Exposure Tips for Bird Photography

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Boat-tailed Grackle
When  photographers begin to learn about exposure compensation, they are usually taught to "expose for the highlights."  That is, look for the brightest part of the frame, and set your exposure to put that where you want it.  For a sunrise, I usually spot meter off a bright part of the sky near the horizon and set my exposure compensation to +1-1/3 stop (or perhaps a little more).

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Great Egret
But with bird photography, I find this is insufficient advice for two reasons:

  1. Using your spot meter while shooting birds is impractical.  For example, when shooting a bird in flight, the sky will likely be the brightest part of the photograph, and getting the sky right may make the bird all wrong.  And moving birds have a tendency not to care whether or not they are in the part of the frame where your spot meter is collecting data.
  2. Your main concern most of the time (shooting bird silhouettes is an obvious exception), you are far more concerned with making sure the bird is properly exposed than you are with the bird's surroundings. And birds often do not stay put for you; you must make adjustments quickly, it must become intuitive as you're preparing to shoot.
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Palm Wabler
So whenever I'm out shooting, I follow a simple rule: expose for the bird.  I always try to make sure I have a "home" position for exposure compensation in Aperture Priority Mode (Av/A).  I find I'm more likely to underexpose than overexpose, so my "home" position is usually around +1/3 stop.  If I'm in normal conditions with the sun behind me and a bird of normal brightness (Palm Warbler, for instance), I'll shoot just like that.  If the bird is very dark (Boat-tailed Grackle), I'll add as much as a stop of exposure compensation.  If the bird is very bright (Great Egret), I'll lower my exposure compensation by a stop or more.

The most challenging thing for me in this setup is remembering to put my exposure compensation back to its "home" position.  I can't tell you how many times I've set my exposure compensation for a dark bird and then forgotten to put it back.  When the next Great Egret flies by I over expose him.  So when you finish shooting one bird, make sure you put your exposure compensation dial back where it belongs.


  1. Excellent Scott and thank you for this simply put piece on exposure.

    Tim@ Timbobaggins Abroad


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