What is the best light for bird photography? And how can you use different lighting styles and directions to capture beautiful bird images?
I’ve been photographing birds for over a decade, and in this article, I share all my best lighting tips for bird photography, including:
- The best time of day for amazing bird pictures
- My favorite lighting direction for capturing lots of detail
- A simple way to produce artistic photos of birds
- The type of lighting to systematically avoid
Ready to improve your bird photography? So let’s dive into it, starting with my first tip:
1. Shoot during golden hour
If you want great bird photos, there’s one type of lighting that will rarely let you down:
This gorgeous yellow light produced by the low sun in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. (In other words, golden hour light.)
In fact, many bird photographers refuse to shoot outside of the golden hour window – and while I don’t advocate such an extreme approach, I do think you should shoot as much as possible during the golden hours.
Plus, the golden hours tend to coincide with peak bird activity, so it’s often the best time to capture great subjects doing great poses, anyway.
Golden hour lighting is soft, and it’s coming from a low angle. As a result, you get flattering lighting, minimal shadows, and evenly lit subjects that show plenty of detail.
You can also use the low sun to produce great artistic effects, such as silhouettes. (More on that in a later section!)
Bottom line: the more you can shoot during golden hour, the better. When planning your outings, be sure to check sunrise and sunset times. Then prepare to get into position before the magic light appears.
2. Avoid shooting when the sun is high in the sky
Midday light is the complete opposite of golden hour light.
It’s contrasting. It’s not flattering. It washes the colors. And it comes from high above the heads of the birds, so it produces nasty shadows that obscure detail.
Am I going to say that you should never, ever photograph around noon? No. You can take great photos of birds any time of the day, but if you’re shooting when the sun is high in the sky, you’ll have a much harder time getting solid images. Colorful birds will look bland and your camera will struggle to register detail (especially when confronted with birds with black and white plumage).
I usually try to schedule my bird photos late in the afternoon or early in the morning, and I suggest you do the same. But if you do find yourself on a shoot in the middle of the day, try to reduce the harsh light, for example, by working in the shade or heading to a beach (where the shiny sand will reflect the light back to the bird).
3. Cloudy days are okay, but not ideal
At this point, I’ve shared the benefits of shooting early and late in the day, and why you shouldn’t shoot when the sun is high in the sky. But you might be wondering: what about veiled light? Does it work for bird photography? Or should you also avoid cloudy days?
For many bird photographers, cloudy days are neutral. They don’t offer the beautiful, flattering light of the golden hour. But they also don’t come with the harsh, unpleasant light of a bright midday sun.
Personally, cloudy days don’t bother me; the light is soft and the shadows are minimal, which makes it possible to emphasize the small details. And the softer lighting helps to saturate the colors, which can be ideal for photographing colorful birds such as warblers. I took this image on a cloudy morning:
But cloudy days come with a problem: the light is (relatively) weak. To capture fast-moving birds and birds in flight, you will need to increase your ISO; otherwise, you’ll be forced to lower your shutter speed, and you’ll end up with blurry photos.
So, when shooting in cloudy weather, pay close attention to your camera settings for bird photography. And also pay attention to the level of cloud cover. If the day is really covered, you might want to consider staying indoors.
4. Use the front light to capture lots of beautiful details
When shooting during golden hour, the sun is low in the sky, which means you can work with three main types of lighting:
- Backlight, coming from behind the subject
- Side light, which comes from next to the subject
- And the front light, which comes from in front of the subject (and beams over your shoulder)
Any of these types of lighting can work well for bird photography, but front lighting is my preferred choice, and here’s why:
It illuminates the birds directly, so you get lots of beautiful detail and don’t have to deal with difficult shadows. In fact, most of the images featured throughout this article were front-lit, including this one:
By the way, there is a simple trick you can use to always find a good front lighting angle:
Simply watch your own shadow and when you find a subject, change position until your shadow is pointing at the bird. I like to adjust my angle when I’m a good distance from my subject; then, once the shadow is pointing in the right direction, I drop to the ground and begin a slow approach.
5. Use backlighting to get beautiful silhouettes
Front lighting is a great way to capture detailed bird shots, but what if you want to shoot intensely artistic? This is where the backlight comes in.
Simply get low to the ground and position yourself so that your subject is between you and the sun. You can experiment with sun placement, but I generally recommend That is keep the sun just outside the frame Where block the sun with the bird.
Switch your camera to manual mode, then deliberately increase that shutter speed until you significantly underexpose the bird. Take a photo, then quickly view it on your LCD screen. The best silhouettes tend to feature a shiny – but still detailed! – background and a black subject, although you can always try increasing the exposure slightly to retain some detail in your subject, as I discuss in the next section.
6. Overexpose Backlit Subjects for Artistic Bird Shots
If you position yourself so that the bird is between you and the sun, you have two basic options:
You can expose for the background, creating a bird silhouette (see above!).
Or you can expose for the bird, which will create a blown out, detailless background:
The silhouette technique is much more common and can be a great way to showcase beautiful background colors at sunrise and sunset. That said, in some cases an overexposed background can also look beautiful.
By the way: there’s nothing wrong with trying both methods. If the bird is cooperative, why not underexpose for a nice silhouette, then overexpose for a blown background?
Be careful with your exposures, however. You want to blow up the background, but you want to keep lots of detail on the bird. You may need to take several shots before you really get the exposure right, so be prepared to shoot and adjust if necessary!
7. Use sun and shade for gorgeous colors and effects
What happens when you take sunlight at golden hour and combine it with shade?
Lots and lots of magic.
A sun visor suit is a great way to produce all kinds of artistic effects. In my experience, this will help you get the kind of bird photos that stand out from the crowd.
For example, if you find a seated sunlit background and juxtapose it with a shadowy bird in the foreground, you’ll get stunning background colors:
And if you find a shaded background but a brightly lit bird, here side light is often your friend! – you will get a nice discreet effect, where the bird stands out but the background is intensely dark:
The best effects come from lots of trial and error, so when shooting, don’t be afraid to play around with different combinations of sun and shade. Some of the pictures won’t be great, but others will look surprising.
Lighting Tips for Bird Photography: Final Words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to find the best lighting for bird photography. And you know how to use lighting to produce many beautiful effects.
So go with your camera. Find birds. And practice your lighting techniques!
What types of light do you plan to use in your bird photography? What types of birds do you like to photograph? Share your opinion in the comments below!