How To Make Bird Portraits Look Like You Made Them In Studio

Tri-Colored Heron Photograph by Scott Bourne

This trick would work with any subject but of course, I will demonstrate it with birds. I am in Florida this week teaching at Florida’s Birding & Photo Festival and I arrived early so I could do a couple of days of private photography workshops and some personal shooting.

Since the light gets high and harsh early down here, I decided I would need to find a way to extend the shooting window by an hour or so. Making portraits of birds in bright sun is what I decided to “focus” on. Sometimes, harsh sunlight is all you have to work with so it’s not a signal to go to breakfast, it’s a signal to get creative.

Crowned Crane Photo by Scott Bourne
African Crowned Crane

This technique is brutally simple. Make sure the bird is in full sun, and positioned such that the background behind the bird is darker than it is lighter. Underexpose a bit and the background goes nearly black, leaving the bird to stand out on the page, which is what you want in a portrait anyway.

The result looks like it was shot in-studio, but in fact, these pictures were made outdoors, at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine Beach, Fl.

In the case of the African Crowned Crane photograph, the exposure was 1/800 second at f/4.0 – ISO 400

Shot with @GetOlympus OM-D E-M1 MK II, and Olympus 300 f/4 IS Pro Lens, mounted to a monopod.

Try this next time you’re stuck with harsh light. As long as you can get your subject in front of a relatively dark background, under-exposing should yield a similar result. Note: If you have a few hot spots or bright spots in the background you may have to clone them out in post.


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