Wildlife Photos: Subject + Light + Background–Painted Bunting

_dsc3212When most people think of wildlife photos – whether of Mammals, Birds, or Reptiles – they think of the subject. But there is a lot more to making a compelling photograph of an animal in nature than the subject. Light plays an essential role, for starters. Dull, drab, images are seldom capable of commanding our attention. Backgrounds, while under-rated, are also key. All three came together in this image of a Painted Bunting from our Hill Country bird photo workshop this week. Each element plays a role…

Painted Bunting: The Subject

One of the big draws of our Texas photo workshops is the amazing birdlife, and especially the variety of colorful birds. None is more spectacular than the Painted Bunting – perhaps the prettiest bird in the US, depending on who you ask and how you judge. So any photograph of a Painted Bunting is likely to be cherished. However, getting a breeding male in the spring, in clean condition, perched nicely and looking in our general direction, is a real treat. I’ve photographed plenty of Painted Buntings, but this one was one of the nicest looking, and best perched.

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Painted Bunting, Cardinal Photo Texas Hill Country Photo Workshop
Nikon D4S, Nikon 200-400mm AF-S Lens + TC 1.4, f/5 @ 1/1500s, ISO 1100, –1/3 e.v.

Golden Light

Great light makes a tremendous difference. Light is softest near dawn and dusk, and yesterday when I photographed this bird was no exception. Even light really helped light the bird, bring out the colors, and allow me to use a reasonable ISO – all without stressing the camera’s ability to capture the dynamic range in the image.

The Nikon D4S seems to meter a little “hot” so I did find myself dialing in some minus exposure compensation quite a bit this trip to keep highlights from blowing out in various images. –1/3 stop was all it took for this image.

Well-placed Color: The Background

Even more under-estimated than light are backgrounds. Depending on whether you are looking for a true environmental or a portrait they can be either blurry or sharp, but they should almost always contrast with the subject, and allow space for the subject to steal the show. In this case, the green background immediately surrounding the Painted Bunting allows the bird to rule the image, but the colorful flowers and lichen covered perch further out provide additional points of interest in the image.

Awesome blinds & setups like these are typical of the great photography we get when visiting Block Creek, one of our favorite songbird hotspots, hosted by Sharron & Larry Jay. Those interested in tweaking the image further could add a soft vignette to the edges, adding to the focus on the Bunting, but risk the photo turning from a capture of a moment in nature to a man-made piece of art.

If you’re interested in getting some spectacular bird images like this one, please consider joining us for either our South Texas Bird Photo Workshop or our Texas Hill Country Bird Photo Workshop in 2015!