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Wildlife Photographers Ultimate Guide to Using Flash

Written by Thomas C


Posted on February 10 2019

Wildlife Photographers, Nature Photographers, and Bird Photographers Ultimate Guide to Using Flash 

Thomas | Alotech
Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech

One of the greatest pieces of equipment that I utilize in my workflow as a wildlife photographer is a flash when photographing animals in various scenes. Flashes can have a profound impact on our final images, yet many wildlife photographers do not consider a flash as something they should use in wildlife and nature photography. 

But why?

Many of us when we first started our journey as wildlife photographers were intimidated by all the buttons, the functionality, and the accessories we needed to use a flash.

Today, I want to help you out with the equipment you need to get the most out of flash photography for wildlife as well as demystify how you can properly choose the right settings for your flash.

Choosing the Right Flash Equipment for Wildlife Photographers

Having the right equipment when you use speedlites is critical because certain pieces of equipment will prevent red eye or steel eye as well a provide you with functionality like more power and faster recycling times.

Let’s start with the one piece of equipment you need for flash photography, the flash itself. Regardless if you are a Canon, Nikon, or Sony user when buying a flash choose the speedlite with the most power and the fastest recycle times for the system you use.

The reason we want a flash with the ability to recycle at full power faster is because if you are photographing a bird like a Great Blue Heron and the bird starts to show us some interesting behavior, like trying to attract a mate, we don’t want to take one image and have to wait five seconds for the flash to be ready again.

Starting with Canon, the flash that currently is the most powerful and recycles the fastest is the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT. For Nikon the SB-5000 AF Speedlite is the most powerful and for Sony the Sony HVL-F60RM is the most powerful flash for that camera system.

If you already have a flash with the fastest recycle times and you are still looking for ways to shorten your speedlites recycle time, then you should consider Energizer Lithium Ion Batteries. I have used so many different brands of batteries, and I have personally found that my recycle times are noticeably shorter and my batteries last longer when I use Energizer.  

Another way to improve the recycle time of your flash is to use something called an external battery pack. Both Canon and Nikon offer external battery packs, however I am not going to lie to you. After using a Canon CP-E4N (Nikon equivalent: SD-9) extensively in the field I have found it drastically overpriced with lackluster results. Simply, it was a waste of my money.

After searching for an external battery pack that would give me a noticeable benefit of faster recycle times I found the Godox Propac PB960. I have been recommending the Godox for years because it is an amazing unit. Not only are my recycle times noticeably faster, but the external battery pack is rechargeable and lasts forever as well as being portable & robust with good quality cords compared to Canon. I love my Godox so much that I own two of them, and I will never use my flash without them.

You might have used flash before, and experienced red eye or steel eye that can be a pain to remove in Lightroom & Photoshop depending on the severity. When you’re photographing any animal you should avoid direct flash from the hot shoe of your camera.

Just try sticking your flash on the hot shoe of your camera and photographing any animal and you will see that the results yield harsh lighting and create problems, such as redeye or steel eye.

To correct for this problem you want to get the flash off the camera, so the light the flash puts out is not reflected directly off the animal’s eye back into your sensor causing red/steel eye.

To get your flash off-camera you need an accessory called an off-camera shoe cord. After years of having my Canon OC-E3 off- camera shoe cords break, I now use Vello. Save your money and buy the Vello (Vello makes a Nikon alternative/ the authentic Nikon is the SC-28).

Now that we got your flash off camera we need somewhere to mount your flash when you are using a long lens. 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.

Here is the gear I use:

Some alternatives if you are not using a Wimberley WH-200 are the Wimberley F-1, Wimberley F6 Sidekick, and Jobu Flash Bracket

Now that you have your flash off-camera and decreased you recycle times with the external battery pack there is just one more important accessory you need; the accessory is called the Better Beamer. 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 a Freznel lens. For the Canon 600-EX II-RT use the FX-3, and for the Nikon SB-5000 use the FX-6.

FX-3 for Canon

FX-6 for Nikon

Some other accessories that are not needed, but are useful, are the Malamute 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.

