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Part 3 - The Flash - So Really, How Do Pros Get Their Bird Shots?

Updated on January 14, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Birding with a Flash

Cuban Emerald Hummingbird with Flash - In the shade without a flash, the iridescence of the feathers would have been lost.
Cuban Emerald Hummingbird with Flash - In the shade without a flash, the iridescence of the feathers would have been lost. | Source

Completion of Series

In my last two hubs, I’ve been explaining what professional photographers have in their camera bags to get the great shots you see in magazines and other displays.

  • In Part 1, we looked at the camera and its features.
  • In Part 2, we discussed lenses and what to look for.

In this last installment, we will discuss using a flash in bird photography. I’ve been a professional photographer for over 20 years doing portrait work with studio settings and outdoor situations. I can tell you a lot about flash photography, but in preparing for this hub, I found a vast amount of information about how today’s flash units work and how to use a flash for nature photography and bird photography. This hub will only talk about a small portion of it. For further reading check out the hyperlinks and resources mentioned at the end.

Old School Flash by the Numbers


Flash Guns (For On and Off Camera Use)

We should start with the types of flash units and what they do. There is the built in flash that your camera comes with. It has a range of about 12 feet, so it’s not good for nature work where your subject could be as far away as 20 to 50 feet or better. Bird photographers use Flash guns or units that attach to the hot shoe of the camera or on a stand and controlled with a cord or remote master. We won’t get into multiple flash set-ups in this hub, but just know that pro photographers do routinely use studio like multiple flash arrangements in bird photography.

Old fashioned flash photography required a bit of math to get your exposure settings right. You would use the guide numbers published in the flash unit’s manual along with the flash distance to subject to determine the right f/stop. This was stated for an ISO setting of 100.

F/stop = guide number (in meters) / flash-to-subject distance

I remember my dad having little booklets with spin wheels like the one above and calculations set up in tables. To read more about this go to the short course in flash photography written in Curtin's Guide to Digital Cameras.

All that changed when through the lens metering or TTL came about. This allowed the light coming through the lens to be measured, shared with the flash through the hot shoe connection, and the output of the flash to be set automatically.

What to Look For in a Flash

Flash units are made by many companies. The major brands make them along with companies like Bower, Vivitar and Sunpak. Look for these features when you compare them.

High Guide Numbers – The rule is to find a flash with as high a guide number as you can afford. The higher that guide number multiplier, the larger your f/stop can be. My old Canon Speedlite 550EX has a guide number of 180 at its longest focal range 105mm at ISO 100. Newer ones are stronger, but this is a good guide number for shooting at the distances we use in bird photography.

Flash Exposure Compensation – The flash burst can overpower a picture. This allows you to manually adjust the flash output without changing your aperture or shutter speed.

Flash Exposure Bracketing – This is automatic bracketing of your shots under and over the exposure recommended by the auto-exposure system. This is a professional’s way of choosing the best flash setting for a shoot. It works the same as bracketing f/stops manually, but the aspect that changes in this case is the flash output.

Flash Exposure (FE) Lock – When you choose this setting a pre-flash is fired and the exposure system uses the information coming back to the camera to show if you have enough light for the shot.

High-Speed Sync (FP) Flash – This allows you to use shutter speeds that are higher than your camera’s best flash sync speed, as stated in your manual. High-speed sync captures the image because the flash fires repeatedly in quick bursts throughout the expose. The only drawback is that the flash power is reduced requiring a closer flash to subject distance.

Other features professionals may look for are PC terminals to attach multiple flashes to the flash on the camera in order to use it as a master control. Stroboscopic capabilities are used to allow the capture of multiple images in a time lapse demonstration.

A Note About Flash Units – They are Hungry Pigs!

Long term use of these types of flashes will tell you quick that they go through batteries verociously. When you buy batteries, look for ones within the 2400-2700 mAh range. This is written at the top of the package. I used to photograph competitions at a local livestock show. It was a two day event and I went through batteries like crazy due to high flash use and the cold of February. (Batteries loose strength under cold conditions.) Use rechargeables and save yourself some money.

Concerns About Using a Flash in Bird Photography

Now that we know something about flash units, let’s talk about using them in bird photography. Using a flash can be a point of contention with some birders. There are many who are concerned about startling a bird with a flash. We birders that are also photographers tend to get censored for the use of a flash for these reasons.

  1. It may hurt the bird’s eyes
  2. It startles the birds and could cause harm

Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a question and answer entry concerning this.

“There is no scientific evidence, one way or the other, that the use of one or more flash units creates a significant problem for the bird. Presumably the effect would be similar to what it is for humans, but no one knows for sure.

Photographers have been using multiple flash arrays since the late 1940s to document the entire nesting cycles of birds such as Great Horned Owls and various songbirds and hummingbirds. The process does not have a record of causing the birds to abandon the nest or of individual birds disappearing. Greater care should be taken when photographing birds that are actively feeding at night.”

Birds in Flash

Cedar Waxwing - Front view
Cedar Waxwing - Front view | Source

Understanding Bird Vision

Bird eye anatomy is about the same as our own. Light gathering cones work in bright light to perceive color and rods work in dim light.

Photographers use flash for three different situations

  1. Balancing Shadows on subjects in bright light conditions

In this case, a fill flash used to balance shadows under natural light conditions is too short a burst duration to affect the bird’s eyes.

2. Creating a main light in low light situations such as under heavy tree cover or late evening

This can cause a temporary reduction in vision the same as portrait photographer’s studio lights would affect human sight, but not permanent damage.

