Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Birds and Light

When photographing birds, there are many things to consider to create an image. For me, a successful image (one that I do not delete!) must meet several criteria. One of those criteria is good light. Because 99% of my bird photography is in the morning, I have to be an early riser. There is no getting around it, the best lighting occurs about 15-30 min following sunrise and lasts only about two hours. Those taken later in the morning are hit or miss.This is why I am in my canoe before sunrise so that I can arrive at the bird location at the right time.

To best illustrate this, I use the great white egret as an example. The first image below was shot at approximately 30 minutes after sunrise, about 7:15 am. Notice the white feathers appear warm and soft. The lighting is very pleasing with the sun relatively low in the sky. The clouds in the background really help make those feathers pop out!

The next image was taken about one hour following sunrise. The feathers appear somewhat warm, but not as much as the previous image. More shadows are evident on the feathers as the sun's angle is much higher.

Here's one taken about 1 1/2 hours after sunrise. As the sun continues to rise, I look for those shots where the bird's wings are in the most upright position to avoid shadowing.

This is also important when attempting to capture birds in flight. With the sun directs light down toward the top of the bird, the underside of the wings are shadowed. Since we are looking up at the wings, we see shadows and therefore, don't see the feather details. It simply is not attractive! Does this mean we have to put the camera away? Not necessarily. Here, I attempt to catch the bird as it banks or makes a turn so the underside of the wings face me. The sun will light up those beautiful feathers as seen in this next shot, taken about 2 hours following sunrise.

In contrast, beyond those first two hours following sunrise, lighting is more harsh, white feathers can easily be blown out and shadows become darker. At the rookery, I often photograph interactions between chicks and adults. Wings flap in all directions. Here's one taken about two hours after sunrise. With wings in the right position, shadowing is reduced and more manageable when I do my post-processing.

What happens after that first two hours? Here are two examples of why I rarely keep a shot taken late in the morning. Both were taken near 10 am, three hours following sunrise. Notice the sharp contrast on the feathers, from blown out whites to dark shadows. Feather detail is easily lost. In this lighting situation, wing and face position are critical, which is why these shots are hit or miss.

When I photograph birds, I want to create an image that illustrates their most beautiful feature, the feathers. Lighting is key to achieving this goal.

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