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Mastering Colour And Contrast: The Key To Stunning Bird Photography

Updated: Apr 22

Have you ever wondered why sometimes you get excited about something you photographed in the field and cannot wait to get home and view it on the computer? It could be magical light in your image, maybe a fantastic action moment or even a beautiful shot of a rare bird you have never seen.

When you get home happy, anticipate downloading. You sit down with coffee and start viewing the images. Yes, some great photos, but nothing pops out or draws the viewer into the images!

The two methods I am discussing colour and contrast could be the issue. One method in the field and another method introduced when processing your image. In my opinion, if you don’t get this right, you are doing a disservice to yourself and not showing your true potential as an Artist.

Define Contrast in Photography

The variation between light (white) and dark (black ) in an image. The higher the contrast, the more intense the colours, highlights and shadows are in a photo. Lower contrast photos have little difference between colours and can appear flat or dull. Source: Definition from Google.


Stop and think about this definition. Let's delve deeper! Okay, first Variation between light (white) and (dark)” . Wow, this short sentence says a lot to me, it is all about colour in your image. Stop, think, look,  at the scene you see in the field and break down light and dark in your vision when photographing. This is amazing just thinking about the colour and how they impact your photo. The histogram illustrates this perfectly showing the light, mid and dark tones*.


Sometimes, you see pastel tones only, maybe helped along by weather conditions and  light colour of the bird, for example, an Egret.


Image 1: Great Egret R5, 600 F4 IS III, F5.6, 1/800 ISO-4000


*Black and white images you are working with light to dark tones in an image to create contrast. Black and white is not covered in this topic, but the colours add impact to black and white when you consider tones and contrast.


One scenario is maybe you see strong bold colours in your vision as you photograph, for example, orange colour. This can be seen often on hot summer days as the sun sets or rises.

“The higher the contrast, the more intense the colours, highlights and shadows are in the photo”

Looking at this sentence, pastel colours and the tone they create in the image are subtle. I suggest to you the contrast is not there – because it's not intense colours.

Image 2: Pied Stilt R5, 600 F4 IS III, F5.6, 1/1000 ISO-1000

The comparison of pastels to strong, bold colours like red or orange tones captured at sunset or sunrise, the contrast is going to be off the charts. You see the impact in your images, but contrast can be over the top and you are aware that it may require some tempering. 

Finally, the last sentence “Lower contrast photos have little difference between colours and can appear flat or dull.” This tells me, you don’t want your images to be flat and dull. While taking photos do you think to yourself “Wow, this is a flat and dull scene?”  How can I introduce contrast? This is the question you should ask yourself when photographing. Sometimes on cloudy days, yes it can look dull, but, when photographing it becomes more noticeable. Pastel tones look beautiful and I love this style, but can tend to look flat and dull. Low contrast needs a boost for sure and can be done in post-processing.

What is the connection between colour and contrast? In my opinion, colour can add contrast as shown in this image below when captured in the field


Image 3: Crimson Chat R5, 600 F4 IS III,F7.1 1/2000 ISO-800

The contrast illustrates a difference between the light and dark colours. The pale tones of the background are in contrast to the strong red colours of the bird. I noticed this immediately when photographing and positioning myself to achieve this image. The bird was dominant and popped out of the image. I only photographed the pale background as a backdrop, placing the bird with thought given to composition. 

This scene I suggest was easy to see the colour contrast and is not so obvious all the time when photographing.


What about, a colour (tones)  that is similar throughout the image, such as the image below.


Image 4: Orange Chat (female): R5, 600 F4 IS III, F7.1, 1/1600 ISO-2500


I thought about this when photographing the Orange Chat  (female) and decided to try and do backlight with rim light around as the bird was a similar colour to the background, bird blends in to much. The rim light effect created a separation of the bird from the background.

Dark and light can be stunning when you rim light a bird and have a dark background. Sometimes in the image, letting the light play in the environment to create bokeh balls or just light effects. The contrast is created with light and dark to great effect. Processing these images I find requires little post-processing. I usually add some contrast in post-processing and give careful consideration to composition.

Image 5: Western Grey Kangaroo R5, 600 F4 IS III, F8, 1/1600 ISO-1250

Silhouette is another effect to use in the field. The dark bird shows little/or no detail, just showing the strong shape of the bird in its environment, this will draw attention to what you see and the story you are telling.

Image 6: Little Egret R5, 600 F4 IS III, F7.1, 1/5000 ISO-1000

In conclusion, be aware of the image you are creating and if you need to consider adding contrast in the field with some of the techniques I have mentioned. Think outside the square as you instantly see something that will make the image pop when you photograph. Also, in post-processing tweak the contrast as required. Be aware sometimes toning down the contrast might be necessary.

This article is just a teaser and is meant to be an introduction to Colour and Contrast. There is so much more I could cover and I am sure in the future I will pick up on this discussion further on my blog. At my workshops, I will be introducing more teaching on colour and contrast when shooting and post-processing. My workshops at Wooleen Station will shortly cover post-processing.

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on this topic or maybe you have questions.


Happy Birding wherever you may be!


Histogram: A graphical representation of the different tones (image data, colours and overall brightness) that is contained in an image.

Tones in an Image: Refers to the levels of brightness in a photograph, from solid black to pure white. Shadows are dark tones; highlights are bright tones.

Bokeh Balls: In photography, bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in out-of-focus parts of an image, caused by circles of confusion. Simply explained as image containing smooth, creamy balls of light known as bokeh balls.


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Unknown member
Apr 22

Wonderful images and information Shelley. I hope it is okay to share and send others to your BLOG. Carol

Unknown member
Apr 22
Replying to

Hi Carol, Appreciate your feedback and please feel free to share. Much appreciated.

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