10 points about fill flash for bird photography

May 20, 2020  •  3 Comments

Several people have asked me lately about how I use flash especially when photographing birds. I had been think of writing a blog for my website so I decided to write about the basics of fill flash for bird photography. I am not going to cover how to operate various flash guns. What ever flash guns you use they will likely do the job. Read about basic functions like changing modes from manual to TTL, how to change power and exposure compensation ( Remember only change exposure compensation in either the flash or the camera, not both), how to zoom.  I will discuss some accessories you should have later. By hovering with your cursor on the images you can read some tips about the corresponding image.

  1. The goal is not to produce a 200 page document and to keep it concise and simple. To give people a starting point. Flash is an amazing extra source of light that when done right can add so much to your image. It can be used in a variety of ways, as fill flash, as the main light ( I love that , hopefully i will talk about it one day), multiple flash setups. The list goes on and on. This blog will cover basic fill flash for song birds. Summer tanagerMy goal here was to take an image without using the ambient light as much as possible. If you wanna take any thing from this blog, take this, expose for the back ground in camera and use the flash to light up the foreground making sure not to burn the image.
  2. Well first thing is first,  when not to use flash. When light is great such as at dusk or dawn,  try not to use flash for the most part. Unless you want to photograph a bird that is back light and the goal is not to capture a silhouette. When your subject is in great light and the back ground is in the shade it is best to avoid using flash. Just expose for the subject and this will likely render the back ground completely dark making for some nice dramatic image. Some subjects tolerate flash well while other are spooked by it and yet some could not care less. If your bird is scared off flash, leave it alone and turn the flash off.  Yellow WarblerYellow WarblerDo I use flash all the time with song birds, absolutely not. For this image I did not use flash at all.
  3. Flash when used right can add some nice sparkle to the eyes, it can fill shadows, add contrast, give your image a pop, freeze motion, balance exposure and make it more even, allows us to shoot in dark places with certain limitations, create surreal dramatic images. Blue Winged WarblerBlue Winged WarblerThe use of flash allowed allowed a nice cathc light and bring out some detail in the birds plumage. Despite the flash the wings were just too fast here to freeze.
  4. Two basic modes are manual mode and exposure compensation mode otherwise known as TTL (Various brands name it differently). You honestly do not need any other mode for fill flash.  Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerNashville Warbler photographed using flash to create some dramatic light. Flash was responsible for about 80-90% of the light. it was also angled down on the bird to give it an appearance of natural light coming from above and to preserve some shadows.
  5. Manual flash is when the power is decided by the photographer. Full power is 1/1 and as you decrease to 1/2 , 1/4. 1/8, 1/16 etc you decrease exposure by 1 stop for the most part if your subject is static ( Remember Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed do not affect the flash out put) . Now this is all good however If your subject moves it is not easy to measure the correct flash out put due to light fall off which is not linear. So If you have to make these calculations the chances are you will miss the shot and the bird will fly away. Remember generally speaking 1/1 equals 1/880, 1/2 equals 1/1100, 1/4 equals 1/2550, 1/16 equals 1/10000, 1/32 equals 1/20000, 1/64 equals 1/35700 and 1/128 equals 1/38,500. These values are for the Nikon SB-910. Others will mostly fall in this ball park. So use Manual mode when the subject is static and not moving for e.g birds on a feeder,  set up etc Black Throated Green WarblerBlack Throated Green WarblerThe goal was to photograph the Black throated Green warbler on this perch. I set my flash to manual 1/16 power to light the perch. I had set the back ground exposure to be dark on purpose as I was going for a low key look
  6. The other is the automatic mode also know as the TTL mode. Nikon has several forms of this automatic mode and to me one does not give you significant advantage over the other. In TTL mode the camera sends a brief pulse called the pre flash, this is bounced back and the camera’s metering system calculates the distance and the returning light, the flash is than fired properly to expose the scene. If you are underexposed the flash out put will be more , if you are over exposed it will be less. This can obviously be changed by flash exposure compensation.  Since most birds are bouncing around in the woods, the distance is changing, if you want to photograph them as they bounce around the forest it is best to use a TTL/automatic mode while you have a set exposure for the back ground. Keeping your exposure in the ball park area of where you want it to be, the camera will determine the distance and the amount of flash needed to properly expose the scene. This can be tweaked to your liking using exposure compensation. A good starting point is around negative 2 exposure. Again use your flash guns TTL mode for moving targets, where the distance changes from the camera frequently.  Northern ParulaI wanted to get a low key image here . I set up my exposure. I deliberately under exposed the back ground. Than I started with flash in TTL at -1 and this is the result i got.
