Mastering Exposure - White Birds by Joe Fitzpatrick

Peggy Farren 2013-03-07

Here in Florida we have an abundance of white birds. Getting the proper exposure for a white Heron, Egret or Ibis means getting to know how your camera thinks. Using Matrix or Evaluative metering usually results in disaster. If the background is dark the bird may be grossly overexposed. When the background is bright, a beach for example, the bird may be rendered as a dirty gray. Ok, so just dial in some compensation since you know this will be the case, right? Unfortunately, with Matrix / Evaluative metering you never know for sure what the camera has decided so the results can be inconsistent.

matrix-evaluative overexposes bird

Bright background
Bright background

Medium Background
Medium Background

Dark Background
Dark Background

To get a good exposure of white birds I recommend that you use spot metering. This eliminates the guess work of what the camera is metering. Put the metering spot on the bird and take a reading.

If the bird is front lit try increasing the exposure by about a stop for your first shot. If you are shooting in the Manual mode, merely adjust exposure so the meter is on the plus side by the desired amount. If you are shooting in an automatic mode, apply positive exposure compensation of a stop or so. Then check the results with the camera's histogram display and highlight over exposure warning (blinkies) and make further adjustments, being careful not to overexpose the brightest parts of the bird.

Front Lit
Front Lit

Blinkies_demo

Blinkies_demo

A side or back lit bird presents a greater challenge but can result in a more interesting image. It is very important to retain detail in the brightest areas of the bird.

To accomplish this you will likely need to leave the exposure as suggested by the camera's meter or underexpose, often by a stop or more. After your first shot, check the histogram and blinkies and make further adjustments if needed. Keeping the edges of a back lit white bird from blowing out will result in a mostly gray bird. You will then need to lighten the shadow areas of the bird in post processing.

Back lit
Back lit

Back lit 2
Back lit 2

Canon's Highlight Tone Priority and Nikon's Active D-Lighting options attempt to prevent highlight overexposure. Neither option works particularly well with white birds. These options underexpose every image by a stop and then boost the highlights. This results in increased noise as well as a lower frames per second rate in continuous shooting modes. Adjusting the image in post processing gives greater control and less drawbacks.

The more you shoot, the easier it will be for you to decide on the exposure compensation needed for your initial exposure. Remember, no one gets it right every time.

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