For the Birds (part 5)

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 6 Comments

I know, I know, I’ve been slacking in getting the next edition of this series out to you guys…but at long last here it is. If you need to catch up at all, here are the links to the previous “episodes”:

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First off, I appreciate all the feedback I’ve been getting on this series from the blog comments, the Facebook interaction and also comments on other social media channels. They have helped me sculpt this series on-the-fly (yes, pun intended there!) and bring in more thoughts that would be helpful to many.

One such a comment came from Part 4 regarding autofocus modes and usage. I will cover this propely in a future post, but for now, bear with me.

The last time I wrote to you, I spoke about anticipating behaviour and how that could help you “get the shot” as it were. In this edition, I will assume you got some shots that are usable, and I’ll now look at how to separate the wheat from the chaff (or, the good shots from the so-so shots).

This gets into the real question behind the matter: what constitutes a good bird photo??

The answer to that is by no means simple. It will depend on how you approach your photography…

Some people have a more artistic bend, and they couldn’t care less about how sharp the photo is.

Others are more focused on getting crisp, clear action photos and sharpness is just about everything to them.

I will try and break down some of the selection criteria I use for image review and deletion when doing bird photography. This not the right way for all, this is not the definitive way, it’s A WAY, and it might not work for you at all.

In order to do so, I would need to categorise the types of images you may come back with from a birding outing.


1. The SHARP flying bird

This is the photo most bird photographers try to get first when they work with a species. A good, clear photo of the species in flight, with a good head angle and wing position. See those words? “Head Angle” and “Wing Position“? Those are your keys for knowing which photos are “keepers” in this category.

Head angle refers to the position of the bird’s head relative to your camera focal plane (imaging sensor). It’s not necessarily related to body angle as the body could be turned slightly away while the head angle is good. Head angles of 90 degrees or less perpendicular to the imaging plane are ideal.

Here’s an example of a head angle that’s less than satisfactory…


Conversely, here is a good head angle…


Now we get to the wing position.

This one is tied to body position, but it’s more important to look at wing position as that’s what normally catches your eye in a flight shot.

If you are photographing a sequence of the same bird – it’s easy to pick out the better wing positions for yourself. I prefer the wing positions that show the primaries extended (wings upward) or expose the dorsal feathers (wings flat or totally downwards).

Less than ideal:


Ideal (wings up):


Ideal (wings down):


A nice “flat-winged” position from underneath (note how important light is in capturing birds in flight):


A nice “flat-winged” position from above to show dorsal feathers:


Let’s move on to the 2nd category I’m defining for this edition…

2. The BLURRED flying bird

Not everyone is into the sharp flying bird concept. A great many people are moving to the more artistic interpretation of birds in flight – and that’s good! Here it’s less about wing position and head angle (although those still constitute good points to keep in the back of your mind here), but more about mood and motion.

I will distinguish between panning photos and photos where you keep the camera steady and use a slow shutter speed to let the birds do their thing. It’s hard to come up with black-and-white rules here, but in general a nicely distinguishable and pleasing shape/outline of the bird is preferable, and a reasonable sharp head is ideal for panning shots.

Panning – a sharp head at least:


Stationary Camera (try for some birds sharper and the rest fully blurred):



3. The SHARP perched/walking bird and portraits

The same guidelines apply in terms of head angle, body/wing position and also eye contact.

You want the bird to connect with the viewer.

Keeping your eye on your subject and being swift on the trigger finger is key here.

Less than ideal:




With portraits, it’s ideal having the head cocked slightly to an angle, to define the beak nicely.

4. The Silhouette

Here it’s all about shape and outline – the pose needs to be perfect for the viewer to have an instant idea what bird it is they are looking at.

Of course this has as much to do with luck on your part (things working to plan) as it does with the subject playing along and your shutter finger being quick on the draw.



These would be my first indicators of filtering images between bad and good…without even zooming in for a detail/sharpness check.

What other factors are there for deciding which images go to the bin and which don’t?


Blown whites and clipped shadows are the enemy of classical bird photography.

But blown whites and clipped shadows are not necessarily irrecoverable. Play with your RAW conversion sliders (exposure, highlights, shadows, etc) and make sure you have highlights and shadows clipping alert enabled.

For more info on exposing correctly for specific situations, check out Part 3.



Every photographer has their own standards of what would be deemed as critically sharp. I know I have kept less-than critically sharp photos because of the uniqueness of the moment, but in general, to avoid clogging up your hard drive with sub-par photos, you need to be your own worst critic as far as sharpness goes.

The best way to judge sharpness with avian photos is to zoom in to 100% and inspect the eye and head for crispness (obviously a moot point with artistic blur/motion photos). Have a look at these 2 images of a Threebanded Plover, zoomed to 100%.

Not sharp enough:


Sharp enough:



This goes without saying, right? Besides the points I made above regarding the bird’s body, head and wing position…sometimes they really do get too close. Cutting off body-parts doesn’t always mean you need to bin the shot – have a look at THIS blog post I did previously for a photo which I feel works well, despite the Fish Eagle getting too close.

But shots like this – well, yeah, to the bin!


That’s it for this edition, folks. Please drop me a comment/question here, and I will gladly respond.

In the next edition I will look at camera auto-focus settings and various other things – still need to plan and type it out.

If you are keen on bird photography – make sure you check out our Chobe Photographic Safaris, a birder’s paradise (with some cool wildlife thrown into the mix too).

I’m hosting the first one in less than a week, but there are dates scattered throughout the year. All the info you need is HERE.

Happy avian photography to you all!

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 6

  1. Judy Royal Glenn

    Thanks Morkel for another great edition to the “For the Birds” series. I’m looking forward to the next one too. I like the very specific details you mentioned in photographing birds. It gives me more things to think about as I am out photographing what I love to shoot the most……birds! THANKS! ~Judy

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hey Winston – fair point. I obviously still have mine, so perhaps I am guilty of double standards haha.
      To be fair, I have deleted the RAW file of that particular image and have kept the JPG just as a reminder to be quicker on the draw next time 😉

  2. Winston Mitchell


    Our perspectives are a little different. I cherish these memories because I don’t experience them all that often. It’s been four years since my last Africa trip and I may never go again. You on the other hand, do this at a rate I can barely comprehend.


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      Morkel Erasmus

      Fair point Winston – I did not consider that perspective…
      I hope from my heart that you can manage to work in another trip to Africa indeed.
      If not – thanks for joining our journey and your interest in my work here and on G+…

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