Capturing Wildlife - Use of Best Light for Bird Feathers

When photographing birds, your goal should be to highlight the best features of that bird. Almost always, they are the feathers. This is likely the reason why we strive to capture birds in flight, after all, that is when their wing feathers are displayed in full view. What a stunning sight to see! When photographing birds in flight, there are a lot of things to keep in mind to successfully capture the bird, but for this blog, I will bring up one important tip – and that is to go for the banking shots.

What do I mean by this? First of all, when shooting birds, you want to keep the sun behind you. Early morning is very nice because the sun casts a warm light and this looks appealing on feathers. It is also when the angle of the sun is low enough that a bird flying overhead will be illuminated from below. If you’re not sure what I mean by this, think about the sun at midday when it is highest in the sky. As you view a bird flying overhead, the sun will shine down on the bird’s top side (the side you cannot see!), while the underside (the side you do see) is shadowed. If this makes sense to you, it should also make sense that photographing a bird in flight at midday results in less than ideal photographs.

This is why photographing birds is preferred during early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower and can cast a light on the underside of the bird. But to really take advantage of that good light, wait for the bird to bank or turn at an angle toward the sun. This could be when a bird is circling (vultures are experts at this) or when it is preparing to land. When birds land, they turn themselves almost vertically and use their wings as brakes. With the wings held up, the sunlight captures them quite nicely. It is best to have the bird facing the camera so you can capture a full view of the wing spread.

Below is one more shot with the bird’s wings pointing up. As this bird flies, its wings move up and down and while I had several shots in series, I captured this one with those feathers displayed fully in the best light.

FYI, all of these bird images were captured within Everglades National Park. If you want to learn more about how I photograph birds from my canoe, check out my YouTube video titled "Photographing Birds from a Boat".

If you are interested in learning more about bird photography, camera techniques or editing techniques, I offer individualized instructions in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at with any questions you may have.