Steller's Jay, City Creek Canyon

Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri), City Creek Canyon, Utah

Originally published December 14, 2012

To a large extent the success of any bird image depends on how cleanly the bird is separated from its surroundings. There are several ways this can be done. One of my go to techniques for bird photography is the use of shallow depth of field (DOF).

Opening the aperture to decrease DOF has the added benefit of increasing shutter speed, which is typically helpful when photographing birds.  Shallow DOF can also be thought of as selective focus, where the goal is to place the sharpest focus on the bird, specifically the bird’s eye, while allowing everything else to be out of focus.

In the final image how the surrounding elements are rendered depends on their proximity to the plane of focus. The plane of focus corresponds to the point of sharp focus and extends through the scene parallel to the image sensor. This means that elements left, right, above, or below the subject could be rendered in focus (and possibly distracting) even with shallow DOF.

Combining shallow depth of field with a distant background is particularly effective for separating birds from their surroundings. The more distant background (or foreground) elements are from the plane of focus the more softly they are rendered. And soft is good, it helps the sharply focused bird pop.

The importance of the actions of individuals shouldn’t be overlooked; some birds of the same species are more approachable than others. The image above is a case in point, after the rest of the flock stayed more hidden in the twigs, this Steller’s Jay was willing to stay put on a more open perch while I slid two steps to the right and improved my composition considerably by placing the bird against a more distant background.