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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
RMNP, CO

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).

Sidelight:

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

 Backlight:

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

Dicksissel
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.