The Little Things That Can Make Or Break Our Images

Bird photography is largely a game of chance, particularly in action shots or when our subjects are in flight. Many things can go wrong and it really burns my butt when everything else comes together except for a single chance event out of many.

I’d almost prefer to botch the shot entirely.


1/1600, f/6.3, ISO 1250, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

As common as they are I think wild male Mallards are beautiful ducks and I especially enjoy photographing them in flight. I photographed this one six days ago as it came in to land on a local pond. I love the soft light on the sharp bird in flight (a difficult combination), the intense eye contact, the flight posture and most of the background.

But those two birds on the water behind the left wing of the Mallard, a coot and a Pied-billed Grebe, ruin the shot for me because they’re just too distracting. I got 20 photos of this duck in flight but this was the only one where the bird was large enough in the frame for good detail and also very sharp.

So wouldn’t you know it, those two interlopers in the background photobombed my shot.



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 1000, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Yesterday the coots on the pond were particularly feisty (even for coots) and I had high hopes for this image when I quickly previewed it on my camera screen in the field. I love action/behavior shots that tell a story and that foot in the air of the fleeing but otherwise submerged coot really tickles my fancy, especially because that very foot is splashing water into the face of the aggressor.

But so much of the potential of the image is lost because we can’t see the face and eye of the coot on the right. I keep imagining how much more dramatic the image would be if we could see that “angry” red eye and the rest of the coots head in this antagonistic situation. It was the vagaries of chance that put the spray in front of the face and prevented it.

Sometimes we get lucky and sometimes we don’t. It’s all part of the thrill of bird photography but knowing that doesn’t make it any less painful when Lady Luck messes with our shots. And our minds. If you ask me she’s really no lady at all.

Once again my old mantra comes to mind – “Bird photography ain’t easy”.




35 comments to The Little Things That Can Make Or Break Our Images

  • Zaphir Shamma

    “If it were easy everyone would be doing it well…” – Now that’s a keeper I’ll be keeping tucked away for special occasions 😉

  • Timely post, Ron!
    I am in New Mexico for three days. Birds everywhere!
    A real challenge to not become overwhelmed.
    Two things are obvious: I need the practice and “bird photography ain’t easy”!!

    Of course your shots in the post are good BUT- I understand the obsession to make them better. I nailed focus on a goose head today but was upset a wingtip was blurred.
    Tomorrow is another opportunity!

  • Ron:
    The comments above and your replies are very interesting. I empathize with your striving for “perfect” images – uncluttered, all parts of the bird in the frame in exactly the desired position, etc. Many of the comments describe the emotion evoked by the image, not its pictorial perfection. I find myself increasingly placing more value on the evoked emotion, perhaps because as I become more elderly it become more difficult to keep birds in flight where I want them in the frame. I suspect your reaction might be that the emotional response would be stronger if the flaws you mentioned were not present. At any rate, there are lots of missing wings in my post today.

    • “I suspect your reaction might be that the emotional response would be stronger if the flaws you mentioned were not present.”

      Yes, for me that’s exactly it, David. You hit yet another nail on the head.

  • Carol Vavra

    Just like some of the others who commented – I didn’t even notice the birds in the background. The Mallard pic was just that beautiful.

  • I love that your pernickity perfectionist self keeps striving. Reaching for the unattainable moon. And simultaneously I stick my tongue out at it. The background birds? I had to look for them. And the splash and the foot tell a story that the eye may not have. Or not as well. Being picky is part of who you are. A big part. I suspect that you are even more demanding of yourself than you ever were of your students. Just the same, I hope that some at least of the cheering from the sidelines registers. And is beleived.

    • Laura Culley

      Indeed…I suspect the “…and is believed” part is the biggest challenge 😉

    • Oh, it definitely registers, EC. And it’s very much appreciated.

      But along with the praise I also appreciate the opinions of folks who don’t necessarily agree with me. More than once I’ve eventually altered my own stance based on feedback from my readers. The comments make me think…

  • Kim Peterson

    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise. I’m new to bird photography and I learn so much from your posts. The first thing I do each morning is pull up your blog and enjoy the beautiful photographs and learn something new about wildlife photography. I especially appreciate your insight on how to be an ethical and considerate photographer, I have challenged myself to follow your example. Thanks again and have a wonderful 2018..

  • Marty K

    That Mallard shot is pretty spectacular. I didn’t really notice the bird-blurs in the background until you mentioned them because I was so drawn to that gorgeous green head! Just because they’re plentiful (notice I didn’t say common 😉 ), doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful. This one looks to be in especially fine fettle.

    The Coot shot made me laugh! I love watching them squabble. They can be pretty funny while interacting with Mallards too. I haven’t seen the “usual” gang of Mallards and Coots in my neighborhood lately; not sure what’s happened.

    My neighbors took out their bamboo right before Christmas too. There goes my entertainment of watching the nesting groups — especially my scrub jays — from the couch. I wonder where they’ll end up. I can see the big metal “birds” flying by again, though. Not quite the same thing…

    • Laura Culley

      “…plentiful…” Yep, I noticed, Marty! You ROCK! 😉

    • So sorry about your neighbors ruining your “playground”, Marty. I know the feeling because so many of the places I’ve photographed birds for years are going downhill. And fast.

      Personally I have no problem with using “common” in this context but I know some others do. Different strokes…

      • Marty K

        The weird part is how bright the living room is in the am with the sun coming in through the clerestory windows. It had been so long that I’d forgotten.

  • Laura Culley

    If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. And to my mind, both of those shots are pretty darn spectacular, and especially the coot disagreement! We’re back to the reality that life is messy. Go with it 😉
    That said, I KNOW your perfectionist self is messing with you there. But I, for one, appreciate both the level of difficulty reaching that perfection and appreciate the beauty of what you DID achieve! So there!

