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


Three Things Every Bird Photographer MUST Know (Part One)

I would say far and away one of the biggest challenges facing bird photographers is that many do not know how to use their camera body functions and controls quickly and without looking, if at all.   And the impact this will have on your ability to quickly and easily make necessary changes as light and/or subjects change will be a handicap you can’t overcome until you do learn your camera body inside and out.  Whether you are photographing foraging shorebirds on the beach, herons/egrets coming to a rookery, or passerine migrants at a water feature, these three controls and functions will put you light years ahead of most other photographers.

Photographs such as these two show how using two different types of autofocus modes are critical. The first shot of a flying female Purple Martin was made much easier by the use of the Auto-Select 19-Point AF mode on my Canon 7D and the second shot of a Sedge Wren was made much easier by the use of the Single-point AF mode so I could lock focus on the eye of the bird amidst a bunch of cattails.

Purple Martin (Auto Select 19-Point AF) & Sora (Single-point AF)

Purple Martin (Auto Select 19-Point AF) & Sora (Single-point AF)

Selecting the Autofocus Area & Autofocus Points

I want to be clear that I am NOT talking about the Autofocus (AF) Mode which is in Canon/Nikon (One Shot/AF-S, AI Focus/AF-A, & AI Servo/AF-C).  Quite frankly, why bird photographers do not move the AF to the rear button (available on most camera bodies) is beyond me.  I will write a post on doing this in the near future because once you do that, you combine all AF modes into one button.  AF modes deal with the “how” of AF.

What I am talking about here is the ability to control the “what” of AF and by that I mean, which one of the AF area selection modes and/or AF points will the camera use to acquire focus.  Today’s typical consumer, prosumer and professional camera bodies have a range of 9 to 51 AF points and these can be combined in different types of AF area selection modes.  For example, I have three (3) different bodies in my possession now:  Canon 7D, Canon 1D Mark III, and Canon T4i.  My typical workhorse for bird photography is the Canon 7D.  It has three different basic AF Area Selection Modes and two additional modes that can be added using a Custom Functions menu.  I have added a copy of the Canon 7D user manual so you may better understand.  So, let’s take a look at the differences in these AF area selection modes.  While the terminology will vary for Nikon, the function and concepts remain the same.

Canon 7D AF Area Selection

Canon 7D AF Area Selection

The Single-point AF (Manual Selection) allows the user to select one of however many AF points you have available.  On the 7D, you have up to 19 AF points and this mode will let you choose any of the 19 points.  What is really awesome about the 7D is that you can have one spot chosen for horizontal shooting and a different spot for vertical shooting.  You can set the 7D to remember which spot for each orientation rather than having it revert back when you change the camera from horizontal to vertical or vice versa. This is referred to as a manual selection because you are in control of the exact AF point which will be used by the camera body to acquire focus.  All other AF points will be ignored when you use this mode.  This mode is very useful when you are photographing birds in foliage or where other obstacles might cause interference with AF.  I like this mode when I have the time to pinpoint AF right on the eye of the subject.  In Nikon terminology this mode is called Single-Point.

Zone AF (Manual Selection of a Zone) allows the user to select one of “x” number of zones depending upon the camera body.  On the 7D, I have up to 5 zones that I can select.  To be honest, I have rarely used this mode, but I am planning on using it some more because I can see some potential for use on close-up, small moving birds and improving the focus on the eyes.  In Nikon terminology this mode is called Dynamic Area but it more of a combination of this mode and the AF point expansion mode described below.

Auto Select 19-Point AF (Automatic Selection) is a mode where the user allows the camera body to select which AF point is used and I find this mode to be outstanding for bird flight photography and for quickly moving birds without a lot of foliage, obstacles or other items that could acquire focus rather than the bird.  I use this mode when shooting shorebirds foraging on a beach (if they are resting I prefer to use Single-point AF mode), birds in flight, or action shots of birds.  The primary downside to this mode is that on occasion the focus may lock-in on a wing tip and due to proximity to subject or aperture the eye/face of the bird may not be sharp.  My experience demonstrates that this mode more often than not helps me capture shots I would have missed with most other modes.  When the subject is strongly contrasting against a background, such as in this shot of the nesting Great Egrets,

Great Egrets on Nest Auto Select 19-point AF Mode

Great Egrets on Nest
Auto Select 19-point AF Mode

I have found this mode to still be effective.  However, if the bird and the background were closer in tone then this mode might struggle acquiring focus.  In Nikon terminology this mode is called Auto Area.

Those are the three default modes on the Canon 7D; however, by changing some settings in the Custom Function Menu III:  Item 6, I can add two more AF Area Selection Modes to my repertoire at hand.  These are Spot AF (Manual Selection) and AF point expansion (Manual Selection).

Spot AF (Manual Selection) mode is designed for pinpoint focusing.  When you select this mode, you can still use any of the 19 AF points and have Spot AF; however, for a camera to AF on a subject, it is looking for contrasting lines or edges and when using this mode, if you are putting the spot on an area that is all one color or lacking detail, you can seriously delay or even be unable to lock focus in this mode.  I have used it with mixed results.

