Rainbow Bee-eater photographed at 1770, QLD with a Canon 7D & EF400 5.6L
Rainbow Bee-eater photographed at 1770, QLD with a Canon 7D & EF400 5.6L

“Try to only shoot a few hours after sunrise and before sunset.”

“Sweet Light” a comment used frequently when critiquing bird photos. I will try to explain what sweet light is and why it is so important. One of the best pieces of advice I was given by a talented bird photographer was. “Try to only shoot a few hours after sunrise and before sunset.” By doing this you are shooting in the best light. The best light is light that is even, soft and warm.

Australisian Grebe
Australisian Grebe in “Sweet Light” taken within 30 minutes of sunrise at Mill Parkes Ponds, Victoria – Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review
Jacky Winter photographed within an hour of sunrise at Worrigee, NSW – Canon 5D MKIII & Canon 500 F4 IS II

I believe there are three stages of good light both morning and afternoon. Those being Sunrise/Sunset, Golden Glow and Detail Enhancer. During summer the time period of these three stages is shorter, probably around 2 hours after sunrise and 3 hours before sunset. In winter the days are shorter and the sun seems to be less harsh. I usually shoot up to about 10-11am and start again around 2.30-3pm. It should be noted this is in direct sunlight with no clouds. When it is overcast you can often shoot all day using  flash/Positive Exp however the best results I believe are with natural light.

Stage 1: Sunrise/Sunset

This stage is when the Sun is still below the horizon but casting a warm red glow on the earth.  The problem with this stage is there is very little light hitting the sensor which means you require very high ISO settings to get a useable shutter speed. I have seen several great examples in this period from the 1DX2, 5Dmk4, D850 and D500. Unfortunately older cameras such as the 7D struggle in this stage and images seem to lack detail possibly due to the ISO setting.

Crested Tern
Crested Tern shot during the Sunset Stage at Lake Woolumboola, NSW – 7D, 400 5.6L @ 1/800 7.1 ISO800 +0.7exp – Read my EF400 5.6 Review
Black-winged Stilt at sunrise-Lake Wollumboola, NSW – Canon 5D MKIII & Canon 500 F4 IS II

Stage 2: Golden Glow

My favourite stage is Golden Glow, this period lasts nearly and hour after sunrise and an hour and before sunset. The Sun produces a warm glow throwing beautiful reflections on the earth. The water takes on amazing red, orange and yellow colours. You can also get nice coloured backgrounds of perched birds as the trees and grass also inherit the warm colours. With waterfowl you should try and find a location that has nice reflections such as reeds or a nice tree in Autumn etc. This will be reflected on the water and if you get low the results are often amazing. I usually shoot at ISO800 and dial in 2/3 of positive exposure compensation.

Chestnut Teal photographed in late afternoon at South Nowra, NSW – Canon 5D MKIII & Canon 500 F4 IS II
NZ Scaup photographed during last light in Christchurch, NZ – Canon 5D MKIV & Canon 500 F4 IS II
Red-backed Fairy-Wren photographed at 1770, QLD on a Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

Stage 3: Detail Enhancer

This stage is when the golden glow has finished and the light is bright and even but not too high to be harsh. During this stage there is ample light for high shutter speeds and low ISO often resulting in high IQ shots. I don’t mind this period and depending on the location and bird you can often shoot for a few hours. I generally use ISO400 and an aperture around 7.1. Just remember to dial back the exposure compensation as the light gets brighter so you don’t blow the whites.

Beach Stone Curlew – Shot an hour or two before sunset. – Orient Point, NSW – Canon 7D & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review
Australian Pied Oystercatcher photographed in morning light at Shoalhaven Heads, NSW – Canon 5D MKIV & Canon 500 F4 IS II
Little Tern - Shot a few hours after Sunrise - Shoalhaven Heads, NSW - 7D, 400 5.6L @ 1/1600 8 ISO200
Little Tern – Shot a few hours after Sunrise – Shoalhaven Heads, NSW – 7D, 400 5.6L @ 1/1600 8 ISO200 – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

Overcast/Shadow Light

Whilst sweet light is preferred for many species, overcast conditions offer nice diffused even light. Many bush birds are difficult to photograph in direct sunlight as the shadows caused by the sun can make getting even backgrounds difficult to achieve.

Many people will use a flash in these conditions to lift the shadows and provide some fill light on the front of the bird. I prefer to shoot without a flash and use post processing to adjust shadows. The newer cameras allow us the benefit of shooting with high ISO whilst maintaining detail. The image below of a Rainbow Lorikeet was shot in shadow at ISO3200 with a Canon 5D Mark IV.

Rainbow Lorikeet photographed at ISO3200 with a  Canon 5DMKIV & Canon 400 5.6L – Read my EF400 5.6 Review
Golden Whistler photographed in a rainforest at ISO3200 with a Canon 5D MKIII & Canon 500 F4 IS II

Harsh Light

The opposite to sweet light is harsh light. Harsh light is when the sun is high, bright and harsh. It has a tendency to blow out whites, cast heavy shadows and make images flat. Here is an example.

-Chestnut Teal shout at 2pm.
Notice how the whites are bright, there are heavy shadows and the image is washed out. Overall a very poor image and one I should have deleted but was one of my very first bird photos taken 🙂

Chestnut Teal
Chestnut Teal

-Chestnut Teal shot during the “Golden Glow” stage.

Chestnut Teal
Chestnut Teal – Shot just after sunrise – Caroline Springs, VIC –  7D, 400 5.6L @ 1/1250 6.3 ISO800 +0.3exp – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

This image highlights everything good about sweet light. The image is warm, the light is even over the bird with no heavy shadows. The water has inherited a beautiful colour from the reflections of the reeds. Overall a very pleasing image that would have been fairly standard if shot at say 11am.

Another example of harsh light was this Pacific Black Duck shot taken during the same session as the first Chestnut Teal shot. Again it is flat with harsh shadows and bright spots and should have been deleted 🙂

Pacific Black Duck
Pacific Black Duck

Pacific Black Duck shot during the “Golden Glow” stage.

Pacific Black Duck
Pacific Black Duck Shot just after sunrise – Caroline Springs, VIC – 7D, 400 5.6L @ 1/2000 6.3 ISO800 +0.3exp – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

The sweet light has created nice warm colours in the water and background. The bird has even light over its length with plenty of detail.

I recently visited Booderee National Park looking for the endangered Eastern Bristlebird. I have seen this bird before but it can be difficult to get clear shots. I was lucky when a bird appeared on some rocks in the open. It was around 11am and the sun was hot, high and harsh. The resulting image as you can imagine was poor with a bright rock and heavy shadows on the breast of the bird.

Eastern Bristlebird
Eastern Bristlebird – Booderee National Park, NSW

I returned the following two mornings and shot during the “Golden Glow” stage. I managed to get this image which I was very happy with. When you compare the two images both taken with the same camera and lens by the same photographer in the same location. The only real difference is the light.

Eastern Bristlebird
Eastern Bristlebird – Booderee National Park, NSW – 7D, 400 5.6L @ 1/1000 6.3 ISO800 +0.3exp – Read my EF400 5.6 Review

In summary the best time for photographing birds is early morning and late afternoon. During this time the light is soft and warm creating appealing images. I hope this tutorial helps those new to bird photography. Cheers, Duade.

Photographic Gear Used

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Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

6 comments

  1. great info Duade, it will definately help out with my next shoot, by the way, love your bristlebird pic, it speaks pure awesome

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