Fill-in Flash for Wildlife Photography

Fill-in Flash for Wildlife Photography

Fill-in Flash can be a wonderful tool for improving your images. Whilst I’d always advocate using purely natural light, occasionally we just need that extra little something to boost our images. Fill-flash is a great technique when used carefully, and thoughtfully.

What Flash do you need?

If you’re close to the subject then a pop-up flash on the camera can actually make a difference. However, I’d advise investing in an external flashgun that will give you greater power and put out more light. I use the Canon Speedlite 580 EXii – a powerful flash unit that ‘talks to’ the camera via its ETTL mode. If you’re looking to purchase a flashgun, check out the relevant Guide Numbers (GN) to get an idea of how powerful the flash is; this is particularly important when working out in the field with wild birds and animals.

What are the Benefits of Fill-in Flash?

There are four main benefits of using fill-in:

    1. Where the bird or animal is on the ground. The majority of the body may be lit but it’s quite common for the underside to be in shade. A touch of fill-in flash can brighten up this shadow area, giving a better balance to the image.
    2. This is similar to above, but more extreme. When shooting strongly back-lit, all of the subject facing the camera will be in heavy shade, often losing detail. Using fill-in flash will again brighten up the shadow, bringing back detail. It can also help restore colour balance.
    3. For birds with iridescence. Iridescent feathers appear to reflect all kinds of colours, often greens and blues. Good examples are Rooks, Magpies, Starlings and male Mallards. Using a small amount of fill-flash can help to bring out this quality of the feathers.
    4. To add a highlight in the eye. In addition to the above, a touch of flash can add a catch-light to the eye which helps to bring the subject to life.

What’s the Technique?

Essentially you want to use the same exposure settings you would for natural daylight and aim to expose for the highlights. The fill-in flash then brightens up any shadow areas but won’t affect the lit areas. Once you’ve set your exposure you want to reduce the flash output from its automatic setting. If you’re using on-camera flash, with the TTL option, reduce the power of the flash by around -1 and 2/3 EV. This is a good setting to start from. If filling the frame with dark subjects such as a purely black coloured bird for example you might need to reduce the flash more, even down to -3 EV, as the flashgun will want to put out too much flash. It’s often about experimenting; remember – the idea is to add just enough flash to improve the image, with it barely being noticeable. Alternatively you may be able to change the flash output manually in which case you could try around 1/16 of full power. On my camera, the Canon 1DX Mark i, I can actually change the flash output in camera using the flash +/- compensation dial – this is perfect as it means I don’t need to take my eye away from the camera.

No Flash
Fill-in Flash at -1 and 2/3 EV

On many flashguns you’ll notice a zoom setting. This allows the flashgun to fire the flash at a similar angle of view (mm) to the lens being used. This should automatically change when the flash is attached to the hot-shoe – if not you can alter it manually. An important point to note is the flash synchronisation speed. Most cameras have a maximum shutter speed that will synchronise with a flashgun, often around 1/250 of a second. Use a faster shutter speed than this and the two won’t work together properly. To enable the flash to synchronise with a faster shutter speed you need to use the high speed sync option. On the Speedlite you will see the flash symbol and a ‘H’ next to it. When this is selected your camera and flash will work together with up to the fastest shutter speed available. This is particularly important due to the fact that when shooting wildlife, in natural light, you’ll often be using a fast shutter speed.

Recycle Time and Batteries

You won’t be able to continuously shoot with your flash unless you have an extra battery pack. I tend to do single shots and let the flash recycle; within a second or two it will be ready to fire again. Use rechargeable batteries in your flashgun. Better than alkaline, I’d recommend the NiMH (see Eneloop) – these hold charge better and have great reviews.

Red-eye Problems

You may occasionally get ‘red-eye’ when using fill-in flash. This is where the light reflects from the retina and straight back through the lens. Using a flash further away from the camera will help to avoid this; in some cases it might be necessary to mount the flash separately to the side of the camera. I’ve also found that angling the flash away (whilst still on the hot-shoe) can also help if the flashgun has this facility.

