Get great shots of winter birds

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With low sunlight, as well as the prospect of frost and snow, winter is a great time to be out looking for birds to photograph, says Oscar Dewhurst.

Winter is a great time for bird photography. The low sun means you can photograph throughout the day, and the prospect of frost and snow should make any wildlife photographer lick their lips. At this time of the year, many birds look fantastic in bright plumage, having come through a moult at the end of the breeding season. The harsh weather conditions and subsequent difficulty in finding food means they can be more approachable, and handouts can be used to attract them. Perhaps my favourite thing about photographing in winter, however, is that sunrise is at a much more respectable time, so you don’t need to drag yourself out of bed at a ridiculously early hour.

During winter, the angle of the sun is low throughout the day, meaning you are freer to shoot in the middle of the day without worrying about harsh light and loss of details in shadow and highlight areas, as would occur in summer. Despite this, I would still recommend trying to be out for sunrise, as the quality of light is still better, and bird activity levels are higher. They need to feed to replenish energy resources lost overnight. Shooting at this time (or towards sunset), when the sun is nearer the horizon, means you can experiment with different light angles too. Side lighting and backlighting can be very effective, and you’ll capture images that will stand out from others. Heavy frost and backlighting, in particular, is a great combination.

Nearly all wildlife photographers I know will be hoping for frost and snow in which to shoot over the winter. Watch the weather forecasts and plan accordingly. Frost will often disappear soon after the sun hits it, so you may need to be out early to take advantage of this. Snow is another aspect that makes me look forward to winter, although again it’s important to plan ahead and pick one species to focus on. Otherwise it’s easy to end up rushing around trying to photograph everything when it does come, which can result in a few mediocre images. It’s much better to focus on something, and end up with just a couple of good images.

In snowy conditions, local knowledge can be invaluable. Travelling further afield can be risky, particularly if road conditions are dangerous. Having good local knowledge also means you will have an increased chance of getting images as you will know what you can find, and where. During the heavy snowfall in London at the start of 2013, I headed straight to where I knew I would find foxes, as I had been photographing them for the previous few months. It can be very dispiriting to have fantastic conditions but no subject in which to photograph them, so working out where you will go in advance is definitely worth it.

For most wildlife photography, I use aperture priority, my fastest frame rate and single spot autofocus. I have found this combination to work best for me, but others will have their own preferences. In some cases, however, I will modify these, such as when shooting in snow. Being very light, a camera exposing for snow can result in an underexposed subject. There are two ways to rectify this. First, you could use spot metering, so the camera will meter off wherever your focus point is. The other option is to use manual exposure, whereby you take an exposure reading off something else neutral, such as grass or trees, and dial that in. Make sure you check the resulting images on the back of the camera, as well as the histogram, so you end up with the correct exposure. Obviously if shooting in this mode and the light changes, you will need to change your exposure manually. I often tend to overexpose images slightly in snow to get the subject correct, and then dial back the brightness of the snow in post-production.