A Turn of the Head – Creating More Compelling Bird Portraits

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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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • Joanna

    What do you think about my photo? 🙂

  • Ghazal415

    And my pic

  • Mohsen

    I became puzzled! Some photographers tell me not to put subject in centre, amateur persons do that!

    But I don’t see rule of three in this images!

    What’s the matter?

  • James Adams

    Paul, love the photos, just joined DPS, my passion is Bird Photography: I use a Canon 50D and 5D Mk.II with Sigma DG 150-500mm 1:5-6.3 APO HSM (First two shots were taken with my old EOS Rebel XT and Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM).

  • James Adams

    Sorry that should be Canon EF 70-300 f/4-5.6 USM III, I’m not money bags.

  • James Adams

    This is some of my photos that fits your “Turn of The Head” theme. A Varied Thrush, American Robin and Steller Jay taken when I lived in Ladner, BC

  • James Adams

    Hello Joanna,

    I like this shot, looks like a Fieldfare? You might try Sharpening the image, this will enhance the bird, and bring it more into focus.

    When I was growing up in Fife, Scotland, I used to see the Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) as a winter visitor from Scandinavia. They sometimes came as early as October, depending of the severity of the Arctic winter.

    Some of my BC bird photos are below as a Guest for some reason!!!

  • Jim

    Nice images, and a good Paul. Here is one of my favorites.

  • Ht Davis

    I’ve read that too. The reason is pretty simple… …a brand name extender typically has it’s own lens elements in a modular, compact, and extremely well tuned design, built for the camera mount (with all the technology available to the camera). Some cheaper extenders require prime lenses due to the fact that they are made with lesser quality materials, and are not built for the electronics of the camera. Stick with the main manufacturers for your camera, and you won’t have a problem with most lenses designed for your mount.

  • arh lee

    nice photo

  • lee

    really nice

  • John Stevens

    Hummer on a Holding Pattern

  • No, Canon extenders work with most ‘L’ zoom telephoto lenses as well. A list of compatible lenses is at http://gdlp01.c-wss.com/gds/3/0300004653/01/extender-ef-14x-iii-en.pdf

  • awwww this is soooooooooooooooo beautiful. <3 love quotes

  • Aravind A Kannan

    Below snaps are my good captures of birds.. I like bird photography a lot as they can give better poses after we humans..

  • rita

    I love the way you explain photography.
    can I share some of my attempts?
    thank you

    Rita

  • Jared

    Love the position of the bird.

  • Sg Hill

    A biologist, ehh ? So with your underwhelming knowledge of all things biological you feel a human squeaking or making noises at a bird or other animal is going to “change it’s
    wildlife behavior ? ” Do you even know how ridiculous a statement that is ??? Go back to school, ya ninny !

  • Widhi Adi Cipta

    Glow in the dark

  • Eduardo Franco

    Nice. Please, take look on work: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eduslfranco/

  • I walk a lot and made this one while walking to go to the doctor.

    I like this photo because I see lots of contrasting elements: the birt isn’t flying, but it is still up there against the sky and clouds. The light bulb is off and in darkness even under a bright day. The bird is protected and free, but it doesn’t seem that it will go away for a while. It is a small and delicate animal, but seems onipresent and rulling the world from there… and so on.

  • Janet Lyn Bedford

    It is a lovely photo. Thanks for sharing. Yes, AND I do agree with the suggestion to “focus on the eyes in a photo”…..I’m thinking that the illusion and wee bit of an added tiny little GLINT of LIGHT on a likely area of the only one of the bird’s eye…via free editing site…WILL help draw the viewer into the photo. SEE what I mean?

  • Janet Lyn Bedford

    Superb. I can only imagine the time and care you had to take to get this photo. WELL DONE, you ! Thanks for sharing.

  • Jagadeesh Sampath

    This is my best shot.

  • Jagadeesh Sampath

    This is my best shot

  • surya

    post amazing photos it is really nice

  • Nancy Tinkham

    Love this pic.

  • Nancy Tinkham

    wishing I had a telephoto lens…

  • Gidi Kesselbrenner

    Robin
    Berlin 2014

  • One of my favourite shots taken recently of a White faced Heron, used my monopod on the day and am glad I took it along. This Bird was kind enough to sit still and pose on a wooden post

  • Ricky Tan Kok Tiong

    Green Parrot Visited my House

  • Ricky Tan Kok Tiong
  • Ricky Tan Kok Tiong
  • Ricky Tan Kok Tiong
  • David Green

    Thanks Mr. Bird-Well for getting me to be more patient and thoughtful about my photos!

  • David Green

    Here is a link to some zoo pics in my drop box, and I have to agree that the ones where the animals are looking my way or near my way are the better shots. Thanks for helping me think deeper about my work, Mr. Bird-Well!

    https://www.dropbox.com/sh/b3lc74vvw7ipyri/AABWb8wkdXg9ZmkYRfaxDJxma?dl=0

  • Molon Labe!

    canon 5ds, 600mm f4

  • Molon Labe!

    canon 1dx 70-200 f2.8 at 200mm f4

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