Using Mug Shots to Improve Bird Photography

White-crowned Sparrow - Treman Marine Park, Ithaca, NY

White-crowned Sparrow - Treman Marine Park, Ithaca, NY

Consider a mug shot image pair for a moment.  You have two images, the head on shot and the profile.  Say someone is arrested for a crime and a newspaper runs one of the images, 99 times out of a 100 you’ll see the straight on shot.  Why is that?  Quite simply, the subject is engaging the viewer by looking directly into the camera, often with some menacing look.

So you may ask what a mug shot has to do with bird photography?  It’s all about how the subject engages the viewer by looking into the camera and how the photographer captures the perfect head tilt.

In contrast to mug shots, bird photography tends to favor the profile view of a bird.  This is because, like the front on mug shot, this is the angle where birds are able to engage the camera with their eyes.  Most birds, owls being the major exception, have eyes on the side of their head providing a much different field of vision than humans.  Yes, birds see directly forward, but they also are able to see an enormous amount to the side and even behind them.  Because of this, we feel like a bird is looking at us when they are turned sidewise, not directly facing us.

Notice the difference in the angle of the birds head between these two images.

Notice the difference in the angle of the birds head between these two images.

How do we use this information to help us capture photographs where a bird engages the viewer?  Simple, be sure to capture the subject’s head in profile.  Well, not a perfect profile, you want the head turned ever so slightly toward the camera.  Take a look at the above images of an adult White-crowned Sparrow.  The photograph on the left has the bird in perfect profile, while in the image on the right the bird has turned just a little bit towards the camera. The difference is subtle, but the resulting impact is very different.  The left image the bird feels like it is looking away and might just fly away while in the right, the bird gazes back at the viewer.

What makes a good image great?  It’s a million little nuances that come together perfectly at the moment you press the shutter button.  As wildlife photographers, we typically don’t have control of our subject or much else so you have to be ready when an opportunity presents itself.  Be ready when that bird looks down your lens and your images will impact your viewers more than ever.

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  1. Excellent post with perfect examples Drew.

  2. I love the mug shot! haha, that is an excellent analogy with perfect examples. Great post!

  3. Nice shot – all you are missing is the prisoner serial number and height measurement! 🙂

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