Spring Warblers 2018

June 25, 2018  •  1 Comment

I had a solid spring with warblers, and I wanted to share a few of my favorite images. Each year, I see about 30 or so species of warblers and I am able to photograph 20-25 that I feel are worthy of sharing. I will try to limit this blog to the top couple of each species photographed.

Of the breeding birds in PA, I missed a couple that I hope to pick up a few more of these breeding species in summer or during fall migration. Two species that are usually fairly easy for me are Yellow Warblers and Worm-eating Warblers.Surprisingly, I did not photograph either of these well this year. The following species were all seen but not photographed well, as they are much fewer in numbers and less cooperative: Yellow-throated, Blackburnian, Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary, and my current nemesis, Nashville.  Kentucky is a tough bird in my area, and I did not see one this year.

I did not have luck with true migrants. These birds move through quickly and glimpses of them often involve watching them feed frantically to support their long flights. Their frequent tree top feeding makes pictures much more difficult.  The migrants can sometimes be picked up in fall migration, but the plumage is often different and sometimes more dull. The migrants I hope to photograph in fall include Bay-breasted (seen in spring), Blackpoll (seen in spring, tiny breeding population in PA), Cape May (seen in spring), Wilsons (not seen), and two very difficult species that I have never seen in PA: Connecticut and Orange-crowned.

This year I shared 22 species of the 29 that I saw.  Here they are listed alphabetically:

(Above: American Redstart, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Black-throated Warbler, Sullivan Co. PA)

(Above: Black-throated Green Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Black-throated Green Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Blue-winged Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Canada Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Canada Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Canada Warbler, Luzernce Co. PA)

(Above: Cerulean Warbler Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Chestnut-sided Warbler Northampton Co. PA)

(Above: Chestnut-sided Warbler Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Chestnut-sided Warbler Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Common Yellowthroat, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Golden-winged Warbler,  Monroe Co. PA)

(Above: Hooded Warbler, Northampton Co. PA)

(Above: Louisiana Waterthrush, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Louisiana Waterthrush, Lehigh Co. PA)

Magnolia Warbler in the rain. (Above: Magnolia Warbler, Northampton Co. PA)

(Above: Mourning Warbler, Northern PA)

(Above: Mourning Warbler, Northern PA)

(Above: Mourning Warbler, Northern PA)

(Above: Norhten Parula, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Norhten Parula, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Ovenbird, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Palm Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Pine Warbler, Atlantic Co. NJ)

(Above: Pine Warbler, Atlantic Co. NJ)

(Above: Prairie Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Prairie Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Prairie Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)

(Above: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Lehigh Co. PA)


Different Light, Different Birds

June 09, 2018  •  1 Comment

Most people understand that light is the foundation of all photography. When I think about avian photography, I am always very conscious of light and how the available light will play into my photography at any given moment.  In this blog, I am going to discuss the relationship between available light and my preferred subjects in various lighting conditions.  I have broken down light in to 4 available categories: Blue hour, golden hour, overcast and direct sun.

Before Sunrise - Blue Hour

In the pre-dawn light, interesting things occur.  For example, the skies will often show blues, purples and pinks that are not available at any other time.  However these extremely low light conditions are very difficult to manage.  Shooting at this time requires the use of very slow shutter speed and much higher ISO.  The species to think about are slow movers.  You won't get many action images at this time.  I don't do much owl photography, but these can be captured (hopefully with super slow shutter and not flash).  I know many owl photographers that are shooting at shutter speeds measures in the seconds, not fractions of seconds.  If owls are not your interest or if you have a tough time finding them, you can also capture wading birds, who are often very still, or any larger perched bird (raptor).  Another strategy is to shoot back into the predawn sun to get silhouettes.  Below are some example of low light, pre-dawn birds.  Very occasionally, you may have enough light for some flight shots liket he Tern below, but usually the sun would need to be close to rising and you would likely still have some motion blur.

Blue Hour (Forster'sTern)Blue Hour (Forster'sTern)

Calling (Osprey)Calling (Osprey)

Majestic MorningMajestic Morning

Golden Hour 

Most photographers are well aware of the benefits of golden hour, that time period during sunrise and sunset where the sun is just a few degrees over the horizon. With the sun in this position, the quality of light changes as certain wavelengths are filtered out by the atmosphere and the remaining light is softer and has golden tones. The term golden hour, however, is a little misleading, as the period of time that the sun offers these benefits can vary greatly based on season and distance from the equator.  In the northeast U.S.,for example, this time frame is generally less than 40 minutes for most of the year.  I did an older blog specifically about golden hour and how quickly the light changes.  Click here for the link to Golden Hour and "Harsh" Light.


