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!


Wildlife Photography for Beginners: My 5 Top Tips

wildlife photography for beginners

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 Channel for future Tutorial Videos. Happy Shooting!


Photographing Red Grouse in Yorkshire

photographing red grouse

Ever since my first visit to Swaledale many moons ago I’ve been in love with Red Grouse. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited over the years. One particular location provides reliable opportunities with Grouse frequenting the roadside heather. Every day is different but it’s not unusual to get extremely close views if you use the car as a mobile hide. I recently spent a winter’s morning up on the moors, using my Canon 500mm f4 Mark i lens. The technique is fairly simple – just wind down the window and use a good quality beanbag as your camera support. Beanbags provide particularly good support for long lenses and I personally prefer this to using a tripod.

To increase stability I also push down slightly on the barrel of the lens with my left hand; with good technique you can use surprisingly slow shutter speeds if the bird is relatively still. Red Grouse are beautiful birds but they seem to have that kind of plumage that camera’s don’t like! If you’re using off centre focus points and the camera is struggling, try switching to the centre focus point and recomposing – you might find the focus more accurate. Above all try to spend as much time as you can when you find a photogenic bird: capturing some kind of behaviour will really lift your images.