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Exposure for birds

Jeffrey Nadler , May 29, 2002; 09:08 p.m.

After shooting a dozen rolls of bird images with my new EOS 3, I am fairly frustrated of not mastering the ability to judge exposure compensation needs. Based on Art Morris's book, I've only used evaluative metering thus far and not spot. When the sky is overcast, all of my bird images are dark and underexposed. With any sun at all, the whites are blown out. Obviously, I better start applying +/- exposure comp and I incorrectly assumed evaluative would do a fair job. Is the obvious answer to spot meter birds more often or compensate every single shot?


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Mark Ci , May 29, 2002; 10:10 p.m.

Have you been following the recommendations in the book for compensation in various conditions, or are you simply following the recommendation to use evaluative metering?

If you want to continue using evaluative metering and Art's methods, you may want to look into the little laminated pocket guide he sells on his web site, www.birdsasart.com. I'm currently trying to decide whether to switch over to digital completely. If I decide to stay with film for a while, I'll definitely order a copy.

Spot obviously works for a lot of people too - you just need to pick one and practice.

robert potts , May 29, 2002; 11:00 p.m.

A spot meter works if you choose the right spot to meter. On the other hand, if you can spot the spot to spot meter, it is pretty easy to compensate in the proper direction. There isn't much point in metering the sky if you are photographing a critter. You may be able to avoid gross under-exposure by metering on foliage or something else middle-toned. Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between a white bird and a black one or even a dull bird vs. a bright one. Also backgrounds can throw readings far off. Hard light is much harder to meter than soft. Spot metering is probably best if you have time to fool with it. If averaging, you may wish to underexpose a bit to avoid blown out highlights. Your judgement will improve with practice.

Bob Atkins , May 29, 2002; 11:05 p.m.

Exposure is easy. What I do is to use spot metering and manual exposure mode. Spot meter on the bird and decide whether you want it to be midtone (e.g. great blue heron), dark (e.g. raven) or white (e.g. Egret).

For mid tone birds adjust exposure to give the "correct" reading.

For white birds adjust exposure for 2 stops over the mid tone reading.

Art may recommend using evaluative metering and applying compensation based on subject size, color and lighting conditions. By all accounts this works well for him and others. I prefer spot metering, that way I don't need to second guess at what evaluative metering is doing and if it has already applied compensation (and if so how much!).

For dark birds adjust exposure for 1 stop under the mid tone reading.

Great Egret

David Goldfarb , May 30, 2002; 12:17 a.m.

I spot meter in pretty much the same way Bob Atkins just described. Verify with your own system and film how much to compensate to achieve a bright white or a black with detail or something in the middle, but the basic principles are just as described.

Alan Woolnough , May 30, 2002; 03:01 a.m.

Hi Jeffrey,

This is a big question, and i think it depends of which type of bird photography you do.

I can only speak for myself, as someone who concentrates on hide photography exclusivly.

As i only have the area in front of my hide, to worry about, i have found incident metering ideal. As i am mainly photographing small waders, from close range, the action is often fast & furious, and i am not sure that a spot reading would be a better option for me.

I usually take a reading before entering the hide, and then during the day, when i get a chance. Ive been doing it this way for many years now, so im able to make small adjustments as and when required.

Ive rarely had any problems with contrast etc, because the distance i am photographing from is within either, full, or fill in flash distance, if it becomes necessary.

In a nutshell, i think incident, spot, and reflected metering all have their pros and cons. I think is is worth getting as much advice as possible, making your choice, and sticking to it. Any cons in the above metering systems are soon overcome with experience.


Vesa Perala , May 30, 2002; 03:35 a.m.

I tried evaluative in the beginning with EOS-3 but since I was used to have more control and predictability I soon switched to partial metering with AE lock which is perfect for my needs. Partial is faster than spot to use for me (in fast changing situations) because I don't need to select the metering point too carefully:

1) I just spot a smallish area which in my opinion is similar to mid-gray (in average) and meter there.

2) I use AE lock on shutter button (and AF on thumb button) so I can reframe as soon as I have the exposure locked.

3) The great feature in EOS-3 and 1V (and in 1D but unfortunately not in D60) is that after I have locked the exposure I can easily see from the exposure scale in the viewfinder (+- 3 stops) how much the area which I'm currently pointing at is under/over-exposing.

4) If necessary (not very often) I will use exposure compensation in addition to above. If the lighting on the target is changing and the target is not mid-gray I set exposure compensation and re-meter when necessary without need for continuous reframing.

5) Very seldom I do like this: I set camera to continuous evaluative metering (no AE lock) and continuous AF on the shutter button. I also set the AF point to something else but mid-point in order to have best framing which I keep constant all the time. As soon as the target arrives I just press the shutter release halfway and take a photo when I want. This is easiest to master because I only use the shutter button and re-framing is not needed in any case. But most of the time I don't use this because 1) I want individual AF start/stop control, 2) I try to avoid messing with exposure correction 3) I don't like the unpredictability of the evaluative metering.

I have used this method (points 1-3 above) basicly since 1976 when I got the Canon FTbN (with manual exposure) and later with T70 and T90 and EOSes (with AE lock). If you can estimate the average lightness or "mid-gray" quickly it is quite a fast method.


Gary Voth , May 30, 2002; 03:49 a.m.

With Canon evaluative metering, exposure is biased to the active focusing point. You did not say what kind of focus you were using, but your exposures might vary depending on this.

Re. spot metering, everything Bob said is true. You should also be aware that you don't have to meter every shot. This is a basic advantage of manual exposure. Spot metering is like incident metering in that you don't have to take a separate reading for each subject you are photographing.

If the lighting is not changing, you can meter anything of known reflectance, including the back of your hand. Just open up or close down by the proper amount and you will have derived a basic exposure for all subjects under the current lighting conditions.

If you are trying to retain values in a white bird, you may want to close down a third to half stop over your basic reading, or do the opposite with a black bird, but your basic expsure should be the same as with incident metering.

Gary Voth , May 30, 2002; 03:52 a.m.

Also, like Vesa, I often use the partial metering pattern instead of the fine spot because I find that I need to be less discriminating in selecting a place to meter, particularly if the scene contains specular highlights.

However, the same methods and benefits apply.

Vesa Perala , May 30, 2002; 04:45 a.m.

Gary said:

"Re. spot metering, everything Bob said is true. You should also be aware that you don't have to meter every shot. This is a basic advantage of manual exposure. Spot metering is like incident metering in that you don't have to take a separate reading for each subject you are photographing."

I also find manual exposure metering useful, e.g. in hide/blind work (which I seldom do) but if you are taking shots "all the time" exposure lock on shutter release button does the same and it is faster (to set the exposure). The disadvantage is that you need to keep the shutter button halfway (or full) pressed all the time or otherwise you will loose the exposure setting.


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