Photographing Common Species in a Unique Way

Photographing Common Species in a Unique Way

Is it worth spending time with common or easily found species?

This topic was suggested by Donna Brok. She asked to hear my thoughts on “photographing familiar or often photographed species in a unique way.” I think it’s a great topic and one that I firmly believe is worth exploring for both beginner and seasoned bird photographer.

Lets start with a simple reason why it can be great to photograph a common species of bird, they are often very easily accessible. This can be a great thing for the beginner bird photographer who may not know how to easily find less common species yet. It gives the beginner a chance to start to hone their bird photography skills and get them to a point that they can get great photos of less common species when they encounter them. I know I spent a fair amount of time at the same local parks when I was learning bird photography. I would photograph many of the same species over and over again. Even your own backyard birds can be great!

For the more seasoned bird photographer paying attention to these same common species can still yield some wonderful and creative results. A great photographer from the UK Kevin Morgans has proven this point to great effect with his series of photos of Canada Geese in a local park. Kevin has made some of the most artistic and creative photos of these incredibly common birds by spending a lot of time with them and photographing them in light that many others may never think to use. Here is an example of one of these photos, you can see more by browsing his Instagram feed.

Below is a series of photos of very common species that I photographed in a bush while standing in the parking lot of my condo. To photograph these common species in a creative way I went out when the bush and trees behind it are all in their full autumn colors. Bright red and orange colors really make the images pop, and I also tried to use some creative foreground blur and compositions to include a lot of the color and give a fun peeking look to some of the birds. I use these common species and incredibly easy location to try to work my compositional skills and look for ways to incorporate all the color to a great effect. While a beginner photographer may not have photographed these birds in the same way, they could have certainly benefited from the lovely colors the bush and trees provided. For these examples there is roughly a 1 week window when all the colors work out just right. I don’t normally try for these photos any other time of year.

 A Song Sparrow that is easily found in many back yards.

A Song Sparrow that is easily found in many back yards.

 The noisy but common Northern Mockingbird.

The noisy but common Northern Mockingbird.

 One of the more common backyard birds, a female Northern Cardinal peeks out from within a colorful bush.

One of the more common backyard birds, a female Northern Cardinal peeks out from within a colorful bush.

Another way to photograph common species in a unique way is to take advantage of backyard feeders. Of course photographing a bird perched on a feeder is less than ideal for a “wildlife” photographer. With a little creative thinking and preparation though, I’ve found it fun to create some unique photos of birds at feeders that don’t include a feeder at all. The first step was to attach a natural perch on or near the feeder for birds to land on as they come and go from the feeder. I did this by clipping a nice branch from a tree in the yard and also shaping it up so that it would provide a space for the birds to land. While this can create a nice bird portrait there isn’t too much creative about it. To take things up to the next level I started playing around with lighting in a way that is near impossible without a feeder situation.

The first thing I did was to set up a large gold reflector in front of the birds when the sun was positioned behind them. This is a lighting effect I had learned from my portrait photography. It created the beautiful light you see in the image of the male Northern Cardinal below. A strong back/side-light from the sun gave great separation for the bird and the perch against the dark in-shade background. The gold reflector gave a beautiful and soft fill light in the front from the left side. There ya go, a little bird studio in your own backyard!

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Next I started to set up natural feeding areas in a small piece of forest near my home. I didn’t use a bird feeder at all but I set up specific branches and perches and placed seed in and around those areas. This meant that I always had a natural perch, no matter where the bird landed. It increased my odds of getting a good shot. I would also set up the perches in specific spots that would give me the backgrounds that I wanted. I would sit really close to the setup in a camo throw blind and shoot away! I was able to set up the softly back-lit images you see below and take advantage of some of the Autumn colors in the background. Having this control over the perch and lighting is a big advantage and allowed me to capture unique photos of these common feeder birds.

 A close portrait of a White-throated Sparrow with splashes of pink out of focus leaves in the background.

A close portrait of a White-throated Sparrow with splashes of pink out of focus leaves in the background.