While almost all subjects photograph well at sunrise or sunset, there are some that I prefer over others.  Shorebirds and waterfowl are my favorite subjects for golden hour.  Often in spring, I will look at the weather forecast and if conditions are sunny, I will head to the beach or wetland areas for peeps or waders. In addition to how great the subjects look, I think there is an emotional component to shooting birds near the water.  It may just be me, but sunrise at the beach just feels special. One warning about shorebirds however.  As great as birds look at sunrise on the beach, they look pretty mediocre once the sun gets stronger and harsher.  The conditions tend to change so fast, that if you can't find them quickly, or have trouble getting a great shot, you may invest in a long trip only to return home with mediocre images. For this reason, it may be a good idea to explore sunset. This allows you time to scout and find areas and subjects before light is at its peak and then continue to shoot them as the light gets better and better.

Below are examples of different subjects that help illustrate the appeal of golden hour. 

Feather (Oystercatcher)Feather (Oystercatcher)

Majestic (Tri-colored Heron)Majestic (Tri-colored Heron)

Stoic (Snowy Egret)Stoic (Snowy Egret)

(Green-winged Teal)(Green-winged Teal)

Singing to the Mountains (Worm-eating Warbler)Singing to the Mountains (Worm-eating Warbler)

At the Lookout (Black-and-white Warbler)At the Lookout (Black-and-white Warbler)



If the golden hour in spring takes me to the shore, overcast light, even clouds and rain, generally draws me to the woods. For several reasons, overcast light is generally my preferred lighting for songbirds.  

The practical reason that overcast lighting works well for songbirds, especially during migrations, is that it allows you to shoot for several hours and get pleasing images. Finding cooperative warblers, for example, can be very tough, so diffused light will simply give you more time. When shooting birds in stronger, direct light, you are often dealing with shadows from leaves and branches. Direct sun on these features is very unflattering and you will often have "hot spots" and shadows that are deal breakers for good quality pictures.  Indirect, overcast or filtered light will soften or eliminate shadows and hot spots, but in addition it will also tend to make the greens more vibrant.  

The challenge with shooting overcast, is the light.  With no sun coming through the clouds, there will be very little light available.  This puts more demands on your body and lens.  I am not going to go into a deep dive on this subject, but will cover it in another blog on low light, songbird photography.

The examples below show some birds captured in lower light conditions.  The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher shown below is an interesting image, because while it was taken several hours after sunrise, the atmosphere had lots of fog. Some sun was coming through, but it was incredibly diffused and created almost ideal lighting conditions for this time of day.  I also included a few overcast images captured in rain and snow.  While rain really pushes the limits of many bodies and lenses, the reflective nature of snow covered ground may actually help provide more light and therefore ease the burden on the equipment.

On a Swingset (Ruby-crowned Kinglet)On a Swingset (Ruby-crowned Kinglet)SCOTT KEYS

Song (Black-throated Green)Song (Black-throated Green)SCOTT KEYS

Careful Steps (Ovenbird)Careful Steps (Ovenbird)

Pintail in Soft Lght (White-cheeked Pintail)Pintail in Soft Lght (White-cheeked Pintail)

Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)

Horizon Hunter (Northern Harrier)Horizon Hunter (Northern Harrier)

Direct Sun

While Direct Sun is generally the least aesthetically pleasing of the light discussed, it does come with some benefits.  Since camera sensors crave light, having lots of it means you can shoot with lower ISO and faster shutter speeds. So in direct sun, I am usually thinking action!  I consider subjects like birds in flight or birds fishing or bathing.  With shutter speeds of 1/2000 or even faster, it is easy to freeze action, feathers, water droplets, etc.  Lower ISO also means less noise in your finished product.

In direct sun you can also get some interesting high contrast images.  I included a few below that show you what you can do when you get light on the subject and expose for the lightest part of the subject.  Especially if the background is in shade, you can get dramatic, high contrast images, with very dark backgrounds.

Here are some example of birds shot in direct sun.  While the sun is certainly stronger here, I will say I try to avoid direct overhead sun at all costs.  Overhead sun will cast shadows straight down and this becomes very difficult to work with.

