The Essential Guide to Composition in Bird Photography

bird photography tips composition

Proper composition in bird photography will add excitement and fluidity to your images.

Birds are beautiful animals with their smooth lines and grace, especially while in flight. Adding compositional elements and techniques to images of birds will enhance what they already bring to the image.

bird photography composition tips

Composition in all art forms is the primary factor for intriguing and rewarding works of art, including bird photography. However, we all have struggled to understand good composition, how it is defined, and knowing compositional techniques to use when photographing birds in the field.

I hope to shed a little light on composition fundamentals and also to share ideas for more advanced or even abstract compositional elements in bird photography.

Order and tension are present in all good photographs, and these ideas can be understood by thinking of simplicity and dynamics, which need to be balanced. Too much simplicity makes the image dull and boring, while too many dynamics create disorder and confusion.

bird photography tips composition

The correct balance achieves dynamic simplicity.

I describe various approaches and techniques below that will help you create simple images, and I also describe approaches to add dynamics to your bird photography. Think about these ideas and how you can combine them for dynamically simplistic images.

Angle of view

Each scene in nature will offer different photographic opportunities. The first decision to be made is the angle of view.

Consider your opportunities for a close-up portrait-type image of the bird, a mid-range image where other nearby features are included, or a wider-angle landscape-type image where the bird is fairly small in the frame.

bird composition

Typically, the close-up image will provide the most impact that illustrates the bird’s emotions, intentions, and immediate thoughts whether on a perch or in flight.

A bird’s body position, tenseness, alertness, activity, and general awareness can all be captured when the bird fills the camera frame. Or maybe you want to communicate some of the bird’s immediate surroundings to show a bird’s habitat for resting or feeding.

Lastly, you could bring the whole landscape into the image to show where the bird lives in the environment.

Ultimately, the size of the bird in your frame should be determined by the theme of the photograph. All three types of images will communicate to the viewer different themes, and all three have different compositional considerations, as we will touch on below.

Read more: Bird Photography Tips – Shooting Bird Portraits

Rule of thirds

Regardless of the angle of view, another decision to be made is where to place the bird as your main subject in the frame. The “rule of thirds” is often brought up as a starting point in wildlife photography and is important in bird photography.

Briefly, the ‘rule of thirds’ states that the main subject should be located at the intersections of vertical and horizontal lines drawn across the frame or final image, dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically.

rule of thirds wildlife photography bird photography

These intersections provide a good anchor point for the main subject, in this case, the bird.

They act as good landing points for the viewer’s eye when looking at the image, either as the initial starting point when viewing the image or as the final resting point from other compositional elements that lead the eye to the main subject.

It is fine to use the rule of thirds; however, the rule of thirds should be considered more of a guideline or as a starting point in your compositional decisions.

When trying to use the rule of thirds in the field, allow more open space in the frame on the side that the bird is facing or flying toward. If the bird is facing to your right, place the bird more on the left of the photograph to allow room for the bird to look or fly into.

bird photography composition

This will immediately make the image consistent with the rule of thirds.

Placing the bird a bit higher or lower in the frame will bring it even closer to those intersection points. My personal taste is that I often place the bird a little closer to the centre than directly on the intersection points, depending on the background.

Read more: How to Use the Rule of Thirds for Better Photos


Another initial thought when photographing birds is to look for simplicity with a clean foreground and background with very few identifiable features.

high key midlife bird photography tips

Having only one subject or centre of interest is often the most effective compositional approach. You may choose to fill the frame with the bird if you are close enough (or to crop the image during post-processing) or leave the bird small in the frame with a large smooth background.

The bird becomes the centre of interest with no distractions. A background can be empty, often called negative space, that can still carry weight to balance with the subject.

Smooth backgrounds, or maybe backgrounds with slight natural textures, can easily drive a viewer’s eye to a clear and recognisable form of a bird.

bird portrait composition

Simplicity is a great approach to illustrating a bird’s character when taking portrait images. The shape of the bird is often, but not always, the main compositional feature and will lead the viewer’s attention to the eye of the bird.

The bird’s unique characteristics, level of alertness, body position, and actions can be used to add tension or dynamics in the final image.

Placing the bird’s eye near one of the intersection points in the rule of thirds will maximise its importance in the image. But also experiment with placing the eye in the centre of the image or up in a corner to add tension.

For a perched bird, possibly wait until it leans forward to add an interesting diagonal flow through the photograph. If the bird is facing to the right, be sure to take a picture as it twists its head to look across its body to your left to add another dynamic element to the image.

bird photography composition

Achieving simplicity is no easy task since birds are often found with plenty of distractions around them from trees, bushes, branches, and leaves. You will likely have to reposition yourself around the bird to figure out the angle with the cleanest background.

