How to photograph New Zealand tūī

How to photograph New Zealand tui

In this post, I’m going to give you a few tips on how to photograph New Zealand tui.
Most of the images used in this post are for sale so you can click on the image to see the full size and additional information.


New Zealand tūī (correct Maori spelling) were once a relative rarity for those who seldom step foot in our forests and isolated coastlines.
However, in the last few decades, in many urban areas and even city centres, the tui has staged an amazing comeback.
The combination of pest control and the planting of native trees and shrubs by forward-thinking councils has provided food and safety for the tui.
Tui have taken full advantage and invaded to the point that now nearly everyone who has nectar-bearing trees in their back yard also has resident tui. Our city streets and parks are also alive with tui.

In my city, Upper Hutt, the kōwhai trees planted by our local council line the streets and are teeming with competing tui tribes.
Native Flax (harakeke) also planted and maintained by our local council provides nectar for the birds at around the same time as the kowhai flowers die off. So I am blessed with tui action right through from early spring into early autumn.

Hopefully, you live in a township or city where you have kōwhai trees and flax handy.
At this time of the year (September), finding tui will not be hard if you are blessed to have kōwhai trees nearby.
However, getting really good photos of them is a completely different story.


Chasing the tui colour  

There are some very simple but critical rules to follow if you want to be rewarded with great tui images.

Tui have very shiny iridescent and highly reflective feathers. This means that photographing them in direct bright harsh sunlight causes them to look like a black, dull-coloured bird.

So… if it’s sunny outside, stay busy doing something else during the brighter portion of the day.
Save your energy and shutter count for either early morning or late afternoon/evening when the light is muted and soft, then you will get the best colour.
Soft muted light will bring out the rich green, blue and purple colours along with that all-important fine feather detail that turns a snapshot into a great image. Fine feather detail is what every serious bird photographer is looking for in their images.

Muted soft light showcases the wonderful colours of tui perfectly

Shooting in harsh, direct bright light will nearly always produce disappointment.

Taken in bright harsh direct light, the tui becomes an almost blackbird with little feather detail.


How to photograph New Zealand tui on overcast days

Overcast days often provide the best overall conditions, but they have their own challenges. Low light means slower shutter speeds and high ISO settings.

Often overcast days can extend your photographic sessions. This is on condition that the birds are shaded by a protective canopy of leaves and flowers. The colourful kōwhai tree is ideal on bright overcast days.

Those bright white skies are not the photographer’s friend.
I know bird photographers that simply will not venture out on such days.
Shooting tui or any bird on a cloudy day with the white sky in the background can destroy your image and lead to disappointment.
Everything might look great through the viewfinder but the camera’s sensor does not see light the same way your natural eyesight does.


The image below was taken in overcast conditions with a bright white sky in the background and is lacking colour and image detail.
Although the bright white sky takes up a similar-sized portion as the more muted light of the trees in the overall image, that bright light will always dominate the exposure. The overwhelming light from the white sky will influence the camera’s exposure system.

The experienced photographer can try to compensate by manually overriding the camera’s recommended exposure settings. This is what I did with the image below (with little success). I forced the camera to shoot 2 stops over the camera’s recommended exposure settings using a technique called exposure compensation. However, the bird still looks lacklustre and flat.

How to photograph New Zealand tui

If you leave the camera to sort out the exposure on its own, it is going to see that overwhelming light in the background and try to even out the exposure values. This always means that your main subject will end up dark and underexposed as in the example below.

how to photograph New Zealand tui

The bright sky background has caused the camera to underexpose the bird.

Now compare the two images above with this one below which was not subjected to harsh direct light. The difference in colour and detail is obvious.

How to photograph New Zealand tui


The lowdown on how to photograph New Zealand tui in overcast conditions

Focus on tui that are low down in the tree and ignore those birds high up with the sky behind them. Also, focus on the birds that are on the inside of the tree, well under the canopy.
This way the camera can record all the detailed information to create a pleasing image.
Equally, if you are shooting on flax bushes, position yourself to make sure you are shooting level at the bird and have a solid background below the skyline.


The bird below was shot late in the morning and the sun had climbed high into the sky.
However, the advantage of having the bird inside the tree, meant that it was sheltered from direct sunlight under the tree canopy. This meant that the colour and fine details were preserved.

Thie tui below is also under the canopy of a large kōwhai tree in bright overcast conditions. Yet there was still enough light to capture the colour and fine detail including the bee in its beak.

This tūī has scored some bonus protein in the form of a honey bee which also carries the nectar it has gathered.


What you gear do you need?

One rewarding aspect of photographing tui is that you don’t need an expensive super long telephoto lens to get awesome shots.
A lens in the 70-200 mm range will provide you with ample opportunities.
Most modern digital cameras will handle ISO 800 nowadays so that will help keep your shutter speed up and provide you once again with ample opportunities.


As I write this post, the kōwhai trees are in full flower and filled with tui.
However, when the flowers first appear on the kōwhai trees don’t be disappointed if the tūī are not present in good numbers and feasting on the flowers. It normally takes a couple of weeks after the flowers first appear before they produce nectar sweet enough to prove irresistible to tui.
Give it time and they will come.


How to Photograph New Zealand tui workshops

I offer half-day workshops over the spring and summer months that focus specifically on the tui in the Wellington region.

I can cater for small groups up to three people, both during the week and weekends.
So if you would like to book a workshop please contact me for more details.

I will leave the last word up to the diabolical tūī.

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