 A Carolina Chickadee sits in a spotlight of back-lit sun, while being surrounded by a background of autumn colors.

A Carolina Chickadee sits in a spotlight of back-lit sun, while being surrounded by a background of autumn colors.

The last technique I used to capture unique photos of these species in a backyard setup was to introduce flash. I opted not to use flash how many bird photographers do, as fill flash only, but I tried to set it up for a very unique look and an obviously flashed effect. I set up a 3 flash setup with two flashes behind and at an angle to the bird and then a single flash used for fill in the front. This was a complete studio setup for bird photography in the backyard. By using the same set up perches attached to the feeder I could generally control where many of the birds would land. Next, by overpowering the available light with flash I was also able to make the background, which were darker green shrubs, go completely black. I shot the following three photos on an overcast day but it was the middle of the day, not at night like it seems. I really enjoyed how these shots came out, I thought they were very unique and dramatic, which was the exact effect I was going for. Hopefully you can see how some creative thinking and a little bit of work can create some unique photos in your own backyard.

 A House Finch perched for its portrait in my backyard studio.

A House Finch perched for its portrait in my backyard studio.

 I caught this Mourning Dove coming in for a landing during some light rain. The flashes helped to make the rain stand out and nearly freeze the flapping wings.

I caught this Mourning Dove coming in for a landing during some light rain. The flashes helped to make the rain stand out and nearly freeze the flapping wings.

 While I don’t normally find Common Grackles to be the most beautiful subjects I thought this dramatic lighting really worked well for this individual, the light rain also added a little something to the shot.

While I don’t normally find Common Grackles to be the most beautiful subjects I thought this dramatic lighting really worked well for this individual, the light rain also added a little something to the shot.

Next I’d like to move away from backyard feeders and controlled setups and talk about ways to photograph wild common species differently. One of the easiest ways is to try for a silhouette. A good silhouette is all about the shape of the bird and can make an otherwise common bird appear rather extraordinary. Below, a Laughing Gull, which is very common to my area, takes off at sunset. By working really hard to get into position with the sun directly behind the bird and getting as low as possible, I was able to capture this gull taking off. I certainly got lucky with the wing position, nearly framing the sun in this case, but I had done all the work to get into this position and had proper camera settings to capture the scene the way I wanted. When the sun gets this low in the sky it can be difficult to not take advantage of the beautiful golden light shining on the subject when front-lit, but then I would have had just another portrait of the common Laughing Gull in nice light. Instead, I chose to shoot towards the sun and I think this photo is much more unique than what I would have taken if I chose to put the sun at my back.

 A Laughing Gull takes off, silhouetted against the setting sun.

A Laughing Gull takes off, silhouetted against the setting sun.

Another way to capture a common species differently is to include more habitat. In the example below I combined a silhouette with more space, a lot more space, to capture this photo of a Great Blue Heron. In the eastern US this large wader is commonly found near almost any body of water and it’s one of the first birds I remember photographing when I started out. Needless to say I have a lot of generic photos of this species from my years of photographing them. I only recently captured this photo below and I feel it is by far one of my best and most creative photos of the species. Even after years of photographing them I was able to get creative. Admittedly the photo below is not all about the bird and is just as much a photo of the entire scene, but I think it still works well and the bird stands out.

 A Great Blue Heron silhouetted against the foggy morning trees, moments after sunrise.

A Great Blue Heron silhouetted against the foggy morning trees, moments after sunrise.

The next set of images came about from me trying like hell to capture something unique from a location that is inundated by hundreds of bird photographers every year. This is becoming a more and more common occurrence in today’s wildlife photography community. When a specific location become well known for cooperative subjects, the word gets out fast and before you know it there are hundreds of photographers all taking the same photos of the same birds at the same spot. It can be tough to stand out from the crowd when you share your photos from these locations. For some time I simply avoided these locations, and I still do occasionally. I eventually realized that I could try still visit these spots and do my best to think differently, to capture a unique photo that might stand out from the rest. On a side-note, I never visit these popular locations on a weekend as it can be madness with the amount of people and having no space to move around, that is not fun to me.

