My latest YouTube video is an advanced photography tutorial on photographing birds in flight. I discuss how to set up your auto-focus for flight photography and how to use the AF case settings. Whilst aimed more at Canon users it’s also useful for photographers with other equipment. Click the image below to watch the video.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There’s many ingredients that make a cracking wildlife image. Today I’ve picked out just 5 tips that I think are particularly important if you’re just getting started.
Tip Number 1: Auto-focus Mode
You’re probably using auto-focus already, but it’s important to know which mode you have set in camera. Single shot, also called One Shot or AF-S is ideal for static subjects; with this mode, once the camera has focused on the subject the focus is locked. It’s particularly useful for re-composing without the focus changing. The Continuous Auto-focus mode, also called Servo and AF-C will continuously re-focus as a subject moves, provided you keep focus engaged. This is the best option for moving subjects, e.g. birds in flight and running animals. Make sure you understand the difference between the two and that you always know which one is set in camera. You can also use the Back Button Focus method, in which case you can keep the camera permanently on the Continuous Focusing mode.
Tip Number 2: Focus Points and Zones
Your camera might be set up so that all the focus points (the whole viewfinder) is focusing. This is not ideal! You will have a number of focus points in the viewfinder – these are the squares that will light up red when activated. I’d advise using using one focus point or a small cluster. Depending on your camera you should be able to select different focus points depending on where you want to focus. More advanced cameras will allow greater options of clusters and zones and you should experiment to see what works in different situations. Watch my video on Flight Photography for more detail.
Tip Number 3: Aperture Priority
I always advise Aperture Priority for beginners. This exposure mode is a good choice for wildlife photography, also known as A or AV. You set the aperture, ideally a fairly wide aperture, e.g. f5.6; the camera will then select the appropriate shutter speed dependent on the available light and the ISO. Because you are using a wide aperture and letting more light in, this means that the shutter speed will be higher to balance it. The other benefit of selecting a wide aperture yourself is that it will help blur the background and make the subject stand out more clearly. ISO is also a factor here, so if you’re not sure about this then try the following as a guide: select between ISO 200 and 400 on bright days and between ISO 800 and 1600 on overcast days..
Tip Number 4: Avoid Underexposure
A common problem is when photographing a subject against the sky – resulting in dark, underexposed images. This is because the light reflecting back through the viewfinder causes the camera to reduce the exposure. To fix this, if you’re using Aperture Priority (or Shutter Priority) you need to find the plus/minus button; press this down and use the dial to increase the exposure, i.e. make it brighter. You need to go in the Plus direction; try around +1 as a guide. Each camera will vary how this works but there is usually a dial on the top, or perhaps a wheel at the back. If you want to understand more about exposure, watch this Exposure Tutorial Video
Tip Number 5: Continuous Shooting
When photographing birds and animals is advisable to shoot continuously, rather than one shot a time. You’ll increase your chances of a better image. Find the Drive setting and switch to a Continuous Frame Rate; you may have options of L and H which is low and high; this will vary enormously from camera to camera. It’s not always necessary to shoot at the highest frame rate. I’d suggest starting with a lower rate continuous mode which might be 3 or 5 frames per second. Wildlife is always moving so the more images you take the greater your chance of a pin sharp photo, and/or a particularly pleasing pose.
Tip Number 6: Extra Tip and Most Important!
Please put the welfare of wildlife first! No picture of a bird or animal is more important than its welfare. Try to learn not just about photography but also about the habits of your subject. Use your instinct and back away if you feel you’re disturbing it. Remember, the more time you spend with a wild bird or animal, the more you will learn – and the more it will come to trust you. If you find a great opportunity for regular photographs of popular species such as owls, or rare birds… don’t tell everyone! You can soon find the quiet location literally heaving with photographers, some who may not have the subject’s best interest at heart!
I hope these 5 tips helped you out if you’re just getting started in Nature Photography. Subscribe to my YouTube Channelfor future Tutorial Videos. Happy Shooting!
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.
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!