Some wildlife photographers are against using flash, however 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.


Choosing the Correct Settings for Your Flash

As wildlife photographers we generally use our flashes for either providing fill light, or providing the main light.

I personally like to mostly use my flash the as a fill light. Fill light is simply using the the sun as our main light source, and using our speedlights to add just a little bit of additional lighting to the scene that blends in naturally.

Using our flash as a main light is simply when a majority of the lighting that is illuminating the animal we are photographing comes from the speedlite. In other words, if our flash did not go off, then the image would be really dark or black.

Before we talk about settings for you flash lets go over some basics. 

Flash Basics

Flash sync speed is simply the fastest shutter speed you can set your camera in which the sensor can be fully illuminated by the pulse of light from your flash. The maximum sync speed can vary from camera to camera, and on most cameras the maximum shutter speed is generally around 1/250 of a second. Shooting in Hight Speed Sync will allow you to use a higher shutter speed.

Flash zoom represents the spread of the light that comes out of your flash. Just like lens focal lengths, the larger the zoom the more concentrated the light comes out of your flash. If you are using a Better Beamer the recommended zoom setting is 35mm. If you are not using a Better Beamer, then choosing a zoom setting like 135mm or 200mm will allow your flash to concentrate the cone of light onto the animal that is a distance from you. However, if you are close to the animal, then you might want to opt for a lower zoom setting.

When you use flash your shutter speed controls how much the ambient light, or light from the environment, enters your photo. Simply put, you shutter speed directly impacts the amount of ambient light that enters your photo.

Therefore, the slower the shutter speed the more ambient light in your photo. 

Aperture allows us to control the flash output. If you are using your flash in manual mode and decide to shoot with a wider aperture you will let more of the flash into your image. However, if you are using an automatic mode for your flash called TTL (through the lens metering) then your flash will automatically adjust the power of your flash to impact your image the same regardless of what aperture you select. In other words, if you are using TTL and decide to stop down your aperture your camera will increase the power of your flash to compensate for this.

Just remember this: Aperture controls the power of your flash and shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light that is let into your final image.

Setting the Exposure of Your Flash is Easier Than You Think

The first step to using flash is to set your exposure for your scene, just like you do every time you photograph an animal. Then, you need to determine if you want your flash to provide fill light or be be the main light. For fill light what we want to do is set our cameras to properly expose parts of the scene. For example, when I was photographing this Barred Owl chick the background of the scene was fully illuminated from the sun while the nest was partially in the shade. To set my exposure I properly exposed for the background. Now, to get the Barred Owl chick to be properly exposed I used my flash to fill in that part of the scene to match the ambient light in the background. I prefer to use my flash in manual mode (M) because I know the output from my flash remains constant as I photograph a scene.

To use your flash in manual mode all you have to do is adjust the power. The most powerful setting is 1/1, and just like setting your exposure you can select the power in 1/3 increments. The main power settings are: 1/128, 1/64, 1/32, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and 1/1.

Because we can not really use a light meter when we are photographing wildlife, when you start out using speedlites setting the power will be more trial and error until you get experience. For example, the proper exposure for the background in my Barred Owl chick photo was f/5.0, 1/250, with an ISO of 800. The power I used for my flash was 1/32 of a power. Using flash in manual mode just involves some guesswork. For example, a good starting point for you could be around 1/2 power. Then, just look at your image on the LCD and adjust the power of your flash until the flash power looks natural and not overbearing. For the Barred Owl 1/2 was too bright making the photo look unnatural, so I lowered the flash output to 1/32 power.

Barred Owl Chick | Florida | Canon 1DX | Canon 600mm f/4 IS II | 600mm, f/5.0, 1/250. ISO 800 | Fill Flash

When you are setting the power setting for your speedlite flash keep in mind that the more light the flash puts out the lower the flash duration. Flash duration is simply the speed of the light your speedlite puts out that can freeze the animal you are photographing. For example, the flash duration of the 600 EX-RT II Speedlite is around 1/400 of a second at full power. Therefore, if you are photographing songbirds flying you will see motion blur. Additionally, the flash duration for the Canon flash at 1/128 power is around 1/15540 of a second, according to John Moran, allowing you to freeze animals like Hummingbirds flying.

