Water Sources and Winter Light

Several readers asked me about the thrush photo in “More Photo-Worthy Moments.” It was nothing special, but I chose it because it perfectly complemented the quote just above it. If you’re interested, I took the photo in the woods. It was quiet, the bird was close, and it was easy to “feel that connection.”

The morning I took the photo the woods were damp. Nevertheless, there was very little standing water around except for the water that was in a few puddles. I noticed some activity near one of them, but as I approached, all the birds flushed. I stopped and waited and several returned, including the thrush. Another bird that returned was this Song Sparrow. I shot it through brush. The bird was practically at my feet.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

Getting Good Bird Shots

One secret to getting good bird shots is to take up a position near a food or water source and wait. Josh Miller said as much in his piece in the July 2021 issue of Outdoor Photographer: “The first step to improving your chances of success is being familiar with the landscape and knowing when wildlife will be there. Often, this is directly connected to a good natural history understanding of your chosen species and it’s food sources.” He went on to say this, (which I love): “Look for food sources, game trails or water sources, stake out a good composition and then wait for the action. The fact is that most of us spend too much of our wildlife shooting moving around and not waiting for the action.”

It’s funny, but I had Josh’s words in mind when I photographed this White-throated Sparrow in a park here in South Central Pennsylvania on 1/24.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Before I took the photo, I’d camped out nearby, knowing that the berries were a food source and there were White-throateds around. I’d also prepared and increased the camera’s exposure due to the brightness of the snow. Always be careful when shooting in snow. Your camera will want to underexpose all that white, leaving you with a murky scene and a subject that’s too dark.

When I spotted the bird, I slowly dropped to one knee and fired away. I’d already strapped on my new EVA foam knee pads so my knees wouldn’t get wet. I decided a while ago that wearing knee pads while shooting in wet conditions would be easier than lugging around a kneeling pad.

Make Use of Winter Light

Here’s a photo I took 30 minutes earlier. I was on one knee for this one, too.


There’s nothing remarkable about the photo of this handsome male, but I wanted you to notice one thing. Notice the lighting. I took the photo not long before noon, yet it’s clear the sun angle was low, the bird was frontlit, and the light was warm and pleasing. It has dawned on me (no pun intended) that the lower angle of the sun during the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere means more opportunities during the day to take photos of subjects in light like this. One can go out at midday in January and take photos as if it were closer to 8 in the morning later in the year.

Shooting in Winter

Before we wrap up, I’d like to share this. It was cold, and I was visiting a local park. It was a week or so before I took the 2 photos above. The Swamp Sparrows had abandoned the frozen marsh where they’re usually found (when it’s not frozen over) and headed toward a nearby meadow to feed. The birds, like the one below, were so absorbed in searching for food and feeding that they barely noticed me as I approached with my gear. I was maybe 15 feet away from this bird when I photographed it. And, of course, I’d increased the camera’s exposure by almost 2 stops. 

Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

Aside from great light, another advantage to shooting in winter is this: wildlife is hungry, food is scarce, and feeding wildlife is more approachable. So, to expand a little bit on the “Be There” theme—be there, camera in hand, especially during winter.

And This Just In

Here are 5 tips for photographing wildlife in the snow. The piece I link to is a great read. They could have used these tips even in South Hampton Roads this season.

And here’s a great piece about shooting in winter light. The author, Allan Weitz, describes winter light’s unique qualities.

Quip, Question, Quote(s)

These words bear repeating: “The fact is that most of us spend too much of our wildlife shooting moving around and not waiting for the action.” Josh Miller

We mentioned an early sign of spring in the last blog. According to American ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), there’s another. The Song Sparrow is “by far the earliest, sweetest, and most lasting songster  …  It is the first singing bird in spring, taking precedence even of the Pewee and Bluebird.” Keep your ears tuned.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

5 thoughts on “Water Sources and Winter Light

  1. Good information here. I read through the 5 tips for photography in the snow. …even though I won’t have the opportunity for snow photos any time soon! I do know about the condensation thing though. I actually have kind of a cool photo from years ago with a little pocket camera. It was in Florida and from the car to the dock the lens steamed up. In the photo it looks like it was foggy out in the harbor.


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