Most people understand that light is the foundation of all photography. When I think about avian photography, I am always very conscious of light and how the available light will play into my photography at any given moment. In this blog, I am going to discuss the relationship between available light and my preferred subjects in various lighting conditions. I have broken down light in to 4 available categories: Blue hour, golden hour, overcast and direct sun.
Before Sunrise - Blue Hour
In the pre-dawn light, interesting things occur. For example, the skies will often show blues, purples and pinks that are not available at any other time. However these extremely low light conditions are very difficult to manage. Shooting at this time requires the use of very slow shutter speed and much higher ISO. The species to think about are slow movers. You won't get many action images at this time. I don't do much owl photography, but these can be captured (hopefully with super slow shutter and not flash). I know many owl photographers that are shooting at shutter speeds measures in the seconds, not fractions of seconds. If owls are not your interest or if you have a tough time finding them, you can also capture wading birds, who are often very still, or any larger perched bird (raptor). Another strategy is to shoot back into the predawn sun to get silhouettes. Below are some example of low light, pre-dawn birds. Very occasionally, you may have enough light for some flight shots liket he Tern below, but usually the sun would need to be close to rising and you would likely still have some motion blur.
Most photographers are well aware of the benefits of golden hour, that time period during sunrise and sunset where the sun is just a few degrees over the horizon. With the sun in this position, the quality of light changes as certain wavelengths are filtered out by the atmosphere and the remaining light is softer and has golden tones. The term golden hour, however, is a little misleading, as the period of time that the sun offers these benefits can vary greatly based on season and distance from the equator. In the northeast U.S.,for example, this time frame is generally less than 40 minutes for most of the year. I did an older blog specifically about golden hour and how quickly the light changes. Click here for the link to Golden Hour and "Harsh" Light.
While almost all subjects photograph well at sunrise or sunset, there are some that I prefer over others. Shorebirds and waterfowl are my favorite subjects for golden hour. Often in spring, I will look at the weather forecast and if conditions are sunny, I will head to the beach or wetland areas for peeps or waders. In addition to how great the subjects look, I think there is an emotional component to shooting birds near the water. It may just be me, but sunrise at the beach just feels special. One warning about shorebirds however. As great as birds look at sunrise on the beach, they look pretty mediocre once the sun gets stronger and harsher. The conditions tend to change so fast, that if you can't find them quickly, or have trouble getting a great shot, you may invest in a long trip only to return home with mediocre images. For this reason, it may be a good idea to explore sunset. This allows you time to scout and find areas and subjects before light is at its peak and then continue to shoot them as the light gets better and better.
Below are examples of different subjects that help illustrate the appeal of golden hour.
If the golden hour in spring takes me to the shore, overcast light, even clouds and rain, generally draws me to the woods. For several reasons, overcast light is generally my preferred lighting for songbirds.
The practical reason that overcast lighting works well for songbirds, especially during migrations, is that it allows you to shoot for several hours and get pleasing images. Finding cooperative warblers, for example, can be very tough, so diffused light will simply give you more time. When shooting birds in stronger, direct light, you are often dealing with shadows from leaves and branches. Direct sun on these features is very unflattering and you will often have "hot spots" and shadows that are deal breakers for good quality pictures. Indirect, overcast or filtered light will soften or eliminate shadows and hot spots, but in addition it will also tend to make the greens more vibrant.
The challenge with shooting overcast, is the light. With no sun coming through the clouds, there will be very little light available. This puts more demands on your body and lens. I am not going to go into a deep dive on this subject, but will cover it in another blog on low light, songbird photography.
The examples below show some birds captured in lower light conditions. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher shown below is an interesting image, because while it was taken several hours after sunrise, the atmosphere had lots of fog. Some sun was coming through, but it was incredibly diffused and created almost ideal lighting conditions for this time of day. I also included a few overcast images captured in rain and snow. While rain really pushes the limits of many bodies and lenses, the reflective nature of snow covered ground may actually help provide more light and therefore ease the burden on the equipment.
While Direct Sun is generally the least aesthetically pleasing of the light discussed, it does come with some benefits. Since camera sensors crave light, having lots of it means you can shoot with lower ISO and faster shutter speeds. So in direct sun, I am usually thinking action! I consider subjects like birds in flight or birds fishing or bathing. With shutter speeds of 1/2000 or even faster, it is easy to freeze action, feathers, water droplets, etc. Lower ISO also means less noise in your finished product.
In direct sun you can also get some interesting high contrast images. I included a few below that show you what you can do when you get light on the subject and expose for the lightest part of the subject. Especially if the background is in shade, you can get dramatic, high contrast images, with very dark backgrounds.
Here are some example of birds shot in direct sun. While the sun is certainly stronger here, I will say I try to avoid direct overhead sun at all costs. Overhead sun will cast shadows straight down and this becomes very difficult to work with.