This is one of the easiest things to accomplish, yet it is one of the questions that I get asked the most: “How do you get the subject to stand out from the background like that?”. Or “How do you get the background so blurred to make the subject so clear?”. Or “Did you do that in Photoshop?”
Pretty easy, and right in camera: Photograph the subject from a spot with the background elements being far away, and/or photograph the subject with a wide open, or close to wide open, aperture – but make sure the background is still distant enough. There can be variables and other factors at play at times, such as your own distance to the subject, but in a nutshell that is it.
For songbirds and other “perching birds” it is a snap to setup some perches with distant backgrounds, sometimes hundreds of feet away – but all you need is 10 yards (more or less), even less for tight portraits. Even in smaller suburban backyards, as long as your fence or bushes are nicely separated from the subject’s distance you are good to go to achieve that clean look (image below, backyard fence 10 yards away as background):
Common Redpoll, female, Canon 7DII + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, 1/800s., f/5.6, ISO 1600.
For forest birds I normally do not photograph them from within the woods, as I most often find that too distracting and more difficult to get the clean background I most often strive for. Rather, I prefer to setup in clearings, outside forest edges, or meadows to lure them out via food or audio (done judiciously) onto chosen perches. This way you can get distant tree lines or hills as backgrounds, rendered smooth and blurred by their distance away and use of wide apertures. Here are a couple of warblers, forest denizens, that were photographed in such way to get them to “pop” against clean backgrounds:
Chestnut-sided Warbler, male in breeding plumage, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/10, ISO 400.
American Redstart, male in breeding plumage, Canon 7DII + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/250s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
But wait!! You said photograph at a wide open (or near wide open) aperture…why f/10 on the Chestnut-sided Warbler? With the far side of the meadow being well over a hundred yards away, and with enough available light, I opted to stop down to ensure the flowers of the perch all be sharp. That is another advantage of working with distant backgrounds.
When dealing with ground-dwelling or swimming birds the strategy remains the same – to work with a distant background – but the means to achieve that are a little different. Getting down to their level is the way to get the background to become distant and thrown out of focus. Standing up and pointing the lens down towards your subject will pick up every distracting object behind it. Lying down flat on the ground (if you are able to) will clean everything right up and get your subject to “pop” clearly and sharply.
To demonstrate the difference, here are two images of the same species – the Least Sandpiper. On image number 1, this is how I photographed them when I first began…standing up, or crouching a bit, afraid to “get dirty” and “settling” for good sightings and merely OK images:
Least Sandpiper, juvenile in fresh plumage, Canon Rebel XT + 100-400L @400mm, aperture priority, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/8, ISO 400, -0.3 EC.
Note the dirty setting, distracting elements all around, and a very present background competing with the sandpiper for our attention. From this angle the area directly behind the subject is probably a foot back, not very far and very prominent. Now on to image #2. I learned to embrace the ground, not afraid to get wet or dirty, and actually have more fun while at it with. Bonus: elbows braced to the ground offers extra support for handholding. Bring a towel or two and some change of clothes, and a well deserved shower when back home – your images will thank you for it:
Least Sandpiper, juvenile in fresh plumage, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/320s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
By getting down low to the ground the background is thrown way off into the distance with a resulting mega-separation between the subject and background. The area directly behind the sandpiper in this image is now at least 50 yards away, and nicely blurred! Even the foreground has been rendered out-of-focus, with the only point of attention now being on this beautiful individual.
I do realize that not everyone can lie down on the ground for prolonged amounts of time, or that it is possible at every location, but even sitting down behind your tripod with its’ legs splayed and lowered to their lowest level makes a huge difference. Another tool you can use is a right-angle viewer that attaches to your camera’s viewfinder – you can get the camera right to ground level and simply look down into it and focus on your subject while kneeling.
Same strategy with ducks and other swimming birds. Lying down on at the edge of a pond allowed me to get intimate, clean, unobstructed images of this female Bufflehead with nothing but beautiful smooth blue waters thrown out-of-focus by my low level perspective:
Bufflehead, female, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/3200s., f/8, ISO 800.
So as you can see it is easy to get clean, blurred backgrounds with subjects clearly defined in front. No Photoshop trickery needed, just a bit of planning and choosing the right spots and settings. With a bit of practice and experience it becomes second-nature to look for these situations a react/respond accordingly. Try it out!