One of the great things about bird photography is the seemingly endless diversity of colorful subjects. But while birds such as the Painted Bunting and Scarlet Tanager are certainly eye-catching, images capturing the elegance, grace, and simplicity of predominantly white birds, such as the Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Trumpeter Swan, can be just as spectacular.
When photographing white birds, we want to portray their brilliance while still preserving the subtle and often intricate detail in their plumage. This can be a delicate balance and is often a source of frustration for beginning bird photographers. Exposure theory tells us that if we come up with camera settings that render a gray bird as gray, those exact same settings will work for a white bird in the same light. While this is true, there is far less room for error with bright white subjects: Underexposing will make them appear too dull, and overexposing even a little can cause a complete loss of detail in the highlights.
As a first step, put your camera in manual exposure mode. For many reasons, automatic exposure modes like Aperture Priority can make it difficult to achieve the level of accuracy and consistency that is critical for proper exposure of bright white subjects. This is especially true if your subject is in a dynamic environment or if its size in the frame is changing frequently. There are many ways to come up with the correct settings but here are two simple and effective methods.
Utilize Highlight Alerts
By enabling highlight alerts or “blinkies” on your camera, any areas that have lost highlight detail—the detail hidden in the brightest part of a scene—will blink during image playback. For white subjects, these blinkies are both accurate and reliable and can be used to your advantage. Take test shots in manual mode with increasing levels of exposure until you see blinkies on the subject and then reduce the exposure by one third or two thirds of a stop. You can now use these locked-in settings to get the optimal exposure regardless of the subject’s background or its size in the frame, as long as the amount of light hitting the subject remains constant. If and when the light changes, again take test shots to come up with new settings. This method is not the most efficient or elegant, but it is simple and very effective.
Choose Spot Metering
Even though you are in manual mode, you can still use the camera’s exposure meter to guide you to the correct camera settings. Choose a spot metering pattern, which yields more predictable and consistent results than patterns like matrix or evaluative. Fill the spot metering area with white from the brightest part of the subject and adjust the camera settings until the exposure scale in the viewfinder reads +2. This should be very close to optimal, but you may be able to go one or two thirds of a stop more without losing highlight detail.
As with the previous method, you can now fire away with these locked-in settings regardless of background or subject size until the light changes. When this happens, again fill the spot metering area with white plumage and adjust the camera settings to get back to the same reading on the exposure scale. Once you have used the meter as a guide to lock in the correct exposure, you can ignore the exposure scale while you are shooting—it may bounce all over the place as your Spot metering area falls over different parts of the scene.
Fine detail in the plumage of a bright white bird can often be made more visible by reducing the exposure by one or two thirds of a stop. You might want to consider this in the field if you are shooting JPEGs, but if you are shooting RAW, you can and should wait until post-processing time to make this decision. It’s also best to avoid shooting in bright midday sun, when blazingly white plumage seems to become even more reflective, obscuring highlight detail.
Michael Milicia is a Massachusetts-based bird photographer. He also specializes in teaching photography and takes great joy in helping others take their imagery to the next level.
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