Frustrations of Bird Photography at Below Freezing Temps – Heat Waves Suck

/, Box Elder County, Rough-legged Hawks, Utah/Frustrations of Bird Photography at Below Freezing Temps – Heat Waves Suck

Frigid winter scenery in Box Elder County, UtahFrigid winter scenery in Box Elder County, Utah

There have been days & days of cloudy weather since our Christmas snow storm which has caused me to photograph mostly close to home at my local pond when sucker holes have opened up and let the sun shine through.

Yesterday was supposed to be mostly sunny but bitter cold so my friend Ron and me headed north hoping to find some raptors. As we headed north on I-15 the temps began to drop, now when we left Salt Lake City the temps were already in the single digits but then they dropped below freezing and continued to fall. At 8:41 am at the Corrine exit on I-15 the temperature was -14°F and in the few miles it took to get to the bridge over the Bear River just before Corrine it dropped to -22°F.

Box Elder County at -22°FBox Elder County at -22°F

It was frigid! But the sun was shining and there wasn’t even the slightest breeze. The scenery was gorgeous and the snow blanketed the ground and the Promontory Mountain Range to the west. I love this view during all seasons of the year but the starkness during the winter is remarkable.

I counted nine Golden Eagles, more than a dozen Rough-legged Hawks, several Red-tailed Hawks, one Peregrine Falcon, pheasants, Mule Deer, a small covey of Gray Partridges, a few Chukars, kestrels and Horned Larks. I even photographed a Rough-legged Hawk with prey so close it filled my frame. So we saw plenty of birds.

Rough-legged Hawk on a snow-covered hillRough-legged Hawk on a snow-covered hill

I took a couple hundred images of the birds I saw yesterday. But when I focused on the first hawk I knew I was having problems with focusing, the focus slipped in and out, it did that with every bird I photographed yesterday. Shooting from inside a vehicle during the winter and extremely cold temps helps to keep the photographer warmer than they would be standing outside but it can also cause problems because heat can come up from under the vehicle and cause problems with focusing. There wasn’t even the slightest breeze yesterday to push the heat waves away.

Every single image I took yesterday was way softer than they would have been had it not been for those heat waves coming up the side of the pickup. To say I was disappointed is putting it lightly. I had frame filling images of Golden Eagles in trees and in flight, all soft. The close up Rough-legged Hawk on prey, all soft. Red-tails in flight, all soft.

This is just one of the many frustrations that can plague bird photographers, bird photography isn’t easy. There are plenty of sites on line that also state that heat waves can be problematic with longer lenses.

And if you step outside of the mobile blind the birds fly off immediately the majority of the time, besides I don’t like making them expend the energy to fly away when the temps are so cold and they are struggling to stay alive.

I included just this one image of a Rough-legged Hawk on a snowy hill because I thought seeing it in this setting was lovely but I had to sharpen it far more in post processing than I ever like to do.

But the scenery was wonderful and it felt marvelous to see the sun shining again. Even though I didn’t get the images I hoped for it was still a great morning.

Life is good.


A Warning to Long Lens Shooters: Heat Wave Distortion

Are Heat Waves Destroying Your Image Quality?


  1. Utahbooklover January 9, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Yes, Brigham City got very cold and a total of two feet of snow but now it’s rain 🙂

  2. Bruce Hall January 8, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    It doesn’t have to be heat. As a surveyor many times I have been set up with an instrument in the middle of the road and lost my target because a car drove by and just threw a ton of turbulence. What was a crisp circular prism now becomes a glowing ball in Brownian motion.

  3. Bob mcpherson January 7, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Dedication, Mia. You have lots of it. It will overcome any scientific problems you may encounter

  4. Elephant's Child January 7, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    That is an incredibly beautiful scene. And here on the hot side of the world, more than welcome. Heat waves do indeed suck.

  5. April Olson January 7, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for the explanation. I was frustrated with myself for not getting sharp photos a few days ago. I wondered if the camera was not operating well in 4 degrees.

  6. Heather January 7, 2017 at 10:46 am

    Thanks so much for this. I often wondered when I had such great light why my pictures weren’t turning out, and this makes total sense. I did have one question for you, though. Do you turn off the vehicle when you are shooting or do you find the noodle absorbs the shake of the vehicle when it’s left on?

