Why Manual Exposure is Better for Winter Wildlife Photography

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My winter wildlife photography tours and workshops put us in locations with lots of snow on the ground, which presents a new issue for most people – how to get good exposure without continuously messing around with exposure compensation.

You have to tell the camera to brighten your images by up to two stops of exposure to make whites white, because the meter in your camera wants everything to be a mid-tone gray.

MBP Cranes Exposure Example

For example, here is a photograph of one of our main subjects, the Japanese Red-Crowned Crane (above, left). It’s a predominantly white bird on a snowy white background. For a shot like this if I put the camera in Aperture Priority mode with the aperture set to f/8 for example, the camera would tell me that the shutter speed should be about 1/2000 of a second, which would result in a photo like the under-exposed dark version (above, right).

To avoid under-exposing images like this, one thing you can do is to dial-in +2 stops of exposure compensation in Aperture Priority mode. This would result in a new shutter speed of 1/500 of a second at the same aperture, and a beautifully white image.

There is one fundamental problem with this method though, and this is what most people fail to understand until they’ve missed enough shots for them to take my advice seriously. The moment your subject moves away from their white background, the exposure with +2 stops of exposure compensation is no longer valid.

To prove my point during a recent tour, I switched to Aperture Priority with auto-ISO and photographed this Whooper swan on the snow with +2 stops of exposure compensation dialed in. This gave me a perfectly white bird with perfectly white snow, as we’d expect.

MBP Hokkaido 20140221 0212

Then, just moments later, I photographed a flock of Whooper swans flying into the same location, this time with a darker background, which fooled the camera into increasing my exposure and the result was this totally over-exposed photograph.

MBP Hokkaido 20140221 0217

To avoid this, when photographing wildlife in the snow, the best course of action is to lock your exposure down (using Manual) so that when the opportunity to photograph something with a darker background arises, the exposure doesn’t shift, and the subject and the snow remains perfectly exposed, as in this example.

MBP Hokkaido 20140131 1261

The downside of this method is that you do have to continually check your exposure, especially on a day with patchy cloud for example. Because you’ve locked down your exposure totally, you are responsible for noticing when it gets a bit brighter or darker, and updating your camera settings.

In my experience though, although you sometimes have to tweak the exposure in post-processing, you still return home with many more usable shots, as opposed to the above example with the flock of supernova swans, which is a firm candidate for deletion.

Settings Your Exposure for White

To set my exposure I usually just fill the frame with snow, and adjust the settings in Manual mode, until I see the caret on the camera’s meter indicate that the exposure is now at +2 stops for overcast snow or +1 1/3 stops for brightly lit snow.

MBP Filling the Frame with Snow 640 f8 ISO1001

How you achieve your exposure depends on your subject. Personally, I usually start with the aperture, as that controls depth-of-field, and I want to select that based on how much of the subject or scene I want to be sharp, and how much of it I want to be nice blurry out of focus bokeh.

Then I select the shutter speed, based on my focal length and how much I expect my subject to move. The rule of thumb for the slowest shutter speed you can use without the risk of introducing camera shake, is to use the focal length as the denominator of the fraction in your shutter speed. For example if you are shooting with a 200mm lens, the slowest shutter speed you can safely shoot hand-held is 1/200 of a second.

Of course, image stabilization or vibration reduction in the lens can help you to go slower, but you also have to consider subject movement with wildlife. To freeze a large bird in flight you need at least 1/500 of a second, but ideally 1/1000 or higher if possible.

These are, of course, general guidelines. You may decide to slow down the shutter speed and pan with your subject to use the blur of the wing movement artistically as in this example, but that’s the subject for another article.

MBP Hokkaido 20130207 4320

Once I’ve decided the aperture and shutter speed based on the subject and any artistic decisions I might make, the last setting that I usually change as I lock in on my manual exposure is the ISO. Once the caret reaches +2 on the camera’s meter scale, I make a test shot, and check the histogram.

For a photograph of a field of snow, or a white bird on a white background, most of the data in the histogram should be almost touching the right shoulder of the histogram. This means the image data captured is almost pure white, as it should be. If the data is in the middle of the histogram, the whites will be gray. This is what the camera would do automatically without our help.

MBP White on White Histogram

Also remember to turn on your highlight alert or highlight warnings in your camera’s settings, commonly called “the blinkies”, as these will alert you to any areas of your image that you might be over-exposing. It’s okay to over-expose a few specular highlights, but try not to over-expose large areas of your image, especially on your main subject, or the detail in those areas will be lost, and cannot be recovered on a computer later.

One of the other nice things about photographing birds over snow is that the light from the snow reflects up onto the underside of the birds in flight, as in this example. This means that you really don’t have to worry about where the bird is once you have locked your exposure down in Manual mode.

