Suppose you are walking through Canatara Park and suddenly you spot a beautiful warbler on a branch overhead. It’s the middle of the day with a bright, sunny sky. You excitedly snap several photos, but later when you look at the photos on a computer you are disappointed to see that the bird in the photo is darker than you anticipated.
The problem is that the bird was backlit and this situation is quite common, seeing as birds are often overhead and so is the sun. Even with binoculars, a bird against a bright sky often looks like a silhouette of a bird. Your camera’s sensor that controls exposure has the same problem, it “sees” a small bird and a bright sunny sky and interprets that as “hey, there is plenty of light here so I don’t need to let as much light into the camera to get a properly exposed image”, so it limits the amount of light (typically by reducing shutter speed or decreasing the aperture) thereby giving you the underexposed bird in your photo.
There are a few ways to deal with this, the simplest and most effective being to move to a different position (refer to my earlier blog post “Simple Tip to Improve Bird Photographs”). However, we all know when photographing birds that sometimes the circumstances require us to take the shot promptly without relocating. First, you need to recognize when you have this backlit situation. Get in the habit of checking the shot on your camera’s screen and look at the histogram. If the bird looks dimly lit but the background looks overly bright, your shot is backlit. To adjust for this, you want to get the camera to open the aperture to let more light in. And yes, by letting in more light your background will probably be washed out. Depending on your type of camera, one or more of the following adjustments should get you a better image of the bird:
• If your camera has a selection for metering mode, choose the “spot” metering mode. This basically tells the camera that you want to use the very center of the image as the area for the sensor to determine correct exposure.
• If your camera has “exposure compensation”, adjust this to over expose (+) the image. Many cameras, including point and shoot ones, have this capability. Refer to Photo 2 for the exposure compensation button, and to Photo 3 for exposure compensation screen.
• If your camera has a setting that allows “bracketing”, set this and take 3 shots. Each successive shot will be taken at a different exposure and then later you can choose the one that shows the bird most clearly. Many cameras, including point and shoot ones have this capability.
• If your camera has “manual” mode and you are comfortable using it, you can choose and aperture setting that is wider (lower f-value) than what the sensor feels is correct.
• If you have already taken the photo and find the problem later, many computer software photo editing programs allow you to change the exposure and brighten the dark bird. However, software can only do so much and there is no substitute for a well exposed photo!
Even with these adjustments, there will be situations where the sky is so bright that it’s still not possible to get a good photo. At that point the only solution would be to use a flash, but that’s a topic for a future post. I hope you found this post helpful.
If you are interested in reading more advanced information pertaining to photographing birds in backlit photo situations I suggest these resources:
1. Secrets of Digital Bird Photography, this is a relatively advanced site with emphasis on DSLR cameras.
2. Mike Atkinson Bird Photography, this site has a good tutorials section, plus you can just enjoy hundreds of great images he shows on this site. This site is also directed at DSLR users.
3. Mark David “quick tip”, Working with extreme backlighting.