Birds in the Rain

October 11, 2018  •  17 Comments

Over the last couple years, I have done more photography in the rain. I have done this in part because I continue to try to expand my portfolio and add images of birds in different and interesting habitats. In this blog, I wanted to share some thoughts about photographing in the rain. I will share a few images as well and explain situations and settings.

The first consideration for most people when shooting in wet conditions is the protection of their equipment. To that end, there are several ways to help keep your gear protected. The most obvious protection is a rain cover. These can be cheap plastic tubular shaped sleeves which can be purchased for $10 or less. In a pinch, people can use garbage bags. I have used these before when an unexpected shower hit. Other protective measures include a gamut of mid-priced and professional coverings that can cost up to several hundred dollars. Personally, I just always have a cheap rain sleeve available in my truck and it serves my needs.

When shooting in the rain, I also often shoot from the protection of my car, either right out the window or by popping the trunk of my Jeep and using it as a cover. Then I can stand under the raised trunk and have some freedom to move a bit. If I am out hiking in the rain, I work to be more careful to keep my camera body protected and make sure I am personally staying as dry as I can with good rainproof clothing.

Once the gear is protected and you are ready to photograph, there are some considerations to be made. Primarily what to shoot and what settings to use to best capture the environment. In the rain, birds will still move and feed, but my experience is that they are often less active, which can be frustrating. Keep in mind, with rain comes low light and this means you can shoot all day. So while they might be less active, you have a lot more time to find and photograph them. When selecting rain species, I will try to target species that are very reliable or find an area that might be more dense with birds.

I'll review the settings for images that have rain drops that actually show in the scene. I will specifically review shutter speeds to show how the rain drops themselves will look very different when different shutter speeds are used. As a general rule, I will stay between 1/100 - 1/400 of a second. Anything slower than 1/100 will make it almost impossible to to get a sharp image and anything faster than 1/400 will make the raindrops appear very small, more like dots than streaks. My sweet spot is around 1/250. One important factor to consider is that rain will likely create very low light conditions. This will often tax your camera body and force higher ISO (noise). Using a lens with a wide aperture (f2.8-f4.0) will help a lot. I own a 500mm f4.0, but will often use my 300mm f2.8 (wide open) in these low light conditions to help keep noise under control. The wider field of view means a smaller subject, which gives me a more environmental shot and shows more raindrops. Having a camera body that handles noise well will also be a big help. Even with slower shutter speeds, my ISO will often be over 1000. If you have a lens that has a minumum aperture of of 6.3, you may find your ISO as high as 3200 or more. Some full frame pro bodies can handle this noise really well, while lower-end crop bodies will likely struggle. Low light photography is much easier with better gear. 

The first series of images shows a few different species during a rain storm. The Dickcissels below show light drops from fine, misty-type rain. Editing these scenes helped bring out the faint drops. In the first image you get a sense of the natural environment with the bird clinging to a wet plant stem.

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/125, f4.0, ISO 500)

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/400, f4.0, ISO 1100)

The two Barn Swallow images below show two very different looks. In the top image, the bird is a bit smaller in the frame, and the rain is very evident. This was taken in pretty heavy rain and you really get the sense of this with the droplets obvious and abundant. The bird in the bottom image was much closer, and the rain drops appear longer. This is simply an effect of the closer distance.

(Above: Barnswallow - 1/250, f4.0, ISO 500)

(Above: Barnswallow - 1/200, f4.0, ISO 500)

The two images below are good examples of really slow shutter speeds. These are difficult to get sharp, but at shutter speeds of 1/100 of a second (or slower), the rain drops are very elongated. They really stand out, especially against the dark green background. One suggestion for all rain shots is to try to make sure you have a darker background. Having a light background or sky background will usually drown out the raindrops and cancel out the intended effect.

(Above: Indigo Bunting - 1/100, f4.0, ISO 320)

(Above: Magnolia Warbler - 1/60, f4.0, ISO 140)

** Note: these settings were not intentional. I was trying to shoot at 1/200 but accidentally rolled the shutter speed **

Sometimes I will shoot right after a rain storm ends. The birds generally become a little more active then, and the issues of working in the actual rainstorm are no longer present. In each of the images below, the wet leaves and drops of water add interest and contribute to the overall mood of the image.

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler - 1/250 f4.0, ISO 640)

(Above: Canada Warbler - 1/500, f2.8, ISO 800)

Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

(Above: Northern Waterthrush - 1/400, f4.0, ISO 800)

Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

(Above: Hooded Warbler - 1/500, f4.0, ISO 800)

The last thing I want to discuss with respect to rain is how wet conditions can make interesting images of the subjects themselves. Wet subjects can offer a different look to familiar species. Many times, wet subjects will shake off the water from their bodies, like the Dickcissel immediately below is doing. Remember, shooting slower shutter speeds will make sharpness difficult, and will show motion blur. This image is very interesting to me, as the head and eye are sharp but the fanning tail shows motion. When subjects look like they are about to shake off, I will always shoot a maximum burst of photos to get as many frames as possible, hoping to catch that one frame that offers the wow moment.

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/200, f4.0, ISO 1100)

(Above: Barred Owl -1/250, f4.0, ISO 500)


As you can see from these examples, shooting in the rain can provide a much different look for your images and can add diversity to your portfolio.  While there are several challenges to these wet and overcast conditions, I think the results are well worth the challenges.



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