“How do you get a clean smooth background?”, “Wow that Bokeh is amazing it must be the lens.”, “I wish my backgrounds looked like that.” Sound familiar?
These are some of the most common questions and statements in relation to bird photography. People always wonder how I got such a blurry clean background. One of the reasons people ask, is often their images do not look like this and they think some sort of magic is at play.
In this post I will talk about the importance of a nice background in bird photos and explain how to achieve that clean background. I will outline the 4 steps to creating a smooth background.
To start with lets have a look at what I mean by a clean smooth background with an image of a Jacky Winter. The bird and perch are clearly in focus whilst the background is completely out of focus creating a very smooth clean background. This background also benefits from the warm tones thrown off by the afternoon light and the colours of some dead reeds.
The opposite to a smooth background is one that is cluttered and distracting. The below shot of a Variegated Fairy-wren shows a bird in very thick scrub meaning the bird struggles to stand out and the branches are not particularly nice to look at.
What I am trying to achieve when photographing birds is to capture the essence of a bird. That is to showcase the bird in a natural setting ideally doing some sort of behaviour.
To do that you often need to include an element of its habitat such as the perch, out of focus flora or other birds. This helps tell a story to the viewer about where the bird is found and how it lives.
I personally believe a background should have some depth to it and not just be a plain single colour. Below are three images I believe showcase the bird well and leave the viewer in no doubt as to where I photographed them. The birds are the main element, they are sharp, well detailed and the background compliments the bird. Now we understand what a nice background is how do we achieve it???
1. How far away is the background from the subject?
It’s pretty simple, the further away the background is from the bird the more out of focus it will be. What that means for you as the photographer is to always be checking how far away the background is. If the bird is in the middle of a bush and has branches right behind it, the background will be busy and distracting. You have to move or get the bird perched out in the open.
Hot Tip – Always try to be eye level with the bird. This is especially true for birds on the ground or in the water. Shooting down on the bird from a standing position will cause the background to be close behind the bird. If you simply lay down you extend that background far from the bird resulting in smooth creamy bokeh. Below is my attempt to explain this technique. 🙂
You can see from the image above that the water is still largely in focus and the ripples in the water are obvious. This is how you would normally see a duck when visiting a lake. There is no way to blur the background as the angle is too great.
By simply laying down I was able to achieve the following shots of the same species. The quality of the light in the two below images is also a very important element. Feel free to read my article on The Importance of Light in Creating Beautiful Bird Images.
2. Depth of Field and Aperture Settings
The depth of field (DOF) will also play a large impact on how out of focus the background will be. What is DOF? My understanding is DOF is the band or width of in focus area from the point of focus, in our case this is the bird.
In the example above the Double-banded Plover is perfectly in focus, and the DOF has allowed the entire bird to be sharp. If you look at the sand you can see that the area in front and behind the bird are out of focus. The size of the in focus elements of the image is the depth of field.
Can you also see the Red-capped Plover behind the DBF is out of focus but you can still tell what it is. This is because of what we discussed in step 1, that bird is not far enough away from the front bird to be completely out of focus.
What does aperture have to do with DOF?
The aperture setting of the lens dictates the size of the DOF. The f number or f stop as it’s called is the number that looks like f2.8, f4, f7.1 on a lens. The lower the number the narrower the DOF and the more blurry the background will be. This is called the widest aperture setting, this also lets in more light allowing faster shutter speeds.
You can clearly see above that the f18 aperture setting has a much larger DOF meaning the background is more in focus than the aperture setting of f7.1 on the right. Most landscape photographers will use a higher f-stop number as they want more of the scene in focus.
Be aware some lenses are not at their sharpest at the lowest f-stop number and you can have too narrow a DOF. My advice would be to use f7.1 or f8 depending on available light.
The lowest f-number you can use is dictated by the lens you are using. The bigger and more expensive telephoto lenses will have lower numbers such as f4 whilst the less expensive lenses will often go down to f6.3. This is because you need a lot bigger elements to allow in more light which gets expensive.
3. How big is your focal length???
The third big influence on how blurry your background will be is the focal length of the lens. Focal length is basically a measure of how much zoom you have. A 600 f4 has 600mm of Focal Length which is double that of a 300mm. The focal length can be extended by teleconverters or a crop sensor body.
The longer focal lengths compress the scene and zoom in on the subject creating a much narrower DOF. The opposite to this is the 16mm wide angle lens which captures nearly everything in focus.
This is not to say you cannot create blurry backgrounds with a 300mm lens. My advice would be to try have a minimum of 400mm focal length when photographing birds, anything shorter and you will have to get a lot closer to the subject to fill the frame.
4. How close is the bird to the camera?
The closer the bird to the camera and the larger it is in the frame the more the background will be out of focus.
Did you notice in the above two images the backgrounds are both completely blurred and out of focus even though they used 2 different focal lengths. The common theme in the two images is the bird was very close to the camera and filled the frame.
I just had to get closer to the King Parrot as I had less zoom. If you really want to isolate your subject have the bird fill as much as the frame without compromising your composition
The opposite to being close is the bird being far away. The further away the bird is from the camera the larger the depth of field.
4 Steps to creating smooth clean backgrounds in Bird Photography
- 1. Make sure there is nothing directly behind the bird and the background is far away. Get on eye level with the bird.
- 2. Use a low aperture number to create a narrow depth of field.
- 3. Use a telephotos lens with at least 300mm of focal length.
- 4. Get close to your subject.
Gallery of images using the 4 steps.
It should be noted that this does not mean every single photo should have a blurred background or only blurred backgrounds are good. This is just showing the steps on how to achieve it. The beauty of photography is you are free to take images however you want.
Images which do not have smooth clean backgrounds.
Bird Photography Techniques Used To Capture Beautiful Bird Images
I always try and photograph birds when the light is good. Feel free to read my article on the importance of light in creating beautiful bird images. I am also always looking to create engaging bird images by capturing good eye contact. Be sure to read my article containing tips on head angle and eye contact for great bird images. I also always photograph birds in RAW, read my article to see why.
Photographic Gear Used to Capture Stunning Bird Photos
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Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV / Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L / Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II
Extender: Canon EF 1.4X III Telephoto Extender
Camera Bag:Think Tank Photo Airport Commuter Backpack
Tripod/Gimbal: Benro Single Tube 75mm Bowl CF / Induro GHB2 Gimbal Head
Groundpod: NatureScapes Skimmer Ground Pod II