example of this is the winning image of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2019, which captured a marmot jumping up in astonishment; like a person, when a Tibetan fox was looking to attack it. Other examples could be an African Harrier Hawk raiding a weaver’s nest and then being chased away by Drongos, or a Yellow-billed Oxpecker pecking on the eye of a huge buffalo bull, or a large, comical Dalmatian Pelican running across the water towards you (as was the winning image in Bird Photographer of the Year 2019). All these examples can shock or suprize your audience or bring an element of fun or humour to your images.

Here are a few examples from my own collection that have elements of the above. I am still, however, waiting for more of these special moments and an image that moves from good to great.

Caption: Daylight Robbery
Subject & Location
: African Harrier Hawk @ Nambiti Game Reserve near Ladysmith, South Africa
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 500| 1/800s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -0.3 | no Flash

This is undoubtedly one of my favourite action shots from my collection. It was amazing to witness this incredible scene, which happened so quickly and quietly. The Weavers were completely unaware that their nests were being raided and if it wasn’t for some neighbourly Fork-tailed Drongos, things may have been a lot worse off for them. Fortunately the Drongos attacked the Harrier Hawk and drove him off before he could extract an egg or a chick. I specifically like the intensity of the scene and how the African Harrier Hawk’s plumage stands out against the green and peach tones of the background. I also like how the four nests lead you to the perpetrator.
Caption: The Great Escape
Subject & Location
: African Harrier Hawk @ Monyane Private Game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/2500s | f5 | Pattern metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

We were driving through Monyane Private Game Reserve when I suddenly caught a flicker of movement to the left of the game vehicle. An African Harrier Hawk came bursting through the trees towards us, with a Fork-tailed Drongo in hot pursuit. Clearly, Drongos have a severe dislike for Harrier Hawks! I like the symmetry in this image and the intensity of the Drongo looking down at his enemy.
Caption: Showing off!
Subject & Location
: White-throated Swallows @ Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/2500s | f4 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

White-throated Swallows are regular visitors to the Hadida Hide at Marievale Bird Sanctuary in summer, and I have spent many mornings trying to capture their acrobatics and their comical interactions. This is my favourite image to date, as I was lucky to achieve a sharp flight image as well as capture a classic interaction between the two birds. If you personify the scene, you have a typical “showing off” moment where a male is proudly displaying his acrobatic flight ability, and a female is trying to tell him to calm down and get back on the perch.
Caption: Suprize! Look at me!
Subject & Location
: Striped Kingfisher @ De Tweedespruit Conservancy near Cullinan, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/8000s | f5.6 | Spot metering | Exp bias -0.3 | no Flash

I bumped into a group of four Striped Kingfishers while exploring De Tweedespruit Conservancy near Cullinan just after South Africa came out of total lockdown in June this year. The birds were actively displaying to each other and selected this specific tree to continue their courting behaviour. After moving around a bit to get into the right position, I was able to frame the Kingfisher with the branches and the blue sky, and at the same time capture a lucky, full wingspread. I like this image as it shows a somewhat comical display pose, which says “Look at me!” and gives a good sense of this bird’s character and woodland habitat.

Capturing the true essence of a species and its environment in a unique or different way: This approach can take your audience on a trip down memory lane and allow them to relive a specific bird and its habitat or it can transport them to where you were and the spectacle you witnessed, allowing them to live vicariously through your lens.

For example, photographing an Andean Condor flying over the spectacular mountains in Tores del Paine or a wide angle image of a Vulturine Guineafowl walking across a typical Kenyan scene with its magnificent grasslands and flat topped trees or an Ostrich walking through the harsh, open landscape of Sossusvlei in Namibia trailed by a half dozen chicks.

I am sure there are many examples that you can think of in this regard; where specific birds and scenes can achieve something iconic and capture the true essence of a species. I often try to visualise these photographs beforehand and then set out to achieve them. The tricky part is doing this in a unique or different way, and here are a few tips that may help stir your creativity in this regard:

The use of light: Think about “light” and how you can use it to deliver more emotion in the above scenes. I love light and would encourage any photographer looking to take more “arty” or creative images to constantly experiment with it.

