Some Elements of a Good Photo

Here’s a Carolina Wren singing in our backyard. He was signaling the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency in Virginia.

And here’s a photo of a Great Crested Flycatcher. I posted it on another site with these words: “If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to, spend a few moments looking at this Great Crested Flycatcher shot. It’ll lift your spirits.”

Great-crested Flycatcher
Great-crested Flycatcher

I received some great responses to the photo, including one from Jodi, who wrote, “Indeed!” Later, I entered one of my own: “Thanks, everyone. This was a lucky shot. It’s not often that these mid and upper canopy birds show up close, and close to eye level, but this one did. FYI, I borrowed the first few words above from the Irving Berlin classic ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.'” That birds bring happiness and comfort was the theme of many articles written during the pandemic. Here’s an interesting one from Audubon Magazine.

Some Elements of a Good Photo

I love the flycatcher photo. It’s sharp and captures gesture. You can almost hear the bird’s loud wheep! I read a piece recently about a photographer who’s a “stickler for sharpness.” I’m the same way. Sharpness and proper exposure—or exposure that matches the scene. The exposure/level of brightness of the above photo matched the scene. 

Here’s another example of a sharp and well-exposed subject (and scene), this time a juvenile Green Heron at Lakeside Park in Chesapeake—the location of the now-famous colony. The bird was right at eye level. Had we been any closer, we would have been literally eye-to-eye. 

Juvenile Green Heron
Juvenile Green Heron

The photo not only captures gesture, but motion. Here’s the same bird moments earlier. Notice the single head plume in both photos.

Juvenile Green Heron
Juvenile Green Heron

Juvenile Green Herons have taken to the new observation deck at the park, and I’ve taken to capturing them there. I love how the deck’s boards provide natural framing. I always think “composition” when I shoot.

Another thing I think about when I shoot is capturing a bird’s essence or what makes it unique. I believe I succeeded here. Unlike other species, nuthatches descend tree trunks head-first as they look for food in the bark. When most people imagine nuthatches, they imagine them like this.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

A Little Encouragement

Some of you might be thinking, “I can’t take photos like these.” Yes you can. Among other subjects, I taught writing and drawing. I used to tell my writing students, “If you can talk, you can write.” I used to tell my art students, “If you can see, you can draw.” There’s more truth to those words than many people realize. I’m not sure what I’d say to photography students (other than vision is more important than gear). But I know I’d tell them they were capable. I’d also tell them that a professional photographer’s “keeper rate” is pretty low. I can’t tell you how many photos I toss. On one April 2021 outing, I took 200 photos of a House Wren. I saved 10. That’s a keeper rate of 5%. There were focus and exposure misses and not a few composition misses, too. Here’s one that survived.

House Wren
House Wren

And This Just In

Here’s something that recently hit me about exposure. I’m not sure I’ve seen the thought before. I was thinking about photographing Green Herons at the time.

How do you know if you’ve exposed your subject well? How do you know if you’ve nailed the exposure? You can only know for sure if you know your subject. And you can only know your subject if you’ve observed it time and again in the field. It’s at that point and that point alone that you, the photographer, have a reliable exposure yardstick.

Quip, Question, Quote

As I thought about Independence Day 2021 and all that’s going on, this quote from the late Charles Krauthammer came to mind:

America is the only country ever founded on an idea. [It is] the only country that is not founded on race or even common history. It’s founded on an idea and the idea is liberty. That is probably the rarest phenomena in the political history of the world; this has never happened before. And not only has it happened, but it’s worked. 

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear from you.


15 thoughts on “Some Elements of a Good Photo

  1. I do love your photos. And I do not play with my settings enough as I mostly shoot and ask questions later. But, I do ALWAYS focus on the eyes. If I get clear bird eyes (or any creature) I feel good. I also work harder to get the background color complimentary if I can. I really love beautiful colors that compliment. The top photo (oh yes I love to capture birds in song!) and that second heron photo are my favorites!


  2. Always enjoy your articles and photographs. I have learned a lot about bird photography from you. But, I especially wanted to thank you for your quote by Charles Krauthammer. He was remarkable person and someone I admired greatly for his reasonable, well-thought out opinion pieces. And, I especially loved this quote! So appropriate for the 4th of July.


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