Photographing a White Bird

Discussion in 'Nature' started by Sandy Vongries, Nov 25, 2017.

  1. Unless there are patchy clouds or are shooting in a blind- mine is my master bedroom through a slit between the lowered blinds and a rolling posing table covered with a camo jacket, the light where you are standing is the same as on your subject. You do not have to walk over to the bird to take an incident reading. Two approaches, one hold the dome towards the camera on the camera/bird axis. Should give you the same reading as if you held it up under his bill. Another technique is to hold it dome up and use a couple of fingers held a couple feet above the meter to eliminate the specular highlight of the sun on the dome. Just use those readings. Shooting from indoors, I use the same technique I use on a bridal gown, the most important clothing at a wedding. I have shot a white towel in full sun and know where the right side of the histogram dies sort of the right side when I have detail in the white towel. Now I can photo the bird and adjust the right edge of the histogram that distance from the right side. You can do this with any scene where there is a white object like a white shirt. Don't need to mess with a gray card. But no need to even carry one. Just about everyone's palm, regardless of race is 2/3 stop brighter than 18% gray so you can hold your palm facing the camera and take a reading then increase exposure 1/3 stop. For portraits, I spot meter and focus just below the eye. Or, since your meter should zero out to approximately 18% gray- actually about 1/3 stop off that- spot on an 18% gray element near the bird and zero out. Blue north sky, green grass, school bus yellow, electric cord orange are 18%. Or spot on something pastel, I like the color of the roseate spoonbill. Pastels are one stop brighter so increase exposure 1 stop. Another possibility is to spot on the brightest part of the bird and increase exposure about 2.5 stops, that should put you about zone 7-8.
    Finally, sun position is critical for bringing out detail. Sun behind you can eliminate detail revealing shadows.
    I use a low reflector or a white sheet on the floor in studio to lower shadows or the sand on a beach or snow on the ground. Water can also add a low fill taking down the shadows. Remember, that lcd and histogram is based on the converted jpeg applying a tone curve, not the raw file so isn't exactly what your sensor is capable of rendering. Same for the blinkies. I have my meter calibrated to my sensor using the Sekonic software and color checker passport and know exactly where the highlight clipping point is, no WAG, wild ass guess. I can take an ambient and a spot reading of the brightest area I want detail, and adjust the meter to show exactly the exposure where I am just under clipping. That allows full detail in highlights while moving the shadows as far right as possible with good highlight detail giving best possible shadow quality. As usual, many ways to do the same thing in photography/photoshop. Lots of ways to skin, I mean, pluck that duck. These techniques have eliminated my previous EAS, exposure anxiety syndrome.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2017
    sallymack likes this.
  2. Thanks for the detailed explanation/instructions, Bob. I'm not a "bird photographer" but there are lots of herons and egrets around where I live.
  3. Dieter nailed it and blessed us with some sweet shots of white birds. The awareness of the background and the quality of light is key.

    Sandy was shooting a white bird against a medium-dark BG. This is a tough situation, even for a static bird, but for BIF, the background will likely change as the bird flies. This demands Manual mode, because your meter will be both wrong, most of the time and it'll change as the BG changes and never expose properly for the bird. Had it been overcast, then Sandy might have gotten a reasonable exposure on the bird, but the bird was in direct sunlight, so its EV was going to stay constant. I don't know Sandy's camera, but with Nikon and Sony, the sensor is relatively tolerant to under-exposure. With Canon, I'd probably shoot this at -1EV, given the BG in the first image. With my Sony, I might go ahead and shoot at -1.5 or even .2EV. In RAW conversion, you must raise the level of the bird or it'll look too grey. If you spot meter on the bird, the 0-EV RAW conversion will also be too grey. You must "normalize" the exposure of the bird in RAW conversion, or all your white bird will be grey, instead of white. This is a very common error.

    My default Manual setting for birds in flight are, ISO 800, f/8.0 and 1/2500-sec., handheld. For white birds, in direct light, I'll raise SS to 1/3200-sec. or 1/4000-sec. If I know that I'm going to be shooting slow birds, like swans, pelicans and eagles, then I might cut ISO in half and adjust SS accordingly. f/8 stays my default, in order to get some decent DOF. The examples below are in anticipation of fast ducks, so SSs are higher than needed for slow birds.