For example, consider how the “blueish” light you get just before sunrise could provide an eeriness in the scene you are envisioning, or how you can use back-lighting to create a dramatic atmosphere, or how you could use side lighting to deliver more intensity and intrigue or how you can use the incredible colours of the sky at sunrise or sundown to push an image to something extraordinary.

Caption: Winter in the Bushveld
Subject & Location
: Violet-eared Waxbill @ Dinokeng Nature Reserve near Rust de Winter, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/800s | f5 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

In this image of a Violet-eared Waxbill, taken in the early hours at Dinokeng Nature Reserve, I wanted to capture the feeling one gets on a winter’s morning game drive in the bushveld. This image takes me right there with a coffee in one hand and an “Ouma” rusk in the other. Violet-eared Waxbills are typical of this habitat, but are not the easiest to photograph, and I have never seen a backlit example of one. This, together with the dramatic effect of back lighting and a blurred background of acacia thorns, creates a unique mood and an image that is different from the norm. I also like that the acacia branches help frame the bird and lead your eyes directly to him.
Caption: The Skulker
Subject & Location
: African Rail @ Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1250 | 1/2000s | f5 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

This was the featured image of Issue 6 of my newsletters and gives a good example of how the first hours of light can provide a “blue”/cold” feel to your images. In this example, I love the mood this light provides as it exemplifies the atmosphere of this Rail’s wetland environment. It is cold, damp and a little eerie! I also like the small droplets that you can see on the grasses to the right of the bird and how these have been lit up by the early morning sun. The rays of sunlight coming from the right also provide contrasting light and shadow areas on the bird itself. All of these factors, together with a non-typical right to left composition, transport you to this bird’s world, typify its skulking nature and make an image that is different from what I have seen before.
Caption: Winter Wheatear
Subject & Location
: Capped Wheatear @ Devon farmlands, Gauteng, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/1600s | f4 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

I absolutely love early, winter mornings in the farmlands that surround the small town of Devon (in south east Gauteng, South Africa), as they are so tranquil and often produce magnificent sunrises. Consequently, before leaving to the Natal Midlands, I wanted to capture a scene that would provide me with a lasting memory of this special place.This image of a Capped Wheatear transports me right back to these special mornings. I can almost hear the calls of Orange River Francolins and Blue Korhaans letting everyone know that it is time to start the day. The frost on the grass, the blue and pink hues and this stark winter scene are so typical of this area, with Capped Wheatears being a consistent presence during the winter months.

The use of perspective: Think about different perspectives and how you could use these to delight and/or astonish your audience. In that, consider presenting birds in unusual ways that may break convention or reveal something new about a species.

I enjoy looking for different perspectives in nature and seeing if I can break the basic rule of eye level and still create an image that evokes emotion. This can be done by taking photographs from above and below birds, which give a totally different context to the audience. I often use my image of a Vereaux’s Eagle taken from above, at Walter Sisulu Botanical Garden, to demonstrate this point, but here is a another illustrative example, this time of a Yellow-streaked Greenbul taken from below.

Caption: Yellow-streaked
Subject & Location
: Yellow-streaked Greenbul @ Woodbush Forest, Limpopo Province, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1250 | 1/400s | f5 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

While birding at our guest house near the Woodbush Forest in Magoebaskloof, I came across a flock of Yellow-streaked Greenbuls high up in the canopy of some Pine Trees. I liked how the branches framed the Greenbul and how the subtle light filtering through the canopy created an ethereal atmosphere. Taking the picture from below also enabled me to capture the subtle yellow streaks on the bird’s belly; after which it is named. The fact that the bird was peering down at me was a bonus and encouraged me to add this image to my “habitat shot” collection.

I also like using perspective to show the size of a bird in relation to its environment or give a unique look at how the species relates to its surroundings. The following two photographs of different birds of prey will hopefully illustrate this approach and provide a bit of inspiration in this regard.

