Creating More Compelling Bird Portraits - a turn of the head

A Turn of the Head – Creating More Compelling Bird Portraits

The last time I counted, there were about seventy two quadrillion photos of birds on the internet. Therefore, if you’re dedicating your time to try to stand out as a bird photographer, there is a ton of competition out there. However, there is one thing that you can try to incorporate in your photos that will at least have them stand out a little bit.

Creating More Compelling Bird Portraits

Wait for the turn of the head. Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? It sounds simple, but achieving it is often a bit trickier. Many bird species have their eyes placed on opposite sides of their heads. When photographing birds without their heads slightly angled towards the viewer, the images tend to lack a bit of intimacy. Consider the following two images of a Mountain Bluebird. In the first image, the bird’s head is angled away from the viewer, while the second image features the bird’s head angled just slightly towards the viewer.

Mountain Bluebird looking away from the viewer

Mountain Bluebird looking away from the viewer

Mountain Bluebird looking toward the viewer

Mountain Bluebird looking toward the viewer

I’ll bet that for most of you, the second image is more compelling just because of that eye contact. Sure the perch is somewhat ugly (it’s the post used to mount the bird box above the ground), but even with an ugly perch, the second image is more compelling. Then if you’re patient, even with an ugly perch, you can still get a compelling image out of it, slight head turn included.

Mountain Bluebird posing pretty

Mountain Bluebird posing pretty

What to look for – subtle differences are huge

Consider the following three photos of a Rough-legged Hawk.

Rough-legged Hawk looking away from the viewer

Rough-legged Hawk looking away from the viewer

© Paul Burwell Photography - Rough-legged Hawk looking directly at the viewer

Rough-legged Hawk looking directly at the viewer

© Paul Burwell Photography - Rough-legged Hawk with the sexy over the shoulder look towards the viewer

Rough-legged Hawk with the sexy over the shoulder look towards the viewer

In the first image, the bird is looking away from the viewer. In the second, he is looking straight on to the viewer, while the third image has my preferred head-turn. In my opinion, in terms of a compelling image, it isn’t even a close comparison. The perch still isn’t ideal (although this is the typical place we find these birds where I live), but the third pose with the head-turn makes that image into a keeper for me.

Patience or initiative gets the head turn

So, is it just a matter of patience and waiting for the preferred head-turn? Sometimes that is true. Other times I try to “encourage” my subject to look my way. How do I accomplish this? I imitate the squeak of a mouse. I purse my lips together and suck in air through my teeth to produce an irritating squeaking sound. Sometimes, not always, but some times, the bird is curious enough to look my direction.

I know of some photographers who prefer to use the “machine gun” approach where they just hammer-down on the shutter button, essentially shooting a slow frame-rate movie.  Occasionally they’ll catch the bird with its head in the preferred position.  I personally don’t favour that approach, but would rather just wait for the appropriate moment and cut down on my post-processing work once I get home.

In terms of the bird looking head-on into the camera, that can occasionally work, but for most birds it just isn’t their best angle. There are definitely exceptions to that and owls are the first bird that springs to mind. Consider this image of the tiny Northern Pygmy Owl for example.

© Paul Burwell Photography - Northern-Pygmy Owl looking frosty

Northern-Pygmy Owl looking frosty

Here are a couple more images to consider:

© Paul Burwell Photography - www.bsop.ca

Ruddy Duck Drake looking towards the viewer

© Paul Burwell Photography - www.bsop.ca

Ruddy Duck Drake looking away from the viewer

I made these two images of the Ruddy Duck just seconds apart. In the first image, the bird looked my way due to my incredible squeaking ability, while in the second, his patience expired and he was off to find his girl friend.

The following two images of a White Breasted Nuthatch also illustrate the point. In both images, the birds are in their traditional upside-down pose on the side of a tree. The difference between the images is that in the first the bird is looking slightly away from the viewer while in the second exhibits that classic slight head-turn towards the viewer that I strongly favour.

© Paul Burwell Photography - www.bsop.ca

White-breasted Nuthatch looking away from the viewer

© Paul Burwell Photography - www.bsop.ca

White-breasted Nuthatch looking towards the viewer

The last two images I present for your consideration are these two images of a Common Loon carrying a chick on its back.

© Paul Burwell Photography - www.bsop.ca

Common Loon carrying a chick on its back with both birds looking away from the viewer

© Paul Burwell Photography - www.bsop.ca

Common Loon carrying a chick on its back with both birds looking towards the viewer

In the first image, both adult and baby are looking away from the viewer. It’s a nice image but lacks a bit of intimacy.  Whereas the second image features both birds looking towards the viewer. The second image is a result of the large goofy photographer, with his lens perilously positioned inches above the water, from an unstable boat squeaking his heart out. For me, there is no comparison between the two images; the second wins easily.

Therefore, the next time you’re out in pursuit of some bird images that might rank in the top thirty-six quadrillion instead of the bottom, look for the opportunity to capture those birds with their heads slightly turned towards you. Whether you achieve it through patience or “the squeak”, I’ll bet you’ll find your images a bit more compelling.

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Paul Burwell is a professional photographer, writer, educator and enthusiastic naturalist with over twenty years experience working with and educating adults. In addition to being the owner of the Burwell School of Photography, he is a contributing editor and regular columnist with Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Paul has been a finalist in the Veolia 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year' worldwide competition in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and was named a 'Top Wildlife Shooter' by Popular Photography Magazine in 2010.