    [​IMG]Low Flight by David Stephens, on Flickr

    [​IMG]Gull Poses Perfectly by David Stephens, on Flickr

    [​IMG]Don't Point At Me by David Stephens, on Flickr

    Pixel-peepers may find a few blow highlights at the pixel level. That's alright, since I didn't blow out important pixels or too many. In my book, it's more important for a white bird to be white, than to tame every last blown pixel; otherwise, you turn a white bird grey.
    andy_szeto and Tony Parsons like this.
  4. This will not work for a white bird in direct sunlight. It'll make a grey card grey, but it'll over-expose a bright, white bird. If you look at the BG in Sandy's first shot, that's not that far off the average of a grey card. The camera was metering off that BG and over exposing the bird.
  5. Tony Parsons

    Tony Parsons Norfolk and Good

    I realise that, but it'll give you a base exposure from which to assess adjustments, and I had always understood that it should give about the same exposure as an incident light reading - have I not grasped something there ?
  6. Well, you can get a base exposure off the BG in Sandy's first image. Rather than carry a card, I take a test (base) reading off the trunk of a tree in sunlight, or something close to a grey card. That reading can then be used, without adjustment, for most grey and brown birds and mammals. When shooting things that are not white, I'll ETTR and use +1/3 to +1EV for deer, great blue heron, etc.

    So, if one understands that a reading off a grey card is NOT the exposure that you'll use to shoot a white bird, then it's a good starting point. The way your post was written, I didn't see that as the case. For people wandering in the woods, shooting wildlife, getting your "base" reading off a sunlit tree trunk, is one widely used technique. I own a grey card and a color card. I use those when shooting human models that hold them up near their faces. For some reason, birds and beasts don't follow my instruction.
    Sandy Vongries likes this.
  7. Tony Parsons

    Tony Parsons Norfolk and Good

    Sorry, should have been more explicit - I thought it would be realised that using a grey card in those conditions would give nothing more than a suggested exposure, to be 'tweaked' until the desired results are achieved. Thank you for helping me clear that up.
  8. Even saying "suggested exposure" is dangerous for our newbies in these threads. They'll think, "Oh, I simply set exposure with a grey card and I can shoot anything." Understanding grey cards and using spot metering are actually "advanced techniques" in my view. In Sandy's case, the actual exposure is probably a whole stop away from a grey card exposure, maybe even more. For birds, which are typically a small % of the metered area, adjusting to the bird takes some experience and awareness of the BG EV vs. the subject EV. Bird-in-flight further complicates that math, because the BG might constantly change while the subject EV remains unchanged. Hence, Manual mode is the way to go for BIF.

    Oh, BTW, I should have said earlier, taking test shots of white birds and "chimping" to check your exposure is allowed. I've shot with wildlife photography professionals that do this. Turn on your camera's Highlight warning and pay attention to it.
    Sandy Vongries likes this.
  9. I know it's a metering pattern issue and I get the same tonal gradation in the blown highlights even metering matrix with my camera, but there's just way to much contrasty and noisey texture in his images that I don't associate with most similarly exposed jpegs coming off a high quality Nikon camera I see online.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2017
  10. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Moderator Staff Member

    Probably because I was trying "to squeeze blood out of a stone" in post, something I am neither particularly good at or fond of. Here is one that is just a modest crop.

    DSC_6729 (1024x683).jpg
  11. Yes, but how do you meter and adjust this fast when the bird is suddenly flying away? I've stopped shooting such scenes out in my park because I can't react fast enough before these birds are out of range of both autofocus and proper metering.

    Sandy's particular scene is quite difficult to quickly meter and adjust exposure to prevent blown highlights before the bird's gone. It seems pre-planning is inevitable.

    In situations like this I haven't found a way to be at the ready after shooting less challenging subjects that don't have white detail to preserve and then know which exposure setting to prevent blown highlights just by quickly grabbing the camera and rattling off a couple of shots before the bird is out of range for a decently composed capture.
  12. OK, that looks like a Nikon image.

    I guess calibrating the tonal curve that's applied in Nikon jpeg processing by reducing the contrast would allow a darker exposure and still preserve color and detail in the sawgrass when brightening the background.
  13. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Moderator Staff Member

    Usually I meter in advance, pre focus manually at a reasonable F stop that will give decent DOF and try to anticipate movement. I shoot single rapidly. My reflexes, so far, remain. I have had quite a lot of good luck with bugs & other birds. This time, siince I didn't really think the bird would be there, I used autofocus on the old 80-400.

    Here is another, a more significant crop.
    DSC_6738 (1024x685).jpg
  14. That doesn't really address the point I was making in your shooting situation which appears as if this was a quick shot where you grabbed your camera and maybe guessed at the proper exposure which the EXIF data indicates was set to auto anyway AND Pattern metering.

    What I'm curious about is why you posted these images here. To ask how to fix or make it better in front or behind the camera? Or whether it should be a keeper?
  15. I shoot birds in flight A LOT and you don't have time to react while the bird is flying. Yes, you have to pre-plan and you have to use Manual mode to expose for the bird. A properly exposed bird will always trump a blown out or too dark BG. I often shoot in conditions just like Sandy's example and I've set my exposure, well before any action occurs.