For a little back-story on this location, it’s a small creek near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where the Wood Ducks, which are normally very skittish birds, have been fed for years and have become habituated to people. This allows for very close approaches and rather easy portraits. Many photographers I know that photograph this location tend to go in the afternoon/evening when the sun is behind them and they can get bright, front-lit portraits. The creek is in a valley so you never get first or last light on the water here, so in the evening the last bit of sun always appears rather harsh and not flattering in my opinion. I’m sure many disagree with that, since that seems to be what most people shoot. In any case with my goal being to capture something unique I always shoot this location in the morning. That means if there is sun it will be back-lit, something I certainly love! Taking advantage of the back-lit sun and even some strong dramatic side-light allowed me to get the photos below. I happily shot directly into the sun that was shining on the sparkling water in the background that created some incredible backgrounds for me. So by simply shooting during a time when the majority of others don’t go and knowing how to work with some strong backlight allowed me to capture what I hope are very unique photos of a very popular subject at a very popular location.

 Thanks to the ripples in the water sparkling in the morning sun I got a lovely background for this Wood Duck drake.

Thanks to the ripples in the water sparkling in the morning sun I got a lovely background for this Wood Duck drake.

 While floating right in the direct and strong backlit sun I photographed this Wood Duck drake in a sea of golden bokeh.

While floating right in the direct and strong backlit sun I photographed this Wood Duck drake in a sea of golden bokeh.

 I got incredibly lucky when another duck that was out of the frame decided to dive and splashed up all the water drops in the foreground, which then turned into the glowing sparkles in the air because I was set up for backlight on this Wood Duck hen.

I got incredibly lucky when another duck that was out of the frame decided to dive and splashed up all the water drops in the foreground, which then turned into the glowing sparkles in the air because I was set up for backlight on this Wood Duck hen.

 With some strong side-light and a background in shade I captured this male Wood Duck looking pretty badass as it swam right at me.

With some strong side-light and a background in shade I captured this male Wood Duck looking pretty badass as it swam right at me.

Below is another example of a species that many would not consider common. The Florida Burrowing Owls of Cape Coral are however extremely popular subjects and are very commonly photographed by people from all over the country. Capturing a unique photo of a species that is photographed by so many amazing bird photographers can be a bit of an overwhelming thought. While I certainly don’t think I’m the only one to ever photograph these birds in early morning backlight I do think that the look and lighting in the photo below is far more unique than many of the photos of these birds coming out of that area. I specifically went to this location with the goal of capturing a back-lit photo of a Burrowing Owl. I knew it would not be the only back-lit shot of one but I knew that with some creative composition and great light, it at least stood the chance to stand out from the crowd of wonderful images of these birds shared online.

 Moments after the sun came up from behind a nearby building I was able to get into position to photograph this Burrowing Owl glowing in the morning sun. I was sure to also include a lot of the foreground grasses for added color and to help draw the viewer’s eye to the bird.

Moments after the sun came up from behind a nearby building I was able to get into position to photograph this Burrowing Owl glowing in the morning sun. I was sure to also include a lot of the foreground grasses for added color and to help draw the viewer’s eye to the bird.

Lastly another bird that is not common but becomes one of the most popular bird subjects when it arrives in New Jersey is the Snowy Owl. Every winter usually one or two show up here and there in New Jersey. Once in a while though a large number of them show up and everyone in the area goes nuts! These birds have the power to attract everyone from the most avid bird photographer to beginners to birders and people that just want to see one. The beaches of New Jersey become overrun with people doing everything they can to catch a glimpse or a photo. There are fights, arguments, chasing of the owls, attempts to police others and generally speaking it is a downright mess. Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds, probably thousands of people that respect the birds and their space but when a specific species, especially an owl, gets this much attention, chaos is often not far behind.