MBP Hokkaido 20140221 6768

The subject can be on white background, a dark background, or a blue sky, and your exposure will be spot on, leaving you free to concentrate on focusing and composition, instead of frantically trying to adjust your exposure compensation as the action unfolds.

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Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Fuelled by his passion for nature and exploration he is an international tour and workshop leader. A pioneering Podcaster and blogger, Craft & Vision author and Arcanum master, he inspires and helps photographers from around the world to see and capture the wonders of our awesome planet home. Martin has made some discounts and goodies available for dPS readers here!

  • Hmfff

    Good article as usual!

    However i have a question. My two mirrorless cameras has electronig view finders (EVF) and unlike DSLR’s they can show how bright/dark the scene is, with possible warnigs for too bright areas, if desired.

    I haven’t yet used any of them in snowy conditions, but don’t you think the EVF will help so that you do not have to continually check your exposure?

  • Thanks for reading Hmffff.

    Being able to see the exposure, especially with in-screen highlight warnings, will certainly help to see if the exposure gets too high, but only you can tell your camera how to expose the scene, and as I explain in this article, the beauty of using Manual exposure for this kind of shooting is that you don’t have to check and adjust with each frame. If the light is relatively constant, once your exposure is set, you can forget about it until the light changes, and just check the histogram occasionally for good measure.

    When using an automatic exposure mode with compensation, because the relationship between subject and background is always changing, each exposure can potentially be different and therefore require adjustment, and that is time consuming and error prone, causing you to miss shots. My advice is to learn how to set it and forget it, so you can concentrate on capturing beautiful images without constantly messing with exposure compensation.

    I hope this helps!

    Martin.

  • mike winslow

    It really depends on where your metering.. spot metering different from area. I like the underexposed, but I agree – if that isnt what you wanted, then dial it up.. You still neednt be full manual either.. EV comp works quickly too. If you have zebra and/or histogram – make use of them.. If you simply must be shooting JPEG – get acquainted with how DRO – dynamic range optimization works and use that to get the shadows and highlights correct. RAW always gives a better range of adjustment options in post though. I worry more about getting the shot – composition and focus than tonal qualities, and doing that by in cam jpg settings might mean missing a shot.
    JMHO

  • harold

    thanks

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Don’t rely on your electronic viewfinder too heavily to show you the brightness of a scene. Often, the camera electronics adjust the viewfinder to show extra detail, but beware of the camera overcompensating to mid-grey. I have a Panasonic G5 which does this – it’s great for composition.
    I agree with the main thrust of this article, but it does mainly apply to snowy scenes (we very rarely see snow in winter in Wellington, NZ), and large expanses of water (at any time of year). Photographing a black swan on a lake under a blue summer sky also needs careful adjustment of the exposure.

  • Dan Moses

    Thanks for the great article! I learned a lot and can’t wait to try it out when i heard to Northern Michigan for my first winter shoot

  • shawl

    Fine article. I especially enjoyed the reasoning for the order of adjustment: f, t, ISO.

  • Thanks Shawl! I’m pleased you enjoyed this.

  • Thanks Dan, and good luck in Michigan!

  • You’re welcome Harold. Thanks for reading.

  • Mike, once you’ve mastered shooting in Manual in these conditions, you don’t have to worry about exposure at all, and can concentrate on your composition. That’s the point. Work how you want to work of course, but I watch groups of participants struggle with exposure compensation on all of my winter wildlife tours for the first few days, trying to avoid using Manual, until they finally give in and learn to trust the force. It’s a leap of faith, but usually a revelation for most people once you try it.

  • davenn

    you might have got whites, white, but you have totally blown out the detail in the feathers on the crane in the first pics

  • No I haven’t Dave. Your monitor may be too bright if that’s what you see.

  • davenn

    I hit enter too quickly, I meant to continue with …..
    …. which sort of defeats the purpose. You would almost be better to underexpose a bit or at least expose to get the best detail out of the birds plumage, and then sort out white balance etc in PP
    cheers
    Dave

  • Dave, with all due respect, I disagree. I have the best detail in the bird’s plumage through using the technique explained here. Again, if you think I’m losing detail in the plumage, there could be an issue with your monitor brightness. If you’d like more information on why it makes sense to expose as high as possible, take a look at this article too: http://mbp.ac/381

