Head and Shoulders Above – Creating Tight Portraits

Creating tight portraits, or “head shots” as some people call them, is a highly satisfying type of photography, at least for me.  When it comes to bird photography, one of things that gets my heart pumping faster is being close enough to a wild and free subject to fill the frame with nothing but its face, neck, and shoulder, set off against a beautifully blurred background.  As usual, click on the images for larger, more detailed versions!:

Sandhill CraneSandhill Crane, Canon 7D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/2000s., f/6.3, ISO 800.

Large tame birds, like the Sandhill Crane above photographed in Florida, are of course the easiest subjects to create these types of images with.  You do not need to sneak up very closely as they fill the frame from a good distance away, even with a medium focal length such as 300-400mm.  With those, and even more with longer focal lengths, depth of field (dof) is not as much an issue and therefore large apertures can be used with great results.

Medium sized, or smaller birds, can be a bit more of a challenge but still very much achievable.  Most local parks that feature ponds have tame ducks, geese, and gulls to practice on.  Then there are the shorebirds that, especially juveniles during fall migration, can come quite close with a low and slow approach.  Most of these must be much closer to the lens than the larger species before frame-filling tight portraits can be obtained.  Dof can be more of a problem, and this is one of the few times I will stop down the aperture significantly to make sure all of the face, up to and including the bill tip, is sharp (I usually photograph birds at a wide-open, or close to it, aperture and not worry about out-of-focus (oof) areas).

DunlinDunlin, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/8, ISO 800.

SanderlingSanderling, juvenile, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/320s., f/10, ISO 800.

The exception to my not worrying about dof is at point-blank range tight portrait situations.  Even at f/10 some parts of the Sanderling are a bit oof.  Had I been at f/5.6 most of the area in the lower right corner would have been very much out-of-focus, and perhaps even a bit at the bill tip too.

When photographing an approaching shorebird, or incoming duck for example, there is an awkward distance between the subject being too big in the frame to include it all and too far away to get good tight portraits.  That gap is a perfect time to stop down the aperture in anticipation of photographing your subject at such close proximity.  I have my camera setup to adjust the aperture and shutter speed settings in 1/3 stops.  Stopping down 2 full stops would mean six clicks to the right on the thumbwheel to close the aperture, and then six clicks to the left on the index wheel to keep to lower the shutter speed in order to keep the same exposure (this, of course, with Canon cameras).  Need the same shutter speed due to low light, or loss of light due to the addition of a teleconverter?  Then six clicks to raise the ISO instead of slowing the SS (quite handy with today’s modern DSLRs having relatively good noise performance on the higher ISOs).  Having your camera setup in 1/2 stops means four clicks instead of six.  Regardless, it is fast and easy to remember.

BuffleheadBufflehead, Canon 7DII + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/8, ISO 800.

Even when going for tight close ups, fun behaviours can be had.  Hunting, feeding, yawning, preening, calling, sleeping, and other behaviours can be rather intimate when viewed so close.  Always be on the ready to properly compose and trip the shutter button – you can bet that the minute you take your eye away from the viewfinder that is the precise moment your subject will do something interesting.  And especially important when handholding:  keep the focus point active, and as close as possible to the subject’s eye (preferably on it),  as any slight movement by the subject (or you!) will result in soft images and sharp disappointments.

Black-bellied Plover Eating FishBlack-bellied Plover, juvenile eating a fish, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/320s., f/8, ISO 800.

Roseate Spoonbill FeedingRoseate Spoonbill, juvenile feeding, Canon 7D + 100-400L @320mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/2000s., f/6.3, ISO 400.

Caspian Tern YawningCaspian Tern, yawning, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/1600s., f/10, ISO 800.

Ultra close-ups, when only the face is visible in the frame, is the ultimate in close up portraits.  Even more extra care must be taken as any movement at all will throw off the focus – and at these tight close up distances even minute movements can cause disappointingly soft frames.  Here it is primordial to keep the focus point on the eye.  In the case of a forward-facing owl, move the focus point until it is on one of the eyes and keep it active if hand holding.  Focussing on the area between the eyes will virtually guarantee you soft eyes as they are set deeper in than that area between them.  This is the one time that I would not recommend a “focus-then-recompose” technique as the dof comes into play much more critically than usual.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl, Canon 7D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/500s., f/8, ISO 800.

Ring-billed GullRing-billed Gull, adult in breeding plumage, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/11, ISO 800.

Seeing every individual feather barbs, and the texture in the eye’s iris, and folds in the skin, is such a treat to see and study as these are details we just do not see with the naked eye in most real world situations.  I will always welcome birds coming in “too close” for the opportunity to get real close and right into there detailed facial features – and hopefully create images that are “head above shoulders”.








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  1. Haris Domazet September 19, 2016 at 7:39 am #

    Great article. I just started following this blog recently and am really enjoying it as well as getting some great tips. The close-up of the Great Gray Owl is amazing. Seems like you had to be pretty close to it since you were using 400 mm – just curious how close to it were you? Keep up the great work!

    • Daniel Cadieux September 19, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

      Hi Haris, thank you very much for the kind words! Great Gray Owls can be quite tame, this one was about 10-12 feet away. I wiggled the tip of my boot underneath the snow to get it to glance down.

  2. Nikhil September 21, 2016 at 3:42 am #

    Hey Dan

    The tight portraits were a joy to look at. The ultra close ones are insane.
    As always love the way you expose the highlights and the fine details in the highlights. The tern i feel is a tricky bird with the blacks near the eye.

    Great photography and great skill to approach the birds. Thanks for sharing them and your knowledge.

    • Daniel Cadieux September 21, 2016 at 6:34 am #

      Hey Nikhil,
      Thanks, glad you appreciate the info. The trick is to expose for those whites as close as possible to the right edge of the histogram with no (or minimal) clipping. Taming those during raw conversion is then a breeze!

  3. Krishna Prasad Kotti October 2, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

    Awesome shots and Great information. I was never able to get a close head shot. But after I saw your images, I think this is something I should do…

    • Daniel Cadieux October 4, 2016 at 1:09 pm #

      Hi Krishna, thank you for stopping by! Good luck with the portraits if you do get the chance to create some…

      • Joe Tsang October 23, 2016 at 2:30 am #

        Thank you again for sharing your skills to capture these beautiful images. I have much to learn and practice from your blogs… Thank you.

  4. Joe Tsang October 22, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

    Thank you for earlier post on Arthur Morris website – very informative to obtain those beautiful photos! Do you use fill flash to get the catch-light on the eyes?

    • Daniel Cadieux October 22, 2016 at 7:23 pm #

      Hi Joe, thank you for visiting! I rarely use flash on my bird subjects, and the catch-lights you see in the images on this blogpost were all natural – mostly the sun itself. On some occasions, when it is cloudy, I may enhance a reflection on the eye to make it more visible.

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