What is better than one beautifully photographed bird? Two! Whenever I can pleasingly add a second bird to an image I do so, but there are a couple of guidelines that can be generally followed to make that second individual’s inclusion an appealing and successful one. It’s not every time I see a second bird in the frame that I pressed the shutter button, and there are things and settings that I look for or tweak before doing so.
The first thing I ask myself is if the second individual is worth including. Having it in there just for the sake of doing so rarely yields a good result, but if it adds to the story or strengthens the composition then that is a great ingredient to base the recipe on.
Roseate Spoonbills, Canon 40D + 100-400L @ 400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/6.3, ISO 400.
To achieve the best and most balanced compositions when dealing with two subjects is to have them close together. Overlapping subjects (the fancy word being “juxtaposition”) is very often a strong option to explore with cooperative subjects. Juxtaposition is a fine balance of overlapping subjects, done most successfully when both are looking or pointing in the same direction. You do not want to have them juxtaposed too tightly (you especially want some separation between their faces), nor do you want them to be simply barely merging with each other. A good balance is key, and it is crucial that focus is on the front bird. Depth of field is not an issue with these images, so I use a wide open aperture, or close to it, just as I would a single subject. Compositionally less room behind the front bird and more in front of the far one works best.
Virginia Rails, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1250s., f/6.3, ISO 800.
Dunlin, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/400s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
When the two birds are on the same plane of focus, or close to it, then depth of field becomes more critical as you do not want one of them to be slightly off focus – at least not on the face area. In these cases stopping down is a good idea. No need to go overboard with it, just a stop or two most often works. You generally do not want to stop down more than that as then you start affecting the background’s blurriness and in some instances you may even get diffraction issues.
Purple Finches, Canon 7DII + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/400s., f/10, ISO 1600.
Tree Swallows, Canon 30D + 100-400L @285 mm, aperture priority, evaluative metering, 1/200s., f/10, +1.3 EC, ISO 800.
Generally when dealing with subjects oriented face-to-face, or both looking down-the-barrel, a horizontally central composition with equal room left and right works very well. You can have a bit more space above depending on the situation. In all instances, note the clean out-of-focus backgrounds to make sure our attention is squarely on the two subjects.
Burrowing Owls, Canon 40D + 100-400L @300mm, aperture priority, evaluative metering, 1/125s., f/6.3, +0.7 EC, ISO 800.
Dual portraits are fine and dandy, but capturing actual behaviour between two subjects can be dramatic and exciting. From courting rituals to actual mating, and in cases territorial squabbles are all situations that can get the heart pumping with excitement as it unfolds through the viewfinder. It can be easy to lose focus (literally and figuratively). As corny as it sounds, keep calm, and try to maintain regular breathing and smoothly controlled movements. Fist pumps and high-fives can be done after the action is done 😀 Keep the focus point(s) on the action (or front bird if possible) and keep enough room around the subjects to make space for potential sudden movements/wing flaps/stretches. You can tweak the composition in post if you need to. There is nothing worst than clipping a wing in a shot-of-a-lifetime situation!
Snow Buntings, Canon 7D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/3200s., f/7.1, ISO 400.
Royal Terns, Canon 7D + 100-400L @360mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/3200s., f/6.3, ISO 400.
In conclusion to this blog post, always keep an eye out for developing opportunities even when initially working on a single lone subject. Even when concentrated in the viewfinder, keeping track at what is happening around you and being at the ready with your camera is always important. The closing pair of images were both begun as single individual birds that developed into pairs, in unexpected and even poignant moments. A two-species image, and a bird seemingly “mourning” a sibling after having approached it from afar.
Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/500s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
Ring-billed Gulls, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/125s., f/14, ISO 800.