Backlit Photography – The Translucent Feathers of Birds
Ring-billed Gull In-Flight - Backlit
Ring-billed Gull In-Flight – Backlit

With the advent of Digital Photography there seems to be a madness in Nature and Wildlife Photography to capture the perfect, flawless, tight cropped image. This is especially true in North America and greatly contrasts with our European counterparts. French photographers have a talent for capturing the essence of a natural scene. The wildlife subject immersed in it’s natural habitat. Oftentimes a dreamy Bokeh gives a surreal and gentle look to the overall composition. In North America you get the up close, no distracting element, count every feather/hair on the subject, with perfectly balanced light, image.

With that said it’s a little easier to understand why we completely miss out on artisitic compositions, especially those with birds in flight. Bird photographers are notorious for beating themselves to the ground when they just don’t get that perfect shot. That’s why many of them have turned to iPods and other digital players to attract subjects to the perfect perch. Unfortunately that is almost always done with total disregard for the negative impact they have on the affected wildlife.

If you enjoy photography and want to keep shooting with a smile when the light is less than appropriate, you may want to experiment photographing backlit Birds. Backlit photgraphy has many avenues from silhouettes to spectacular light halos. Combining already proven backlit photography techniques with bird photography will allow you to bring out a new level of beauty in your subjects while enhancing your artistic talents.

Picking Your Subject

To put to practice backlit bird photography you’ll need to choose a good subject. Preferably a large bird, with white or pale wing feathers. The more common the bird the more practice you’ll get. My best suggestion is a Gull! Gulls and other similar birds are easily found. In my case the Ring-billed Gull is more abundant than pigeons and easily found on the Montreal Back River. In the afternoon the light conditions are perfect for backlit photography. The low cliff-side is just high enough to shoot a variety of interesting perspectives.

Backlit Ring-billed Gull fishing
Backlit Ring-billed Gull fishing

Light will pierce through pale feathers more easily than darker feathers. The rest of the bird will usually be visible as a silhouette. If you play with your angles or accompany your shooting with the use of a flash, you will get more light on the bird and minimize the silhouette effect.  The wings and the tail of any bird will give you the most translucency. Photographing birds like gulls while feeding will give you a slow flying bird with a variety of unique angles to shoot. Many aquatic birds will hover while searching for food. This gives you a more stable subject with wings and tail totally fanned out to produce a maximum amount of lift to sustain the hover. A perfect scenario for shooting in backlit conditions. Once you’ve mastered Gulls you can turn your camera to almost any bird. Even a blackbird with the right exposure will give you interesting results.

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