Low Light Bird Photography

April 02, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Low light bird photography is problematic since birds move, sometimes very quickly. So a fast shutter speed is required to freeze the action, but with low light availability that is not possible lest the evils of high ISO noise ruin the image. Secondly, long lenses tend to be slower, F4 if you are rich and F6.3 if you are poor-ish and even up to F11 if you are a Canon RF shooter. With all due respect to Canon and its customers, I just don't get people buying their slooooow long lenses (for shutter speed and background blur reasons). Thirdly, following the movement of the birds with your camera with a long lens attached also requires a fast shutter speed to cancel out motion blur. So, how do you shoot a fast moving subject with a long slow lens in low light? Back to this question a bit later.

Scenes such as this can be tricky as much of the image is brighter than the bird. If the bird is small in the frame one can let the bird become a silhouette. If the bird is larger in the frame it is usually advisable to see some detail on the bird. The camera will typically want to darken to bird too much due to the brighter other parts of the image. Don't let it, shoot in manual or use exposure compensation to control the camera.

Here are some tricks to help you get low light bird images.

  • Larger birds are easier to shoot in low light (usually). They tend to move slower.

  • Pick the moment you depress the shutter carefully to coincide with the bird being even slower (eating, burrowing, etc.)

  • Shoot in bursts at a high frame rate. Even if some of the burst is out of focus, a few may be in focus.

  • Getting a sharp image is more important than avoiding noise; so use whatever ISO you need to use.

  • DXO PhotoLab or DXO PureRaw is fantastic at hunting down and banishing noise without sacrificing detail (to the extent that that is possible).

  • Try to stabilize the camera as much as possible (see my next blog about achieving this).

  • As we have said before, if the bird is larger in the frame, make sure that you can see some detail in the bird.


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