  7. How to set up flash exposure. Now that we know how these two main modes work, It is time to set up the flash. Again I urge you to start with manual  mode for static and TTL for moving targets.  There is always some ambient light when photographing during the day time (after all that is the time when we photograph most birds). When you add flash into the mix you are now working with two light sources the ambient light and the flash. The goal is to balance them and tweak one or the other to create that affect.  So think of this as two separate exposure. One has to set exposure for both of these lights. First and foremost turn the flash off. I expose for the ambient light or the back ground. You want a darker back ground  under expose, if a brighter back ground over expose. Once you are satisfied with your exposure, fire that baby up. If in TTL a good starting point is to start with negative 2 compensation and see what you get. The branch should have some natural shadows, the goal is to maintain natural shadows.  It should give a little sparkle in the eye, fill but still preserve shadows, makes the plumage pop and sharp. No blown highlights. Its not hard to see an over utilized flash. The Hermit thrush is a classic example of underexposing way too much in camera and than not paying attention to the flash compensation in TTL, the result is an overly flashed look.  Hermit ThrushI had actually wanted to photograph a low key look for this Hermit thrush. There was absolutely no light in the forest and it was raining. I under exposed more than I should have and left the flash on TTL ( Back in those days I was not using much manual flash). You can clearly see the over powering flashed look. Do not do this!
  8. Do not be afraid of using slow shutter speeds. If you leave the back ground under exposed in a forest environment and use TTL flash the likelihood is that the cameras metering system with increase the flash output,  resulting in a washed out bird with blown out highlights with a black back ground. On the contrary if you expose properly for the ambient light the small amount of fill flash can lead to that adequate sharpness despite slow shutter speeds. One may be able to negate this to a certain degree with exposure compensation for the flash but it has it’s limitations. Again a good starting point is negative 2 compensation while in TTL mode Yellow WarblerPhotographed at 1/100 of a sec. The flash was at 1/8th power and that translates into 1/5000 of a sec roughly.
  9. So one last time , I would use manual mode for static subject/constant light and TTL for moving targets/ changing light. Set exposure for the back ground in camera without flash turned on. Once you have set exposure for the back ground turn on the flash and start at Negative 2 exposure if in TTL. For manual it all depends how far the subject is ( Normally for birds 1/4-1/16 power is a decent area to start start) and adjust from there.  Green Crowned BrilliantFlash can be used any way you like but remember it is light and you have to use it to expose how you want your viewers to see your vision for that image. Use it wisely and in short duration.
  10. The following accessories will help you maximize the potential of your flash and song bird photography in my opinion.
  • I always leave camera and flash in high speed sync
  • You will need a flash bracket to move your flash away from your camera, off camera works best.
  • An off camera TTL cord for your brand
  • A better beamer or similar device to extend the reach of your flash.
  • An External Battery pack to help recharge the flash faster and keep a higher frame rate.
  • Last but not the least is the Tripod that can support all this equipment. Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerRemember expose for the back ground how oyu want it in your photograph and than use the flash to expose the fore ground. The flash can be used in manual or TTL mode. I recommend if your starting out to use in TTL and start with negative 2 compensation.

Remember you do not need flash all the time. Use it wisely.

Happy Shooting !!!
 

 



Comments

Swati Barman(non-registered)
Thank u. So flash for bird photography is needed mostly for night or lowlight daytime ? Like 7 of your pictures seem like they were taken at nighttime; or am I mistaken & they were taken at lowlight daytime ?
shaheen fatima(non-registered)
Thanks for this information, sharing is caring. Love your work.
Alex Guerrero(non-registered)
Simple and too the point, thank you
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