One of the photographic composition questions folks ask themselves is should we clip bird wings in our images or not. This article features a small collection of photographs and discusses some composition choices that can be considered when deciding whether to clip bird wings or not.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. A special note of thanks to one of our readers, William Jones, who designed a very slick Excel spreadsheet that I can use to semi-automate my EXIF photo captions! Many thanks William!
I appreciate that many photographers feel quite strongly that bird images should show the entire bird. I’m of two minds. On one side, I do believe that showing the entire bird does make absolute sense a lot of the time. This approach shows a bird in all of nature’s beauty.
A challenge does exist. Having the background free flowing around the subject bird without any interruption means that the bird itself must be strong enough to command and hold the viewer’s attention. Sometimes an image works, and at other times the subject matter is simply a bit too weak to stand by itself. This can be the case with monochromatic birds like gulls.
Another part of me has no hesitation clipping the wings of birds in flight in my photographs. I often do this purposely when capturing an image, and I will also clip a bird’s wings in post if I feel it adds creatively to the photograph.
As I was going through some of my bird image archives while working on my upcoming bird photography eBook, I came upon a selection of gull images. I shot many of these images with me positioned very tight in to the subject bird, purposely intending to clip the bird’s wings. Let’s have a look at a few photographs…
This is a very typical composition that I do when I’m out shooting potential images to be used in a bird photography presentation. Using a standard word slide can be rather mundane, and often doesn’t hold audience attention very well.
To spice things up a bit and to better integrate the subject matter with my content, I’ve been superimposing wording on the ‘open space’ in bird photographs instead. The open space can be on either side, or across the top or bottom of an image. I call this a ‘greeting card’ composition as it purposely allows for wording to be superimposed on a portion of the photograph. From that perspective I view this type of composition as a ‘special purpose’ photograph. Here is an example of how I often incorporate wording into this type of composition.
I often shoot this style of composition when working on client projects as well… obviously not with birds in them!
Let’s have a look at a few, simple composition approaches: ‘flow through’, ‘flow and stop’, ‘intimate action’, and ‘full motion stop’.
Sometimes when photographing a bird that has monochromatic colouring I will try to clip one, or both, of its wings. This is especially true if the bird has its wings extended in a gliding position. Clipping both wings can improve the eye flow of an image by creating easy-to-follow visual entry and exits points in a photo. It can accentuate key aspects of the subject bird, and add some drama. In the photograph above, clipping both of the bird’s wings creates clean eye flow through the image. It also helps to accentuate the yellow, red and black details of the bird. Clipping both wings allows the bird’s head and body to be larger in the frame which adds some drama. I like to think of this as a ‘flow through’ composition.
When photographing birds at a bit of an angle we have the opportunity to clip one of the bird’s wings. When birds are trying to slow down or begin their landing approach, they will often pump their wings in short-stroke, forward movements. This is an ideal time to try what I call a ‘flow and stop’ type of composition. The flow is created by the outstretched wing that you choose to clip in your photograph. This creates an easy-to-follow visual entry point into the photo… acting as a leading line. The stop is caused by the bird’s other wing being thrust forward with its tip often bent inward. Since this wing does not bleed off the photograph it helps to stop a viewer’s eye flow. This type of composition often frames a bird’s head, thus accentuating its beak and facial colouring.
As the bird gets closer to landing its wing motions become more pronounced. This can lead to very dramatic wing positions, with some being so contorted that they can look almost unnatural. In these situations it can certainly be very effective to photograph the entire bird.
Clipping the bird’s wings is also a good approach as it can create more intimacy with the subject bird and have readers feel closer to the action… a bit of ‘intimate action’ shall we say.
Another situation where you can consider purposely clipping a bird’s wings is when it is close up and you are following it with a fast panning motion. This will tend to blur the background in the photograph a bit more and give the image a feeling of increased speed and motion. Clipping wings, and even the feet of the bird, reduces eye flow through the photograph. This composition approach basically is a ‘full motion stop’ as it forces the viewer’s eye to stop on the subject bird rather than flowing around it in the photograph. In the image above, the three well spaced yellow highlights (beak and both legs) add to the balance of the image.
Ultimately how we choose to compose our images is a personal decision. One approach isn’t necessarily better than another. It all comes down to our personal style and creative urges.
Post Processing Note:
As is my normal practice I ran these RAW files through one of my DxO PhotoLab presets, then exported a DNG file into CS6. What made post processing of these images different was that my very first adjustment in CS6 was the Black slider, followed by the White slider. Working with these two sliders first enabled me to immediately create higher visual contrast with these images, then fine tune them with other adjustments in CS6.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection. All photographs were capturing using a frame rate of 10 fps.
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