Frozen (Snowy Egret)Frozen (Snowy Egret)

Tippy Toe (Sanderling)Tippy Toe (Sanderling)

Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)SCOTT KEYS

Eyeing the Prize (Sharp-shinned Hawk)Eyeing the Prize (Sharp-shinned Hawk)


IsolatedIsolatedSCOTT KEYS






Bird and Backgrounds Part IV - Seasons

March 28, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

The last part of this series on backgrounds is all about utilizing the current time of year to maximize your images. For this, I will share more examples of ways to utilize your seasonal background, starting with everyone's favorite time of year: spring.

With warmer temperatures and new growth, spring is an incredible time of year to photograph. Not only are many birds migrating through central and northern parts of the country, colors in these areas are popping and background can be really interesting. Leaves are just starting to show, so photographing between March and May can mean a little less of the full green trees. However, buds and flowers are going to offer vibrance that you may not get at any other time of the year.
I have included some of my favorite spring backgrounds from the last couple of years below.


Summer has me thinking of a few colors. The first color that comes to mind is green. For most of the country, leaves are filling up the forests. Greens will dominate your backgrounds and you will often have nice solid canvases for your birds. The problem with leaves is they also create shadows. For this reason, I often like shooting on overcast days. This will mean some tweaks to settings (higher ISO and slower shutter and hopefully you have a large aperture lens available), but the results can be very pleasing. 
The other colors that come to mind are the colors of the beach: soft blues and light beiges that are offered by sandy shores. While the entire country may not have access to shores of the ocean or lakes, many along the coasts have an opportunity to include shorelines in their compositions. Since many of these photographs will incorporate shorebirds, be sure to think about perspective and how to include these colors in your overall image.  Remember, changing perspectives will allow you to include different elements in your background.  Getting low with shorebirds will often introduce water and sky.  Adding these to your photos will incorporate the blues of the beaches instead of just the sand and ground colors.


Fall brings change and these changes can create amazing opportunity. With leaves changing, your subjects now have oranges, yellows and reds behind them, mixed with the remaining greens of summer. Photographers and outdoor enthusiast relish this time of year. Even without wildlife present, the views can be stunning in the northern half of the country. When photographing at this time of year, I take into consideration available species and fall migration. Raptor have many flyways in the U.S. If you are lucky enough to be on these flyways, you can find spots to include birds in flight with dramatic backgrounds. Songbirds also migrate, so instead of featuring them in the woods, I will often try to get them along the edges of wooded areas, where I might get more color involved. A lot of my fall photography is done in the mountains of PA, where the elevation opens up your views and brings in lots of color. A note about photography at a hawk watch (which is my primary destination). When you are located at a hawk watch, you will have to enjoy the entire process. It will not always make for close views to photograph, so it helps if you enjoy the process of finding and identifying remote birds, with the hope of getting some nice close photos.  Some hawk watches tend to offer better looks than others, so if you are planning on shooting migrating raptors in fall, do your homework and talk to the experts. They can help you find out when and where you may have the best odds for good pictures, with wind and temperature also being key factors. 
A final autumn target can also be early arriving waterfowl. Colorful trees will reflect in the water and can create dramatic scenes. 




Winter is sometimes thought of as the dead season. Colors are largely gone but this doesn't mean you can’t maximize what is available. Your location and conditions are going to largely dictate what your background will look like. Browns can be used to add mood and a feeling of texture. Dead grasses will often glow in the light, especially during golden hour. Snow can add lot of interest to a photo, with a plain white background that might make an image simple and artistic. Evergreens are called ever-green for a reason, so finding conifers may also allow for the inclusion of color. 


Backgrounds - Part III, Different Birds, Different Backgrounds

February 06, 2018  •  1 Comment

One factor that I always keep in mind is what type of bird will I be photographing.  This allows me to be prepared with the right equipment and sometimes the appropriate attire. For this discussion on backgrounds, I am going to focus on how the subject sometimes influences your background.  We will look at four categories: Perched birds, waterfowl, birds on the ground, and birds in flight.


When shooting perched birds, such as warblers or songbirds, we often get focused completely on the subject and fail to see what is beyond it. After all, who knows how long it will stay put? If you become too focused on chasing the birds, you may not always get images that are pleasing overall.  When shooting song birds, I try to find locations that will offer isolated perches and may even place a few in areas with interesting backdrops.  I look for areas that offer separation from the perch to background of more than 10 feet, as discussed in my prior article. Backgrounds that are too close to the subject will often be in focus and create distracting elements.  It is also important to get on the same plane as the subject, as close to eye level as possible, so you are not shooting up or down at it. 