For example, photographing from the same level as the bird, rather than looking down on the bird, will help exclude distracting clutter close to the ground and will allow other unnecessary features to blur away in the distance.

You will likely have to wait until the bird moves naturally to a better perch or flies clear of distractions that do not add interest to your image.

composition bird photography

Next, determine the best focal length to help eliminate any remaining distracting features. Start with a wider angle to see if you can get an image with the bird being small in the frame without distractions in the background.

Even with a wide-angle image that shows the habitat and environment, the scene can be simple. A small bird in a smooth or non-distracting expansive environment can stand out on its own if it contrasts in shape, color, and tone from the environment.

Also, try using a longer focal length telephoto lens to narrow in on your subject if there are unnecessary distractions in the environment. Both situations are often available in one scene.

Your lens aperture also plays an important role in removing unnecessary detail and creating smooth backgrounds and foregrounds.

composition tips bird photography

The widest aperture setting that can be used with your lens will offer the shallowest depth of field, putting most everything out of focus except for the subject that you focused on.

Another approach to creating simple backgrounds is to use a panning slow-shutter motion-blur technique while photographing birds in flight.

If a slow shutter speed is used, maybe 1/15th or 1/30th of a second, the camera can be panned with a bird in flight while trying to keep the bird in the same position in the viewfinder and as steady as possible.

panning bird photography tips

With some luck and much trial and error, you’ll eventually get a bird that is in focus and the background will be a pleasing horizontal blur with very little detail. Be sure to experiment with different shutter speeds depending on the speed of the birds in flight.

Read more: The Art of Minimalist Wildlife Photography

Adding dynamic features

If the bird photography opportunity does not allow for the smooth clean background, all is not lost. The foreground and background will play a different role in what the image will communicate.

This leads us to using supporting elements to help balance the image or to add intrigue and balanced dynamics to a static image of a bird, particularly in the mid-range and birds-in-the-environment images.

bird photography composition

A simple example would be that a “heavy” feature in one part of the image could be balanced with another “heavy” feature on the opposite side.

The features do not have to be large to be heavy; they could also be considered heavy if they have bold color, very light or dark tone, contrast within the feature, and uniqueness. When in the field, consciously evaluate the elements surrounding the bird, or lack of elements.

Use your instinct to find the balance in the image by carefully looking at all the elements and placing them in the frame where they balance other features.

Care must be taken to ensure these supporting elements do not distract or steal the show from your main subject. The image can still be simple even with the supporting elements, as long as there is no clutter.

The main subject must still have dominance in the image, even with balancing dynamic features that should be complementary and lead the viewer’s eye to the subject. A viewer will look around the image and see these supporting elements but must not get stalled out on them.

For example, a soft outline of a tree, a smooth boulder in a field, or muted colors and an outline of a clump of grass in a field can still be present but direct attention to the bird as the main subject.

They can act as a roadmap to the bird, directing the viewer around the image with increasing interest. When successful, these supporting features are no longer distractions but are key dynamic ingredients to the overall image.

how to compose bird photography

The image will be less about just the bird but more about the bird interacting with its environment.

When photographing birds in the environment, landscape photo compositional techniques start to come into play, such as using the horizon, incorporating leading lines, creating depth with layers, and capturing an atmospheric mood.

For example, these background elements may include faint shapes of the bird’s broader habitat, such as a riparian woodland, prairie grassland, or openings to a dark forest.

The shape, color, lighting, and tone of the elements all need to work together to direct the viewer’s eye to the bird.

If used correctly, these background landscape features will also create dynamics in your image. In the end, the photographer should focus on the need for balance, rather than on one approach for achieving it.

Read more: How to Harness Light in Bird Photography

Lines to add dynamics to simplicity

If you decide to use a wider-angle view and background features to help describe the habitat or draw attention to your subject, visual and nonvisual lines can be strong elements in your image.

Evaluate the possibility of including horizontal, vertical, or curved lines. Horizontal lines are soothing and are often evident as layers in the landscape, such as a lake shoreline, a tree line, a line of clouds, or the distant horizon line.

composition bird photography

Including these lines in your image will communicate a sense of relaxation and comfort.

Conversely, vertical lines create tension or even excitement in the image. These could be trees, steep cliffs or sides of rock faces, or vines and branches dangling down near your subject.

Because vertical lines add tension, evaluate if the added distraction from the lines is offset by the positive dynamics and habitat information that adds value to the image.

