I frequently get asked which settings to use for photographing birds that have bright sky behind them. If you use automatic mode or rely on your camera’s light meter, your bird will come out too dark! Here are my tips for both DSLR and Superzoom cameras on how to improve your backlit bird photography.
To understand why your bird ends up too dark, it’s important to know how your camera is evaluating light in the scene you are photographing. Your camera has a light meter that measures the amount of light being reflected back from your subject. The meter is programmed so that scenes should average out to a middle-grey tone. Anything brighter than middle grey is considered too bright and anything darker is considered too dark.
You can program how you want the camera to measure light by choosing which metering mode you want the camera to use.
In this mode, the camera will evaluate the light from the entire scene and expose the shot so that it averages out to middle-grey. When you’re photographing a small subject against a large brightly lit sky, the light meter will register that the overall scene is, on average, too bright. The camera then reduces the exposure, leaving you with either a correctly or under-exposed sky and a heavily under-exposed bird.
It makes sense – the bird is only a small object compared to the large bright sky.
Spot metering is a more precise type of metering and is often the preferred choice for backlit bird photography. In this mode, the camera will only evaluate the reflected light from a very small area around the focus point. It will ignore the bright sky and the rest of the scene. This will usually give you a more accurate meter reading for properly exposing a backlit bird.
Don’t forget that the camera is comparing the metering spot to a middle-tone grey, so it still might not get things right. e.g. if your bird has bright white feathers!
There is also a 3rd metering option, where the camera prioritizes the center of the image. Unless your bird is large and in the center, this isn’t the best metering mode for our backlit situation.
Once you’ve selected the appropriate metering mode, use the exposure compensation button to make additional corrections. This is as an easy way to have some level control over how your shots will turn out (even if you shoot in automatic mode!).
It’s very simple. When you push the exposure compensation +/- button, you should see a scale from -3 to +3 (or -5 to +5) on your camera’s monitor or viewfinder. If your shots are too dark, you add positive exposure compensation up to +3. If they are too bright, you add negative exposure compensation down to -3.
It’s your way of telling the camera that a scene needs to be brighter or darker.
In the situation where the sky is bright, but the bird is too dark, you should add positive + exposure compensation until the bird looks how you want it to.
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, I recommend using manual mode to have full control over how your shots will turn out. When you use manual mode, your camera will show you a light meter reading in the viewfinder. You can use this to make decisions about how you want to expose your shot.
With evaluative/matrix metering mode, pointing your camera at a backlit bird will send your meter to the far right (over exposed). If you adjust your settings to bring the meter back to 0 and take a photograph, your bird will be too dark. What happened?
This is one of those situations where you can’t rely on the light meter to make your decisions. A better strategy is to point your camera at something neutral, away from the bright sky, and adjust your settings. Once your shot is correctly exposed, point the camera back at the bird. Your meter will tell you that the shot is overexposed, but ignore the meter and take the shot!
Histograms and the Blinkies
Since you can’t always rely on the light meter, histograms are another useful tool to have in your arsenal. Histograms are graphs that appear on your camera monitor when you’re reviewing photographs (you may have to turn them on if they don’t automatically appear there). The left side of the graph represents the shadows, the right side represents the highlights and the middle is the grey tones of your photograph.
Check the histogram for each photograph to see if the graph touches or clips the sides on the left or the right. Clipping on the left indicates under exposure and clipping on the right is over exposure. The height of the graph represents the number of pixels in your photograph. If the graph is tall and clips the side, you likely have a serious exposure issue in your picture.
“Perfect” exposure as indicated above isn’t always achievable for every scene, but experience will teach you what to strive for.
Another tool you can use in conjunction with the histogram is to turn on the “blinkies” feature on your camera. The camera will highlight the areas of your shot that are over-exposed. These areas will flash or blink so you can easily see them and make exposure adjustments if needed.
When you’re photographing a bird against a backlit sky, you have to strike a balance between not over-exposing sky and not under-exposing your bird. The blinkies will help you achieve this balance.
My last tip for backlit bird photography is to use a technique called exposure bracketing. With this technique, you take multiple photographs of your subject using different exposures. This gives you a higher chance of getting the settings right!
There are 3 ways to do this:
- Use the exposure compensation button and take shots at +1, +2 and +3 (or any variation of exposure values that you want).
- Program your camera to do exposure bracketing. You tell the camera how many shots you want and how much exposure variation you want between shots.
- Do it yourself using manual mode and take a variety of shots at different exposures. Remember that for backlighting, the goal isn’t to get your light meter to zero.
I had terrible backlighting on my trip to Stanley Park in Vancouver. I took a variety of shots of Harlequin Ducks at different exposure levels to increase my chances of coming home with a keeper. It was extremely difficult to get the ducks correctly exposed, without over-exposing the water.
Backlit Bird Photography Conclusion
Backlit bird photography is one of the trickier situations you face when you’re photographing birds. Relying on automatic mode or your camera’s light meter won’t generally get good results. An easy fix is to use the exposure compensation button to increase the brightness of your scene. If you want more control, switch over to manual mode and use the histograms and blinkies to get the exposure you want.
Good backlit bird photography is about knowing the techniques that are available and choosing the appropriate ones to suit your situation. There are times you may want your bird to appear as a dark silhouette. This can look great, as long as it’s how you wanted your shot to turn out!
How do you handle backlit situations? Leave a comment below ↓