Reading Light Direction for Bird Photography

Which Lighting is Best?

When it comes to photographing birds, or any subject for that matter, learning to read light is THE most important thing the photographer can do. The word photography means “drawing with light.” You can have all the technical expertise in the world regarding exposure theory and your equipment, but if you are not able to read light it is very likely your images will reveal this handicap. Reading light direction for bird photography is essential to improving your photography skills.

Of course, when photographing birds versus people, we can’t very well ask our subjects to change their pose (although the patient photographer will often be rewarded). So, here are some examples of different types of lighting and how good shots can be captured in all.

Front Light:

When it comes to bird photography, most of the time we seek to put the sun at our back and shoot with full frontal lighting. There is no doubt that this often leads to some of the best shots of birds and presents their colors in the most flattering means possible. During the golden hours of light, front lighting makes exposure pretty straight forward and results in images very pleasing to the eye. The following images are some examples of front lit birds:

White-tailed Ptarmigan RMNP, CO

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Red-winged Blackbird Granger, TX

Red-winged Blackbird
Granger, TX

Snow Goose Taylor, TX

Snow Goose
Taylor, TX

All three of these images are very pleasing to the eye and highlight all the key features of each bird quite well. You will note in each of the three images that detail remains in both light and dark areas because front lighting has preserved this and the camera was easily able to capture the dynamic range (the variance of tones from the whitest white to the darkest dark).


It is often the case that due to physical barriers or other limitations, we have no choice but to shoot a subject with side lighting. And the longer we photograph, the more we will even chose at times to shoot a side-lit subject to add dimension through shadows and light. I feel that in each of the following three images, the sidelight adds to the mood of the scene. The third image which is a Clay-colored Sparrow does have some blown highlights on the rim of the bird; however, in this instance I feel that the blown highlights do not detract from the image.

Clapper Rail Surfside, TX

Clapper Rail
Surfside, TX

Wild Turkey Wichita Mountains NWR, OK

Wild Turkey
Wichita Mountains NWR, OK

Clay-colored Sparrow Austin, TX

Clay-colored Sparrow
Austin, TX


When it comes to shooting back-lit birds, the photographer must decide if the goal is to capture a silhouette or whether to capture the detail in the bird and go for the “rim lit effect.” Another option is to add fill-flash (as seen in the image below of the Least Grebe) to capture detail in the shaded side of the bird. It will take some practice getting to where you can properly expose for either but don’t let a back-lit bird keep you from shooting.

Gambel's Quail Van Horn, TX

Gambel’s Quail
Van Horn, TX

White-tailed Kite Granger, TX

White-tailed Kite
Granger, TX

Least Grebe Estero Llano Grande SP, TX
Least Grebe
Estero Llano Grande SP, TX
Mid-day Lighting:

No most photographers will tell you that you shouldn’t even bother to photograph mid-day because the light is poor. And most of the time, that is true. The mid-day lighting is usually just not nearly as pleasing to the eye as early and late. However, the reality is that for many, you may be traveling to a place where you only have a chance to photograph during mid-day or the bird is only seen mid-day (say for example on a pelagic trip or at a hawk watch). I would like to say that you can still capture some pleasing images at mid-day.  Here are a few examples of mid-day lighting that I still find appealing.  The last image of the Monk Parakeet included some fill-flash to help balance out the shadows.

Dicksissel San Bernard NWR, TX

San Bernard NWR, TX

Painted Bunting Quintana Bird Sanctuary, TX

Painted Bunting
Quintana Bird Sanctuary, TX

Monk Parakeet Hidalgo, TX

Monk Parakeet
Hidalgo, TX

Overcast Lighting:

Many new photographers seem disappointed to walk outside only to discover an overcast or cloudy day. With time they soon come to discover that overcast and cloudy days can lead to a full day of spectacular shooting! Clouds acts as one giant diffuser providing even light across a scene. In the first image of a Say’s Phoebe, the clouds were intermittent and when the sun was out shadows were too harsh, but when the sun disappeared lighting was even.