    • “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it”

      Exactly, Laura, though sometimes it does seem like everyone is doing it when I’m in the field because it can be so crowded out there. So I think I’d alter the sentence a little to say “If it were easy everyone would be doing it well…” 🙂

      • Laura Culley

        Yes, I LIKE that edit!! I tried to take a photo of the setting full moon just above my mountains with a string of clouds intersecting it, but I couldn’t hold the camera (point and shoot automagic) still enough. Oh well. I can’t do it well and I count on you to do it (almost) every day 🙂

  • Joanne OBrien

    Beautiful duck and an almost perfect photo! Ahhh… the one’s that get away.

  • You spoke the truth, Ron. Last night, full fat moon rising, three of us in place at the marsh in front of the moon, waiting for the Canada geese to come in for the night and fly in front of the moon. . . and the kleig lights at the new parking lot on the right side of the marsh suddenly came on. Which spooked the birds.

  • Susan Stone

    I like both of these images despite the flaws. The Mallard in soft light is gorgeous, despite the “intruders” into the shot. And I love the shot of the Coot foot, including the water splash. I think that in behavior shots like this one, that it’s okay not to see the face of the second Coot, because the important part is the revenge aspect. From a perfect shot perspective, it would be better to see the face. I think I’d want that in addition to the one you’ve posted.

    • I like both shots too, Susan. It’s just that it grates me that they didn’t live up to their potential. That’s something that often happens but it still bothers me and probably always will.

  • sallie reynolds

    If I’d taken that mallard shot, I’d probably feel the way you do. But I didn’t, and so looked at it with a different eye, and I like it. At first I didn’t even see the blurred birds in the background, I was so zeroed in on the wonderful flying duck. When I read the description, then I noticed it but still find it a realistic element of the background. After all, these birds are in life, not a studio. I feel the same way about your rants about birds perched on man-made items. Some species are adapting to our being in their environment, and using our poles and fences to their advantage. Some,alas, are not. The adaptable ones have a good chance of surviving our tampering with the ecosystem. I believe the Red-tailed Hawk has significantly altered its hunting styles and methods because of our electrical and telephone poles, and have moved into more open, desert areas thanks to our structures. The Peregrine falcon has moved into our cities, nesting on our high-rise “cliffs.” Many owls are able to nest successfully in our outbuildings or hunt in areas we’ve altered. The ones that don’t are in trouble, like the Spotted Owl vs the Barred. We’re here and too bad we’re not going away, but we aren’t. The successful ones have adapted to live among us.

    • Thanks, Sallie. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback.

      I’ve often said that I’m delighted that many of our birds have adapted to “the hand of man” in the many ways they have. I would never “wish away” the existence of things like power poles, wires, fences, wire etc. just because I prefer them not to be in my images. I’m glad they’re there for the birds and that they’ve adapted to them.

      But just like I don’t want a wing in front of the face of one of my birds I don’t want man made structures (or distracting elements in the background) in my images if I have a choice. Just because it’s a “realistic element” in the background doesn’t mean it’s desirable to have in the image. “Natural” images without distracting elements are generally a nature photographers preference and it certainly is mine.

      And I’ll most likely continue to “rant” about it. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this issue when it comes to my photos and I’m perfectly OK with that. You of course have your choice with your own images.

      • sallie reynolds

        Gee, Ron, I didn’t mean to come across like jerk, which I did. I love your images. And ranting is good! I set out just to give the other side of “natural” photography a wiggle.

        • Don’t give it a second thought, Sallie. I certainly didn’t think you came across as a jerk and besides, after as long as you’ve been commenting on my blog I think I know you better than that anyway.

          I just thought some folks when reading your comment might think I didn’t appreciate the way some birds have been able to adapt to the hand of man so I wanted to make my stance clear on that and one why I don’t like distracting elements in my images even when they’re natural.

          Besides, I have no problem with differing points of view on my blog (when they’re presented with no disrespect and you certainly complied with that).

    • Jo Ann Donnelly

      Sallie, I don’t think you came across as a “jerk” & I don’t think Ron felt that way either!! I personally loved both your opinions “voiced”!! Don’t know how long you’ve been following Ron, but I have since early 2014 & he is a perfectionist in his art of photography and is always striving for a “story” without distractions even if he’s the only one the distraction bothers!!

  • Judy Gusick

    Beautiful Mallard shot Ron – granted the other ducks are a bit of distraction.:) Granted, you’d about have to know what the coots were… Anything in motion can sure mess you up – no accounting for what may show up. Those “little” screens on the camera certainly have fooled me more than once! +4 this morning – down side in GF it’s +23 and the wind is at 29 mph at the moment – hope it doesn’t get here! 🙁

    • Judy, that camera screen can be quite helpful but I’ve learned to NEVER trust it enough to truly evaluate an image – for sharpness or anything else. That’s one of the reasons I never “chimp” in the field (deleting images on the camera before I look at them on the big screen).

      Wow, considering how close you are to Great Falls that’s quite a temp difference!

      • Judy Gusick

        Browning is below zero still with a blizzard warning and roads/schools closed…………:( The “chinook” will get here before long – don’t need the wind with all the snow……….:(

        • I remember snow drifting up to the roof of our house in Santa Rita (just north of Cut Bank) in those conditions. And if we were out on the farm when it happened we could be stranded for days.

          • Judy Gusick

            Never seen it THAT bad!

          • Alice Beckcom

            Ron, your comment brings back memories of me growing up in rural Minnesota and getting stranded for days….we kept milk in the washing machine until my Father could get to the Creamery. Not sure how sanitary that was but we are all alive and just getting older! Thanks for the memories, Ron.

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