Some tips and tricks for songbirds:

  • Find elevation.  Since songbirds are often overhead, try to find location that has trees growing below you.  I often shoot on the sides of small hills or mountains.  There may be some trails and roads that go along the hillside.  Use this to your advantage.  
  • Know your species.   Knowing which birds prefer low, thick vegetation versus taller trees will allow you to set up in areas appropriately.  Developing a network of birding friends or using ebird to determine which species are around can also be very helpful.
  • Find breaks in the trees.  For greater separation in background, try to find areas that have openings along the woods.   One of my best spots to photograph is along powerline cuts.  Often these cuts go right in the middle of forests.  Birds foraging along the edge of these cuts don't have anywhere high to perch, so they will often drop down lower to the only perches available. 
  • Don't be afraid to use your car.   I'm guessing over half of my songbirds are actually shot from the car.  The car works as a blind and if you have great spots, sometimes the birds will land very near the road or parking lot.  You will need to give it some time for birds to get comfortable.  They will often disperse when you pull up only to return 10-15 minutes later. 
  • Practice at feeders.  This will allow you to place some perches and basically choose your set up.  For beginners, feeder birds are a great way to practice learning your camera while allowing you to have great control over your environment, including perches and backgrounds. 

Below are some examples of perched birds and the thinking behind the shot.  

A Chickadee perched on holly (below) at relatively close range has warm light and distant branches.  This will often create nice patterns behind the subject.  If the branches are too sparse the white areas will be larger and less pleasing.   If the branches are too close they become in focus and are less flattering. Chickadee on Holly (Chickadee)Chickadee on Holly (Chickadee)chickadee


Perched birds are not limited to songbirds.  Below a male Northern Harrier rests on a low fence allowing an eye level look that includes dark trees behind the bird and a snow covered ground below.  A higher perch would not have allowed this, so locating potential perches or observing behavior of a bird can be helpful to set up these looks.  A note about snow: it will reflect available light which fills shadows and give more ambient light to the camera's sensor.  It's also a lot of fun!  SkeysImages, Scott Keys, wildlife, bird, Raptor, bird of preyReprieve (Northern Harrier)


With perched birds you can generally be about 10 degrees above or below the birds and still get looks that are considered "eye-level."  In this image, I was slightly above the bird but there is still a sense of eye contact.  In this specific picture, I moved slightly to get a different colored stone in the background.  Most of other images include some greens, but moving just a few feet gave me this earthy tone behind the bird that I thought complimented the Cerulean Warbler's signature blue. Cerulean (Cerulean Warbler)Cerulean (Cerulean Warbler)



This section covering ground birds will primarily include shorebirds, but there are many species that forage low including sparrows, robins, larks and buntings.

The biggest factor I consider when shooting along the ground is perspective.  As with almost all images, I am trying to get on the same plane as the subject.  With ground birds, this is even more critical if you want to get a nice out of focus background.  If you shoot from above the subject, pointing down, you will get the ground in the background.  Not only is the ground generally displeasing, but it is also very close to the bird.  In order to get a distant out of focus background, the lens will need to be low, and not just low, really low.   I have seen people set up for shorebirds using tripods and even flattened out they are still a foot or more above the ground.   As a guideline, I am lower than one foot when shooting these subjects.   For shorebirds, I usually shoot hand held and lay the lens on my hand.  I may also use a groundpod (homemade with frying pan with a tilt head) at times.  Below is an example of a typical position for shorebirds.  

If you are able to get low enough, you can get some very interesting backgrounds.  A difference of 1 foot lower can make a background that would otherwise be a couple feet behind the bird, change to a background that is hundreds of feet, even miles behind the bird. (See my prior blog on persepective, http://skeysimages.zenfolio.com/blog/2017/7/20)

Below are a few images of of shorebirds and ground foragers that illustrate this.

The Piping Plover below demonstrates some of the advantages of low angle shorebirds.  The gradient in the blues in a combination of the dark blue water against he light blue sky.  In general, I really like these gradients in the background.


Taken from a shoreline position, the Dunlin below stands out nicely against the green grass marshes. (Dunlin)(Dunlin)


Getting right on the ground for this Vesper Sparrow included an interesting out of focus foreground element.  The resulting image now has 3 colors associated with the environment, all composed in thirds of the frame. Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071


The approach to water fowl is very similar to ground birds.  In general, I am looking to get less than 12 inches from the water.  This can present several challenges, so I thought I would discuss the waterfowl section more on set up and approach.