Say's Phoebe Big Bend National Park, TX

Say’s Phoebe
Big Bend National Park, TX

Great Egret Taylor, TX

Great Egret
Taylor, TX

Common Raven Big Bend National Park, TX

Common Raven
Big Bend National Park, TX

Fill Flash or No Fill Flash:

At times fill flash can provide a much needed boost in lighting that will help bring out the details in a bird, but the challenge will always be to keep the lighting such that the observer doesn’t note the use of fill flash automatically. Another benefit of fill flash is that it can add the catch light to the eye of the subject that makes it come “alive.”

This roadrunner was photographed with and without fill flash. See if you can see the difference.

Greater Roadrunner Big Bend National Park, TX

Greater Roadrunner
Big Bend National Park, TX

Greater Roadrunner Big Bend National Park, TX

Greater Roadrunner
Big Bend National Park, TX

The following three images have all had fill flash used to add light to the scene and improve the exposure.

Least Flycatcher Austin, TX

Least Flycatcher
Austin, TX

Common Yellowthroat Quintana Bird Sanctuary, TX

Common Yellowthroat
Quintana Bird Sanctuary, TX

Yellow Warbler Quintana Bird Sanctuary, TX

Yellow Warbler
Quintana Bird Sanctuary, TX

Be sure and take note of the light direction before you ever press the shutter and plan accordingly. Front light will generally find your camera’s meter pretty smart. Side light will challenge you to balance the shadows and highlights and your camera meter may well fail you. Back light will require you to either add light manually using + exposure compensation to capture detail in the bird, subtract light using – exposure compensation to create a silhouette, or to add fill flash. Overcast light will require you add light by using + exposure compensation or fill flash. With practice, reading the direction of the light will become instinctive and so will necessary exposure adjustments.

LR5 for Bird Photographers (Free Download)

If you are like me, you are constantly on the lookout for specific information regarding your photography passion.  Whether you enjoy landscape, night sky, bird, or macro photography, it is always helpful to find a resource that goes beyond the basics of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.  In preparation for a Lightroom 5 (LR5) for Bird Photographers workshop, I wrote a 68-page booklet on my workflow and tips/tricks I use when editing my bird photographs.  I have decided to post this for download so that anyone can benefit from what I have learned.  I began using LR with version 3 and have enjoyed all the many additions since.  When you combine LR’s organization functions within the Library Module, the geospatial tracking within the Map Module, the editing capability within the Develop Module, and the many publishing functions like the Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web Modules, you have just about every post-processing option a bird photographer will ever need.  Sure, on a few occasions, you might need to jump over to Adobe Photoshop for some specialty processing.

I have read many books on LR, watched many videos and asked many questions all to try and find the best workflow for me.  What I hope to do through this booklet is share with you some of those tidbits I have learned.  Of course, it is nothing like the full 8-hour workshop on LR5 for Bird Photographers that I occasionally offer, but feel free to download and share with any bird photographers you may know.  If you have any questions about using LR5 for editing bird photographs, don’t hesitate to post a comment, contact me through email or send me a question through the contact page.

LR 5 for Bird Photographers


Focus Stacking for Greater Depth-of-Field

This morning I went to a local park, Berry Springs, to shoot some macro images of dragonflies, butterflies and insects.  Since I had sent the Canon 7D off to Canon Professional Services for a check and cleaning, that left me with the new Canon 5D Mark III to shoot with so I opted to go with my typical dragonfly setup that consists of the Mark III, (1) 25mm Canon extension tube, (1) 12mm Canon extension tube and the Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L lens.

An extension tube merely moves the camera’s mirror further away from the lens thus increasing your magnification (which is what we want for macro photography) and decreasing your minimum focusing distance (which is also what we want); however, it also reduces the amount of light falling on the camera sensor (which is what we don’t want, but have to live with).  Therefore, we must either add light through the use of flash (which is what I normally do) and/or we must increase our ISO (I try not to do and generally shoot at ISO 400 or 800) or we must decrease shutter speed and/or our f-stop (aperture).  I have found that for this setup (see photo below) a tripod is required at all times for sharp images.  I generally shoot in the neighborhood of 1/250 @ f/11 to f/14 for dragonflies, large butterflies, and other large insects to maintain sufficient depth of field.  This is because as we move toward an object our depth of field decreases at the same aperture.

