Category Archives: Egrets

Photographing Cattle Egrets – Details in White

Photographing Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets are tropical herons. These images were taken in March, 2016 in Hawaii on the garden island of Kauai where they are found on every golf course, roadside and back yard.

The Cattle Egret is one of the few herons that typically hunts for insects and invertebrates in open grassy areas, fields and marshes, especially where humans keep domesticated grazing livestock. They are often seen following anything big enough to stir up insects, like cattle and farm equipment. Somehow, they still manage to look elegant, even when following a tractor or riding atop a cud chewing cow.

Photo of Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret in Summer Plumage.
ISO320; f/9; 1/1000 second

Proper Exposure of White Subjects

It was early morning and the foraging Cattle Egrets were cautiously keeping their distance from the camera. Just as well. The light meter was reporting a fairly balanced exposure from where I was standing.

When photographing white birds, I try to set exposure to bring out texture and detail in the plumage. During this shoot, the histogram showed lots of dark and light variation because of the wispy golden spring plumage (on the bird’s head, breast, and back), yellow legs, black feet and lots of vibrant green grass. There were no light pixels creeping up the right side of the histogram, indicating that details data in the birds’ feathers would be preserved. (NOTE: Keep those blinkies turned on.)

Canon’s Evaluative Mode

For this shoot, light meter was set to Evaluative Mode and due to the advantageous mix of light and color, exposure was spot on. It is true that modern day in-camera light meters are designed to work best when there’s “normal” and “average” light, but Canon’s Evaluative Mode has been engineered to be smarter than that. It does a fabulous job compensating for extremes in brightness (light and dark) because algorithms built into this metering mode selectively compare and evaluate the scene and give more weight to the active auto focus points. Spot metering would have allow me to take a meter reading right off the bird, but given so much diversity in the scene, it was not necessary.

With photo shoots like this, I rarely have to use exposure compensation (EV) options available to me unless backlighting is an issue, the white bird fills the frame, or a blanket of snow covers the scene.

Photo of Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret
Fluffing his Feathers.
ISO250; f/7.1; 1/1250 Second

Nailing Exposure of White Birds

I usually complain about being too far away from the wild birds I photograph. This is one of those times when  benefited from NOT getting close to the subject.

The photos shown here are of white birds, but photographing them was not much of a challenge because there was plenty of color and light variety from which to measure accurate exposure. The REAL exposure challenge will come when I am lucky enough to be able to fill my viewfinder frame with a beautiful white feathered bird.


Photo of Snowy Egret

Photographing the Snowy Egret- Getting the Light Right

Side Lighting

There’s nothing quite so gratifying as photographing a bird at eye level and being able to play with how the light strikes its feathers. I assembled my 7D Mark II with a 300mm f/2.8L lens and 1.4 x III telephoto extender and went for a walk on a Southern California beach in search of a Snowy Egret.  I spotted one almost immediately foraging in the shallow water.

I walked slowly toward him, as close as I dared. The morning sun was low in the eastern sky and to the right of the camera. The soft illumination was spreading unevenly over the Egret, and consequently, textures, shapes, patterns, and contours were more emphasized. I set my exposure manually and started shooting.

Camera Gear for Beach Walking

The advantages of taking this camera gear with me for a walk on the beach are as follows:

  • The Canon 300 mm f/2.8 L lens is an extremely sharp prime lens that focuses fast and has a wide aperture.
  • The 300mm lens is fairly light (5.17lbs), responds fast in low light and produces outstanding background blur.
  • The Canon 1.4x III telephoto extender is compatible with this lens and extends the 300mm focal reach to a 420 mm.(300 x 1.4)
  • Multiply in the extra reach afforded by the 1.6 cropped sensor in the 7D Mark II (420 x 1.6) and I have a reach of 672 mm with a f/4.0 aperture.  (Remember the technical tradeoffs that come with attaching the 1.4 telephoto extender: the max aperture is reduced by one stop, focusing speed is slower and sharpness will be slightly decreased.) 
  • No tripod is needed with the 300 mm/1.4x extender combo. (NOTE: I find that my 500mm 4.0L lens is too heavy to comfortably walk around with, especially on the beach. It is also difficult for me to prop up the 500mm and hold it steady when it is time to aim and shoot.)
Photo of Snowy Egret
Close up of a Snowy Egret
ISO1000; f/9; 1/2000 Second

Ethereal Qualities

While on the beach, I noticed the intriguing light, but did not register its surreal qualities or how eerily it painted itself on the Egret or the water in the background. My focus was on photographing this captivating bird. The unearthliness created by the light was all around me, and I missed it, at least until I saw it that evening in Lightroom.

What I missed is illustrated in this close-up photo of the Snowy Egret. It depicts a tranquil, almost spiritual place. The dreamy quality of the flowing water in the background gives the photo an impressionist flair, the illusion that this photo is a painting. The wet feathers on his head and breast appear to have a silky, tactile quality. The soft glow illuminating the back side of the Egret’s white head and long neck contrasts nicely with the strikingly placid background. Why didn’t I notice (and enjoy) the ethereal qualities of the light at the time I was taking the photograph?

It’s pretty clear that I need to stop being all cozy and comfortable with my bird photography. My photos would be better if I am more aware and purposeful with light – think more about what it is I want to create, and try to pay attention to when and how natural light paints exquisite dreamlike qualities on its canvas.

That takes being at the right place at the right time to a whole different level.


(See this post about photographing birds on or near water).