Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

May 8, 2009

Understated vs. Pop

On photo critique web sites I often read comments about making an image “pop.”  This is offered constructively; the person commenting thinks that the image would be better if the subject somehow “jumped” out of the composition. But I find birds and animals in nature tend to be a lot more subtle and understated, and I personally prefer to show them that way most of the time.

Lazuli Bunting - Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Lazuli Bunting - Boyce Thompson Arboretum

This Lazuli Bunting photographed last week at Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a good example of that understated style. This bird blends remarkably well with the water and rocks of the location, and yet the view of the bunting is completely unobstructed for anyone who takes the time to actually look at the image. This is quite often the way birds are experienced in nature by experienced birders who see much more on an outing than the inexperienced person who only notices the obvious.

The setting itself also gives the viewer a lot to look at and appreciate: there is subtle color and texture throughout this composition. Although the light is very soft and doesn’t create much shadow, there is a lot of depth to the image from the three dimensional appearance of the rock face.

D200, 300/2.8 plus TC20E (2x), ISO 800, 1/60th second @ f/8, 47% of frame, 5/1/09. No setups, no bait, no fill flash, no cloning, no noise reduction.

Peach-faced Lovebird - Gilbert Water Ranch

Peach-faced Lovebird - Gilbert Water Ranch

This Peach-faced Lovebird photographed at the Gilbert Water Ranch is an example of an image that pops. No subtlety here: just bright colors, big in the frame, clean background, minimal content. e.g., Bird-on-a-stick. This isn’t a style I like all that much, but I will take a shot if the opportunity presents itself: it is rather hard to ignore such bright colors. I draw the line at doing this as a setup – a carefully selected and placed perch, with food to bait the subject into position. That’s not my view of nature photography.

D70, 300/2.8 plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/400th second @ f/10, fill flash @ -1.7 stops, 11/24/05. N setups, no bait, no cloning, no noise reduction.

So, there’s two very different styles, from near the opposite ends of a continuum. Neither is right; neither is wrong. I greatly prefer one style over the other, but I take both. Having a variety of styles in your portfolio has advantages, and being able to produce images in a variety of styles shows flexibility and versatility.



  1. This is such an interesting shot. It politely defies all expectations of composition, color and texture…. Y’know, a blue bird is supposed to stand out against a boring flat background and shock you because it’s unnaturally blue, etc etc. But here, it fades into a strange lumpy substrate that picks up not only the unnatural blue, but also the faintly pinkish grays and whites of its sides and primaries. You’re treating a bird as an equal of the white lichen to its left, a part of the total image; which to some people must be incomprehensible, if all they can understand is the bird-on-a-stick type of shot. An important image for understanding your unique vision.

    Comment by Laurie — May 8, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  2. Great photos here–how did you capture bird images without having them flown? I thought it’s difficult..great post!

    Roving Lens

    Comment by kondo214 — May 10, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

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