    Properly exposed bird, with blown out BG:

    [​IMG]Coming Home by David Stephens, on Flickr

    Properly exposed bird, with properly exposed BG:

    [​IMG]Great blue heron by David Stephens, on Flickr

    Properly exposed bird, with under-exposed BG:

    [​IMG]Right Turn by David Stephens, on Flickr

    Most viewers are forgiving of the BG, if the subject is sharp and properly exposed. Using bokeh to wash out the BG is often used in wildlife and portraits of humans.
    andy_szeto likes this.
  16. Sandy, you have to pre-plan for BIF. AF, on modern cameras, is also the way to go. If you seriously want to get deeper into shooting BIF, then you need to go to Manual mode. I used to have some success, shooting in Av mode and spinning the EV-wheel on the back of my Canon to adjust for changing condition in flight. That worked a lot of times, particularly when I was shooting brown and grey birds and the light was pretty even. White birds are simply the hardest and you can't meter them correctly in a live situation. You have to preset things for the bird.

    Now, I even do my street shooting in manual mode. I'm shooting the Sony a9, with an OLED EVF, that gives my live view constantly, so I see the exposure as I'm taking the images. Still, even with my Canon DSLRs, I was almost always in Manual mode. Once you get used to it, then it's your friend. Still, for street shooting, being in some Auto mode and knowing how to adjust your EV on the fly, will yield a very high percentage of keepers, so I understand why people use it.

    I shot with a pro recently that had 6-covers on Field & Stream in 12-months. He specializes in white-tail deer bucks and he uses Av (aperture preferred) mode and adjusts EV with the wheel on the back of his 1DX II. However, big mammals are a different kettle of fish from white birds.

    Generally, raising levels in post is less harmful to the file than lowering levels, but large degrees of either can be detrimental, particularly with Canon sensors.
  17. On the contrary - Sandy had plenty of time to set the camera up properly - he knew he was going to shoot a white bird, he knew the lighting conditions. The latest image he posted shows that not too many pixels are "hot" - in fact, the histogram can be reigned in to show no blown highlights when exposure is reduced about 1EV. Shooting JPEG "vivid" is the main culprit here that kills the chance to recover the highlights fully; the same image shot in RAW would have a more than decent chance to still have detail in the underwing and neck whites. But with direct sunlight, there may not be much visible detail even if the exposure was nailed.
    Indeed. And something I will need to heed more in the future. Scenes with a varying background are best shot in manual mode; the only time adjustments are needed if the light actually changes (sun moving behind clouds etc). In addition to the suggestion of metering off a grey card or hand or tree trunk and properly adjusting the exposure to suit the subject, let's not forget that one can also just meter the sky directly (away from the sun, of course) and make the proper adjustments.

    If I find it, I will post a link. But I recall a scenario Arthur Morris encountered and described on his blog - he posted it as an exercise. He encountered an alligator attacking an egret in full sun, grabbing it and moving immediately into a shaded area. You need to know your camera and your exposure requirements quite well to get both shots properly exposed.
  18. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Moderator Staff Member

    Simply, I have not photographed a white bird in memory, managed to capture the kinds of moments I wanted,,. but they were blown out, and the AF on the lens in question leaves a bit to be desired. I will likely not see another Trumpeter around here, or other white birds, though there is an occasional heron. The shots themselves are in no way keepers, and I posted to see what others do just in case, which was achieved. In effect, I did just grab a camera and shoot, since I didn't expect the bird to still be there. I am in no way a bird specialist, but have a lot of opportunity based on living in Montana.
  19. Thanks for confirming no matter the quality of the camera and how fast it meters and auto-focuses, pre-planning is the only way to get great shots of flying birds in the wild. I thought it was my cheap DSLR that was at fault.

    I see folks in the park doing quick shots with their smartphones of skittish squirrels and other moving animals and always think it appears so easy for them while I'm carefully focusing, framing the subject, chimping and resetting exposure and carefully re-adjusting, while the smartphone folks already got their shot and moved on.

    Maybe I should ask to see if they got the shot.
  20. I've spent over ten years shooting outdoors with one camera, Pentax K100D and I still haven't been able to predict the correct EV adjust. Even shooting Raw I gauged by the jpeg histogram the rate of progression the highlights creeped closer and closer to the right wall before spiking and it was never consistent and predictable.

    So I always under expose by placing the histogram highlight right at 200RGB which places it at the 3/4 position within the four zone divided histogram graph when chimping. The scene exposure settings by just pan and scan metering outdoors jumps wildly by singles and multiples of 1/3 EV, set incamera. Picking the the one that doesn't blow out highlights has worked pretty well, but not well enough to know how to choose it quickly shooting on the fly.
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2017

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