The 7 Elements of a Great Bird Photograph

by Glenn Bartley
December 6, 2011

Grass Green Tanager by Glenn Bartley ©

Grass Green Tanager

In order to create beautiful images of birds on a consistent basis it is important to understand the many elements that combine to make a good photo. These include the exposure, composition, light, sharpness, perch, pose and background. These components are not absolute rules that must be followed in every image. As a matter of fact, some of the best images are those that break some of the rules or that are “outside of the box”.  Nevertheless, understanding these 7 elements as a starting point will inevitably lead to better bird images.

Band-tailed Manakin by Glenn Bartley ©

Band-tailed Manakin

1. Exposure: Successful bird images must be properly exposed so that they do not look too light or too dark. Creating a correct exposure essentially boils down to controlling the amount of lig t that reaches the film or digital sensor.  Cameras control this through the inter-workings of three factors: the duration that the shutter is open (shutter speed), the size of the opening in the lens (aperture) and the sensitivity of the film (ISO speed). The best way to ensure proper exposure is to learn to read your cameras histogram and make adjustments through exposure compensation (adding or subtracting light from the way the camera meters a scene).

Black-crested Coquette by Glenn Bartley ©

Black-crested Coquette

2. Composition: In addition to being exposed properly, an image must also be well composed. This generally refers to the balance of how the elements within the frame are arranged (bird, perch and background elements). Infinite possibilities exist. However, starting out with standard compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds and ensuring that there is more room in front of the bird than behind it are good starting points.

Common Eider by Glenn Bartley ©

Common Eider

3. Light: Photography is all about light. Understanding that light has quality, direction, intensity and how to harness these factors is an absolute must for any bird photographer. Great bird photographs can be taken in direct sunlight, shade, under cloudy skies and with the use of flash. Learning about light and how to work with, instead of against it, is a crucial element of bird photography.

Common Loon by Glenn Bartley ©

Common Loon

4. Sharpness: Most bird photographers are, with good reason, obsessed with how sharp their images are. This is because bird images that are sharp (especially around the birds eye) are much more intimate, professional and natural looking. Although there are situations in which a photo can be beautiful and artistic looking without being in focus – most successful images require the subject to be sharp.  The sharpness of an image is dependent upon the photographer using good equipment, proper technique and support, an adequate shutter speed to freeze any movement and, most of all, accurate focus on the subject itself.

Pacific Loon by Glenn Bartley ©

Pacific Loon

5. The Perch: Imagine an image of your favourite species of bird that is properly exposed, well lit, and sharp as a tack.  Now imagine that this image shows the bird perched on a chain link fence or a hydro wire. Chances are that no matter how good an image is it will not be successful unless the bird is perched on a natural looking and appropriately sized perch.  The perch should be considered as an important part of the image - perhaps even as important as the subject itself. It should give clues in to the type of habitat where the bird lives and add interest to the overall image.

Purple-crowned Fairy by Glenn Bartley ©

Purple-crowned Fairy

6. The Background: What many bird photographers often overlook is the backdrop upon which they capture their images. Otherwise superb photographs can be ruined by busy backgrounds or distracting elements in the frame. By striving to create distance between the subject and the background bird photographers can produce images with backgrounds that are pleasantly out of focus and that highlight the bird rather than distract from it. A second goal is to create images that show off the bird’s typical habitat.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe by Glenn Bartley ©

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe

7. The Pose: Even if all of the other elements are in place a successful bird photograph can not be created if the bird is looking away from the camera. Eye contact draws the viewer in to the image and is a must. Any number of poses can be pleasing. Some species like nuthatches even have “characteristic” poses that they often present. In general, the most desirable poses are those that have good eye contact and where the bird is turning its head slightly towards the camera.

Varied Thrush by Glenn-Bartley ©

Varied Thrush

There is no one recipe that can be followed when it comes to creating beautiful images of birds. In fact, the most sensational images are often those that surprise us or that show us something we have never seen before. Nevertheless, these seven elements can be used as a guide to help us create consistently stunning images of birds in their natural environment.

Red and Green Macaw by Glenn Bartley ©

Red and Green Macaw


Glenn's primary equipment includes Canon digital SLR camera bodies and an assortment of Canon lenses. By far the lens that sees the most use is the Canon 500mm F4 L often coupled with a 1.4x Canon teleconverter. Glenn also uses the Canon 400mm F5.6L, 300mm F4L, 70-200mm F4L and the 17-40mm F4L for wide angle shots and landscape photography. Glenn shoots most images using a sturdy tripod. He uses the Gitzo 3540 XLS carbon fiber tripod and a Wimberly gimbal head. Glenn uses a variety of Canon flashes including the Canon 580EX II with a Better Beamer flash extender, 430EX and MR-14EX macro flash. For more information about the Bird Photography Equipment that Glenn uses click here -

Fasciated Tiger-Heron by Glen Bartley ©

Fasciated Tiger-Heron


If you are interested in learning more about bird photography and improving as a photographer you may want to check out the bird photography workshops that Glenn conducts. From multi-week trips, to day outings and photoshop lessons you will find it all here -

Buff-tailed Coronet, Great Saphirewing, Sword-billed Hummingbird by Glenn Bartley ©

         Left: Buff-tailed Coronet                         Middle: Great Saphirewing               Right: Sword-billed Hummingbird


You can find information about the books that I have published or about ordering prints here -

Common Potoo, Tawny-bellied Screech  Owl, Tufted Coquette by Glenn Bartley ©

           Left: Common Potoo                 Middle: Tawny-bellied Screech Owl                   Right: Tufted Coquette


If you are interested in some of the articles I have published in magazines like Birding, Bird Watchers Digest, Canadian Wildlife and Nature Photographer - click here -

Glenn Bartley


Glenn Bartley is a professional nature photographer from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He focuses almost all of his efforts on capturing images of birds in their natural habitat.  Glenn is especially well known for his portraits of rare and difficult birds from the Neotropical Region and his portfolio of hummingbird images.

Glenn says that he has been enchanted by nature and wildlife for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Toronto, Ontario he recalls countless hours spent glued to National Geographic magazines, natural history books or watching David Suzuki's "The Nature of Things" on TV. Those days he took any opportunity he had to study and learn about animals of all kinds. Nowadays Glenn often finds himself up at the crack of dawn, knee-deep in mud or covered in mosquitoes all in pursuit of capturing just a glimpse of natures beauty.

Glenns website is -

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