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When winter arrives, it’s tempting to leave your camera in your bag, make yourself comfortable in front of the wood stove and leaf through travel catalogs for birding trips to the tropics! But don’t let the cold keep you inside. Winter weather – frost, ice and especially snow – can result in unique and spectacular bird photos that transcend standard portraits. They reveal the experience of the bird in its world, eliciting strong emotional responses from the viewer. Besides, who can resist a bird with puffy feathers against the cold?
However, winter bird photography can present challenges for you and your camera. Here are some things to consider before going outside.
Say no to gray snow
Sparkling white snow gives a photo a magical quality, but when including snow in the frame, you have to be very careful with exposure. In-camera light meters base their exposure readings on the assumption that any scene is midtone. Of course, the snow is much lighter than a medium tone. If there is more snow in the frame than a bird, using the exposure settings suggested by the camera will produce an image with dull gray snow and an underexposed bird. You need to add light to the camera suggestion to keep the snow white. A good rule of thumb is to increase the exposure by 1-2 stops, although it is easy to go too far and overexpose the white areas. To check if your exposure is correct, try the following:
1: Activate the camera’s highlight alert, nicknamed “blinkies” (or “zebra” setting in Sony mirrorless cameras). This causes overexposed white tones to flash. Take test shots, increasing your exposure until faint flickers appear, then step back a bit.
2: You can also refer to the camera histogram display. Increase the exposure so that the graphic extends as far to the right as possible (showing the brightest white areas) without touching the edge.
3: Consider your metering mode: Modes that base exposure readings on the entire frame (e.g. Canon’s “evaluative”, Nikon’s “matrix”, or Sony’s “multi”) will be heavily influenced by the amount of snow in the scene. Instead, use spot metering to meter just the bird for a more accurate exposure reading.
A bird depicted during a snowstorm evokes thoughts of survival, showing us the harsh conditions it must endure throughout the winter. Falling snowflakes appear better in a dark environment. Therefore, for the best visual impact, position yourself with darker rather than light areas behind the bird.
The appearance of falling snow depends on both the speed and intensity of its fall and the shutter speed of the camera. To stop motion and view individual snowflakes, choose a fast shutter speed (1/1600 second, for example). Flakes near the bird’s focal plane will now be recognizable, while those in the background or foreground will appear as blurred spheres.
In contrast, a slow shutter speed (eg 1/100 of a second) renders falling snowflakes as streaks; the slower the shutter speed, the longer the sequence. I prefer the magical, artistic effect of fast shutter speeds, but the streaks of snow suggest movement, perhaps showing the drama of the weather better. Experiment with shutter speeds to achieve the desired effect.
A northern cardinal perches amid snowy branches in Freeville, New York. © Mary Read
During heavy snowfall, your camera may have difficulty focusing, panning and locking onto the bird, especially if the autofocus mode (AF ) is set for continuous focusing (AI Servo AF from Canon, AF-C from Nikon and Sony). One reason is that snowfall reduces the contrast that each camera needs for focus acquisition. At the same time, the AF system can be distracted by snowflakes constantly appearing in front of the subject.
To fix the problem, you need to override the AF and manually adjust the focus until the bird appears in focus. In some cameras, you can simply turn the lens focus ring while holding the shutter button halfway. In other models, a specific focus mode must be selected to enable manual control (eg Sony’s direct manual focus mode). Another solution is to switch from continuous focus to point AF (One Shot AF from Canon, AF-S from Nikon and Sony) and then manually adjust the focus between shots.
A different, and somewhat confusing, AF issue can occur when shooting through your vehicle’s open window. Beware of leaving the heating on full blast, especially in freezing weather. Heat reflections can occur where hot and cold air mix, disrupting the AF system and resulting in noticeably soft shots. Lower or turn off the heating and keep your jacket and gloves on!
Maintain the operation of photo equipment
Cold temperatures drain the battery faster than normal, especially with mirrorless cameras due to their electronic viewfinders, but also when a digital camera’s live view function or video mode is heavily used . The solution is to carry an extra set of fully charged camera batteries. Put them in an inside jacket pocket to keep them warm until you need them.
Glass surfaces fog up easily when going from cold to warm, so cover the lens glass well or put the camera/lens in your camera bag before returning to a hot car or house. Change lenses or teleconverters only at the same temperature where you are shooting.
In case of precipitation, cover the camera and lens with a waterproof sleeve. Several brands are available in different sizes to suit different purposes, although a large plastic bag will do in a pinch. When not actively shooting, keep the lens tilted down to prevent snow from accumulating on the front element. Dry the lens glass with a clean cloth and wipe the surfaces of the camera and lens barrel with a towel after shooting.
Make the photographer work
To stay motivated and productive in cold weather, you need to be comfortable. Invest in insulated, waterproof and windproof jackets, pants and shoes. Dress in layers that you can remove if necessary, starting with a moisture-wicking base layer. Heat escapes faster through your head, feet and hands, so don’t leave the house without a warm hat, thick woolen socks and gloves. I prefer thin glove liners under thick outer gloves with finger flaps that fold over for easier shooting. To keep fingers nimble, carry air-activated hand warmers in coat pockets. Some gloves also have small pockets to accommodate them. Nothing improves motivation like food! Pack some snacks and a bottle of water to keep you energized and hydrated – maybe also an insulated mug with a hot drink.
Finally, think about your subject. As harsh as winter is, for wild birds, just surviving can be a struggle. Help them conserve their life energy by keeping a respectful distance while you shoot.
Embrace winter and get awesome bird pictures!
A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
Also by Marie Read: Advice from an expert photographer on the ethics of bird photography