Fill Flash Photography

Why You Need Flash for Bird Photography !!

Capturing bird images is one of the more difficult genres of photography and sometimes we have to photograph birds in less than optimum conditions. In a perfect world birds would sit quite still, for at least 10 seconds in perfect light, until you take a number of perfect images. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, a bird just will not pose or move the way you would like and will stubbornly remain in shaded areas out of direct sunlight. And as far as my experience after shooting birds more than decade birds gives less than 5 seconds !!!

Most of the people exactly don’t know how to use it.  Only in rare cases I’ve flushed a bird because of my flash. This happened mostly in situations where the birds were cautious already e.g. when having larger groups of birds at a feeder. Besides that I had very few negative experiences with it. I’d even go so far to say that in most of the mentioned cases the noise of the shutter or the lens movement would have flushed the birds, too. 75 % of the birds just continue whatever they’re doing and another 20% give you a nice pose and a great headturn after the first shot. Generally, I’d say that the greater the bird, the less cautious it will be towards fill flash.

To me using fill flash is a great way of of increasing your chances to capture incredible bird images. Without flash you would often have to pack up your gear and go home, because the conditions do not allow decent images anymore. Those conditions might be shadow, bright sun light or overcast. Further down I will post a few sample images showing the great differences of using fill flash or not in the same situation.

Using fill flash saved me many images. Especially when shooting Birds with Dark sides I found it a great tool to show the iridescence of a desert wheatear head or to maintain detail in dark parts of the feathers. When shooting below trees it helps a lot to fight the shadows appearing on the birds.  When shooting at my feeder I only select overcast days and use fill flash to get nicely balanced and evenly exposed images. There are hundreds of situations where using fill flash saved my day and that’s also why I write this entry. I hope to be able to at least convince people that it is a necessary and “good” tool.

Below you see some images made with and without fill flash. The difference is very obvious I’d say. The upper image would be not usable and no Photoshop tool could make a decent image out of it. Whereas the lower images show a nicely exposed image. The only difference is that the lower images were made using fill flash. The rest of the settings stayed the same. Those are just Raw conversions and nothing else has been applied to them.

This Image was clicked at LRK , Gujrat in a extremely Hard sunlight and birds neck as well as eyes were barely seen due to harsh light .Oenanthe picata - The variable wheatear


Flash Settings and Setting Up the equipment .

The effect we are trying to achieve is an image that does not look “flashed.” Another plus is in many cases, fill-flash will put a catch-light in the bird’s eye. The difference in fill-flash and no fill-flash can be dramatic.

What you definitely need for fill flash photography besides a flash, of course, is a Better Beamer. It’s basically a piece of plastic that bundles the light and extends the reach. It also helps to decrease the effect of flashed looking eyes. I linked you a store where you can get it.

BE CAREFUL: If you leave the Better Beamer on your flash and direct it into the sun it will burn holes in your flash!

Now we come to interesting part. Chosing your flash settings….First of all you need to set your flash to Highspped synch. CHECK THIS often. If you accidentally turn it off you might end up with almost white images, because the max sync of most cameras ist 1/250. Usually we want to shoot at higher speeds and therefore need the flash set on “H” (highspeed) on Canon flashes. No idea what it is on Nikon flashes.

The next step ist chosing ETTL so that you can manually over or underexpose. On Canon 1 series bodies you can adjust the flash with your camera. If you wanna do so. Leave ETTL on +/- 0. When you press the lowest of the three buttons on top of the camera you can change the values, like you do with your normal under-/overexposing. (Does this work with Nikon or Canon xxD bodies?) This feauture is very helpful when your are in a blind and cannot reach out.

I don’t know why flash photography is such a big mystery. It’s pretty easy actually. In the beginning you want to set the flash to – 1 2/3. That’s a great standard value and is good 85% of the time. After some time you will eventually become familiar with the flash and after some test shootings you get the right feeling, which values are the right ones for the given moment. Never try to shoot with flash in morning or evening sun. It will kill the whole atmosphere and the images will look awful.

When your image looks too flashy at -1 2/3 then try -2  or -2 1/3. If you think it could use more flash then put in on – 1 1/3. Above that you should be careful. -1 is pretty strong and only suitable in some situations. I try to take advantage of the flash, but try to avoid images that look flashed. A perfect picture for me is when nobody sees that it was flashed, but it was 🙂 You have to be careful with dark backgrounds. Due to the low exposure you get flashed looking images very easily, even at -3.

I use fill flash mainly in situations with difficult light like shadow, overcast or harsh sunlight. It balances the images and helps you to maintain details in dark parts. If I have clear evening skies, I never take the flash out.

I will post some images and write the flash settings to them and describe the given situation and why I used this setting.

clear skies, early morning in light shadow in Sela pass Lerwa lerwa -The snow partridge. Here only a tad of fill flash was needed. Thus I chose  Flash -2. Camera +/- 0

The Breast of this Lerwa was in almost Dark and Fill flash works wonder for this.

In below Image , Heavy overcast, almost rain. However, a light green background and yellows on the bird you don’t want to blow out…. Flash -1 2/3. Camera  +/- 0Abroscopus schisticeps- The black-faced warbler

Later and with sunlight in the background. So I gave  Flash -1 1/3 Camera +/- 0Chalcophaps indica- The common emerald dove

So why do I need an additional Battery ?

When we are shooting with cameras that easily make 5 or more fps we are facing the problem that the flash cannot keep up with that high frame rate. So only every third images or so is flashed. That’s not necessarily bad, but can be pretty annoying, when shooting under conditions that require flash. At below 1/160 the VARTA will do the job just fine and almost all images will be flashed, even without additional power supply. However, when we reach greater shutter speeds, we definitely need an extra source of power. Even with the strongest batteries we will not be able to have every image flashed, but the vast majority. At 1/800 you can shoots 5-6 fps and the flash will fire in every frame. At 8 or 10 fps the flash just cannot keep up with the reloading time. I would highly recommend the Varta 2700, it’s strong, expensive and heavy, but worth it. At least for me. Doing serious flash photography without additional power doesn’t do it for me. With a turbo battery you are able to influence your images to a great degree, without it’s just a matter of luck, whether the “perfect” pose was flashed or not.

I Highly recommend Varta 2700 rechargeable batteries that easily lasts for 800+ shots and i generally carry 20+ batteries , for extended shooting

With Canon 600 EX RT.


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