If you decide that you want your flash to be the main light source you still need to set your camera exposure settings according to the scene you are photographing. For example, you can set your cameras exposure to not let any light in from the scene and to paint the light with your flashes. This is really useful when you are using multiple speedlites. When I was photographing Rockhopper Penguins showering it was an overcast day with a gray sky. I found the sky boring, so I wanted to focus on the mini shower created from the topographic characteristics of that location. 

I set my aperture to f/6.3 because I wanted the rocks in the background to be completely in focus. Then, I used a shutter speed of 1/160 of a second with an ISO of 100. If I took a photo without my speedlites, then the image would be really dark. Next, I added my main speedlite and properly set the power setting to illuminate the Rockhopper. Then, I added a second flash to just add a little light to the background. I set this flash at a lower power setting to act as a fill light for the background.

Rockhopper Penguin | Falkland Islands | Canon 5DS R | Canon 135mm f/2 | 135mm, f/6.3, 1/160, ISO 100 | Multiple Speedlites (flash: main light source)

You might be thinking that using manual mode to set the power of your flash is difficult, but is does not have to be. Just follow these simple steps: 

Step One
Set your camera to exposure to the correct setting if you want to use fill light or use your speedlite as a main light source. 

Step Two

Once you set your camera exposure turn your flash on and set the power to 1/2 power. Just change your flash power so that it is adding the amount of light that you want.

Step Three

You can add a second flash and start adjusting the exposure till something like the background has enough light.

Step Four

If you want you can keep adding flashes, one at a time, and editing their power setting until each one looks right. 

TTL (Through the Lens Metering) 

If you prefer to use an auto mode for the flash TTL is great for wildlife photographers. TTL (through the lens metering) lets your camera and flash determine the correct output. Using TTL is a lot easier for fill flash. The steps to use TTL are:

Step One

Set your camera exposure just like you would without flash.

Step Two

Next, set your flash compensation.

Flash exposure compensation varies depending on the animal you are photographing. A good starting point is -1 to -1 2/3 stops. If you are photographing animals that have bright colors a good starting point is around -2 stops, and for animals that are black a good starting point is to leave your exposure comp at 0 stops.

In the Field

Earlier we talked about how the shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light in your image as well as aperture controlling the flash output. My favorite technique I like to use is to purposely under expose my scene by about 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop before I use any flash. Then, I add a speedlite to illuminate the main subject of my photograph, or the animal. This effect really allows you to isolate you main subject and have the animal pop against the background.

That is exactly what I did when I was photographing a Great Blue Heron. While the sun was rising at the Great Blue Heron rookery, during the morning the rookery is mostly covered by shade in the morning. What I did was I underexposed my background that was fully lit by the sun, and used my flash to throw some light onto the Heron. As you can see most people don’t think I used flash in this photo and at the same time this technique allowed me to isolate the Heron.

Great Blue Heron | Florida | Canon 5DS R | Canon 600mm f/4 IS II | 600mm, f/4.0, 1/1250, ISO 100 | Fill Flash

I heard a Great Horned Owl vocalize around a nest I was photographing in Florida during the winter. Before the sun rose I loved the dark blue color of the sky. After I walked around looking for the Owl I managed to find the GHO perched in a tree. I decided to expose for the dark blue sky, however this resulted in the owl appearing as a silhouette. I turned on my flash and used it as the main light source providing 100% of the light illuminating the owl.

Great Horned Owl | Florida | Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 600mm f/4 IS II | Canon 1.4x III | 840mm, f/8.0, 1/250, ISO 2000 | Multiple Speedlites (flash: main light source) 

Overall, I hope my article demystified the equipment needed for using flash for wildlife photography as well as how to set your speedlites power in both manual mode & ETTL! 

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What’s your take on my ultimate guide to using flash for wildlife photographers? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!