"It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds." Aesop's Fables
I think about that quote as I consider why many of us love to photograph and look at birds; it's the feathers, right? When I photograph, I attempt to capture intimately those fine feathers, with good lighting and detail as best as possible. And I pay attention to the background. It is so easy to concentrate solely on the subject that we ignore everything else. You may have an image of a beautiful bird, but the remainder of the composition is busily cluttered with various shapes and colors. This kills the image sometimes.
Not only with birds, but with any animal I photograph, I pay just as much attention to the animal's surroundings as I do the animal. Many times, a photograph is bypassed because the background is too messy or noisy. Once you get use to paying attention to these things, you will be amazed at the results. Sometimes, the background can make an otherwise common image, uncommon.
Several months ago, I wrote about how man-made objects can offer some interesting background colors. Taking this idea further, here are some tips on getting a complementary background to go with your subject. Imagine that you have come upon a beautiful lizard with bright orange head (like the male agama, commonly seen at Fairchild Tropical Garden). It is sitting on a rock surrounded by several types of cacti and other trees. From your vantage point, the image of the lizard comes out well, but it is surrounded by various tones and textures that distract away from the lizard. Farther in the background to the left of the lizard is a wall of bright red bougainvillea. You think, "Wow, wouldn't that look cool?" You slowly move slightly to the right to get the red colors behind the lizard. There it is, the lizard completely surrounded by red. You wait until it moves it head toward you and snap, you got it!
The red is definitely a nice addition and makes this image pop. Another example using the orange agama is the use of complementary primary colors. Guess what color complements orange? It is green, opposite to orange on the color wheel. Using the same method as described above, you find a nice green background to complement the lizard. In this case, the green is out of focus grass that provides a subtle display of even tones and textures where nothing stands out to take the attention away from the main subject.
I just gave you two tips, move yourself around to get the nicest background and look for complementary colors. The other consideration is a bit more technical, but important. Out of focus backgrounds work best to minimize visual noise. Because we typically photograph animals with telephoto lens, the out of focus background is much easier to achieve. This is because when shooting with a high focal length, such as 400mm, the depth of the image is compressed. In other words, the depth of field is low. The aperture also affects depth of field, the wider it is (i.e., f5.6), the more out of focus the background will be. This allows the attention to fall on the subject that will be in sharp and in focus.
The other consideration is the distance of the background from the subject, the farther away it is, the more out of focus it will be. A greater distance will help even out the colors and textures, making the background less distracting. Consider the image of the blue land crab below. In the background is a busy display of colorful flowers and other types of flora. I attempted to get into a position so that the background was as consistent as possible. As you can see, there are octagon shaped patterns of tones throughout. Photographers call this effect bokeh and it is largely determined by the lens. The bright colors are rather noisy, but I was able to overcome much of this for two reason; a telephoto lens (image was taken at 330mm) and the colorful objects were at least 40 feet away from the crab.
Here in south Florida, the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park is a popular location for bird photography, especially for close ups. It is not unusual to photograph a bird from 10 feet or less. The problem with the Anhinga Trail is the noisy background; buildings, flora, other birds, fence posts, pavement, and yes, people. Two things that almost always make a nice background no matter what, are water and sky. Here is an image of a cormorant at the Anhinga Trail with the water behind it. With some patience, you can avoid all the other messy stuff and get a nice clean background like this one behind your bird portrait.
Likewise, at the Anhinga Trail, there is lots of sawgrass. In the morning light, this can make a beautiful background, giving one a good excuse to photograph the less photogenic black vulture!
Another example of making sure I have a nice background is when I photograph the goldensilk orbweaver in the creeks of Biscayne Bay. Imagine, I am in my canoe and pointing the lens upward in a creek that is mostly covered in mangrove canopy. I discuss my technique in an earlier post, but for this blog, I only want to mention that almost always, I avoid getting mangrove leaves and branches in the composition. This is mainly because the spider is very close to them and it is impossible to avoid shadows and highlights that compete with the semi-dark spider. With lots of patience, I can position myself to capture clean backgrounds. The first image below uses the sky as a background. In the next one, the mangroves are far enough away to provide an even toned background.
If you really want a challenge, try capturing butterflies. At Fairchild Tropical Garden, the butterfly display is amazing but the subjects are the most difficult to capture because they never stop moving! Therefore, getting a nice even background is next to impossible. Once again, I look for the sky. Some of the flowering plants are high enough that with a little effort and patience, I was able to get into a position to avoid a noisy background and capture these two beauties.
Enjoy these images and get out there and shoot for the best. Remember the three most important elements; lighting, background, subject (not necessarily in that order).