As I look through my photographs of animal images, I notice more and more that there are two main lighting conditions that most of my favorite portraits were taken in- early/late low angle sun, or else while the subject was in a large shadow. The low angle sun adds warmth and dramatic lighting, while shadow (often because of cloud or fog, but sometimes from time of day and location) adds a moody, even lighting and provides for great detail without losing much to highlights and deep shadows.
I made this image while kayaking Drake’s Estero on a foggy day. The even lighting gives the birds great detail. I used a fairly long lens for this portrait- 300mm plus a 1.4x magnifier. Since I was on a kayak, I had to hand hold this shot, which means I was shooting at the highest shutter speed I could without losing image quality. My ISO was 400 (the highest the camera I was using could do without noticeable noise) and my aperture was wide open at f 5.6. This allowed me a shutter speed of 400. With the lenses I was using, (they were image stabilizing) I might have tried dropping down to 200, but I know I would have lost some of the images I took to camera shake.
The shallow depth of field I was using worked very well for isolating the focus to the birds and a little of the pickleweed plant they are standing in. This is something I often like to do with portraits regardless, because it draws the viewers focus very strongly to the subjects. I also placed the heads and eyes in the top section of the picture, rather than along a line cutting through the center of the image when I composed the image. It gives it a more comfortable feel, and helps to fill the entire frame of the picture.
The composition is helped additionally by the low angle I took the picture from. I hunched down extra low in the kayak to be a little closer to eye level with the birds. When ever possible I like to be at or near the eye level of my subjects, be they birds, wild animals, livestock, or even little kids. It is hard to make a portrait when you are looking down at the top of somethings head instead of engaging the eyes.