As our seasons change, we experience a variety of beautiful conditions for photographing birds. From budding trees in the spring to vibrant leaves in the fall, beautiful backdrops seem almost endless. For me, my favourite backdrop for photographing birds is snow, and I always eagerly await the first significant snowfall of the season. After three snow squall warnings for my area back in November that didn’t materialize, I was happy to see over twelve inches of fresh snow fall last week, presenting the exact setting I had been waiting so patiently for.
With a fresh layer of snow already covering the ground and more flurries in the forecast, I grabbed my camera and headed to one of my favourite winter birding locations, Springbank Park in west London. This popular park boasts a variety of habitat including deciduous and coniferous trees providing the birds with plenty of food and shelter. The Thames River flowing through the park provides a dependable water source throughout the year as the river’s moving water prevents a complete freeze up even during the coldest weather. With the three necessitates of life: food, water, and shelter provided, Springbank Park is home to an abundance of birds. Songbirds, birds of prey, and waterfowl are all readily observed within the park’s boundaries.
When birding during harsh winter conditions, I like to put the odds in my favour by paying attention to the weather. Finding areas out of the wind with a food source greatly improves my success. During periods of high wind and snow, birds will seek shelter from the elements but must also feed regularly in order to keep warm. On this day, I searched for birds using a tree line and the near riverbank as a wind break. Songbirds were observed feeding on a variety of fruits and seeds including sumac, birch, alder, various evergreens, and goldenrod.
After locating an abundance of birds in this food rich, protected area, it was just a matter of fine tuning my camera settings to achieve the proper exposure based on available light and snow cover. I always take a few test shots of the scene I am shooting even if there are no birds present. Doing so and checking my camera’s histogram ensures I have the correct exposure. This way when a shot does present itself I am ready. All I have to do is obtain focus (I always focus on the bird’s eye, because when the eye is sharp the image is sharp) and press the shutter. Taking these test shots and adjusting my settings before photographing the birds has been one of the biggest things I have done to improve my photography and consistently get better images. Before this, my images were almost always over or underexposed and by the time I adjusted my settings the bird was gone.
Given the conditions, I needed to overexpose my images to compensate for the white snow in most of the scenes I was shooting. If you find that your winter images appear too grey or underexposed it is because all cameras, regardless of price point, are made to believe a properly exposed image is mid-grey. Consequently your camera will automatically underexpose images not recognizing that snow is supposed to be white. Therefore, adjusting your camera’s settings so that the snow appears white is paramount.
Adjusting for snowy conditions to achieve the proper exposure is easier than you may think. I like to work in aperture priority mode as this allows me to fine-tune my settings quickly and adjust on the fly as the light conditions change. Once in aperture priority mode, I can over or underexpose my images by simply turning the large wheel on the back of my Canon 7D. Each click of the wheel changes my exposure by 1/3 of a stop of light. Rotating the wheel clockwise will overexpose or brighten my exposure while rotating the wheel counter clockwise will underexpose or darken my exposure. This is known as exposure compensation and is something every photographer should learn in order to achieve proper exposure in a variety of situations regardless of your subject. If your camera does not have a wheel on the back, most cameras whether a Canon, Nikon, or other brand will allow you to adjust the exposure compensation by holding down the AV +/- button (usually located on the back or top of the camera) while turning the camera’s dial simultaneously. How and when to use exposure compensation is one of the many aspects of nature photography I teach during my Nature Photography Workshops.
In snowy conditions, overexposing by 1-1/3 to 2 stops of light (4 to 6 clicks of the dial clockwise) is often required to achieve proper exposure. This will ensure that the snow appears white and not grey in your final images. One question I always get asked is “can’t I just fix this later in Photoshop?” My answer to that question is this. You can change your exposure later in Photoshop; however, “fix” is not necessarily the correct word to use. Anytime you increase your exposure in Photoshop or any other post processing program you will increase the amount of noise in the image, drastically negating image quality. Getting the exposure correct in camera is one of the easiest ways to quickly improve your overall image quality.
With my camera settings dialed in to achieve a fast shutter speed and proper exposure, I was ready to photograph the plethora of birds within the sheltered, food abundant area in which they were associating. By using the weather to my advantage and choosing the correct camera settings, I managed to locate 27 species and capture sharp, properly exposed images of almost all of them.
Next time you are out searching for birds in winter remember to use the wind and weather to your advantage. Successful birding has far more to do with formulating a plan based on conditions than it does with luck. When photographing birds, focus on the bird’s eye for sharper images and learn how to use exposure compensation to achieve proper exposure based on light conditions. If you are not getting the results you are hoping for from your camera and lens, consider joining me at one of my upcoming Nature Photography Workshops. During these two hour workshops I will show you everything you need to know to greatly improve your overall images. Group size is limited during these workshops for individual attention, and a few spaces still remain for early in the new year. Why not make it your resolution to become better with your camera and get the results you are hoping for?