The Best Time to Photograph Birds
Prime times for getting some really awesome light is just as the sun is rising and setting. At these times, the light is less harsh and it has warm tones that can give images a very good look. Another advantage of shooting at sunrise and sunset is that the sun is low on the horizon and near the same plane as you and your subject, as opposed to shining down from above on your subject. Most of my bird shoots begin at sun up but getting this nice light that early in the morning is not guaranteed, and if you live where I live (especially in winter months), clouds or fog are usually there to spoil what could have been some good opportunities. So check your weather forecast for clouds or fog and try to pick a day where you’ll be seeing the sun.
Then there’s the problem of finding a bird, on the right perch, with a good pose, with the right background, at the right distance, and with the sun shining from the right position—all within the first hour after sun up (or before sundown if you’re shooting then). To increase your chances of success, scout out locations at these times of the day to see if there are birds in the area. There’s a likelihood that they may be back there on a future morning (or afternoon).
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get a good shot at other times of the day, although the chances of encountering unwanted shadows are certainly higher. I live in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and during the winter, the sun doesn’t rise very high in the sky even at midday. So I don’t mind going out during the day in winter and trying my hand at getting some shots (assuming clouds and fog lift). Alternatively, in the summer months, that old sun is blasting down from straight overhead for a good part of midday and this makes for some challenging shooting. Having your light source straight over the head of your subject doesn’t typically give the best subject lighting. So depending on your earthly location, you need to determine when the best light happens.
Best Bird Shooting Weather
What weather is better for bird photography? Bright sun? Overcast? Partly cloudy? The answer is all of them depending on what kind of shot you’re taking and what color of bird. Let’s look a little at each one.
Bright sun – can bring out beautiful colors and give you opportunities for fast shutter speeds but watch out for birds that have white on them. In bright sun, it’s next to impossible to capture details in a bird that has a black head and a white bill (such as a Coot). You have to dial down the exposure so much to not blow the whites on the bill, that the black head is way off the histogram to the left and there is no detail there. Bright sun can also be good for birds in flight if coming from behind you (and possibly from the side) and if the direct rays are parallel to the ground (or close to it). It can also be good for getting shots of waterfowl on the surface of a lake or pond. If the sun is shining brightly, there is probably plenty of blue sky and that blue will be reflected on the water giving your duck shot some pleasing color. But again, watch out for waterfowl that has black and white on it! Also, bright sun is notorious for casting harsh shadows. So if it’s in the middle part of the day and the position of the sun in relation to you is not the best, any unwanted shadows will be really dark and distracting.
Overcast – Dark overcast days are not good for much as far as I’m concerned. Your chances of getting a keeper is reduced quite a bit. But if the overcast is thin and the sun’s rays are allowed to seep through, this can be an excellent time to photograph birds. Light is coming from virtually all directions so shadows are soft and become less of an issue. You also don’t need to be concerned as much with where the sun is because its rays are being diffused by these wonderful thin clouds. The light is less harsh and this is the time to shoot those birds that have white and/or black on them. One downside to the bright overcast though is that your water reflection will not be blue if reflecting the sky. Look for water that is not too wide and where green, yellow, or brown vegetation on the far shoreline is being reflected on the water where the duck (hopefully) is. You can capture stunning colorful waterfowl shots in this situation if all the variables line up for you.
Partly cloudy – this is really a mixture of the above two situations so it can be a good time to shoot. It can also put you to the test if you are using manual exposure mode!
Rain and Snow – some unique shots can be had in these conditions if adequate lighting is available. Just be sure you protect your equipment properly from moisture.
What to wear when shooting
Where I live in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, the coldest it gets during a normal winter is typically in the teens. This is warm compared to many locations where some of my online photographer friends shoot, such as Iceland and Canada. You’re the best judge of how to dress in your locale. But I’ll quickly touch on how I tackle the issue of clothing for shooting.
On cool winter mornings I will wear a couple layers of pants and about six layers of shirts and jackets, plus a stocking hat to protect the ears and head. Included in my six layers of jackets is what’s called a bug shirt that is made from tightly woven microfibers and areas of mesh for ventilation. It has a hood and a mesh face cover that zips open and closed. During Spring and Summer, when mosquitoes and other insects are prevalent, the bug shirt serves as a type of insurance policy against bites. If I enter an area, whether walking or driving, that has mosquitoes, I just zip up the face cover, which allows me to see through and actually continue to take shots. Granted, my vision is somewhat obscured by the face mesh but it is still possible to take shots. It beats getting eaten alive by bugs!
I also wear outdoor style short-fingered gloves which help a lot in keeping my hands warm. A warm stocking cap is good too, for covering ears. When I’m in driving mode, I’m not exercising my body which leaves me quite susceptible to cool winds blowing through the cab. So even with my truck heater on, it doesn’t help much when the wind is brisk. When I’m out walking the trail with my gear, I usually have to remove a layer or two of jackets because of the exercise I’m getting. So take this into consideration when deciding what you will be wearing on your photo shoots.
One other non-clothing item that is good to have either walking or driving is a pair of binoculars. I use mine mostly when I am approaching a bird from quite a distance and want to identify it before I decide whether I want to bother with a shot of it or not. If the bird happens to be a species I haven’t photographed yet, I’ll generally approach cautiously and try to get a shot, regardless of whether or not it’s going to be a top notch photo. I can add it to my life list and save the photo as a documentation of my spotting.