As a bird artist, I am constantly sifting through photo reference, looking for just the right image for my next drawing or painting. I believe that the best bird photos depict dynamic, lively poses. In this post, I share what I look for in an image and why I choose one image over another.

The bird species I used for this post is Northern Flicker, a large woodpecker that is common in North America. All the images in the post came from Wikipedia Commons, links to the photos are found below. I rate each pose with the number of Stars I’d give it based on characteristics of the image like visual interest, liveliness, field marks, and composition value.

One Star: Perched in Profile

This bird is shown in good focus and you can clearly see the feet — which is always nice! There are a few things about this image that I don’t care for, however. The bird is in very flat light so there is little value contrast to work with. Also, the bird appears very static, in profile. To me, the resulting drawing would look a bit boring, so I am not likely to choose this image. Overall is pose has little visual interest; it’s static and stiff. One Star.

Two Stars: Perched on a Tree Trunk

In the second image, the bird is shown clinging to the side of a tree. Here, the bird is more dynamic, with the head turned away from the tree as if poised to take flight. The dark crescent on the breast is visible as is the spotting on the chest and belly. The light is flat but there is some shadow on the face.

This is a much more interesting pose and one I’d be more likely to choose for my art. This pose is more dynamic but visual interest is somewhat limited. Two Stars.

Three Stars: Facing the Viewer

While this photo is somewhat out of focus, it does show the Flicker perched on the ground, which is characteristic of their foraging habits. The light is a bit stronger so there are lots of shadows to work with. Because this perspective is nice and low, it provides a distinctive angle for a good composition. I think this pose would be a bit better if the bird were in three-quarter view with the tail visible, but it’s still a very nice starting point for an illustration of this species. Overall the bird is static and the visual interest is somewhat limited, however birds are rare depicted face-on. Three stars.

Four Stars: Facing Away from the Viewer

The third bird is shown crouching on a stump, facing away from the viewer. Because this is an angle I don’t see very often, I like this pose quite a lot. The tail is in good view and I think this could make a really nice composition with a lot of visual interest. There is a also a nice cast shadow beneath the bird’s body and I see many opportunities to work with value contrast. I find this image a very attractive one for an illustration of this species, even though some of the field marks (like the crescent on the breast) aren’t visible. What this pose lacks in dynamism and liveliness, it makes up for in compositional value and a novel view of the bird. Four Stars.

Five Stars: Perched High in a Tree

I really like this photo quite a lot. The bird is above the viewer’s head and is perched in a very dynamic pose on a strongly inclined perch. The characteristic field marks are visible and the shape and color of the tail feathers are clearly seen. The bird’s head is turned and there are some nice shadows to work with. What I like best about this pose is that the bird appears about to do something; it looks lively and alert. This is the image I would be most likely to use for an illustration or painting of a Northern Flicker. This pose is dynamic, shows the relevant field marks, has good compositional value and lots of visual interest. Five stars.

Photo credits (in order of presentation in the video)

Northern Flicker 1:

Northern Flicker 2:

Northern Flicker 3:

Northern Flicker 4:

Northern Flicker 5:

Video Thumbnail image (left)

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