In order to get really low, with ducks and the like, you will need to do one of two things.  You can find a shallow bank, hopefully with concealment opportunities, and wait patiently for them to come past.  If you use this technique, you can also use a blanket or a make shift blind to help.  In my experience, most ducks are extremely skittish if they are wild and they will not tolerate much, if any, movement.  This is why being patient and still is critical to your success.  The second approach is to get in the water with a tripod set up ultra low.  Doing this will require waders and sometimes the use of a right-angle view finder.  Being in the water seems to be the best approach for getting birds close.  When submerged and still, I often have shorebirds or waterfowl within minimum focus.  When in the water I generally use a camo-type netting draped over my head and lens.  Ducks are super sensitive to any movement and I have noticed a difference when my head is so concealed vs. when it is not concealed.

The Hooded Merganser below was taken from a shoreline position that had a shallow slope and good vegetation for concealment. 


The Ring-necked Duck below was shot in the water with a tripod/waders set up.  This bird literally swam right at the camera and paid no attention to my presence.



When photographing birds in flight, there are a few different considerations.  In general, perspective is more forgiving.  So while with other species, I like to be +/- 10 degrees of the subjects plane, with birds in flight, I may be outside of that range and still get pleasing images.  This is due to a few factors.  For example, a bird in the air may twist or bank.  Even though it is over your head a bit, when it banks it will often appear to be in the same plane or even below you.  

My consideration for backgrounds with birds in flight are primarily around including color and/or horizons to break up solid sky.  As a rule, plain blue sky is not appealing.  So how do we get a bird in the air with a background with color?   To accomplish this you need to think about elevation.  Shooting raptors from a cliff or mountain, for example, will offer a perspective that may include a land based canvas.  If you are on flat land, think about ways to get the birds with something behind them, for example, hills and mountains my be included behind the bird.

I have included a few examples to show different birds in flight with different backgrounds, at different angles.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk (below) is well below me, but this angle shows a different look.  It captures the top side of the bird as it banks and the forest below creates a nice green backdrop. Topside (Sharp-shinned Hawk)Topside (Sharp-shinned Hawk)SCOTT KEYS


For the Snow Geese (below) I saw them taking off and landing in a small flock during golden hour.  I moved up onto a little hill so that I could get them at eye level in flight.  Doing this assured that they weren't over my head and allowed me to capture some of the other geese below to break up the background and give a sense of context to their arrivals and departures. (Snow Geese)(Snow Geese)


This last example of a bird in flight shows a bird that is actually above me but banking hard.  This action allows for a topside view, even when the bird is above you.  Again, birds in flight can be forgiving this way.  The point I want to illustrate here is also that the inclusion of something as simple as a cloud can improve an otherwise totally blue background.  While this is not a dramatic element, it does help the overall image become more complete. Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)Banking in the Clouds (Merlin)SCOTT KEYS

Backgrounds for Birds - Part II, Distance

January 11, 2018  •  1 Comment


Another topic I want to cover regarding backgrounds is distance. Changing the distance from the subject to background and/or distance between the lens and subject will alter and can often enhance your overall scene. In general, when photographing birds I like there to be as much distance between my subject and the background as possible.  The closer the subject is to the background, the more in focus those background elements will appear and those elements can create distractions in your overall image.  Backgrounds do not need to be completely solid to be pleasing. In fact, there are times when I really like out of focus leaves and branches because they can create interesting patterns that often look like paintings. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that the closer you are to your subject, the closer the lens will focus and the more out of focus the background will be. For example, a bird 10 feet away with a backdrop 10 feet behind the bird will produce a much different look than a bird 5 feet away with a backdrop 10 feet behind it, even though the distance from subject to background has not changed.  When the point of focus changes, it will also change the way the background appears, so there are two variables at play: distance from lens to subject and the distance from subject to the background.  

Following are some controlled examples that show the effect of distances on background. (Crop sensor body, 300 2.8 lens shot at f/4)

The subject below is 6 feet away from the fence rails behind it.  It remains 6 feet away as I change my distance from the subject (moving back).  I start at minimum focus on my 300 2.8 lens which is also 6 feet.   On the left image, I am the same distance from subject as it is to the background and notice you can't really even see the rails behind the bird.  In the middle image I have moved back to 12 feet and you can see that the rails are coming into focus.  On the right image, I was 18 feet from the subject. The rails are now very obvious and quite distracting. Keep in mind that in all of these images, the distance between the subject and background remained the same and only my distance to the subject changed.

ABOVE: Background on all at 6 ft.

