Yellow-headed Blackbird (and getting good detail in deep blacks)

This image grabs me for reasons that only other bird photographers might appreciate.


1/2500, f/7.1, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this adult male Yellow-headed Blackbird six days ago at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. He was scurrying around on last year’s dead phragmites as he snagged midges out of the air and intermittently broke into raspy “song”. At first glance there may seem to be nothing special about this shot – it’s just a fairly nice photo of a blackbird doing it’s “thing”. But I keep coming back to the image for one reason – the light and detail in the blacks.

This time of year thousands of bird photographers photograph various blackbird species every day and their frustration levels are high because of the photon-trapping characteristics of those deep blacks. Getting detail there is very difficult unless the sun is low in the sky and directly behind the photographer. Even then the bird usually has to be turned broadside to the photographer to get good light on most of the black surfaces and show detail there. And even when things go mostly right many blackbird images have significant areas of blacks that show no more detail than a chunk of coal at midnight.

But with the exception of part of the left leg and a small area under the right wing there’s excellent detail in all of the blacks of this bird. To my eye it almost seems as if I can see every individual black feather in its well-defined glory and for me at least that almost never happens with blackbirds. At a larger file size and resolution those details in this bird are just stunning.

As a photographer I can take only partial credit for that fact. True, I chose to shoot in the early morning when getting good detail on blackbirds is much more likely and the high quality lens I shoot with is fully capable of capturing that detail when conditions are right. But it was largely a matter of luck – the bird had to be turned just right at the instant the shutter clicked.

So, even though this image may not be particularly interesting on some levels it shows me what is possible regarding detail in blackbirds. And that motivates me to keep striving.



40 comments to Yellow-headed Blackbird (and getting good detail in deep blacks)

  • Jean Haley

    Great detail. Love it!

  • Stephen Clayson


    I agree completely with the difficulty of the blacks. We keep trying and sometimes luck and a nice pose will save the day.



  • Robyn Kemp

    It’s certainly interesting to me! What a terrific picture of truly striking bird, one that we easterners don’t get to see. And I have a new appreciation of the challenge involved in capturing such a shot (as well those spectacular magpie pictures you post).

  • Charlotte Norton

    Marvelous shot Ron! Thanks for sharing!

  • Rick Nofsinger

    I have never seen this bird but it is beautiful to behold. Which lens did you use to capture this little guy? You took a wonderful picture. Great job!

  • Levi V.

    That is certainly a great one!
    I have never seen one of these birds. Someday… And I remember the same frustrations with cowbirds. I was shooting with a point and shoot though too.

  • Marty K

    Not just bird photographers! The first things I noticed were the bright yellow head and all the wonderful feather detail in the black! You’ve once again demonstrated your deftness with camera, light, and subject. Wow! The twisted twigs form a good foil for the more geometric patterns in the bird. I especially like the way the curve of the twigs on the right somewhat mirrors the curve of the bird’s chest and neck. The golden grasses in the background help the black to pop even more.

  • Zaphir Shamma

    I struggle with this too. Sun directly behind me and low…ok, thx. Didn’t know that, but will apply when I can. Appreciate the lesson and yes, you did a great job with the details in the black.

    • “Sun directly behind me and low…ok, thx”

      Zaphir, the reason for that is that shaded blacks show virtually no detail and with the sun high (and/or significantly to either side of you) many lower parts of the bird will be shaded by its own body. It isn’t quite so important with lighter colored birds because you can usually still see at least some detail in their shaded parts.

  • Laura Culley

    Ron, I have NO idea whatsoever why you would say, “even though this image may not be particularly interesting on some levels.” Even factoring in the reality that I’m SO easy with birds and bird images, this is a spectacular shot! The fine detail delights my soul. I just have to wonder how they DO that. Birds are just wondrous, especially in their diversity and the intricacy of their appearance(s). There’s a serious artist at work here–actually two. You qualify in this serious-artist paradigm, too! Then you go on to their songs and their beauty in flight, etc. Birds rock and that you bring outstanding images of this sheer raw beauty along with compelling and interesting text (the REAL word I want isn’t coming to me yet, so text will have to do for the moment) makes you a very special person!
    So quit thwapping yourself upside the head. I look forward to the joy you bring every morning and fully appreciate the effort you make to make it all happen. You begin my day with JOY! And this is a special shot with all the detail in those seemingly just drab old black feathers in the context of those wondrous violet hues in the seemingly just drab old brown feathers in my favorite redtail hawk.
    Sorry, but my brain isn’t working all that well this morning. I’m struggling to put what’s in my heart into words that work. Hopefully you guys can squeeze my thoughts from the words that are coming into my head 🙂

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, Laura.

