By Karen Gallagher of http://morningjoy.wordpress.com
Wildlife photography captivates me. The thrill of observing animal behavior, capturing a representative image of my subject, and sharing its wonder and beauty with others motivates my frequent return to wild places. I particularly enjoy bird photography. Living in South Florida where migratory birds spend their winters and resident populations indwell our shores and wetlands provides me with wonderful photo opportunities and some serious challenges. Among those has been the difficult exposure enigma of capturing detail on white birds without blowing out their lovely feathers. I don’t claim mastery of the subject, but I have learned some helpful techniques that I would like to share with you.
First, I have found my histogram to be my greatest ally. The image on my camera’s LED screen can be misleading, as I have learned too many times when viewing it at home on my computer screen. The histogram, however, doesn’t lie. If the light pixels on the histogram touch its right side, then detail has been lost. So, I have learned to take a test shot, evaluate it on my histogram with the help of my LED panel and highlight screen to see if my exposure will be acceptable. Of course, there are quite a few caveats such as an overcast sky that is brighter than the white bird or a scene with an extensive dynamic range. In that case you have to be sure that the subject in your photo is properly exposed, even if detail in the sky or another area is lost. In the case of the Snowy Egret above, the bird was in a shady area where detail didn’t matter. I like to shoot in manual exposure, so I spot metered off of the bird using evaluative metering and making sure my shutter speed exceeded 1/1000 second(I think 1/1500 is better) and used High-Speed Sync fill-flash.
This Great Egret was returning to the nest with a twig. In this case, I spent quite a bit of time studying the bird’s habits before attempting a photograph. The bird flew out and returned in a fairly predictable fashion, so I was able to anticipate its arrival. I like to hand hold for flight shots, so attaching a long lens (Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6), I metered off of the mid-tone blue sky, and compensated my exposure by – 2/3 stop. It was mid-morning, so I knew that areas of the bird would be shadowed if I did not use flash. However, the bird was too high for my external flash to reach so I used a Better Beamer flash extender and adjusted my flash output-level compensation as needed. I could spot the bird quite far out on its flight path, so I focused on the bird and tracked it all the way in zooming as appropriate until I knew it was within range of my flash extender.
Here’s another Great Egret with nest building material. This bird, as the one before, was back-lit by the sky and so I needed the help of my flash extender to bring light to the underside of the bird’s wings. Fortunately, the sun was not so bright as to create bright rim-lighting around the bird. The rule of photographing in early morning and late afternoon is essential with flying birds. I set my focus mode to continuous-servo (AI Servo) to maintain focus on the bird in flight. Again, I followed the bird with my lens, waited until it was within range, and looked for its wings to be extended in a symmetrical position. An added plus was the mossy branch in the bird’s beak.
This immature White Ibis took me by surprise, but since I had already set my ISO, white balance (I like “auto” for birds), and exposure I was ready. I like to photograph in RAW, as it gives me lots of options for adjustment during post processing. If I want to tweak my exposure, white balance, tonal curve, sharpen, or remove ISO noise, I can often save an otherwise useless photo. Of course it means having a photo editing software program that processes RAW files. I find, though, that photographing under extreme circumstances is more rewarding with the safety net that RAW files offer. With this photo I lightened the exposure a bit.