  • mike winslow

    you miss the point.. besides in how different jpeg engines work and also large differences in how cameras meter, you’re pressing a solution into one size fits all.. In a large contrast composition, I might leave it on manual – depending on how it was set previously and how much time that I have for the composition to stay there.. I have to decide – sometimes quickly how to capture this moment. A big point here is how fast can you get from where you are to where you need to be for this. You really have to know your camera. For someone with no desire to shoot RAW, then this large contrast composition is going to depend on how he has the jpeg engine set to process things, and all of the manual in the world A/S/I/FL etc – isnt going to change the tonal curve processing of the jpeg engine, and for those non-RAW shooters , then they have to rely on the camera to reduce the full dynamic range appropriately into the limited spcae in JPG.. Maybe I get a little lazy shooting RAW/’Manual since I know how far I can push things around in post, which is a whole lot more latitude than I would have with camera jpg output…. come to think of it.. I’m going to switch back to RAW+jpg for the holidays since I dont feel like fussing too much in post, and let the camera handle the DR and noise etc.. .. It’s really about shooting allot, and knowing what you can do with what you capture in what period of time.. Master that grasshopper 🙂

  • Travel Bug

    One of the best set of suggestions I have read for shooting in snow.Will be in Alaska next year and will be hoping for some good shots from your tips. For others that can’t say thanks easily – submit your own tutorial and we will see how you stack up to scrutiny. In the meantime from me – Thanks

  • I’m not going to argue with you Mike. Have a nice Xmas.

  • Thanks Travel Bug. Merry Christmas!

  • mike winslow

    Of course.. Have a merry Christmas as well.

  • DouglasAndersonACI

    Excellent article Martin. Takes me back to the days in the 1970’s/early 1980’s in the pre-auto exposure era. Mr Winslow is way off mark here, but as you say life is too short to try to convince someone of something that has been succinctly clarified.

  • Thanks Douglas. I’m pleased you enjoyed this.
    I barely had time to write this article, and I certainly don’t have time to argue about a technique that that I know to work and have taught to hundreds of people first-hand on my winter tours, producing amazing results. 🙂
    Enjoy the rest of the festive season!

  • Hi Martin. Sorry to be late Kate in asking this. But I only just read your article. To begin with, I am not very good with tech terms. But I have been using my camera on manual – almost exclusively. So here I am looking for a confirmation of my understanding of your advice! (1) You are referring to the manual MODE of the camera. (2) you adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO – in that order – keeping an eye only on the exposure compensation indicator to be +2 (3) ideally not touch the dials after that at all … Unless something significant needs changing like a high speed flight.

    Now, (1) if you are adjusting settings while pointing your camera to the snow, do I understand that when you raise the camera to, say the sky or the bush, it will still give me a reasonably well exposed picture? (2) is this theory restricted to white on white? (3) can I work this for other situations and backgrounds with different ev figures? I don’t see any snow in my bush outings, but I do use the manual mode exclusively (for a completely unusual reason – I need to keep shutter speed very high as I have a very unsteady hand – and, no, a tripod is not an answer in the game drive vehicles of Africa – so I try to keep my aperture extra wide … Often this means higher ISO than I like … It’s sort of catch 22 to get sharp no-noise images especially early morning and dusk. On average I don’t go below 1/1000 … Now this works superbly for birds in flight … But oftentimes I land up with dark images that post processing causes to show grain.

  • And I am sorry to totally digress from the “snow angle” but when I found someone who recommends manual mode I had to ask!

  • No problem Swati. Better a late Kate than never Trevor.
    In reply to first paragraph Q1, yes. Q2 – There are times when shutter speed is more important than aperture, but generally in this case yes. Q3 – Exactly!

    Paragraph two Q1 – Yep! Q2 – in the boundaries of this article, yes, but Q3 – I still expose to the right for pretty much all of my photography as it gives better quality images, even if you darken them down later. See this article on why -> http://mbp.ac/381

  • Thank you Martin. That makes me feel much better! I must admit, I do hesitate about raising the ISO beyond 1600. To ask you one more … If ISO 1600 gives me a dark picture that I then expose in Lightroom I will get MORE noise than if I took a ISO 6400 shot … Is that right? Or take a chance and go even higher and dial DOWN the exposure in Lightroom is a preferable option? And if my understanding is right, then can I use this theory on subjects in shadow even during the brightest part of a bright day? Say a leopard hiding up a tree?

  • It depends on the camera, but generally yes, if you increase your exposure to the point that the information in the histogram is close to the right shoulder of the histogram, you’ll see less noise than when you shoot with a lower ISO and increase the Exposure or other sliders in Lightroom to increase the brightness of the image.

  • Thank you Martin! I looks forward to my next experiments! If this works, my life is going to be oh so much better! At least, hopefully, my pictures will be!

  • Shibu George

    Manual exposure with auto ISO is always better (regardless of weather) for bird Photography, that’s my humble opinion.

  • You are of course entitled to your opinion Shibu, although the thing to bear in mind is that the moment you give the camera any control, even with Auto ISO, you have to start to use Exposure Compensation, and that will cause the problems I mention above. When you go from a dark to a light background, you will over-expose a white subject. It’s just more work than it’s worth. That’s my humble opinion.

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