Caption: Practice makes perfect
Subject & Location
: Black-shouldered Kite @ Devon farmlands, Gauteng, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/1600s | f6.3 | Spot metering | Exp bias +1 | no Flash

I stumbled across this scene while persevering with my photography in windy, overcast conditions along the roadside routes surrounding Devon. I noticed that a juvenile Black-shouldered Kite was practicing hunting by flying into the wind, hovering and then diving to the ground to retrieve a stick. I positioned myself level with the Kite and waited for what I hoped would be repeat performances, and this image was the result.I really like the Kite’s wing position, the balance brought about by the spacing of the grasses and the bird, as well as the beautiful pink and orange hues provided by the surrounding grassland. I chose to go with a “panoramic” crop to give a sense of space and to allow for the compositional rule of thirds, while still maintaining the overall balance in the image. I feel this image captures a unique perspective of this species and one that I haven’t seen before.
Caption: Hunting!
Subject & Location
: Marsh Owl @ Devon farmlands, Gauteng, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/5000s | f6.3 | Spot metering | Exp bias -0.3| no Flash

I often spend a lot of time in winter looking for Owls in the farmlands that surround Devon. This year was no different, except I was determined to achieve an image that would capture the excitement I feel when I see these magnificent creatures hunting over a typical backdrop of grassland and farm fields. After many failed attempts I finally found a cooperative Owl that flew directly over my head and then swung around to hunt right in front of me. I like the intensity of the Owl’s flight pose; capturing that moment just before it dives down to catch its prey. I also like the different tones in the background and foreground; dividing the image into equal halves, and how the Owl has lots of space to dive into.

The use of patterns & textures: Another technique is to consider how natural patterns and textures can create interest and intrigue in your photographs. As you walk through a forest or an open field, keep a look out for “magical” scenes where there are interesting patterns or textures in the environment around you. These elements can be created by branches, boulders, berries or background colours. I often notice a suitable environment where these designs exist well before a bird arrives at the scene, and then spend a lot of time in the area hoping to achieve the visual concept I am after.

If you are battling to find inspiration in nature, there are also a number of ways you can be more creative using camera techniques; such as low shutter speeds to produce motion blur or camera movements to achieve interesting shapes and patterns in your images. You can also consider changing the way you present your images; such as black and white or high key. For more on this, please consider watching my webinar where illustrative examples were provided.

Caption: Autumn colours
Subject & location
: Cape White-eye @ Parkwood, Gauteng, South Africa
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 2000 | 1/500s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

This is an excellent example of where I visualized an image and then kept returning to the scene to try and create it. It was the middle of lockdown in South Africa, and I was desperate to find a creative outlet. While sitting outside our then home in Parkwood, (Johannesburg, South Africa), I noticed that most evenings a flock of tiny White-eyes would visit the magnificent oak tree on the street in front of our house. I was also awestruck by the wonderful colours and patterns that this tree provided and hence set out to capture this moment in time.It took a few weeks, but I finally came away with this image, which transports me back to our previous home and this beautiful scene. I like the patterns created by the branches and seed pods, as well as the overall colour palette and balance of the image. I also like that the perspective is different, as I am shooting up into the oak tree with the White-eye peering down at me.
Caption: Black Berries
Subject & Location
: African Yellow White-eye @ Bonamanzi Game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 400 f2.8 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 400 | 1/500s | f4 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

While walking around the gardens of Bonamazi Nature Reserve on the north coast of KwaZulu Natal I came across a flock of African Yellow White-eyes feeding on what looked like small black berries. I really liked the patterns and textures in the tree and how the berries seem to match the eyes of the White-eyes, and set out to capture a photograph that did the scene justice. This was my favourite image from the time with them.
Caption: Nature’s Curves
Subject & Location
: Tawny-flanked Prinia @ Pennington, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/1250s | f4 | Spot metering | Exp bias -0.3 | no Flash

I located a pair of Prinias building their nest among a field of beautiful reeds at Umdoni Golf Course on the south coast of KwaZulu Natal. After watching them go about their business for some time, one of the birds hopped onto a prominent reed, which had wonderfully curved leaves, and made for a unique image. The fact that the Prinia was carrying an equally curved piece of nesting material, that framed its head, was a wonderful addition.

