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Photographing white birds, such as great or snowy egrets, is an issue that has plagued many photographers for a long time. Until it clicks. As with most difficult shooting situations, getting the whites just right so the details are not blown out, the whites are white, and a bit of contrast is still there is something that takes a bit of work. But, once the technique and thought process is learned, the success rate of capturing good shots of white birds is a lot easier.

Getting details in the whites and not over-exposing them is always a big issue. No matter how long you've been photographing birds, this is an issue that always rears its ugly head because lighting conditions are always changing and the setting that was right one moment might not be right the next. Know this, photographing white birds is a challenge.

The first thing to realize about trying to get the proper exposure of a white bird is that the meter in the camera is not going to get it right in most settings. The camera tries to set a proper meter reading of 18% gray, neutral in tone. Thus, fully relying on letting the meter set the exposure will cause a white bird to appear gray. When using the tried and true rule of exposure compensation for white subjects of +1 or more, the result is a washed out bird with no detail and little hope of recovery in post processing. If shooting in RAW, images can be taken based on the meter reading and then corrected later, but it's always best to get it right the first time.

worm wrapped around bill of great egret
ISO 400, f/7.1 to carry depth through head and bill, 1/2000, +1/3, Center Weighted, Cloudy to pop color of the eye and beak

reddish egret with a meal
Notice the histogram with just data into the highlights area but not too close to the edge where clipping would occur with no detail in the feathers.
The center area is very heavy because of the very neutral background and there is more of it than of the whites.

There are almost as many thoughts on how to properly expose for white birds as there are people who lead photo workshops to Florida where there is an abundance of white birds. While all of these ways have their pluses and minuses, depending on the level of the person being taught, some things always hold true. One is that the histogram does not lie. Looking at a resulting image on the LCD can be misleading, but seeing what the histogram looks like shows where the distribution of pixels are for any given shot.

One person may teach that shooting in Manual mode is best and to take a reading off of the sky, water or other neutral frame filling subject and working compensation from there is best. Another might say spot metering is best and to take a reading off the bird and then use a set of guides depending on if it's bright sun, overcast or dark background to make adjustments. And yet a third may say Aperture Priority, Center-Weighted and +2/3.

All of these work. But looking at the histogram as conditions and light direction changes is a great way to go about getting a proper exposure of a white bird. I tend to go with starting off at +2/3 EV so the whites are rendered as white. Remember, the meter in the camera is trying to make everything 18% gray so you have to add a little bit of light to make the whites white.

The first thing I talk about with trip participants is where to get the histogram situated for white subjects. Cameras have a 4 or 5-part histograms depending on the manufacturer and the camera model. Where you want the histogram to be is to have data (pixels) getting into the far right section in a tapering effect. There are some situations where a spike on the right works when there's a white bird against a dark background, but normally just some pixel data getting into the highlights area works best.

As with everything in photography, there are exceptions to the rule. Realize the more the bird fills the frame the more pixels there will be in that far right histogram section. Just make sure they are just partially into it and not close to the far right edge. Keeping them just into the right section allows for enough detail in the feathers so the subtleties of the bird are evident in the final image.

For different lighting conditions the camera settings can vary. Some thin clouds covering the sun can be the best lighting to hope for with white birds. The softer lighting helps the details and softness in the whites. Very hard sun that's a good bit over the horizon will make the whites harsher and a bit tougher to get a proper exposure. It can be done but taking a shot, checking the histogram and changing the exposure compensation needs to be done. When at a location where mostly white birds are being shot, make sure to check the histogram on occasion to make sure it looks good.

great egret in dramatic side light
ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/2000, 0 EV, Evaluative, -1 because so much darkness but good light on egret

purple finch
Good balance to the whites on the highlight side as they are not too near clipping but in the last section

great egret preening display
ISO 500, f/5, 1/3200, 0 EV, Evaluative - tried +1/3 but clipped a tiny bit and brought it down 1/3 stop
purple finch
Histogram i nto the right section with nice balance but not too far right
Heavy left from shadows, nest material and dark foliage
great egret wing stretch
ISO 640, f/7.1, 1/2000, 0 EV to bring attention to backlighting and not the bird
redpoll landing on spruce
Notice how the histogram tapers down. Because of wanting a strong backlight it was okay to be close to the edge but not clipping.

Given a set light condition, I will take several shots in different situations and fine tune the EV and keep that in my mind and use that as I move from subject to subject. One could be a bird in a nest where the bird fills three-quarter or more of the frame, one where the bird is smaller in the frame, and one in flight with different light conditions. Once I have these EVs in mind, I can then concentrate on shooting and not worry too much about continually checking the histogram. If the light conditions change from direct sun to thin or heavier clouds, I'll repeat the process. After doing this enough you learn what the exposures should be and start there and know where to go as the light changes.

When doing something special such as backlighting through wings, other settings are called for. To help highlight the backlighting, I'll tone down the EV to 0 to help darken the bird a bit to help highlight the backlighting. While the bird may turn out to be a bit gray, the emphasis on the strong light coming through the wings is still white and what pulls the viewers eye in. Remember - expose for the highlights and let the rest of the image fall into place.

When the sun is quite strong on the bird and there is a fairly dark background, I have even switched to a center-weighted metering and used a -1/3 EV to help tone down and hot spots on the bird. Everything depends on how bright the sun is that's hitting the bird. Yes, white birds can be tricky and there is not just one setting that can be used to get it right, but with studying the histogram, or turning on highlight warnings, will help with obtaining the best exposure possible.