Fairy Terns are indigenous to Oahu where they delight visitors with their aerial acrobatics

Tips and tricks for photographing white birds against various backgrounds

Which of this images do you consider best

Nikon D500 + Nikkor 500mm PF 5.6

(If backgrounds have been removed, etc. please be honest with your techniques to help others learn)

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My favorite is the third, by a good margin. It looks to be the sharpest, and I love the dark background. I also find the positions of both birds to be the most pleasing. Beautiful bird that I don’t see much.

Hi Albert. I like the composition in the third, but I think the best image quality is in the final “perched” image. It has more plumage detail than any of the others. Most of these have the look of fairly substantial crops which tends to hurt the image quality unless the focus and exposure are smuck on. You don’t list your camera settings, so it’s a little difficult to give precise advise, but I’d start by going to full manual mode for exposure. It’s usually quite easy to find something white to adjust your exposure against and as long as the birds are in the same light you’ll be fine regardless of the background. Just take some shots of the white object and adjust shutter speed/iso/aperture until the over-exposure blinkies in the review are almost completely or just completely gone. I usually use a fixed aperture that I prefer and play with the iso/shutter speed combination. I don’t like auto-iso for this situation, because it puts you back into playing with exposure compensation and the whole point of using manual exposure is to avoid that. With something like the tern, I’d probably try to get my shutter speed up around 1/2500-1/3000, which, in Hawaii, should still let you keep your iso down around 640 or lower.

Hope that helps.

Thanks Dennis
I almost always shoot in Manual. The birds in flight were at 1/2500 or 1/3200. Except for the close up portraits I shot wide open at 5.6 with this lens.
In order to keep the speed high enough for birds in flight I do use Auto ISO and use Topaz DeNoise to ameliorate the consequent noise. I do struggle with exposure. In good light against green foliage 0 Exposure Composition but against a blue sky at least +1; But… the birds are rocketing from green to blue and back again

Thanks Lyle
Far as I know this particular totally Snow White tern ( Gygis Alba) resides exclusively in Hawaii. Interestingly it seems to eschew the rural areas and is most common in urban Honolulu where it’s been declared Oahu’s Official Bird. The Hawaiians called them Manu-o-Ku and they were reputed to guide the double-hulled Polynesian seafarers to shore.

Interesting species and maybe a reason to visit Oahu someday :wink: … Exposure in changing conditions always a challenge. You posted quite a few images, but I seem to like the one you posted first in your reaction to Lyle the best: exposure seems good, I like the fact that there’s two birds in the frame and the horizontal cut works well here for me. Cheers, Hans

Hi Albert. The point I was trying to make with auto-iso is that even though your dial is set to M, you’re not really in manual mode as you know from having to use exposure compensation. Since, from the looks of them, these birds were all photographed in the sun, you should never need to change your exposure to get the bird itself properly exposed. The background might be an issue, but the bird will be right.

Hi Albert, I think I like the third image in the original post best as well. Dynamic flying poses.

I also agree with Dennis about auto-ISO. I typically shoot in manual and setting ISO myself with constant light and subject. Things get tricky with variable light which I then sometimes move to aperture priority using exposure compensation. But I am usually in full manual mode.

Thanks Hans
We’re in Hawaii on business so I elected to bring only my new easily hand holdable light weight 3.2 pound Nikkor 500mm F/5.6 Pf. Does OK but not quite the image quality of my heavier glass.

Thanks Allen
I tend to lock in an aperture based on DOF. The nearby perched birds were @ f8 1/500.
I select the speed I need to stop the motion. For a fast moving bird up to 1/3200. I leave the WB on auto since I shoot raw and can adjust in LR. I admit to getting lazy with the auto ISO.

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Hi Al. I like the second and third shots, as it’s nice to see birds in flight against a background other than sky, but all nice captures. In the second group, great landing pose.

Thanks Allen
These are unpredictible fast moving aerial targets that often fly in pairs. A challenge to get a clean shot at one, takes a bit of luck to get two. Their natural habitat is perching in the darkness on the limbs of those trees you see densly covered with bright green leaves.