One of the most important things in bird photography, more so than composition IMO, is head angle. You want the bird to engage the viewer...do a HA where the bill is 3-4 degrees inward towards the viewer tends to be best. Parallel to the sensor is ok, too. More than 5-7 degrees, and your getting into more specialized territory...it can work, but often not as well as a slighter angle. Any angle outward, away from the viewer, and the photo quickly loses its appeal, with a few exceptions (i.e a parent feeding a chick, where the parent may be facing slightly away.)
Once you get HA down, then worry about composition. BTW, I should note that the HA in your posted photo is a good example of GOOD HA...so keep striving for that. I think as long as HA is good, explicitly following the "rules" of composition is less important (especially since they are guidelines, not rules, in the first place.)
Wow that is the first time I have read that, but it makes sense. I will try to make use of that. Thanks for the advice!
Here are some examples of various head angles. Take note that a lot of the differences are very subtle, but there are clear issues with having a poor head angle that will pop out at you once you know what to look for.
First, a good HA. This is only a couple degrees forward. The lighting here is not ideal...I'd have preferred the side of the bird towards me be fully lit, but I did not really have that much control over it. The body pose and HA are within the ideal range, however:
This is an example of bad HA. It is a few degrees back. You should be able to see how the bill softens towards the end, as it moves out of the depth of field. You should also notice that the bird isn't quite looking into the frame, but ever so slightly ahead of it. Not readily visible to most viewers, but they usually still "sense" that the photo isn't quite as engaging. (Composition, in terms of scene contents, isn't great...but it demonstrates MUCH better lighting.)
Here is a head angle that is pretty much entirely parallel. This is usually quite acceptable, but not quite as engaging as a HA a few degrees towards the camera.
Finally, here is a HA turned much farther toward the camera than is usually ideal. I like the more cute pose here, and if I had increased my DOF a bit, I think it would have still been acceptable. I think this is a good example of why such a strong angle is less than ideal, however...again, you should see that towards the tip of the bill, it starts to soften a bit as it exits the depth of field. (I am still a relative beginner when it comes to bird photography myself...I have about a hear and a half under my belt. Keeping an eye on my DOF, and expanding it when necessary to include my whole subject, is an area I am still working on...as I do like the birds pose in this shot!)
Anyway, hopefully these Spotted Sandpiper photos will help demonstrate the subtle importance of head angle in bird photography. Aim for parallel or a few degrees forward (towards the camera), and you should be good.
Sure there are many "better" lenses, but the one he has is capable of much higher quality output. Why not move forwards with what we have, the 100-400 and PS, than spend other peoples money when there are basic techniques we can suggest to improve our skills and output that would need work even if he had a 600 f4 IS MkII.
For the record I think this is great advice. I want to learn to get everything out of the gear I have before I plunk down 4-12k. I would hate to upgrade and still get not stellar results solely because I don't have the proper knowledge or skills.
I'd say that is a good practice. If you are anything like me, you will know when your gear is holding you back. I also have the 100-400. I think the 7D is a fine camera, produces great IQ in most circumstances (which for my bird photography is usually in good to evening light, ISO 200 - 1600), and has great features that support bird photography. The 100-400, when properly tuned with AFMA, produces acceptably sharp images most of the time. It should be noted that at 400mm, f/7.1 tends to be the sharpest, while f/5.6 will be visibly soft. Before getting my new lens, I shot at f/7.1 almost exclusively, sometimes stopping down to f/8 and rarely opening up to f/6.3.
I would tune your lens for your copy of the 7D, and start shooting at f/7.1. You should see individual barbs of each feather
(a feather is a central shaft, on either side of which is a vane of barbes, which are interconnected via barbules off each barb...you will RARELY see barbules in a photo, but in an acceptably sharp photo, you should see barbs.) There are three things that will soften the barbs of a birds feathers...distance too great, missfocus, bird motion or camera shake. Distance is usually the biggest problem early on. Depending on the type of bird, either learning the right behavior to exhibit that gets you close, or camouflaging yourself to hide in plain side, are was of solving that problem.
Missfocus is, sadly, just a fact of life with older Canon cameras (i.e. pre 61pt AF). The 7D does not have the most reliable AF system. When it nails it, it usually NAILS it. When it doesn't, its off just slightly enough that you can't really tell in the viewfinder, but definitely can in post. The best tactic here is to always shoot a burst. I try to get at least three shots in every time, if not five. That usually results in one of the frames being acceptably sharp. Sadly, the other two-four are usually soft, reducing barbs to mush. I use rear-button focus as well (I reconfigure the camera to unlink AF from the shutter button, and link it to the * button on the back of the camera...this direct control can be very useful in forcing AF to occur when and where you need it.) If you can't seem to grab focus, move the current AF point off the subject, press the * button to immediately force AF on the background, then return the AF point to the subject and press the * button to immediately force AF again. This will usually get you sharper results for a short time. It ain't perfect, but bursting definitely helps. You either just have to either buy a lot of disk space, or become a culling nutcase who rejects anything that isn't razor sharp.
Finally, bird motion, and sometimes camera shake, are the last culprit of soft barbs. You usually need pretty high shutter speeds to stop bird motion, especially songbirds and smaller shorebirds. A bird like a chickadee will often require over 1/1000s shutter speeds, with 1/2000s usually being more ideal. A bird like your RWB is usually less jittery than the ever-moving chickadee, so you might be able to get away with a shutter speed as low as 1/800th before you experience detrimental barb softening. As I'm sure you already know, high shutter speed means high ISO. I used to shoot at ISO settings as high as 2500, but I've come to the conclusion that the 7D is good up to 1600, and beyond that it is usually unacceptable. So long as you keep your hands steady with IS on, or use a tripod (with IS off!!), you should get sharp shots.
(NOTE: Regarding ISO...if you have really good light...such as light a couple hours after sunrise or a couple hours before sunset...bright, but at a good angle to shade well, with the sun behind and slightly over your shoulder, then if necessary you might be able to get away with ISO 2000, 2500, and maybe 3200. I suspect the diminished dynamic range will be a problem, but if you REALLY need the shutter speed, then go for it. Otherwise, the extra noise at those settings just isn't worth it (after ISO 1600, a secondary downstream amplifier kicks in, which is why noise performance falls off a cliff on the 7D at that point). I highly recommend Topaz DeNoise 5 as the best denoise tool for the 7D. Its default RAW settings are pretty good, it does a decent job automatically identifying and masking off detail areas, so it cleans up smooth backgrounds REALLY well. It is well worth the money, and it definitely cheaper than moving to the 5D III.)
Well, that is the best series of tips I can offer you right now. If you see sharp barbs, your doing good. If not, then one of those three things will most likely be the culprit. Keep an eye on HA, and composition will eventually work itself out as the other things become second nature and you have time to focus your attention on it.