  7. Patty Chadwick January 7, 2017 at 8:35 am

    -14, -22!!! You and your friend, Ron, have got to be NUTS!!!! I’m surprised your equipment even works…much less your fingers…. I find the images are still beautiful, even if they disappoint you. I hope you had some hot coffee with you and didn’t get frost bite….

    • Mia McPherson January 7, 2017 at 9:32 am

      Yeah, I am a little crazy. Feeding my bird photography addiction might be very nutty too!

      I had a bit of hot coffee with me but finished it off pretty quick in those cold temps.

  8. Ed MacKerrow January 7, 2017 at 8:23 am

    Nice images Mia! I know how beautiful Bear River can be on those days of the deep cold.

    The problem is turbulence caused by temperature differentials. These can be caused by heat and by cold. So, even if you left the warm truck and setup outside, you will still have challenges with turbulence. I have noticed this outside and away from my vehicle in Larmar Valley in Yellowstone at -27F. I did some controlled experiments with the autofocus in Larmar Valley and was amazed at how bad it got, nothing was in focus. I have noticed similar effects photographying wild horses across a long path length, both in the heat of the summer and the cold of winter.

    Being inside the warm vehicle won’t help, other than keeping warm. It would probably just exacerbate the problems from turbulence.

    I think back to my earlier life as a scientist studying optics. We did experiments with long lenses (telescopes) across the floor of the Nevada desert and adjusted parameters of the optics to mitigate the many different “cells” of air at different temperatures. An analog might be to think of the air as a “tapioca” like consistency with different cells having different temperatures. The index of refraction of air is dependent on temperature. So a light ray gets bent every which way between you (camera) and the subject (bird). This causes “shimmer”.

    Note the cells of varying index of refraction are independent of your vehicle. There is however a time of day when the ground temperature and air temperature equalize. At this time the turbulence is at a minimum and we found a huge improvement in our optical measurements. I notice the same when photographing wildlife. There is a brief time window (~ 15 min) where the atmospheric optics are ideal. In the summer it is usually after dinner when the outside air “feels” very still and comfortable.

    The longer the path length, the more of the effect you will see. So on shots like your great full frame capture of the Roughie, the effect is minimal.

    The mirage effect is also in play. Even uniform layers (no tapioca) of air with a gradient of temperature will bend light rays. Showing the reflection of the sky or clouds on the ground. Or giving a view of distant mountains way past the horizon. This site on atmospheric optics is worth checking out.

    I hope this diatribe is useful, you can see you also sparked some interests I have in optics. Ok, back to sleep, it is way too cold outside 🙂

    • Mia McPherson January 7, 2017 at 9:25 am

      Thanks much for your thoughtful and informative reply Ed. While inside the pickup I could visibly see the distortion in the air from the heat coming from the underside of the pickup and the warm air from inside the cab escaping to the outside. I should have just stopped shooting after I couldn’t obtain focus on the first bird reliably, I knew what was happening. If there had only been a small breeze it might have dissipated the heavy waves of heat coming out from under the pickup to allow for sharper shots.

      I’ve seen the mirage effect in images I have taken on hot summer days, it messes with images quality as much as what happened yesterday. And shooting across hot roads… oh man they can make images horrible which is why I always pull over close to the side of the road where my subject is located, it makes no sense to me to shoot across a hot road and I don’t do it myself.

      On another note, your description of it being like tapioca has made me hungry for tapioca, I love it!

  9. Steven Kessel January 7, 2017 at 7:09 am

    We experience the same problem down here in warm (and much of the year, blazing hot) and sunny Arizona. Not only do we have an issue with vehicle-produced heat waves, but as the weather warms, we also get heat waves rising from the ground. I’ve had the experience more than once in which I’ve taken 400 or more photos and nearly all of them are unusably soft due to air disturbed by heat.

    • Mia McPherson January 7, 2017 at 9:29 am

      Steven, we get this effect from our hot summers too. I’m sorry you have also suffered lower image quality due to the effects of heat waves.

Comments are closed.