An article I read yesterday concisely stated how I had been feeling, and said why:
This article by Greg Basco discusses how the modern concept of a good bird image, in most peoples’ minds, is quite stale. The point-your-shadow-at-the-bird advice has merit for a very beginner, and can greatly help a person understand the basics of lighting and exposure. A front lit image will have nice color, and if all is done well, will look nice – but, is a very basic image from a lighting standpoint. The goal usually with modern bird images is to have the background totally utterly out of focus, to the point where it looks like a green screen. Usually, the bird is either perched on a stick or is wading through featureless water.
The problem with these images is that they tell no story, they have little to no drama, and and they usually have very inadequate composition (a lump of one color surrounded by another gets boring…) . I began to sense a problem a while ago, when I, who was often taking pictures like this, found myself hating them, yet now knowing why. I realized I usually hated looking at other peoples’ birds pictures. I had begun thinking along the lines of this article, but it really congealed my thoughts: modern bird photography is grade school level lighting, at best!
Consider portrait lighting: drama is created by lighting, and careful posing of the subject, but mostly by lighting. A full frontal lit portrait of a human is very boring. It is useful for knowing who the human is, but falls short after that. Whether soft of hard, one light or multi light, portrait lighting’s goal in human photography is to create drama and interest through the use of light.
Though not a overly dramatic example of lighting, this two light image displays depth and drama, in a subtle way. The shadows softly outline the face and contour the features.
See what people look like when you take a picture of them like they are a bird (you can even use a better beamer, if you want!):
This image is front lit. The subject is just as attractive as the last, yet the image is far less interesting. Why? Boring lighting. Yes, you may see all her color and field markings, but this is rather mundane.
Even if the pose is interesting, front lit does not really get beyond the forensic level:
These images demonstrate the boringness of most bird pictures. Sadly, I could get none of them to perch on a powerline, but is always next time!!!
Here is a dramatic bird image, light at a 90 degree angle from the bird:
I intentionally violated a slew of the generally accepted bird photography principles, all in the name of drama. I fell that I succeeded! The side lighting (practically rim lighting) clearly emphasizes his form, with the added bonus of shining through the translucent wing feathers! Shape and form are the foundation of drama, especially in action pictures. Putting the bird on the wrong side of the frame further emphasizes the drama of him breaking forth onto the scene! So do the water splashes at his feet and droplets shed from his wings! This image would still be workable front lit, but would seem far less active, hence face less dramatic, hence far less emotive.
If you want good art, make art which elicits emotion from the viewer! If you shoot mostly only birds, I would strongly advise you to study portrait lighting.