Curved lines often add magic to your image, creating a sense of fluidity that highlights the smooth curves of the bird. There are countless possibilities for curved lines, but these could be something as simple as a nicely curved branch in the scene, a curved shoreline leading to the bird, or ripples in the water.

A word of caution when using lines, avoid including an obvious line that crosses behind your bird, especially behind the head. This provides confusion and distractions to the bird’s form and character that you are trying to communicate in the image.

composition in bird photography

Implied lines connect the main subject to other interesting features. Although they are invisible, they keep the viewer’s eye moving along these invisible lines through the image to supporting features and back to the main subject.

An eye line is another invisible implied line that starts at a bird’s eyes and follows the direction that the bird is looking. This line may end on a supporting feature in the scene, such as the food it intends to eat, the perch it will fly to, or to another bird that will play a role in the scene.

Implied lines can then trace back to the main subject.

Multiple birds

Photographing multiple birds in the same image provides another set of complications and opportunities.

Separation between the birds is often the first consideration.

how to compose a bird photograph

Orient your perspective in the field to help ensure the shapes of the birds don’t overlap. When birds overlap, they generally provide unwanted confusion and distraction in the image unless they form repeating patterns or create a mosaic in the background.

Although nothing is ever absolute, keeping the main birds isolated is a good starting point for photographing multiple birds.

Look for opportunities to balance the image with additional birds in the frame. Maybe two birds are close together in a lower corner and a third bird is up in the opposite corner. Or maybe you place three birds in the centre of the frame if they are nearby and are all looking in different directions.

bird photography composition ideas

Often there will be one bird that is the main subject, and the other birds are supporting characters. It helps if the supporting birds are looking at your main subject or maybe all the birds are looking in the same direction.

Additional birds in the background can be doing different things that help explain the bird’s behavior.

Lastly, if there are many birds in the scene, look for opportunities for patterns.

bird composition photography

Birds will often face the same direction and do the same thing. Look for one bird of particular interest to be your main subject, maybe the one bird facing the opposite direction as all the other birds.

Let the balance in the scene come together so that all the birds complement the overall scene.

Read more: Wildlife Photography – Understanding Animal Behaviour for Better Images

Cropping in the digital darkroom

After you’ve done your best to photograph the bird in the field, it may still be important to consider a compositional crop of the image on your computer to fine-tune the balance.

After you have done some initial post-processing and experimented with cropping, step away from the image for a while, then come back and view the image with a fresh perspective.

See if your attention is naturally drawn to the main subject, likely the bird or the bird’s eye. Check to see if it feels balanced in the frame. Determine if the negative space or any background features balance nicely with the main subject.

post-processing bird photography

Does the background support or detract from the image? Re-crop the image to remove unwanted background details and place the subject at a location to provide the greatest impact, possibly using the rule of thirds.

Consider breaking the rule of thirds by placing the bird in the centre of the image to maximise attention to it, but usually only if there is symmetry and if the bird is facing directly toward the viewer.

This often works with clean backgrounds with no supporting features. Try it to see if it works with your image.

A bird can also be placed close to the edge of the image, particularly if it is flying into the scene. This adds tension and some edginess to the photograph. Play with different cropping scenarios to see which situation best communicates the scene to you.

Image orientation

Lastly, but just as important as any other consideration, is image orientation.

A common decision to be made in the field and in the digital darkroom is whether to orient your image as a horizontal image or a vertical image. Each orientation will communicate the scene differently.

The initial approach is to orient the image consistent with how the bird is positioned. If it is tall or looking up, you might consider a vertical orientation first. If the bird is looking and leaning forward, a horizontal orientation might be considered.

how to compose a bird photograph

However, many complications might make this a difficult decision. For example, repeating elements in the background, such as vertical or horizontal lines, might offer the opposite orientation than what was initially considered.

The photographer needs to decide which compositional orientation will best communicate the scene as intended. Try both orientations to see which offers the most pleasing image to you.

Read more: Landscape vs Portrait Orientation in Nature Photography

In conclusion

Composition in bird photography has additional considerations that can be somewhat different than other types of wildlife photography.

The above compositional considerations are some of the main ones I think about when creating bird images and I hope they will help you get started with developing your own unique compositional approach.

Be open to experimentation to learn how to best communicate the themes of your images.

Lastly, I encourage you to research additional composition theories and techniques related to other art forms to learn how they can be applied to composition in bird photography.

Visit Peter's website

Peter Ismert is a wildlife and conservation photographer from Denver, Colorado in the USA. The Rocky Mountain Range has been his photography home over the years, with frequent visits to wildlife and scenic hotspots in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and more recently Alaska. He also frequently travels to Botswana, Zambia, and Kenya. His photography is frequently published in local and international online and in-print publications.

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