How to Photograph Birds in Low Light

If you are a bird photographer, most likely you can attest to waking up at the crack of dawn to capture birds when their activity is sure to be at its highest. Most wildlife photographers know activity levels usually spike at dawn or dusk. It is during those times, when photographers are faced with photographing birds in low light conditions. 

riley cunningham photo of ducks in low light

Photo Credit: Riley Cunningham | Settings: 50mm, F5.6, 1/160 s, ISO 800

To photograph birds in low light, photographers have a few options. These options include either working with the light available or using flash. The latter option has been somewhat controversial so we will start there.

Using Flash in Bird Photography

Using flash in bird photography tends to have its drawbacks. For starters, using a flash requires additional batteries. Most of the time, the weather can play a factor in the overall performance of the equipment due to the chemical reactions in the batteries. If it's cold, you'll find a lower performance.

In addition, the reason why using flash while photographing birds is so debatable is that the flash can alter the bird's behavior and potentially cause distress. It also would give you less of a chance to get the shot since you would only have one chance before the bird was spooked and changed its location. To put it briefly, using flash is known to be less successful and potentially harmful.

Using Camera Settings to Compensate for the Light Available

If you are not using flash, then you'll have to make do with the light you have. This is where utilizing manual exposure and pushing your camera's capabilities to the max will come in handy. Photographers can add light in three ways—using a wider aperture, a slower shutter speed, or a higher ISO setting. Finding the optimal exposure without gaining any significant consequences is key.

Use a Wide Aperture

When it comes to low light photography, to let in the most light, shoot at the widest possible aperture. One thing to keep in mind is in terms of lenses, the wider the aperture the higher the price. When photographing birds, your typical focal length will be anywhere between 200-600mm.

If you are using a telephoto lens higher than 200mm with an aperture of F2.8, you are looking at a cost of at least $6,000-$12,000. Manufacturers haven't made a super-telephoto lens with a lower aperture than F2.8 because (a) it would be too expensive and (b) it would be impractical to carry a lens that large. A budget zoom lens typically has an aperture of F5.6 or higher.

Photo Credit: Marcus Sacco | Settings: 600mm, F6.3, 1/4000 s, ISO 1000

Setting your camera on aperture priority mode can make using your widest aperture easy. Although, you might want to set up limits inside your camera so your shutter speed doesn't fall too slow or your ISO setting rises too high.

One risk of setting your camera to the widest aperture is experiencing a shallow depth of field. To ensure you have a sharp image, your AF mode is crucial when shooting wildlife photography. This is where your camera's autofocus needs to be up to par.

One major benefit of using a mirrorless camera over a DSLR is the autofocus capabilities. Instead of a few hundred autofocus points, you have up to a few thousand on a mirrorless camera. Plus, some mirrorless cameras come with animal eye-tracking and will lock focus on the animal's eye when you half-press down on the shutter button.

Use a Slower Shutter Speed

Generally, slow shutter speeds and bird photography don't mix. Despite the fact that using a faster shutter speed is recommended, it won't play in your favor when shooting in low light. Birds are fast-moving subjects and most likely will lead to having motion blur, especially a flying bird. In some cases, even shooting at 1/250th of a second while a bird is perched can display motion blur just from the bird breathing.

Photo by Andrew Seegmiller low light photograph bird

Photo Credit: Andrew Seegmiller | Settings: 400mm, 1.4x, F4, 1/250 s, ISO 2500

As a rule of thumb, when deciding on what your shutter speed should be, most bird photographers use the 1/ the focal length guideline. For example, if you are at 400mm, you wouldn't want to go slower than 1/400th of a second when shooting handheld. Although, this rule could be broken and tested if your camera has in-body image stabilization and will be less likely to see any camera shake.

When using a super-telephoto lens, it's not a bad idea to use a monopod or tripod. Once your camera is stabilized, playing with a slower shutter speed becomes more of an option depending on how active your subject is.

Increase Your ISO Setting

With each new camera release, it seems like ISO performance continues to improve. Even though these particular cameras are capable of higher ISO settings, it doesn't mean higher ranges should be used. Photographers can be tempted to raise the ISO setting, especially in low light conditions. The problem is, the higher the ISO, the more noise you will see in your image.

Lydia Ripplinger photo of bird in low light

Photo Credit: Lydia Ripplinger | Settings: 600mm, F6.3, 1/500 s, ISO 1250

There are, however, noise reduction techniques. First and foremost, make sure you are shooting in RAW. This will allow you the most control when post-processing your images.

The key is getting the correct exposure in camera. If your image is underexposed, it will leave room for more noise when adding exposure when editing. Another tip is adding light to the shadows and blacks. 

Sometimes noise will be unavoidable, this is where the brush tool and increasing the texture slider can extremely useful. If you brush out the background, it will end up looking more like a nice creamy background rather than noise.

The Ultimate Bird Photograph in Low Light

So like we mentioned above, the formula to capturing the best bird photos in low light is as follows—use the widest aperture with tack-sharp autofocus, have a slow shutter speed without getting motion blur, and set your ISO to the highest it can go without noise. Your exposure mode on your camera can help achieve this. Between shooting in aperture priority mode, shutter priority, or manual mode, I personally would choose the latter. Manual mode gives you the option to make quick adjustments to all three of your exposure settings.

scott candelaria photo of pelican flying in low light

Photo Credit: Scott Candelaria | Settings: 600mm, F4, 1/2500 s, ISO 400

The best way to figure it out is to experiment. Look for unique lighting conditions and use light to tell a story. Find the best angles or even pockets of light to provide drama or emphasize the subject. Learn to push your camera to its limits. Once you've figured out your camera's capacity, you'll be more prepared for what exposure settings to use in the future.

For more on bird photography, check out our blog about how to get started here!