The low-light conditions of winter present interesting challenges for bird photographers. In most areas, and certainly on the central coast of Oregon where I photograph birds everywhere from the stormy shoreline to the deep conifer forests, days are short and the sky is often overcast. Even at the peak of day, it’s not always easy to get a good shot.
That means, however, it’s the perfect time to explore your camera’s capabilities and experiment. I suggest the following four-step process for tinkering with your settings in dim or gloomy light. We’ll take advantage of semi-automatic modes and adjust exposure to get the most from our camera, even on the murkiest days.
1. Explore Aperture Priority
With this mode, you set the aperture, and the camera selects ISO and shutter speed. Your goal is finding the sweet spot between enough depth of field (which you control) and a fast-enough shutter speed to freeze a bird’s movement or overcome camera shake when holding your camera. However, a common problem in low-light scenarios is that even if you use the widest aperture available on your lens, your camera may still select a slow shutter speed to get enough light for a good exposure, producing a blurry shot. If this happens, move to step two.
2: Make ISO Work For You
Raising the ISO of your camera is a must. On overcast days, especially near sunrise or sunset, expect to use anywhere from ISO 800 to ISO 3200, depending on your desired shutter speed.
When I’m on the go, I’m happy to let my camera make some decisions for me. I often set my camera to auto ISO with a limit of 6400. This means the camera can pick any ISO it wants, but never above ISO 6400. I get flexibility, but avoid high noise levels in my images. Choose a level based on your camera’s capabilities, and consult the manual.
Despite a flexible ISO setting, in low light your camera may still select settings that overexpose or underexpose your subject. If this occurs, go to step three.
3: Take Advantage of Exposure Compensation
With low and flat light, it’s common that your camera will select settings that underexpose the subject. This is especially true when photographing waterbirds or shorebirds, where the water’s brightness competes with the subject’s darkness.
Exposure compensation overrides what the camera thinks is a perfect exposure, and with a quick turn of a scroll wheel, you can overexpose or underexpose by a certain amount. Increase the exposure by 1/3-stop increments until your subject is properly exposed. If you’re still struggling at this point, try step four.
4: Explore Shutter Priority
If a fast shutter speed is top concern, Shutter Priority mode will allow you to select the shutter speed while the camera selects aperture and ISO. It’s a great combination for reacting quickly to opportunities and maximizing your odds of sharp images.
As a rule-of-thumb, select a minimum shutter speed that is 1/(your lens focal length) if holding your camera by hand. For a 500mm lens, my minimum shutter speed is 1/500, for example. Start at the minimum, then adjust based on how much stability you have, how much movement blur you want to include, or if you simply need more light and are willing to risk a little camera shake.
Whatever your result, the best part about working in low light is the chance to explore your style and creativity. Take advantage of moody skies, have fun working with blur and movement. And most of all, experiment.
Jaymi Heimbuch is a professional wildlife conservation photographer, writer, instructor, and trained naturalist. Based on the Oregon coast, Heimbuch leads tours to the area’s most photogenic and wildlife-rich locations, and teaches conservation photography workshops around the country. She is the founder of Urban Coyote Initiative, which uses the power of photography to advance science-based awareness of urban coyotes.