Preserving Highlights

Preserving Highlights whilst Shooting in the Midday Sun

Sandwich Terns and Gulls at Cemlyn Bay

I was recently out shooting at Cemlyn Bay and Lagoon on Isle of Anglesey. This area is famous for its Sandwich Terns and I’d popped along with a view to taking a few Tern and Gull images. The day we picked to go was bright and sunny, and we were there late morning, all of which was less than ideal. When I’m shooting wild birds in flight, I always spend a few moments working out the correct exposure, because I cannot stand reviewing my images to find blown-out highlights. Getting a good general exposure that encompasses preserving highlights, without unnecessarily under-exposing the rest of the shot (in other words shooting to the right) can be crucial to ensure a reasonable result when the birds are flying in and out of various lighting conditions.

The Aperture Priority versus Manual Exposure Shooting

Many, perhaps most, wildlife photographers shoot aperture priority and use exposure compensation. I have found that, although I have a fair idea what my D4 might think is a correct exposure, and therefore what exposure compensation I might need to dial in, in a range of circumstances, this method is completely impractical for judging exposure when photographing birds in flight. The reasons for this include:

  • The relative size of the bird in the frame changes as you track it.
  • The colour and brightness of the background may change.
  • The lighting on the bird may change as it flies under cloud, landscape or building shadows.
  • The position and brightness of the highlights on the bird may change.

All of these factors make preserving highlights particularly tricky as you need to make very complex judgements, at high speed, whilst also trying to keep the bird in the frame. You are effectively fighting the camera in this situation and there is just, for me anyway, too much to do at the same time.

Setting up for Manual Exposure Shooting

This is my process for preserving highlights. Firstly I find an area of mid-tone, usually a patch of grassy field, then with my camera set to manual exposure I zero the meter in the viewfinder and take a test shot. Clearly if the subject will be in the sunshine, your base exposure should be set using a grassy field that is also lit by sunshine. If  there is no mid-tone available you could also just take test shots of your subject instead, but this will take you longer.

The chances are that, if shooting a white gull for instance, even having taken a good base reading, there will still be some blown highlights if the bird is in the bright sunshine. This being the case, I adjust my shutter speed (upwards) or ISO (downwards) until they are gone. Usually, with my bird photography, I will be using my 600mm at f4 and looking for at least 1000th, preferably 1600th-2000th, second to freeze the wing tips.

In and Out of Sunshine

In the situation where there is a major shadow in the overall scene, and the birds are moving in and out of that shadow, you can take additional test shots to establish the exposure for that too. Again, according to circumstances, you might use a decrease in shutter speed or, more likely, an increase in ISO. Once you have established the settings for the shaded area it is easier, using the in-viewfinder information, to alter the exposure by the exact amount needed during actual shooting. Equally, if you were shooting at f8 in the sunshine for example, you could open up the aperture instead using the same method, though this will change your depth of field.

Shooting in Overcast Weather

Preserving highlights in overcast weather may be more straightforward in the softer light. Nevertheless when shooting in overcast weather, it is still sometimes the case that you take a base exposure and still get a small amount of apparent highlight clipping. If you have been shooting raw files this is easily retrieved in post production. It is up to you whether you take this chance or not, but my advice would be that, in this situation, you don’t delete any shots because of the blinkies as they may well be salvageable. For myself, I would still try and find an exposure to preserve the highlights if possible.

 Cemlyn Bay Shoot