Bruce’s Birdtography: Low Key Bird Photography


Great egret in breeding plumage. Photo by Bruce Wunderlich.

Low key bird photography, like high key, is a great way to add drama to your photos and create an instant piece of bird art.

Contrast is an essential part of low key photography. Here’s the scenario for a low key bird image: early morning or late afternoon with the sun on the horizon and a front-lit bird with a darker background, such as water or dense forestation. In these lighting conditions, your camera light meter, in an attempt to give the best exposure of the entire scene, may give you an image with the bird terribly overexposed or even blown out with no detail. But as we are photographing the bird, we need to expose for the bird.

The basic technique here is to illuminate your subject dramatically and to eliminate the background. To accomplish this exposure, you will need to concentrate the exposure on just the bird, which means underexpose the image by two or three stops of light. Check your highlight warning (blinkies) to make sure that none of the bird is overexposed. If you are familiar with using your camera’s histogram, this is also an excellent way to check that you have a low key image.

In low key bird photography, remember we are photographing birds and forgetting about the background. It may take a bit of experimenting, but it’s worth the effort.

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