Dragonfly Equipment Setup

Dragonfly Equipment Setup

Today I came across many large Yellow-and-Black Argiope spiders and wanted to practice my focus stacking in Adobe Photoshop CC.  I came across a nice looking subject and set up my tripod where the spider was at about a 45 degree angle from the front element of the lens (this isn’t important but just know that I would need focus stacking much more at this angle than if the spider were at a 90 degree angle to the lens).  I always shoot macro in manual exposure mode so I can control my settings.  I wanted to take three (3) consecutive shots with varying focal points to ensure that all eight (8) legs of the spider would ultimately be in sharp focus.  When shooting any images that you plan to “stitch” or “stack” together such as a Panoramic or a focus stacked image, you want to make sure your exposure remains consistent for every image.  This will only change if you plan to add High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing to the mix.  In addition, I focus almost exclusively in manual and on the Canon 100-400 I turn off image stabilization as it has a tendency to “jump” at times.  I believe this is due to the older IS technology in the lens.

I took a shot to make sure my settings of 1/160 @ f/16, ISO 800 and flash exposure compensation of -1 1/3 were spot on.  With a subject like this, if we have our flash set too brightly, we will easily blow out (lose details) on the body of the spider due to the pale yellow/whites and the dark background.  I set up for the first image with focus locked in on the closest front leg and part of the body nearest the camera.  If you click on the image, you can see that the legs furthest away from the camera are blurry due to the narrow depth of field even at f/16.

Focal Point #1

Focal Point #1

I took a second shot with the focal point being the eyes and body of the spider.

Focal Point #2

Focal Point #2

I then focused on the legs furthest from the camera and took a 3rd shot.

Focal Point #3

Focal Point #3

When shooting a series of images in the field where I know I will be stacking or stitching them together, I often take a shot of my hand at the beginning and end of the sequence to help me remember which images I wanted to sequence so that when I upload my images into Lightroom I can easily find them.  This makes it easy to see a series in the film strip at the bottom of Lightroom’s workspace since I know any images found between images of my hand are intended for that purpose.

Once all my files have been uploaded to Lightroom, I can then make a few edits such as lens corrections, sharpening/noise reduction, and other such adjustments.  The key is that I want each of the three images to have the EXACT same settings before going into Photoshop for the image stacking itself.  I select all three images in Lightrooms filmstrip at the bottom and then right click to open the contextual menu.  I then select Edit In ⇒ Open as Layers in Photoshop… (see image below).

Open as Layers in Photoshop

Open as Layers in Photoshop

Once I had my images loaded as layers in Photoshop, I made sure all three were selected (of course, if I had 5 images to stack, I would select all 5 layers).  I selected them by clicking on one layer then while holding the Shift key, I clicked on the last layer and all layers were highlighted as in the image below.

Selecting the Layers

Now, despite the fact I was using a tripod, there was still a bit of movement from one image to the next due to a slight breeze this morning which resulted in a slight change from image to image.  The image below shows the slight blur due to the images not being exactly aligned.

Images Need Aligning

Images Need Aligning

Because the layers didn’t line up exactly (and I highly recommend checking this before you stack your images), I decided to Auto-Align them in Photshop.  To run this function, I simply selected Edit ⇒ Auto-Align Layers…

Auto-Align Layers

Auto-Align Layers

After selecting Auto-Align a box will open and then I chose Auto as the projection type and allowed Photoshop to align the layers.  The other modes are for various types of Panoramic images.  I also made sure that neither the vignette or geometric distortion box was checked.  Once I had done that, I clicked OK.

Auto-Align Layers Box

Auto-Align Layers Box

After aligning the images and ensuring they lined up well, I was ready to blend the images to combine the sharpest part of each image.  Now, honestly, how Photoshop does this is pure magic!!  I won’t even attempt to explain the how, just know it works and it is really quite easy in terms of what you have to do.  Again I went to the Main Menu and selected Edit ⇒ Auto-Blend Layers…

Auto-Blend Layers...

