January 25, 2011

Good light / Bad light

Haystack in good light
coming from the left  
Haystack in neutral winter light
no visible shadow

As with art and photography, “good light and bad light” play an important role in observing birds. Our vision is dependent on the light waves that bounce off objects. The bigger and stronger the wave (within reason) the clearer the image. A bird in clear, bright light is not only thrilling to observe but also unlocks subtle coloration and markings that lead to better understanding. Bird watching’s dependence on optics like binoculars and scopes literally magnify the problem of "good light".  When the sun is up and the sky is clear we can see more color and detail than in low light, overcast skies, or fog. However, even on a bright summer day we can stumble into “bad light” situations that make viewing a bird problematic. This is when a bird comes between the viewer and the sun. The effects of back lighting can range from a pure black silhouette to a hazing of color and detail. When you are searching for a good angle to view a bird remember to keep the sun at your back or at least at your side. Watch the angle of the shadows and always try to circle around until your own shadow stretches out in front of you - this is good light.

Haystack in poor evening light
shadow coming towards us
Haystack in fog,
muted colors

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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