Freezing cold temperatures. Bright white snow that can wash out photos. Or in areas that don’t get snow, no color at all—just a dull brown everywhere. It can be difficult for bird photographers to find the motivation to get out in winter.
However, winter also offers some great opportunities that aren’t available in other seasons. Different migratory birds show up in many areas, species that aren’t around in spring through fall. Generally, there are fewer people outside. With a bit of planning, the willingness to push yourself a bit, lots of warm layers—and a few winter bird photography tricks—you can be rewarded by making some incredibly unique and creative photos of your local birds in winter.
When bundling up, don’t forget your equipment can get cold too
Your camera may not be capable of getting frostbite, but the cold can quickly drain your batteries—which will end your outing regardless of how good the birds are. Keeping your photography gear going is a key issue in cold winter photography. Be sure to bring extra camera batteries and store them in an inside jacket pocket close to your body; your body heat will keep a spare battery charged longer. You may even find that placing a depleted cold battery in your pocket can give it a few minutes of extra life after it warms up.
Moving between cold outdoor temps and the warm indoors presents the possibility of your camera lens fogging up, or even frosting over, so be sure to acclimate your gear. That means don’t blast the heat in your car on the way out to photograph birds; better yet, keep your gear in the trunk. The same goes if you are stepping inside to take a break and warm up, but you plan to return to the cold shortly after. Plan ahead and give your gear time to slowly change temperatures going inside and outside, and you can mostly avoid a fogged or frosted lens.
Embrace the white; snow is your friend
In many areas winter brings snow-covered ground, which means you could be shooting photos in an almost all-white scene that can be tough on your camera’s light meter. Basically, your camera will be trying to get all the white snow exposed correctly, which often results in an underexposed and dark bird in your photo.
Thankfully, there are a few easy ways to correct this:
- If you are using auto ISO, then exposure compensation is your friend. Dial in some positive exposure compensation to tell your camera to lighten the overall photo. Look for the +/- button on your camera and try starting with 1 stop in the + direction, check your photo, and if your subject is still dark then increase the exposure compensation a bit more. If you are comfortable with using full manual exposure, then you will want to adjust your settings so the camera’s internal meter is showing roughly 1 stop lighter than neutral.
- The more snow you include in your photo, the lighter the overall image will be, so it may require more positive exposure compensation (more clicks in the + direction) to get your bird exposed just right, especially if it is a dark bird. The one benefit of all that snow is that it can act as a reflector, filling in dark shadows and allowing you to shoot in stronger sunlight than you would without snow.
- As always in photography, quality light is important. When photographing birds in the snow, shooting in midday harsh sunlight is likely going to look just as bad as it will on a warm summer day. Try your best to photograph birds in the early-morning and late-evening sun to get that beautiful golden glow on the bird.
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