Auto-Blend Layers…

This opens up another dialog box that looks like this:

Auto-Blend Options

Auto-Blend Options

As you can see, my options are limited to either Panorama or Stack Images and for my purposes, I selected Stack Images and then clicked OK.  I saw the Photoshop blending progress bar and waited while the magic happened.

Auto Blending Progress

Auto-Blend Progress Bar

Once the blending was complete, my image was done and all that was left was to save the image to a new name and new format.  Now, Lightroom handles RAW file formats but when we blend layers in Photoshop we can’t keep the images in a RAW format.  Our choice, to maintain the most quality and to have a chance to go back and edit the layers separately, is to either save the image in TIFF or PSD format and check the Save Layers options.  Yes, this does create a larger file and requires more memory, but memory is cheap.  For my purposes, I chose to save as a TIFF file and I renamed the image to Focus Stacked Spider.

Save Image as TIFF

Save Image as TIFF

We can then close the image in Photoshop and if we return to Lightroom we will notice that our image has now appeared in our Lightroom filmstrip.  Now, to make sure our images reappear in Lightroom where we expect them, it is important to make sure that the Save As to Original Folder preference is checked in Photoshop.  This option can be found under Photoshop ⇒ Preferences ⇒ File Handling…

Photoshop Save As Preference

Photoshop Save As Preference

If the box for this option is not checked, I recommend doing so.  Otherwise, unless you pay special attention to where you saved the image, you may have to do some searching and hunting for the image.  In the image below you can see our TIFF file back in Lightroom (note the file name in upper left).  I didn’t have to do anything special to get the image back in Lightroom because I opened the files from within Lightroom to focus stack them.  Now, had I opened the files from Photoshop without going through Lightroom, the file would not have appeared in Lightroom without me having to import the file as a new image.

Back in Lightroom

Back in Lightroom

I prefer to do all the editing I can within Lightroom and use Photoshop only for those functions which are not available in Lightroom.  Once back in Lightroom, I wanted to crop the image from a horizontal to vertical composition.  I applied some clarity and vibrance edits and some further sharpening and noise reduction.

Clarity, Vibrance & Sharpening/NR

Clarity, Vibrance & Sharpening/NR

I felt after that the image was ready.  Here is the final image.

Final Image

Final Image

I will be offering some macro workshops in the summer of 2015 so watch for those announcements to come.  Feel free to let me know if you have any questions on image stacking.

Equipment Review – Phottix Aion Wireless Remote

Phottix Aion Remote

Don’t you love it when you buy something and find out you got a lot more than what you expected?  I was looking for a wireless remote to use with my Canon bodies (Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 7D, and Canon 1D Mark III) that would be programmable for night exposures and star trails.  When it comes to purchasing equipment, I have only found four sources that I generally trust when it comes to buying camera equipment and they are B & H Photo/Video (online), Precision Camera (local store in Austin, Texas), Photography on the Net website (for used and almost new equipment), and Amazon.  I was perusing the wares at Precision Camera a few months back when a remote caught my eye and it was the Phottix Aion Wireless Timer & Shutter Release.  I already had a simple wired remote that I had used on occasion for macro photography but it didn’t allow me to program a specific exposure time which I would need for night photography.  Furthermore, although I had never tried star trails, I knew I would want that capability.

While many people prefer a wired remote for more reliability, I have had zero issues with the wireless remote.  However, this remote can indeed be used wired since it comes with a cable for just such purposes.  Just be sure to always have extra batteries (the Phottix uses AAA batteries) available in the event you need to replace.

Here are the features that I have really liked thus far:

1)  Ease of programming in the dark.  Let’s face it, when doing night photography, we really don’t want to lose our night vision.  I have thick fingers and yet I have no trouble changing settings, time, or functions on the remote in the dark.  The buttons are well spaced and the remote is a decent enough size that I don’t feel like I will lose it.  It does have a light that can be turned on to see the screen but this little light is bright and can take night vision away.  There is also a wrist strap which is perfect since I leave this remote always on my wrist so I don’t misplace in the dark.

