Let's Talk About Light
Dec 9, 2016 - You probably know by now that I prefer to shoot when it is overcast and don't go out on bright, sunny blue-sky days. I have heard time and again nature photographers say they have been taught to avoid cloudy days as their "camera doesn't do well in low light" or "low ISOs are the only way to shoot" or "anything above ISO 400 is too noisy" other Rules That Must Not Be Broken. And then there are a few that have been brave and tried low-light days and found themselves pleasantly surprised.
So, what is the big deal? Are there advantages to an overcast day? Why isn't a beautiful sunny day the best for wildlife photography? Let's look at some examples while we explore the issues. I tried to find the same bird in a similar environment to make the comparison easier.
Here is a lovely Long-Billed Curlew high-stepping across a lawn in Surfside looking for crickets and other tasty bugs. It was bright overcast, and the light was slightly behind the bird. The shadows on his breast are soft and the feather detail is good. Nice upraised foot with no dark shadows on the legs or on the ground. The bird is evenly illuminated; there are no dark shadows to obscure details. That is the beauty of bright overcast light; you can really shoot in any direction.
I was using a reasonably high ISO considering the overcast to allow for a good depth of field (that bill is really really long and you want it in focus should he turn straight toward you), and a fast shutter speed for unexpected actions.
Oh, wow. This is painful to look at. How many things are wrong with this photo? The light is harsh and almost overhead. Look at that dark shadow on his body from his head. The top of his head and front leg is washed out, there is a grass twig blocking his leg and it was shot from an awkward angle from the truck window. Birds never look good when you shoot down on them. The grass even looks bleached and harsh.
But, he does have a bug.
Lower ISOs and/or higher f/stops will do nothing about the dark shadows. When shooting in this kind of bright light, the best you can do is try to get the light behind you, not the bird. Move if you can or at least get down lower so the shadows from the head or bill aren't as prominent. Wait for the bird to turn his head to minimize the shadows on his body. Wait until the sun is lower on the horizon. Hope for a cloud.
The image above is such a heart breaker. This was taken last July, mid-afternoon somewhere in the marshes around Surfside. I am pretty sure we had set up with tripods and crates and were praying for a cloud. I have other images of the Clapper Rail female coming out and bathing, mostly she is turned away from us. Fluffing and preening and then this male came out of the reeds and mounted her. Lots of action, but look: his face and head is in the shadows, and the horrible dark shadows his body makes on her. Even the water looks too bright and shiny. I can only look at it for documentary purposes.
It hurts my eyes.
Here are mating Clapper Rails in low light. This one I remember so well. We were set up at the edge of a pond at Surfside and the Clapper Rails were getting closer than ever before. When they started to mate, we were in shock. Because they were at the edge of the reeds in the darkest part of the pond, I shot this at ISO 1600 which is about the limit for my Sony A77II. Your mileage may vary with the higher ISOs, but in this image the water doesn't compete for interest, there are no distracting shadows across their bodies and russet feathers and orange mouths draw your eye to the action.
This kind of image is low contrast; most of the tones are very similar. It might need a bit more contrast in post-production, but it has a lot of drama and very little noise. It portrays a hidden glimpse of their world that bright, harsh light would have disturbed.
On another overcast day I was standing next to the road and this Green Heron was creeping along the edge of the water. Bill had moved down to the edge of the canal in the mud and set up but I think there were a bunch of rocks I didn't want to navigate. So, I am not eye level but slightly above. With Green Herons you can manage a slower shutter speed as they don't do anything fast - except plunge in the water for a fish! But if he is just moving and not fishing you can even go slower than the 1/1000 sec I used above.
The image above was taken at ISO 1250 with no post-processing noise reduction applied. That is always the argument with higher ISOs, that they will be too noisy in the darker parts of the image. Yes, if you underexpose the image I suppose that could be true. Shooting in low light it is better to Expose to the Right as you can recover detail better in the lighter areas than the dark.
The light direction and time of day can affect your photos, plus reflected light from water. This image is almost backlit; the light was bright and behind the bird. It is a very young Green Heron we surprised next to the Auto Tour Rd at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. He was so close I could do nothing but shoot down on him from the passenger side. I couldn't get out of the truck; he was right there. Not too bad of an image really, but his wet head looks almost reflective from the glare. And the water is awfully... flat. I hate those bright, reflective spots on the water and usually Photoshop them out, but I wanted you to see what you get with bright light.
He moved around and finally got in a position where there were no major shadows on his body. The water helped reflect some light back on his legs and there isn't enough to show glare. This image looks pretty decent for being taken in bright light. Often the %$&# weather forecasts (fake news) are wrong, and a cloudy day will morph into the dreaded Blinding Sunstorm™. In that case, I do go ahead and try to make the best of it. Keep the sun behind you if you can, wait until the bird moves to minimize the shadows and as I said before, pray for a cloud.
But, all in all, I prefer overcast days. You can shoot in any direction, you don't have to worry about clipping white areas. Water looks better and is not full of reflective glare. Wings, bills, branches and structures don't cast black shadows on your subject. Black shadows or blown white areas have no feather detail.
How do you think this Reddish Egret would have looked if it had been a brilliant blue-sky cloudless day? What if his head and bill were all in dark shadow cast by his lovely wing? What if the water was a bright mirror with a big, black blotch under the bird? Would it have made a good image?
Now, these are my opinions and preferences of how I do things. I have seen a lot of nice bird photos shot in bright sunlight and I am not saying it isn't possible. But, I have seen a lot more not-so-good photos taken in harsh light with blown whites and deep shadows devoid of detail. Overcast light allows you to shoot in any direction, to not worry about shadows or clipping the whites. You have to know how much depth of field you need and the trade off is sometimes a slower shutter speed. But, you can accomplish a lot at 1/1000 sec or even slower. Of course, you can use shadows to create drama and some fantastic photos, but that is a different discussion.
So, next time we have a cloudy day, don't write it off as a non-starter. Go out and take some photos at higher ISOs than you are accustomed to and see what you think. You might be surprised.
Too technical or not enough? Do you want to know more about Exposing to the Right or clipping or .... histograms and blinkies? Let me know what you think of these photography tips in the comments.