Capturing sheer beauty: This approach shows off the spectacular beauty of the bird by using bright colours, pleasing compositions and illuminating lighting to create a feast for the eyes. For example, bright pink Lesser Flamingos standing out against their algae-rich, breeding fields at Lake Bagoria in Kenya or a spectacular Bird of Paradise singing from its display perch in the heart of Papua New Guinea. It uses the combined beauty of the bird and its environment to drive a “wow” response from anyone viewing the image.

When I visualize these images I think of some of Africa’s most exquisite bird species; such as the Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Malachite Sunbird, Crimson-breasted Shrike, African Pitta and Narina Trogon, and how I can capture them in such a way that they explode off the page. I often look for contrasting or complimentary backgrounds to achieve this and pay specific attention to how the bird is framed in the image.

Here are two examples where I have tried my best to achieve this!

Caption: Gorgeous!
Subject & Location
: Gorgeous Bush-shrike @ Tala Game Reserve, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/800s | f5.6 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

In this example, I have used a very subtle background to help accentuate the colours of the Bush-shrike. Given the incredibly secretive nature of this bird, the fact that it was out in the open and framed by the leaves was good enough for me!
Caption: The rose amongst the thorns
Subject & Location
: Crimson-breasted Shrike @ Dinokeng Nature Reserve near Rust de Winter, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/320s | f4.5 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

The subtle, early morning light, the typical acacia habitat, the perfect framing of the bird by the branches and the Shrike’s exquisite red and black colouration make this one of my favourite images from 2020.

Capturing intimacy or vulnerability: This approach looks to capture moments that provide an intimate window into the world of a shy or elusive bird or capture a bird behaving in a caring and vulnerable way. For example, a Wattled Crane feeding its young chick in a typical wetland scene or a Crested Guineafowl drinking from a shallow puddle or two Rosy-faced lovebirds cuddling on a branch.

The key with these images is to tug on the heart strings of your audience by creating a sense of connection with your subject and a feeling that they are special and lucky to experience this intimate moment in time.

Caption: Intimate reflections
Subject & Location
: Crested Guineafowl & Hluhluwe Game Reserve, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/400s | f4 | Spot metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

I had spent 2 hours wandering after a flock of Crested Guineafowl at Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, with no shots to speak of, when one member of the flock suddenly stopped at a small roadside puddle and started drinking. Hoping that the rest of the “motley crue” would do the same, I crawled slowly within a few metres of the puddle, lay down and was eventually rewarded with this image. As Winston Churchill said to a school of graduates; “Never give up, never ever give up!”This portrait is one of my all time favourties and was recently published in the Toyota Magazine in a feature called “Ace that shot”. It provides an intimate window into the world of a Crested Guineafowl; through the close proximity to the bird, the bird’s delicate reflection and the gentle ripples in the water. A low fstop also highlights the Guineafowl’s unique facial features and hairstyle as well as the beautiful white spots on its dark back and torso.

20% off all limited edition prints until 31st December 2020

If you are looking to spoil a bird-loving friend or family member this festive season, consider buying a fine art print from The Flack’s Photography Online Shop.

There are over 50 signature edition, fine art prints to select from, which are all professionally printed on quality paper and signed by me. You can also contact us directly for any special or specific requests!

Our printers close on the 15th December. All Christmas orders are to be in by then. Otherwise all later orders will be processed in the new year.

While putting together this newsletter, I have been inspired to kick off several photographic projects, which I hope to share with you in the months ahead. I find that having a purpose or specific focus in my photography is extremely helpful, as it keeps me motivated to wake up early and get out there. One of my projects will focus on capturing more intimate moments between birds, their young and each other, while another will be focusing on moody light conditions.

I hope this newsletter together with my latest webinar has encouraged and inspired you to go out and take great bird photographs! Please let me know what some of your future photographic projects are!

I will be taking a bit of a break before writing my next newsletter, so if I don’t speak to you before you set off on leave, please travel safely and have a wonderful rest and blessed Christmas! I look forward to wishing you a very happy 2021 in the new year!

Yours in bird photography