How to Meter for White Birds and take a Photograph of them

Exposing for predominantly white birds in digital photography can often be a challenge, and there may be times when the white birds in your images actually look grey in the final photograph. In order to ensure your images of white birds are correctly exposed and result in actual white birds, as opposed to grey looking ones, it is important to understand the camera’s metering system and what it is trying to achieve. 

Camera meters are set to automatically expose for mid tones, therefore when taking pictures of white birds the camera may underexpose the image (hence making the birds look grey) or overexpose the image (hence clipping the highlights and losing detail in the feathers). Under exposure usually occurs when the white bird is surrounded by a light background as the camera’s meter attempts to make the white, being the lightest colour in the frame, in to a mid tone grey. Over exposure usually occurs when the white bird is surrounded by a dark background as the camera’s meter attempts to make the predominantly dark background to a grey, blowing out detail in the white highlights in the process. 

So how do we overcome this problem? The answer to this is exposure compensation. 

When taking images of birds many photographers like to control the depth of field in the shots in order to isolate the bird from the background and make it stand out. Therefore, aperture is often the key in many shots of birds. When aperture is important set the camera to manual mode, dial in the desired F stop and set the camera to spot metering mode, which effectively tells the camera’s meter to consider a small part in the centre of the frame when calculating the ‘correct’ exposure. 

Next, point the camera at the lightest part of the bird where you wish to retain detail in the feathers and depress the shutter button halfway to take a meter reading. Leaving the aperture alone, adjust the shutter speed until the visual indicator reaches the zero mark, hence showing ‘correct’ exposure. The camera’s meter is now set to show the white as a mid tone colour, therefore if the image was taken with this setting the bird would be grey in the photograph. To overcome this it is necessary to apply some positive exposure compensation. Even though the white of some birds may be up to three and a half F stops (or more) less than mid tone grey it is important not to dial in too much exposure compensation as it falls outside the parameters of the camera. In the field the amount of exposure compensation should be between half a stop and three F stops to retain the detail in the feathers. 

The precise amount will vary from situation to situation, and a key skill for the photographer to learn is to know how much exposure compensation to apply in any given situation. This skill is one that is developed through trial and error, experimenting and getting intimate with the camera and experience. The above method will work in all types of conditions, whether it a bright sunny day, dull and overcast or even raining.