In a period from October 2003 and until April 2004, my photographic work almost exclusively consisted of bird photography. During this time I have been thinking about what makes a good bird photo. I have reached the conclusion that there are two completely different directions in which one can take bird photography: the technically minded, or the more artistically inspired photography.
The Technical Direction
By this I mean creating images that are primarily of interest to other people interested in ornithology.
The photos falling into this category are often pure species portraits where the primary attention is
paid to the look or behavior of the bird. Everything else than the bird is often unwanted in the photograph, and therefore cropped out, or thrown completely out of focus, and often an image of the bird in profile, front-lit and showing the bird's characteristics are preferable.
This kind of photography can be very demanding of the photographer and often great patience and knowledge about the particular bird species are an absolute necessity in order to attain usable results. As previously mentioned however, these images will not appeal to people that are not interested in ornithology as they just show "yet another picture of a pretty bird".
At the same time one has to take into consideration that the rare birds in one area are most likely (with few exemptions) common in other areas in the world so your great effort in getting good pictures of the
rare bird will probably not mean much outside of your local area.
If one can catch a glimpse of the bird's behavior in addition to the good species profile the chance of a positive reception of the image outside the narrow ornithologically interested audience is increased considerably. A successful image in this category is thus a picture that describes a bird (or bird species) with as much precision and attention to detail as possible.
The Artistic Direction
The other direction in which one can aim the photographic efforts is the artistic direction.
Bird photography in this category will more often appeal to a broader audience than the more technically based images.
Within this category more consideration is given to creative use of composition, colors, shapes, textures and "moods".
Even abstract images of birds are possible and very impressive works can be made where one does not immediately recognize the bird.
Moods can also be created and used very efficiently in bird photography; how about the Grebe that is seen swimming towards the photographer through the fog an early morning for example?
Untraditional use of focal lengths and perspectives can also be used to create interesting images with appeal to the broader audience that are not interested in ornithology I recall a winning image from a photo competition of an owl landing taken with a wide-angle lens from ground height as seen by a mouse when the owl swoops down.
In this category the aim is to instill feelings in, or capture the audience and if that happens then the image has sufficient visual punch.
In a book I bought recently there is an image of a flock of penguins that are walking away from the photographer over the ice, towards the sunset.
The image has been taken using a panoramic camera and that adds a lot of visual impact.
Every time I see this image I cannot help but think about whether they made it over the ice or if they
were also heading for their own sunset and why they chose to cross the endless ice.
Both Directions At Once
Few photographers probably sticks to one particular category all the time the technically minded photographer will of cause often consider if extra quality can be added to an image by changing the composition or the like while the artistically minded photographer will still attempt to make the subject recognizable.
Even then it is my firm belief that most bird photographers consciously or unconsciously chooses one category or the other most likely based on personal interest.
If the bird is just another subject then obviously the photographer will look for other elements in the picture to add visual punch while the ornotholically interested bird photographer will attempt to depict the subject that he or she loves so much as the primary image element without as much concern to composition, color etc.