      I said what I said about the image because there’s a few things going on here that generally don’t have a lot of appeal for some folks – including the somewhat distracting and busy background and the lack of really interesting behavior. But don’t get me wrong – I like the image too and for more reasons than just one.

      • Laura Culley

        Ron, I fully understand the pursuit of perfection. I’ve got that thing going, too. But that said, it’s a sheer delight to open your blog every morning–and Mia’s too! At this point, I’m choosing to focus on things that bring me joy and ignore all the rest. Life is good, but it’s also short. 🙂

    • Thank you Laura. Unhygenic as it is, you have taken the words from my mouth, and presented them in a beautifully polished (and detailed) way. The little things are HUGE in my world, and birds are right up there…

    • Patty Chadwick

      You tell him. Laura !!!!!!!!!!

      • Laura Culley

        No Ron, we’re not bullies. We just recognize your specialness. Evidently, you struggle with that concept…perfectionism aside 🙂 You ROCK!

  • Thanks for the photo and description Ron. In 12 years, I’ve only seen a Y-h Blackbird once in my area. For these birds, getting all the feather details is very difficult especially when there are other, lighter or brighter colors present like the yellow in this case, or whites. Its most difficult to get the exposure right, either one loses detail in the blacks, or one blows-out the white/yellows etc. You did a good job on this one.

  • Chris Sanborn

    I’m no photographer and still I can appreciate what you’ve captured here, Ron Those feathers look textured, like a plush velvet or something, just beautiful! Good on you for shooting at the right time of day and catching that pose. Have never seen one of these guys in person, so when you mentioned his “not pleasing” song, I had to listen to it on my iBird app. What a racket…hardly befitting the term “songbird”! But still an excellent-looking blackbird.

    • Chris – The Audubon Field Guide says this species ” may have the worst song of any North American bird, a hoarse, harsh scraping”. Sounds about right…

  • Jean Haley

    Striking bird, and you captured it well. Well done!

  • Art

    Good one! And the ability to shoot in RAW doesn’t hurt either.

    • It sure doesn’t, Art! Although in this case all I did in processing was increase overall exposure a bit and I could have done that just fine on the jpeg.

  • Elmer Deloso

    Wow, i never thought this kind existed in the continental US. I would have guessed this was taken in Latin America. Great pose! I know how challenging it is to capture one with a rare bird, let alone in great light & pose. Well done as usual!

    • Elmer, they’re not rare at all in my area and I’m thankful to have them around – despite their “song” which is far from pleasing to my ear…

  • Kris Eberhard

    It’s the first time for me to see this specie, and your photograph really illustrates the glossiness of its feathers , as well as their conformation—beautiful !

    • They’re very interesting birds on a variety of levels, Kris – wish you could experience them. They’re sure a challenge to photograph well though.

  • Dick Harlow

    Great shot with excellent black feather definition, which is very hard for many of us to accomplish.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  • Patty Chadwick

    One of the first things I noticed about this beautiful bird was the feather definition…having had so many black dogs, trying to take pictures of them was always very frustrating…even when I “posed” them on off-white drop cloths or sheets, all I got were big, back blobs…We don’t see these birds around here…images of them are a treat….

    • Thanks for mentioning that, Patty. One other reason I chose to post this photo is the fact that this species is rarely or never seen in large parts of North America so it’s a treat for many viewers to see even a photo of one.

      • Judy Gusick

        We do get a few of the yellow-headed blackbirds in spring most years about the time the red-wing blackbirds show up.

  • Judy Gusick

    Excellent detail, Ron! 🙂 Getting the detail in black birds and many other black critters that are “slick” is a challenge.