Photographing White Birds

By Karen Gallagher of

Great Egret Portrait

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.

Snowy Egret

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.

Great Egret returning to the nest with a twig.

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.

Great Egret flying with mossy twig.

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.

White Ibis

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.

Wood Stork

This flying Wood Stork was photographed in the late morning. The sky had become overcast but still back lit flying birds. In this situation I depended totally on my histogram, taking test shots and making exposure adjustments. Wood Storks have gray heads and black and white wing feathers with pure white breasts, so the danger of blowing out their white areas is real.  This bird came in low, but my flash extender didn’t overpower its white breast and I was pleased with the results.
I would like to give a word of encouragement for those of you who don’t live near areas frequented by wading birds. Get to know the birds in your area. Observe their behavior and learn the best approach to photographing them. I have friends who have set up conditions in their back yard to attract specific birds with amazing results and beautiful photos to show for their efforts. Caution: Once you successfully photograph a wild bird, you just might become hooked.
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26 Responses to Photographing White Birds

  1. Karma says:

    Wow, just beautiful. I’d love to be able to get some nice bird pics but I just don’t have the skill or the equipment. Awesome work, Karen.


  2. milkayphoto says:

    Fantastic guest blog! So full of information and stunning shots of white birds! I don’t really pay that much attention to my histogram – we all have different processes – but it is nice to be reminded of this oh-so-useful tool. I agree that spot metering helps tremendously in these situations and helps to keep the details in the white birds. (Also works on white flowers, too.). Thanks, Karen, for all this great information (and to Scott for featuring it!!) 🙂


    • Karen says:

      Thank you for your generous comment. I enjoyed visiting your blog where I viewed your excellent macro images. I also have a Nikon D300 and just purchased the 105mm lens. I can only hope my close-up work approaches yours. I love your bleeding hearts photo.


  3. Mike Criss says:

    Wow, fantastic stuff. I really love the second photo, it really jumps out at me. Well done.

    Latest Blog Entry


    • Karen says:

      Thanks, Mike. I get a real kick out of watching Snowy Egrets. They have so much spunk and their vocalizations to each other are humorous.
      By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting your blog. My visit to Alaska is a treasured memory. Now I can revisit my favorite places through your blog.


  4. yesbuts says:

    What a brilliant series of wildlife photography.


  5. cindydyer says:

    Thanks for doing this guest blog posting, Scott. Excellent tips!


    • Karen says:

      Cindy, I’m glad you enjoyed my guest blog. I must tell you that I enjoyed visiting your blog. Your colors are wonderfully vibrant! I love your iris and poppy photos. Wow!


  6. Pingback: Homebound « Morningjoy’s Weblog

    • Karen says:

      Thank you, David. I enjoyed visiting your blog and promise to come back. I used to have family in the Chesapeake Bay area. Virginia is beautiful!


  7. Nye says:

    Karen the photos are absolutely stunning, and an excellent idea for guest blogging Scott. I don’t know which one to pick as my favorite, I love them all. 🙂


    • Karen says:

      Nice to meet you, Nye. Thank your for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I enjoyed yours as well. You made me long for the things of my childhood, fresh strawberries, chickens, eggs, soft green grass… I liked your blog.


  8. giiid says:

    Wonderfull photos!


  9. Anna Surface says:

    Wow! These are awesome shots and definitely from one who has studied the behavior of these birds and can work the camera to the best advantage in shooting. The helpful techniques are great! I just love the 2nd and last photos!


    • Karen says:

      That’s quite a compliment coming from you. I just visited your photo gallery. The two of you take wonderful images. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  10. Preston says:

    Fantastic!!! These photos are beautiful and such a difficult subject to capture. Hats off to you.


  11. I really enjoyed hosting this article, Karen. I’ve enjoyed your photography, articles and poetry immensely. Thank you for sharing with all of us how you create your photographic magic with a tough subject which move and will fool our camera’s meters if we are not careful.


  12. Kathy says:

    Karen, you have taken some really beautiful shots! Thank you for the tips, as well. It was fun reading and viewing what you have to share.


  13. Pingback: Snow Geese in Flight | Views Infinitum

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