In the past, this behavior of Snowy Owl-fever has kept me away, far away from these birds in the winter. This past year however I decided I wanted to try to capture my own unique take on these incredible birds. From the moment the first Snowy Owl was reported around New Jersey in late 2017 the photos started showing up online. I would venture to guess roughly 80-90% of all photos I saw of the owls were of them perched on the top of a sand dune or fence post with a bright blue sky background in the harsh winter sun. Occasionally I would see one in some great golden hour light, but after enough time even those began to blend in with the overwhelming amount of Snowy Owl photos being shared on social media every day.

When I made the decision to make my first outing to try to photograph them, I began to think of how could I capture a unique photo of a Snowy Owl? My first thought was to try different lighting. The location I was going to did not have general public access until about an hour after sunrise, far from ideal to capture great morning light. I did a lot of research online and was able to figure out a way to gain legal access at any time I wanted. This was the first key to creating a unique photo. I assumed most other photographers going after these owls weren’t aware of the information I had found and I was right. I arrived about an hour before sunrise, parked in one area and began to walk the beach in the complete dark. There was barely enough light for me to see where I was walking, let alone see an owl. My eyes quickly adjusted and about 30 minutes into walking down the freezing sandy beach I looked up and there it was, my first Snowy Owl, sitting on the top of a very tall sand dune. It was just like all the photos I had seen online of course. Of course since this was my first Snowy Owl I still took a few photos to keep for myself, and then I waited and watched. Thankfully after about 10-15 minutes it took off and flew down the beach and landed on a much lower perch. I took my time and slowly approached the bird, being careful not to walk into the sand dunes, as this is also illegal at this park, as well as on most New Jersey beaches. Here I was, just me and a Snowy Owl with not another soul in sight! By this time it was getting close to sunrise and I started noticing the incredible colors in the sky behind the owl and wanted to take advantage of that. The bird was perched on an old rusty pipe sticking up out of the dunes, not a particularly pretty perch, so I began to think of how I could solve that problem. I ended up moving farther away from the owl and placing a small sand dune in the foreground to hide most of the perch and other junk that was on the ground below the owl. This perspective also allowed me to include some of the pretty dune grasses and a lot of the gorgeous pink and orange pastel colors in the sky. I had just captured what I had hoped was a unique and creative photo of one of the most photographed bird species in New Jersey at that time. It took some research, planning, getting up at an all too early hour, then once I found the bird some creative composition and perspective to capture something hopefully nobody else had. The main point I’d like to get across with my story above is that often unique bird photos don't just randomly happen. A lot of planning and thought went into everything that allowed me to capture the photo below.

 One of the first photos of a Snowy Owl that I ever took. Incorporating a lot of planning and research as well as a unique perspective and composition allowed me to capture this photo.

One of the first photos of a Snowy Owl that I ever took. Incorporating a lot of planning and research as well as a unique perspective and composition allowed me to capture this photo.

 Spending an entire day from before sunrise to after sunset and hiking well over 10 miles of sandy beach went into capturing this back-lit photo of a Snowy Owl.

Spending an entire day from before sunrise to after sunset and hiking well over 10 miles of sandy beach went into capturing this back-lit photo of a Snowy Owl.

I ended up making many more visits to the New Jersey shore to photograph the Snowy Owls during the winter of 2017-2018. Each time I was careful to plan and work my ass off to capture them in unique ways. From going to locations that many others weren’t going to, and concentrating on shooting very different lighting than most, such as the back-lit photo above or the one below that was taken after sunset.

Not stopping photography after the sun went down and thinking of a vertical composition to include more of the beautiful colors in the sky helped to create this photo.

I employ lots of research, planning and pushing myself and my gear farther than most would, to get the shot. I am always thinking of unique compositions and perspectives to capture photos that are different and not the standard way that many others tend to shoot. I also try to use light in a unique way that other photographers don’t often try. These are the tools that I use to continue to push myself to capture unique photos of the common, and even the uncommon bird species I enjoy photographing.

 Getting as low as possible and a creative use of foreground blur helped to make this unique photo of a Snowy Owl perched in a snowy landscape on an overcast day.

Getting as low as possible and a creative use of foreground blur helped to make this unique photo of a Snowy Owl perched in a snowy landscape on an overcast day.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.