AF point expansion (Manual Selection) mode allows the user to select any AF point to the be the primary point, but in addition the surround points become active and if for any reason the primary AF point loses the subject the surrounding AF points are used to assist in acquiring focus.  This is very useful in bird photography where you still want to designate a primary focus spot, say in a situation where a warbler is at a water feature with branches and leaves in the background, and rather than have every AF point functioning which is going to struggle with focusing on just the bird, this mode will give you a better shot of nailing the focus on the bird.  It is important to note that you don’t have control over any of the surrounding focus points as to which are used and which are not.

Now, for in the field, the real question is, “How quickly can you change from one mode to the other?”  Inevitably, there will be times that you are in one mode and a situation calls for a different focus mode.  I suspect that few bird photographers can adequately describe the different AF modes available on their camera and probably even fewer can switch quickly between modes without having to take their eye away from the camera body.  This is an ability that will quickly skyrocket your field technique and allow to capture more of those “oh man” shots!

On the Canon 7D, you simply press the “AF Point Selection” button on the upper right rear of the camera body and then you push the “M-Fn” (also called Multi-Function button) located just behind and to the left of the shutter button.  I have trained myself to be able to move through all five AF Area Selection modes while still looking through the viewfinder.

Autofocus Points

Throughout the discussion above we have referenced that in most of the modes, the user has control over which of the AF points are selected.  The issue that begs to be addressed is, “Do you know how to change which AF point is selected?”  So many users simply use the center point all the time and this is seen in countless boring compositions with birds centered perfectly in the frame when the user had time to compose the shot according to the rule of thirds.  Unfortunately, because they had the center focus point selected they just shot away without any thought to composition.  Just as you need to be able to change AF area selection mode without looking, you will want to be able to change AF points in like manner.

The Canon 7D offers 19 AF points that can be selected by the user (see pg 87 of Canon 7D user manual above for illustration of how 19 points are arranged) or if you are in Zone AF mode there are 5 AF zones that can be selected.  To quickly change the selected AF point or zone, simply press the AF Point Selection button and next you have 2 options.  The first is to use the multi-controller (the joystick like button at the upper right corner of the rear LCD) and simply push it in whatever direction you want to the move the AF point or zone.  If you push the multi-controller straight down the center AF point or zone will be selected.  I find this somewhat challenging to do when my camera is in vertical orientation due to my short fingers.  Hence, I often resort to the 2nd option which is to use the Main Dial which selects an AF point in the horizontal direction and the Quick Control Dial (large dial on lower right of camera body) which selects an AF point in the vertical direction.

Of course, you may have a different camera body and that is great.  The key is that you must learn how to make these adjustments quickly and effectively when shooting conditions or subjects warrant a change.  So take a moment and grab your camera manual or download the PDF version and just practice changing these settings first by looking and then by not looking.  How quickly can you go from one mode to another?  Go out in the backyard or to a local park and try using all the different focusing types and see how well they work in different situations.  You can always substitute a dark or bright colored branch, stump, leaf or even a water bottle for a bird.

While photographing at a local rookery, I had been in Auto Select 19-Point AF mode when suddenly a Neotropic Cormorant appeared out of nowhere not affording time to adjust AF Point selection but in this situation with a dark bird and a mixed tonality background, the auto select worked well.  There are situations that no matter how quickly you can change the settings you just can’t be fast enough.

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight Auto Select 19-Point AF

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight
Auto Select 19-Point AF

In this shot of a Common Gallinule at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas, the Auto Select 19-Point AF mode would likely have never worked due to the mass of vegetation around the bird and here the Single Point AF mode allowed me to zero in on the upper shield area near the eyes.

Common Gallinule Single Point AF Mode

Common Gallinule
Single Point AF Mode

If you have any questions or are struggling to comprehend this topic, don’t hesitate to email me your questions.  Even better, why not schedule a private class or workshop where you will get hands-on individual instruction?

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.

Welcome to Lee Hoy Photography!

Hello everyone and welcome to my website!  I want to take a minute and introduce you to the website/blog and let you know what you can expect from me.  This website will be focused on introducing people to the world of wildlife photography, macro photography (specifically focusing on dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies), and landscape photography.  While I enjoy all three, photographing birds and dragonflies tends to occupy my interest most often.

In addition. I use Adobe Lightroom 5.0 for all of my digital editing and I will be offering tips, tricks and techniques when it comes to editing your photographs.  I am located in Georgetown, Texas and while most of my photography occurs in this great state, I do, on occasion, get to travel to other destinations to photograph.  Many of us often wonder where are some great spots to photograph and I will be sharing locations as well with my reviews and recommendations.

If you are a beginner, all the better.  I love to teach folks how to make the most out of their time photographing.  I will be offering private lessons, group workshops and classes as well so stay tuned for my schedule of events beginning January 2014.  If you have any topics you would like me to address, please don’t hesitate to contact me and ask.