See the slight Red-eye in this image of a male Mallard

A word about using flash with wild creatures: research suggests that flash used in daylight will have no detrimental effect on the subject. I agree with this and I don’t see issues using fill-flash on wild birds and animals. However, using flash as the main light source, e.g. shooting at night is very different. This has been shown to temporarily blind owls for example and should be seriously considered. You’ll find some useful information on this topic in these blogs from Tom Mason and Keith Elcombe A much better option in my opinion is to use LEDs

 

Diffusers and Extenders

Using a diffuser on the flashgun is unlikely to soften the light at a distance; this is because the diffuser spreads light out rather than softens it. If you do use it in the field you’re also going to have to increase the flash output which will increase battery consumption. My own view is that a diffuser may improve the quality of flash light at a short distance. Extenders on the other hand work by concentrating the flash into a narrower field of view – they are more direct and therefore sensible to use in the field. Better Beamers are a popular option although they usually require a separate arm to move off camera to get the best effect.

There’s plenty to learn when it come to Fill-in Flash. The easiest way is to simply practice on a static subject outside, adjust your settings and see what works. Remember: you are still using natural light as your main light source – the flash just acts as a secondary light source to brighten the shadows, lift the image a little, and add a catch-light to the eye. Above all – don’t over-do it!

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Canon 400mm 5.6 Lens Review

Canon 400mm 5.6 Lens Review

This is my review of the Canon 400mm EF f5.6 USM lens, having professionally used this lens for wildlife photography for a number of years.

When it comes to choosing the right lens for wildlife there are a number of considerations. It’s important to take them all in to account and also to think about the situations you are most likely to use the lens in.

Weight

This is often not considered enough, but it’s a really important one. If you are likely to be carrying the lens for extended periods of time and in particular, hand-holding, then weight is big consideration. With a bigger more expensive lens you might find it feeling quite a burden. The Canon 400mm f5.6 is extremely light, weighing in at 1.25kg. This makes it perfectly easy to hand-hold for most people and can be carried around for hours. Being so lightweight I find it ideal for  flight photography –  no need for support, I can simply use my left hand to support the lens as I follow and fire. Comparing this to my Canon 500mm f4 IS Mark i, at a whopping 3.9kg, and you can see the benefit!

Image Quality

Of course there’s no point having a light lens if the image quality is poor. When I first bought this lens years ago I was significantly impressed with the sharpness. In my opinion it’s of professional standard quality when paired with a good quality camera body. I’ve created images with this lens with both a Canon 1D Mark iv and a Canon 1DX Mark i. A number of these photos have been supplied to professional picture libraries and been printed large on calendars and magazine covers. Sharpness is always a difficult one to describe, without providing complex tests. To get the most out of this lens try to stop down to f/7.1 or f/8 – it will improve the clarity. I rarely use it at f/5.6 but then I wouldn’t do anyway. Use this lens in good light with good technique and you really shouldn’t have any complaints.

canon 400mm f5.6 review
Robin on spade, Canon 1D Mark iv with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens at f/7.1

Speed of Focus

In good light this lens focuses quickly; you’ll have no problem for wildlife portraits. For action it performs pretty well in good light and I’ve made many sharp images of birds in flight, using a centre focus point and a small cluster. I also find changing the focus limiter switch to 8.5m – infinity can improve speed for flight photography. Where this lens begins to struggle is in poor light: in low sunlight or overcast conditions the focus definitely starts to struggle and you need to use the best technique you can. This is the main drawback of the lens for me. The minimum focus distance is 3.5m which is also a disadvantage in some situations. Note: this lens does not have any IS, however for me I don’t find it much of an issue.

canon 400mm f5.6
Arctic Tern in flight; Canon 1DX Mark i with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f7.1, ISO 21600

Extenders and Extension Tubes

If you want to increase the magnification of the 400mm then you can attach extenders. I’ve never tried a 2x extender but have used the lens with the Canon EF Mark iii 1.4 x Extender. With older cameras you may use auto-focus completely. My current understanding is that Canon 1D and 5D bodies will accept the combination but only allow you a centre focusing option and don’t allow the choice of different focus points. You’ll also be down to f/8 once the extender is attached. Quality with a 1.4x extender is reasonable but it helps to keep the ISO low and even stop down the aperture a little more for optimum quality –  I regularly use f/9 or f/10. I wouldn’t want to use this combination in overcast light with a high ISO. 

In order to make small birds more frame-filling you can attach an extension tube. I’ve sometimes used the Canon 25mm extension tube with this lens in order to reduce minimum focusing distance and get closer. This also has the effect of diffusing the background slightly more. You lose a bit of light but still retain auto-focus and exposure control.

canon 400mm f5.6 lens
Blue Tit, Canon 1DX Mark i with Canon 400mm lens and 25mm extension tube

Price

At the time of writing you can get a brand new Canon 400mm f5.6 for close to £1000 and a used one near £500. This is massively cheaper than most competing lenses and makes it ideal for those on a tighter budget.

