“Working a Shot” refers to perfecting a photograph by refining previous attempts. Commercial photographers use this technique often. They start with a brief from the client, take some proof-of-concept shots to present and plan their next shoot based on customer feedback. The technique is equally applicable in other genres of photography – even “spontaneous” situations, like wildlife photography, as I will demonstrate here.

Let’s start with my finished photograph, then follow the steps to its creation. The lesson to learn here is that proper planning can turn a good photograph into a great one; by just learning to “work the shot”.

My theme for this shot was “greens of nature”. The sunbird, foliage and background are the three main contributors. The protea included is purely for compositional balance and contrast – even though its visual mass is sufficiently large and one could argue that it is the subject. I am happy if the viewer interprets it that way, but it was not my prime intention. The colour of the protea is extremely important. In the colour wheel, red complements green and gives a natural colour contrast that is vital to the success of my theme. Without this colour contrast, the many shades of green would look overdone. Red is a bold colour and can easily dominate a photograph which is why I chose it here in its softest hue – pink – with just a few accents of red.

After spotting the right flower in a friend’s garden, I was able to plan my angle and my camera settings. My friend feeds the sunbirds therefore they were there in abundance. A nectar feeder was close by, so I just had to wait for the bird to assume the position…


Here is my first “live” shot.  Remember, my camera had already been positioned, and I decided on an f/2 aperture that would create the background effect I had envisioned.

Compare this photograph to the first one in this article.  Compositionally, they are almost identical, but the first one is gripping, while this one is drab.  The key to success is in recognising the shortfalls of the first attempt, and then fixing them.

There are two faults in this picture: The first one is that it looks dull; the second I will cover later on.  The bland colours are a side-effect of the drizzly weather.  The drizzle gave me the moisture and softness that I wanted, but the image looks flat.  Luckily it is easy to fix, with just the right amount of fill-in flash – not enough to overpower, but sufficient to lift the colours.

I fired a few test shots at the flower and once I had my settings I waited patiently, for my next subject to take its place…

Notice the improvement in colour? Also notice how the second fault of this photograph becomes more evident – the bird is sharp but the flower is out of focus.

I need them both to be in focus for the effect I want to achieve.  Stopping down to a lower aperture would bring the protea into focus, but would also bring the background into focus, which I did not want. So, after taking the shot above, I waited a few seconds for the bird to fly off, refocused on the flower and then took the following shot:

I kept my camera on a tripod during the shoot which enabled me to keep the camera in the same position during shots so that I could complete a technique called “focus stacking”. Focus stacking is where you align two photographs and blend them in photoshop in order to combine the sharpest parts of the two seperate photographs. This technique is very popular in macro photography.

I was very pleased with the final result, and I hope that you could take something from my approach and apply it to your future work.