Light direction for bird photography

April 07, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Yay, it is Prairie Chicken time in Nebraska! I have been out to photograph them twice so far this season. Since I have written about photographing them before, I am not going to go into that topic today. Rather, we are going to talk about the direction of light for bird photography. For context, the Prairie Chickens battle for mating rights on a Lek (a large mound) which has short grass. The grass is dry from winter.

          The Lek which I visit has two permanent blinds set up. As usual, these blinds are set up for bird watchers and not photographers. Firstly, the blinds are set up facing each other on either side of the mound. This means that, at times, you have the other blind in your background depending on the bird movement. My biggest gripe, however, is that they are facing North and South. The birds are only at the Lek from before sunrise until about three or so hours later. This means that half the birds' bodies are always shaded. Furthermore, the dry grass shimmer with the side lighting, which makes exposure difficult.

          It is important to consider the direction of the light. Are you okay with where the shadows are? What if the bird's face is in shadow because a wing is lifted up or if another bird interacts with "your" bird and casts a shadow on the target bird? This has been a big problem for me to deal with. Here is an example:

I really want to love this image. The light is early and soft. the bird is coming right at me. it's beak is even open. BUT the face is in shadow (and this is after I have lightened it in post processing). To solve this problem I wanted to shoot with the sun behind me. I want the whole bird sunlit. So I received permission to set up my own blind. Here is the result.

I wish I had a different background, but I don't. The mound makes it difficult because you are always shooting upwards, hence the sky as a background. The permanent blinds are higher than my little blind which meant that I could get a different background. Photography is always about tradeoffs. Before deciding on where to take your position, you may want to consider the direction of the light. What kind of result do you want? Side lighting looks very different from full frontal light. If possible, take images from a number of angles from the sun and decide which is best for you. The direction of the light can impact your images greatly.

          Happy shooting.


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