Other Options

There are many other options for bird photography. Heavier lenses with superior auto-focus include the Canon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 and the Canon 400mm f/2.8. You could also opt for a Canon 300mm f/2.8 and use with extenders. There’s also the 400mm f/4 DO – light enough to hand-hold but with very mixed reviews. The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-f5.6 Mark ii is also a serious contender due to flexibility, quality and weight. All of these lenses however come with an increase in price.

Conclusion

Remember that the best lens for you is the one that works for you. Are you likely to be sat in hides for hours with a tripod, or are you more likely to be walking around and shooting hand-held in the field.? It’s important to take this into account when choosing your lens. The Canon 400mm f5.6 should always be a consideration. It isn’t the fastest lens; it isn’t the sharpest lens. However it does offer a high level of quality for an amazing price. That’s why I’ve used it myself. The main drawbacks are reduced auto-focus speed in poor light, minimum focusing distance and lack of IS. If you can live without these things then buy it in a heart-beat – I still believe it’s one of the best lenses ever made by Canon for pure value

To see more of my wildlife photography visit the Gallery Pages on my website.

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Long Lens Photography Technique

paul miguel youtube

For a long time I didn’t own a ‘big lens’ for my bird photography. I made do with shorter lenses and extenders. Finally the day came when I received my Canon 500mm f4 Mark i lens. I’m still using it to this day, but I’ve learnt a few tips along the way which help me get the most out of it.

Having serious pulling power is great when it comes to wildlife photography, but it can all count for nothing if you don’t use your lens effectively. Big lenses, by which I would consider anything from 400mm and greater, tend to be heavy pieces of kit and need a certain level of technique to manage them effectively.

Hand-holding

You may not want to hand-hold, certainly not for extended periods of time, but there are situations where this is preferable. For birds in flight, I much prefer to hand-hold as I just feel more comfortable with my freedom and range of movement. To hand-hold with a big lens try to hold the camera and lens sideways, rather than point it in front. Place your hand under the lens and keep your elbow close to your body. Most people can only do this for short periods of time – when waiting for action you could keep the lens on the ground by resting it upside down on the lens hood. Alternatively I like to carry a beanbag then rest the camera on here whilst I’m waiting, knowing it’s more protected.

Tripods and Heads

Without doubt the best way to support a long lens is with a tripod. Carbon fibre is a great option as it is strong but relatively light. Not surprisingly, this also makes them expensive. To mount the lens I would advise two options – either a very solid ball head, or a gimbal head. Personally I think the gimbal head is a wonderful creation for big lenses. They provide a really solid base at the lens foot and the freedom of movement is perfect for following and recomposing shots. I use a Movo GH 700 Gimbal Head When attaching the lens foot to the gimbal head, slide it forward and back to find the centre of gravity – you want the lens to stay balanced without it being locked in place; this will help with balance. Once  you have it in the correct place make sure it’s tightened up in place. You can then use the two tension knobs to get the desired amount of movement – both up and down (tilting) and left and right (panning). For following birds in flight you will want to slacken it off enough to allow fast tracking of your subject, whilst for more static subjects tightening up the knobs will aid in stability and reduce camera shake, but still allow enough movement to recompose.

When photographing static subjects and particularly with lower shutter speeds you should try to reduce vibration. Long lenses will magnify even the smallest amount of movement, potentially causing blurred images so it’s worth a bit of extra technique. Drape your non-shutter hand lightly over the lens barrel – around half way down then lightly push your eye into the viewfinder. This combination will help brace the lens and can definitely reduce camera shake. You can see me using these techniques with my 500mm, photographing birds in this YouTube video Using image stabilisation is another option too but with older lenses it’s best to have this switched off anyway if on a tripod. 

Beanbags and Other Support

In my opinion the best way you can keep a long lens stable is by using a beanbag. This is ideal when shooting on the ground or on a car roof for example. Make sure that the part of the lens near the camera body is snugly into the beanbag. Use your non-shutter hand to push down slightly at this point. You can also pull down slightly on the shutter. With good technique you can achieve sharp images down to as slow as 1/15 of a second. Another option is to use a beanbag on top of a tripod. Take the tripod head off and put the beanbag on top, balanced evenly; then use the same technique. I’ve used this method successfully when photographing wild owls in Serbia – see the YouTube video and achieved sharp results at very low shutter speeds. Think out of the box too: you always have your knees with you so why not use one as a support when caught short?

A long lens is ideal for nature photography but you can’t be sure of sharp images without learning a little technique. Employ these tips and you’ll greatly increase your chances of pin sharp images!