BELOW: Background is all at 12 ft. For the set of images above, I placed the subject 12 feet away from the rails and followed the same pattern.  Left, I am 6 feet away, Middle -12, right -18.  You can see similar results, but notice the background is slightly more out of focus being twice as far away.

The point I hope to illustrate here is that both distance to subject and distance to background affect how the background appears in your images, whether it be more in focus, or smooth and nicely blurred.



There are several advantages to so-called "fast" lenses.  This basically means that the maximum opening of the lens is larger.  This creates bigger, heavier glass, but has some huge benefits. In addition to faster autofocus and better low light performance, it also allows the backgrounds to become more out of focus when shot "wide open" or at the lowest possible f-stop.

In the examples below, the subject was shot at 12 feet with 12 feet also separating the subject from the background.  The only variable is now aperture.  Each image represents a 1 stop change in aperture.  The left image was shot wide open at f/2.8 and notice the the rails are out of focus and less noticeable.  By the time we get to the image on the right, we are shooting f/11 and the rails are much more obvious.  

It should be noted that while shooting at a lower f-stop will give you more pleasing background, it will also give you a narrower focal plane and will cause less of your subject to be in focus.  This is an important concept that should be considered when choosing your settings.  If the background is really far away, I am more likely to select an aperture of f/5.6+.  If the background is closer to the subject, I will shoot with the lowest f-stop possible.  90% of my images of birds are shot at f/4.

ABOVE: The images at f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f.8, f/11


Some Things to Consider

As a general rule, I try to think about the type of shot that I am going to achieve and what I am hoping to create in both subject and environment.  If I am taking a tighter portrait, I will always try to get as close as possible to the subject, especially if the background elements are close to it.  I have even gone to shorter lenses that allow me to get closer (closer minimum focus) and therefore get the background more out of focus.  Doing so will change the sticks and leaves in the background from distracting elements to pleasing colors and patterns. In the image below, I am capturing a Vireo in an dense environment.  By getting very clse (or allowing it to come close to me) the backgrounds becomes an interesting pattern.  Had I been further away, I would have cropped more to get the same composition and the branches would have been more in focus. White-eyed VireoWhite-eyed Vireo

(Above:  White-eyed Vireo shot with 500mm f/4 @f/4, 15 feet)

If I am composing a shot that is more environmental, the subject is probably going to be further away.   In this situation is it very important to carefully consider the background and the distance from subject to background.   In the example below, we have a Northern Shoveler that was probably 80+ feet away.   In order to make sure the overall scene is pleasing, I had to make sure the background was very distant.  In this case, the background is a tall stretch of reeds that was probably several hundred feet behind the bird.  This allowed a pleasing out of focus canvas.  If I had shot the same subject with the reeds 20-50 feet behind the subject, they would have been more in focus and competed with the bird for the viewer's attention.

Fall Shoveler (Northern Shoveler)Fall Shoveler (Northern Shoveler) (Above: Northern Shoveler, 500mm f/4 @ f/4, 80 feet)


More Examples of Various Backgrounds

Here are some more example of pleasing backgrounds achieved by being conscious of distance and "seeing through the subject."  For each image, I will give a brief explanation about the conditions and thought process.

The Eastern Bluebird, pictured below, shows what distance can do to a background when there are horizontal elements behind the subject.  The background here consists of some grass and a row of dark trees.  At several hundred feet, the area where the grass and trees meet starts to turn into a gradient.  I use distant horizons often in my backgrounds and I find these gradients very pleasing.

skeysimges, "scott keys", "eastern bluebird", bluebird, perch, fench, soft, bird, photographyWinter Blues (Eastern Bluebird)An Eastern Bluebird poses in soft light.
Lehigh Co. PA


Raptors on perches, like the American Kestrel below, are often seen against blue skies.  Moving into a favorable position placed this bird against a very distant mountain, allowing some of the mixed patterns to be present.   Kestrel Perched (American Kestrel)Kestrel Perched (American Kestrel)SCOTT KEYS

The Black-throated Green Warbler, below, is a good example of how being super close will melt away your background.  This image was taken at minimum focus on a 300mm f2/8 lens (about 6 feet).  This is not easy to do and you will  need to set up on a spot and be ready.  Knowing patterns and behaviors is really helpful in the field.  You can also use this set up near feeders, where birds will use nearby perches to "wait their turn."  Because the lens is focusing so close, all other background elements become out-of-focus.  Even though they are not very distant, they still disappear.  Being this close also allows you to get incredible detail on the subject. Profile (Black-throated Green)Profile (Black-throated Green)SCOTT KEYS


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