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Winter bird photography tips

Winter bird photography
Snowflakes fly around a Great Gray Owl in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. Photographer Marie Read used a shutter speed of 1/640 second to capture the falling snow. © Marie Read

When winter arrives, it’s tempting to leave your camera in its bag, cozy up to the woodstove, and leaf through travel catalogs for birding trips to the tropics! But don’t let the cold keep you indoors. Wintery weather — frost, ice, and especially snow — can result in unique and dramatic bird photos that transcend standard portraits. They reveal the bird’s experience of its world, evoking strong emotional reactions in the viewer. Plus, who can resist a bird with feathers all fluffed up against the cold?

However, winter bird photography can present challenges to you and your camera. Here are some things to consider before you head outdoors.

Say no to gray snow

Sparkling white snow gives a photo a magical quality, but when you include snow in the frame, you must take extra care with exposure. In-camera light meters base their exposure readings on the assumption that any scene is middle-toned. Of course, snow is much lighter than a mid-tone. If the frame contains more snow than bird, using the camera’s suggested exposure settings will produce an image with dingy gray snow and an underexposed bird. You need to add light to the camera’s suggestion to keep the snow white. A good rule of thumb is to increase exposure by 1 to 2 stops, although it’s easy to go too far and overexpose white areas. To check whether you’ve got exposure correct, try the following:

1: Turn on the camera’s highlight alert, nicknamed the “blinkies” (or “zebra” setting in Sony mirrorless cameras). This causes overexposed white tones to blink. Take test shots, increasing your exposure until faint blinkies appear, then back off a tad.

2: Alternatively, refer to the camera’s histogram display. Increase exposure, so the graph extends as far as possible to the right (indicating the brightest white areas) without touching the edge.

3: Consider your metering mode: Modes that base exposure readings on the entire frame (e.g., Canon’s “evaluative,” Nikon’s “matrix,” or Sony’s “multi”) will be heavily influenced by the amount of snow in the scene. Instead, use spot metering to meter just the bird for a more precise exposure reading.

Snowfall aesthetics 

A bird portrayed during a snowstorm evokes thoughts of survival, showing us the harsh conditions it must endure through the winter. Falling snowflakes show up best against dark surroundings, so, for optimal visual impact, position yourself with darker rather than lighter areas behind the bird.

The appearance of falling snow depends on a combination of how fast and heavily it is coming down and the camera’s shutter speed. To stop movement and show individual snowflakes, choose a fast shutter speed (1/1600 second, for instance). Flakes close to the focal plane of the bird now will be recognizable, while those in the background or foreground will appear as out-of-focus spheres.

In contrast, a slow shutter speed (such as 1/100 second) renders falling snowflakes as streaks; the slower the shutter speed, the longer the streak. I prefer the magical, artistic effect from fast shutter speeds, but streaked snow suggests movement, perhaps better showing the drama of the weather. Experiment with shutter speeds to get the effect you want.

A Northern Cardinal perches amid snowy branches in Freeville, New York. © Marie Read

Autofocus problems

During heavy snowfall, your camera may have trouble focusing, hunting back and forth and unable to lock onto the bird, particularly if the autofocus (AF) mode is set for continuous focusing (Canon’s AI Servo AF, Nikon’s and Sony’s AF-C). One reason is that falling snow reduces the contrast every camera needs for focus acquisition. Simultaneously, the AF system may be distracted by snowflakes constantly appearing in front of the subject.

To solve the problem, you need to override AF and manually tweak the focus until the bird appears sharp. In some cameras, you can simply turn the lens’ focus ring while holding the shutter button halfway down. In other models, a specific focus mode must be selected to enable manual override (for instance, Sony’s Direct Manual Focus mode). Another solution is to switch from continuous focusing to single-shot AF (Canon’s One Shot AF, Nikon’s and Sony’s AF-S), then manually adjust focus between shots.

A different, and somewhat perplexing, AF problem may arise when shooting through the open window of your vehicle. Beware of having the heater on full blast, especially in frigid temperatures. Heat shimmer can occur where the hot and cold air mix, confusing the AF system and resulting in noticeably soft shots. Turn the heater down or off, and keep your jacket and gloves on!

Keep photo gear functioning

Cold temperatures drain battery power faster than normal, particularly with mirrorless cameras due to their electronic viewfinders, but also when any digital camera’s live view function or movie mode is used heavily. The solution is to carry an extra set of fully charged camera batteries. Put them in an inside jacket pocket for warmth until they’re needed.

Glass surfaces easily fog up when going from cold to warm conditions, so cover lens glass tightly or put the camera/lens in your camera bag before returning to a warm car or house. Switch lenses or teleconverters only in the same temperature as you are shooting.

During precipitation, cover the camera and lens with a waterproof sleeve. Several brands are available in different sizes to fit various lenses, although a big plastic bag will work in a pinch. When not actively shooting, keep the lens angled down to prevent snow from collecting on the front element. Dry the lens glass with a clean lens cloth and wipe off the camera and lens barrel surfaces with a towel after shooting.

Keep the photographer functioning

To keep motivated and productive in cold weather, you need to be comfortable. Invest in insulated, water- and wind-proof jackets, pants, and footwear. Dress in layers you can remove if necessary, beginning with a moisture-wicking base layer. Heat escapes fastest from the head, feet, and hands, so don’t leave home without a warm hat, thick wool socks, and gloves. I prefer thin glove liners under thick outer gloves with finger flaps that fold back for easier shooting. To keep fingers nimble, carry air-activated hand-warmer packs in coat pockets. Some gloves have small pockets to accommodate them, too. Nothing improves motivation like food! Carry snacks and a water bottle to maintain energy and hydration — maybe a thermal cup with a hot drink, too.

Finally, spare a thought for your subject. As hard as winter is on us, for wild birds, the very act of survival can be a struggle. Help them conserve their vital energy by keeping a respectful distance while you photograph.

Embrace winter and get some great bird images!

A version of this article was published in the January/February 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

Also by Marie Read: An expert photographer’s advice on bird photography ethics

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Marie Read

Marie Read

Marie Read is an award-winning bird photographer and author. Her photos and articles have appeared in BirdWatching, Living Bird, Nature’s Best, and other magazines. Her latest book, Mastering Bird Photography: The Art, Craft and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior (Rocky Nook), was released in 2019.

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