3. Creating a main light in total darkness

This is the main concern many have about using a flash. The effects of a flash on birds will be a temporary loss of night vision. Animals and birds will however have a 50% return in the first five minutes after a flash and a 75% return after another five minutes. Full function should return in 20 minutes. Multiple uses of flash on a bird in very dark conditions will prolong the recovery time. As Owls, for example, are hunting at night, we don’t want to impede their foraging. However, in the case of owls, their hearing and not vision is the main sensory factor in hunting. This isn’t, however, a pass to flash away.

Our aim is to document bird behaviors to increase awareness of the uniqueness of birds in the greater population. Ethically, we should do this causing as little intrusion as possible on the bird’s comfort and activities.

Startling Birds - The concern about startling birds has not been a great problem in my experience. In daylight conditions, using the flash to fill shadows, the birds will sometimes react initially and then ignore me or they don’t react at all. I have had hummingbirds jump at the first flash and then look quizzically at me while I finished getting my shots. I had a Cedar Waxwing completely ignore me, that or he was posing. When a bird gives you back views, side views and full frontal and three quarter views in the span of five minutes, it is hard not to wonder if they are professional model birds.

Reasons Flash Improves Bird Photographs

The first two reasons involved in choosing to use a flash are pretty obvious. Birds perching in low light areas cause a loss of details if you don’t use a flash.

  1. A bird in the shade is duller looking without a flash
  2. Birds in bright sunlight will have harsh shadows that hide details
  3. Flash brings out the minute details of feather structure offering improved contrast

This third reason is a special consideration when it comes to birds. Such fine detail capture isn’t as advantageous when photographing humans as bringing attention to fine lines and imperfections in skin isn’t a selling point for portraiture. But, such documentary treatment of birds will make higher quality pictures.

4. A flash will allow you to freeze motion of a moving bird

Photographing birds without a flash requires very high shutter speeds, and I can tell you that won’t stop bird action with all types of birds. An eagle or pelican flaps at a slower speed than a gull or a mockingbird and hummingbirds flap their tiny wings at phenomenal rates of speed. Catching such movement really does require the speed of light.

Freezing Motion

Picture Specifications:  f/5.6, 1/800 sec., ISO 200, 300 mm, no flash
Picture Specifications: f/5.6, 1/800 sec., ISO 200, 300 mm, no flash | Source
Picture Specifications:  f/5.6, 1/400 sec., ISO 200, 300 mm, with flash off camera
Picture Specifications: f/5.6, 1/400 sec., ISO 200, 300 mm, with flash off camera | Source

The Speed of Light

The speed of a flash is much faster than shutter speeds. The duration of a flash – around 1/20000 sec, moves into the range the most up to date electronic shutters in the higher end professional cameras. Because of this, we could double our shutter speed from 1/100 sec. to 1/200 sec. The amount of ambient light collected by the sensor will be decreased by half, but since the flash is fully contained within the exposure interval, the amount of flash light that is collected remains unchanged.

To the right are two photos of hummingbirds. One with and one without a flash. As you see, the picture without the flash didn’t come close to stopping the wing action of the bird, even at 1/800 of a second. The lens was wide open at f/5.6. Using such high exposure settings caused the picture to be grainy.

The second picture was taken with a flash. The exposure time was cut in half and the bird’s eye has a fine catch light, absent in the first picture. The wing is not quite frozen. There is enough motion still visible to say the wing was moving. This does not make this a bad shot. A little blur keeps the impression of motion in the picture. Just as panning (following a bird in flight by moving the camera with the bird during the exposure) will give you a frozen or nearly frozen image of the bird with a blurred background.

Mind you, this was shot using only one flash unit. The awesome shots you see with perfectly frozen wings are shot with multiple flash units to increase the strength of the light on the subject. They are taken with settings of f/29 or 32, at 1/200 sec. and ISO 100 using high speed flash image captures of 9 frames per second.

Extending Your Flash Reach

If you can’t manage the cost of some of the better flash units, there is a way to increase the effective output of any given flash. I just learned of Walt Anderson’s Better Beamer flash extender and am beginning to test it. The extender utilizes a simple method for concentrating flash output into a smaller area than would normally be possible without it.

The extender simply takes that wide cone of light and narrows it, so that it is concentrated and will reach farther. As a result, the amount of light striking the bird can sometimes be enormously greater than without. But, even with flash extenders, the light is not focused enough to do any harm, but diffused upon reaching the subject at distances. The below video still shows a pro photographer using them. See the video to hear his review.

A second advantage of using the Better Beamer extender is that at closer ranges, you can turn down the power output of your flash unit, thereby conserving your batteries. Experiment with it. Start with 1/4 power and shutting the flash down 2 stops using exposure compensation.

One Warning – Pointing the extender into the sun can concentrate and focus the sun’s light back at your flash. Doing this for lengths of time can melt your flash head. It’s been done, so take care when using one.

Compilation video showing a photographer using most of the equipment we have discussed in the series.

Final Word

With all things, learning to use a flash in bird photography takes time. Thankfully, the new innovations in flash technology have helped make this much easier than before. Take your flash with you the next time you go birding and try it out. Read your manual to learn how to manipulate its modes of operation. It will open a whole new level of photo quality for you.

Happy Birding

Resources: For more information on flash photography, I suggest readers visit wildlife photography articles such as Moose Peterson’s and The Secrets of Digital Bird Photography Chapter 7.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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