Paul Miguel is professional Nature Photographer in Leeds, England. He runs a range of Wildlife Photography Workshops in the UK and Photography Tours Abroad

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Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses

17-40mm lens

17-40mm lens
Cow and Calf Rocks Ilkley Moor, Canon 1D Mark iv, 17-40mm f/4 lens at around 31mm

My work predominantly consists of Wildlife Photography but I also enjoy shooting landscapes along with generic countryside images suitable for stock. For years I used the Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM lens for my landscape photography. The results were good but the edge softness always annoyed me – particularly in the corners where at times I felt it too unacceptable. Although I had the facility to shoot at 17mm, the fact is – I never did! Simply due to the increased edge softness I always zoomed in to at least 21mm to improve things. Working professionally and submitting to discerning picture libraries I always strived to get the most out of the lens – trying to use it at a mid-range focal length where possible and keeping the aperture around f/11 to maximise image quality.

fixedlenses
I shot this image on Ilkley Moor with the Canon 17-40mm. I was happy with the overall composition but the original file shows softness at the edges and particularly in the corners. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark iv.

Upgrading to a Canon 1D X Mark i showed an improvement in my images but I still felt I needed to improve the landscape quality. I toyed with the idea of the Canon 16-35mm which has an excellent reputation and would no doubt be a step up. But I also thought long and hard about switching to a fixed wide angle. A good quality fixed lens should always be sharper than a zoom – and it does make sense. I’ve certainly found it to be the case in my experience. I already had a fixed 50mm f/1.8, giving excellent performance, so I considered switching my 17-40mm zoom for a fixed wide angle. Overall image quality was a consideration but there was perhaps a more important issue related to zoom lenses. Now, zoom lenses are great for many situations; they are flexible and mean you don’t have to stop, change lens and carry on with your shoot. But what they also do is: make you lazy! This might not apply to everyone, but for me certainly, a fixed lens is a better option and it makes me a better photographer. Why? Well, with zoom lenses you can put yourself in great surroundings and change focal point to find the best images. But’s that not how it should be: the art of Landscape Photography is to search for your images… and that means moving around.! Whilst I like to think I wasn’t falling into the trap, I probably was. Essentially I was staying more in one place and adjusting my zoom, rather than thinking about the look of the image (for a given focal length) and finding the composition to suit.

zoomlensesarebad
After reviewing this image I wasn’t entirely happy due to the mid-frame rock which wasn’t separated enough from the background. I couldn’t help feeling that with a fixed lens I would have been forced to search out a better viewpoint.

So, after reading many reviews, I opted for a Canon 24mm 2.8 lens. I now had two main lenses for landscape photography: the 24mm and my 50mm, along with a 100mm macro as an extra option for picking out sections of the landscape. I was itching to try the 24mm quickly so within two days of receiving it I headed out for a night shoot with my good friend Nik Goulthorp. We visited Millenium Bridge, Castleford – an excellent place for night photography that offers a number of compositions. I attached the 24mm and set to work. With this fixed lens I had to keep moving around to find the best viewpoint; there was no room to tweak the zoom. I had to find the very best spot. To be honest, it was refreshing and I felt more like a true landscape photographer.

canon 24mm lens
Wide angle image of Millenium Bridge, shot with Canon 1D X and 24mm 2.8 lens.

 

whyfixedlens
For this low down viewpoint the 24mm was just too wide for the best composition. I switched to the standard 50mm f/1.8 which provided a tighter and stronger image. It also gives fantastic image quality.

Even during this one initial shoot with the 24mm I could feel myself working harder; thinking more. With one focal length on the camera I was forced to think about the overall composition and discover the best viewpoint. In fact, it’s taken me back to the old days when I used to shoot with a Bronica ETRS medium format camera – a beautiful piece of equipment. Back then, I would carry just two fixed lenses – a wide angle and a standard. I would then set about finding the best compositions that would work best for these lenses. Many of theses images found their way into calendars and a few Dalesman front covers too. Time will tell, but I think I will begin to work better with my new combination. I can’t wait til my next landscape shoot! Zoom lenses are not bad pieces of kit, just don’t fall into the trap of letting the lens do the work. The most important factor in creating the image is always – the photographer’s eye!!

Interested in joining me for a Photography Workshop? I’ve worked with hundreds of photographers over the years both in group workshops and on a One to One basis. Check out the range of Photography Courses  including the soon to be added Night Photography Workshops – planned for Autumn 2017!

 

 

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