2)  Ability to customize everything you can imagine.  This remote will work as a simple shutter release which I use extensively for landscape photography.

3)  Ability to autobracket for low-light HDR photographs.  This is a wonderful function!

4)  Has the ability to operate in “S” or SHUTTER mode where pressing the button simply triggers the shutter for whatever length of time you (or camera) has selected depending upon exposure mode.  “C” or CONTINUOUS mode will take 5 consecutive shots when the shutter is pressed.  “b” or BULB mode is very handy in that you can press the shutter button on the remote and the camera’s shutter will open.  A timer begins on the remote and you can simply press the shutter button again to close the shutter when you reach the appropriate time.  Finally, the “2S” or TWO-SECOND DELAY mode is just like the 2 second delay on the camera.  Pressing the shutter button on the remote will take a photo after a two-second delay.

5)  The real star of the function show however is the TIMER function.  This function has DELAY, LONG, INTVL, N, and BKLN settings.  The first four (4) of these functions can be used separately or in conjunction with one another.  The DELAY setting is used as a self-timer before a photo is taken.  The LONG setting requires the camera to be in BULB mode and will stay open for as long as you have the timer programmed with a maximum time of 99 hours, 99 minutes and 99 seconds.  I doubt you will run out of time!  The INTVL setting (Interval) will take photos at the exact time intervals programmed into the timer.  For instance, you can have the timer take 20 consecutive shots 30 seconds apart.  The 30 seconds apart is controlled by the interval setting.  The N (Number) setting controls the number of exposures the timer will shoot during the current program (– being unlimited, 199 being the maximum programmable).  Finally, the BKLN (Bracketed Long Exposure) setting can be used for long exposure HDR.

This is a bit tricky as you don’t set the exposure to start for the right one, you need to calculate the darkest exposure based on the number of shots you plan to take and start there.  Read the manual for more detail on how to properly use this feature.

6)  Finally, at about $90 retail, this remote is a bargain compared to the price of normal wired remotes.


1)  The dial used to tighten the receiver on the flash hot shoe is small enough where I have a tough time grasping to tighten or loosen.  I suspect for people with narrow and/or longer fingers this might not be an issue.

2)  In live view mode with the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 7D, it can be a bit tricky to get the shutter to trigger.

3)  It can be tricky at first because you use the shutter button on the remote for S, C, B, and 2S functions.  For the timer, you use the Play/Stop button.  You will definitely want to take the manual with you on your first outing until you get everything nailed down.

Here are some photos I have taken using the Phottix Aion:

My normal lens for night photography is the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens.

Night Sky - Pagosa Springs, CO

Night Sky – Pagosa Springs, CO

Sunrise Over Dead Horse Mountains

Sunrise Over Dead Horse Mountains

Lightning Through the Window

Lightning Through the Window

Watching the Stars

Watching the Stars

To learn more about the functions of the Phottix Aion, you can download a user’s manual here and join me on one of my upcoming Big Bend National Park photography workshops coming in 2015!

Photo Tip of the Day – Head Angle

When photographing perched birds, I do my best to wait to press the shutter until the bird’s head is slightly angled toward me.  Of course, there are other angles that can be pleasing as well; but in general, the head turned slightly towards the photographer will generally yield a much more pleasant photo.

Grasshopper Sparrow - Granger Lake, Texas; Canon 7D, Canon 600 f/4.0 II with 1.4 Canon III, 1/400, f/5.6 @ ISO 400

Grasshopper Sparrow – Granger Lake, Texas; Canon 7D, Canon 600 f/4.0 II with 1.4 Canon III, 1/400, f/5.6 @ ISO 400

By being patient, we can also leave plenty of space in our memory card and camera body buffer by not pressing the shutter button needlessly.  This will increase your likelihood of  capturing a take-off or unique behavior by being able to press and hold the shutter button when the moment occurs.