Equipment Guide to Wildlife Flash Photography
As I was photographing Great Blue Herons nesting on a small island I ran into a problem; the trees in front of the lagoon blocked most of the morning light. Mornings are the best time to photograph the nesting birds because the island is closer to the shore; therefore, you need to find out the best solution for this scenario. You have three choices: expose for the bird and have an overexposed background, expose for the background and have an underexposed bird or expose for the background and use fill flash on the bird to have a balanced exposure. As you guessed I utilized the third option.
Most wildlife photographers undervalue the importance of having/ using a flash and, in my opinion, is a huge mistake. Utilizing a speedlight allows you to add some fill flash to a photo or for total illumination of a particular subject. Have you ever wanted to add a little light when you’re photographing an animal? Utilizing a little fill flash will give you pleasing results by adding some life to the image by the addition of a catch light in the eyes. Getting the right gear for flash can be confusing, so hopefully I’m going to demystify the setup.
The most important piece of equipment is a flash because if you don’t have one… When buying a flash for Canon, Nikon, buy the speedlight with the most power/ fastest recycle time. Even though Canon recently announced the 600- EXII-RT the original version is adequate for nature photography. For Nikon, I heard the SB-910 (replaced by the SB-5000) is a reliable unit. When looking for a flash the most important features are recycle time and power output. If your photographing an animal in continuous frames/sec, then a faster flash will be able to illuminate more frames compared to another unit with a slower recycle time.
To increase your recycle time Energizer Lithium Ion batteries work the best, however there are additional accessories to increase the recycle time/ increase the number of flashes per set of batteries. Both Canon and Nikon offer external battery packs. After using a Canon CP-E4N (Nikon equivalent: SD-9) I was unsatisfied. The unit offers marginal benefit and is overpriced. After searching for a solution I discovered the Goxox Propac PB 960. This unit is amazing because the recycle time is greatly enhanced, the battery lasts forever, it is robust and the unit is small/ portable. I have owned two units for a while and I never use my flash without them.
When you’re photographing any subject, generally, you should avoid direct flash from the hot shoe of your camera. You can try this on any person and you will see that the results yield harsh lighting/ create problems, such as redeye/ steel eye. To correct for this problem you want to get the flash off the camera, so the light the flash puts out isn’t reflected directly off your subject and back into your sensor causing the red/steel eye. After years of having my Canon OC-E3 off- camera shoe cords break I now use Vello OCS-C1.5. Save your money and buy the Vello (Vello makes a Nikon alternative/ the authentic Nikon is the SC-28).
Now you can get your flash off- camera, however when using a long lens you need somewhere to place the flash. If you are using a Wimberley WH-200 I recommend the F-9 bracket. Also, I recommend purchasing the M-6 extension arm. Using this combination allows you to place the flash high above the camera reducing your chances for red/ steel eye. Some alternatives if you are not using a Wimberley WH-200 are the Wimberley F-1, Wimberley F6 Sidekick and Jobu FB-TM2.
Now, you have your flash off- camera and increased your recycle time. The last piece of gear you need is the Better Beamer Flash Extender. The Better Beamer increases the flash output two stops by taking the beam of light emitted from the flash and concentrating it onto your subject utilizing the Freznel lens. For the Canon 600-EX I/II-RT use the FX3, and for the Nikon SB-910 use the FX6.
For additional accessories, I recommend Dot Line AA Battery Case to store your spare AA’s (useful when flying with new regulations), LensCoat BeamerKeeper pouch to store the Better Beamer, LensCoat Better Beamer Camo Cover, a spare Visual Echoes Fresnel lens, spare Vello off- camera show cord and if you are a fan of rechargeable batteries some Sanyo Eneloops.
The impact of flash photography on wildlife has never been proven to cause any problems. For sensitive species I avoid rapid fire just as a precaution. Doing this has allowed me to photograph subjects without seeing any behavioral changes.
Overall, using a flash has allowed me to capture subjects in certain scenes that wouldn’t be possible without the addition of artificial light. My favorite use of a flash is fill light; if you do it right the photo does not look like a flash helped illuminate the scene. Below are some examples of lighting; I hope they inspire you to enhance your photography by using a speedlight.
When I was photographing at this awesome Bared Owl nest eight feet above the ground the challenge was that the nest was located in a densely concentrated area of trees that surrounded the nest. Therefore, the quality of morning light was subpar. I decided to expose for the background and use flash to illuminate the baby creating a nice catch light in the eye.
Before the sun rises I am a fan of the dark blue coloration of the sky. I had this image in my head for a while, and to capture the photo I exposed for the dark blue sky. After locating the owl, I managed to stand on the top of a concrete camping grill to get a more eye- level perspective. Exposing for the sky caused the owl to be a silhouette; I used the flash to illuminate the owl 100%.
I loved photographing baby Cardinals, and I had the privilege of having multiple nests. For this photo, the Cardinal nested in a perfect location for photographers because there was a hole in the bush. This hole allowed me to photograph through it (the parents used this area for exiting/ entering). The nest was in heavy shade and the background was in the harsh Florida sun. Therefore, exposing for the background and illuminating the family with a flash yielded the best results. This is also a perfect example of birds not responding to artificial light.
This Woodpecker nest was in a tree that received no direct sun. For this photo, I arrived early in the morning and used the flash to illuminate the baby 100%.