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


Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, OK

Things have really been busy around here lately with some travel to Oklahoma to see my brother and his family, plus we spent a couple of days at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge photographing landscapes, lizards, buffalo, elk, deer and birds.  Be sure and sign up for my Spring in the Wichita Mountains Photography Workshop (May 9-12, 2015) where we will focus on wildlife and landscape photography.  My heart considers this place my home in many ways because this is where I first started photographing with a Canon AE-1 with a broken meter and the Sunny f/16 rule at my disposal.  A few rolls of Kodak Ektachrome 64 and a nice bull buffalo was my beginning.  While equipment and technology may have changed, the knowledge and skills required to get some outstanding shots have not.

This is one of the oldest refuges established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.  Buffalo, elk, prairie dogs, and turkey were reintroduced and this refuge is a photographer’s dream.  Beautiful granite outcrops, lichen covered granite mountains, spectacular sunsets and many lakes all provide tons of landscape photography opportunities.  If you can’t find something special to photograph here, you aren’t looking!

Here are a few of my favorites from the past few days:


Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake

Eastern Collared Lizard

Eastern Collared Lizard

Elk in Velvet

Elk in Velvet

Granite Outcrop

Granite Outcrop

Lost Lake

Lost Lake

Quanah Parker Lake

Quanah Parker Lake

Texas Longhorns

Texas Longhorns

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

I am very excited about this workshop as I have spent many years visiting this place due to the variety of wildlife and scenic landscapes.

Black-throated Sparrow

Plain and simple, does it get any prettier than a nice adult Black-throated Sparrow?  I first saw this species in Big Bend National Park back in August 1989 and I was instantly drawn to its bold plumage.  Nothing like seeing this bird perched on blooming ocotillo singing its heart out.  This adult was photographed at the windmill blind on Transition Ranch near Uvalde, Texas.

Black-throated Sparrow Adult

It is that Time of Year – Juvenile Birds

I was in Uvalde these past few days checking out the Transition Ranch and I met the wonderful owners, Dr. Sandy & Leslee Kay Hurwitz.  My purpose in traveling to the ranch was to investigate the possibility of hosting workshops at the location and possibly serving as a ranch guide.  In reality, there is so much more that I hope to see evolve from this awesome experience and I hope to share more in the next few months.  The Hurwitz’s are incredibly hospitable and just a real pleasure to get to know.

Many people might think July is not the best time to go to a blind, but one of the things I love about late summer are the many juvenile plumages that often confuse birders and photographers alike.  I am one of those rare photographers who loves sparrows and I have even taught sparrow identification workshops for the Texas Ornithological Society.

At the ranch, we saw Black-throated, Rufous-crowned and Lark Sparrow juveniles.  Enjoy the photos:

Please feel free to share where you like photographing juvenile birds!

Bird Photography for Birders – TOS Spring Meeting 2014

As the 2014 Texas Ornithological Society (TOS) spring meeting approaches, I wanted to share with those that will be going that my presentation on Thursday night (April 24th) will be “Bird Photography for Birders.”  Photography has a lot of technical aspects to it that can be confusing or challenging for a birder and, when we are out birding, it can often be a challenge to get great photos of the birds we are seeing.  In this presentation, I will seek to bring balance to your photography and birding in the field.

If you would like to see your photos go from this:

Bald Eagle - If You Look Real Hard

Bald Eagle – If You Look Real Hard

to this:

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

then be sure and join us Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. at the Cherotel in Freeport, Texas.  Our host for the 2014 TOS spring meeting is the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.

10 Day South Texas Trip – Adventure Caravans RV Birding Reunion

During the last ten (10) days, I was busy co-leading a birding tour of the Lower Rio Grande Valley with a total of 58 participants!!  The tour was an Adventure Caravan Birding Tour and they were having a reunion of folks who had gone on previous tours such as Central America, Newfoundland, and Alaska to name a few.  The Tour Masters are Bert and Sharon Frenz and I can tell you participants certainly get their money’s worth as this was one of the most organized tours I have ever seen.  We were able to visit a plethora of amazing birding/butterfly locations and despite strong southeast winds that allowed migrants to fly right past, we still managed to find some outstanding birds and wildlife.  Each day found us traveling to a different destination and included sites such as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, National Butterfly Center, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Falcon State Park, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands & World Birding Center, Estero Llano Grande State Park, Boat Tour on Rio Grande River, Anzalduous County Park, Old Hildago Pumphouse, Frontera Audubon Center, Quinta Mazatlan, and the Valley Nature Center.

Grey Hawk Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

Grey Hawk
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

Highlights of the trip including roosting Red-billed Pigeons on the Salineno Dump Road, Tropical Kingbird at Anzalduas County Park, Elf Owl near Bentsen, Common Paraque with chicks at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Grey Hawk at Bentsen, twelve (12) Greater Roadrunners at Falcon State Park, Ringed and Green Kingfishers along Rio Grande River, and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet at several locations.  Butterfly numbers were starting to pick up at the National Butterfly Center as well and a few of us got the treat of watching a Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake swallow a Bullfrog tadpole.

Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake Eating Bullfrog Tadpole Edinburgh World Birding Center

Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake Eating Bullfrog Tadpole
Edinburgh World Birding Center

If you are interested in seeing some of these birds or visiting these locations, please contact me to join one of my workshops or to schedule a personal guide experience.  I can guide your birding or photography trip experience.