Flash photography – you either love it or you hate it! The flash photography tips on this page will show you that using flash is now quite straightforward and a great way to enhance your photography. It is an extremely useful tool to the photographer but unfortunately not used much by the wildlife photographer.
At one time it was necessary to carefully calculate the correct aperture to use at specific distances from the subject. If you didn’t use this aperture then the shot wouldn’t be exposed correctly. Many photographers found this too cumbersome and avoided using flash. Since the introduction of through The Lens (TTL) technology in both cameras and flashguns this can now be done automatically.
There are a number of ways to get the most out of flash photography. If you carefully practice the tips below understanding flash photography will be straight forward and you’ll soon be using it to enhance your wildlife photography. As normal I’ll be focusing on wildlife photography but the tips apply to all types of photography.
Flash Photography Tips 1 – Get a Flash Gun
Many digital SLR cameras have a built in flash. The first step to improving your flash photography is to get yourself a flash gun. Even the cheapest flash gun will be better than your cameras built in flash. If you want to know what to look for then take a look at our purchasing a flashgun page.
If you use Canon equipment you can discover the best Canon flashgun here.
Flash Photography Tips 2 – Fill Flash
I use fill flash in my wildlife photography more than I use any other form of flash photography. Fill flash is used to subtly enhance natural light and therefore complement it. It can be used when the sun is harsh, on overcast days or when your subject is back-lit.
The shot below shows a Meerkat sitting on top of a lookout post. The result is a silhouette because it is backlit and the camera exposed for the sky. Metering on the Meerkat would have resulted in a completely washed out sky.
The solution is to use flash to fill in detail on the Meerkat as shown below
Our fill flash photography page covers this in a lot more detail and shows you how you can use it to enhance your wildlife photography.
Flash Photography Tips 3 – Be Subtle
The key to understanding flash photography and how to make best use of it is to keep it subtle. Use the minimum flash to correct excessive shadows or contrast. All too often it is over used, resulting in the subject being completely blown out.
A good flash shot is one that looks natural where you can’t tell it was used.
Flash Photography Tips 4 – Use a Flash Bracket
One of the problems with a cameras built in flash is that the flash is directly next to the lens making the lighting look unnatural and the subject prone to red-eye.
A flashgun mounted directly on the hot-shoe improves this by moving the light source above the lens. This can be improved even more by using a flash bracket. This moves the flashgun further to the side of the lens.
Consequently more natural shadows are produced and the possibility of red-eye is considerably reduced leading to better flash photography.
Flash Photography Tips 5 – Use a Diffuser
Diffusers are great for softening the light produced by a flashgun. Some flashguns have these built in or you can buy ones that clip onto the flashgun such as the Stofen diffuser. Failing this simply wrap a handkerchief around the flashgun and keep it in place using a rubber band.
Diffusers not only soften the light but also reduce the intensity of it. With the majority of wildlife photography you’ll want as much flash output as you can get so instead of using a diffuser try use a flash extender (see tip 6).
However there are times when a diffuser can be useful when the subject is close.
Flash Photography Tips 6 – Use a Flash Extender
Most flashguns are only suitable when the subject is fairly close. The distance that it can reach depends on a number of factors including its Guide Number(GN) but even the best ones only reach around 50 feet.
Most wildlife photography is done at greater distances than this using telephoto lenses. The range of the flashgun can be extended by using a flash extender. This focuses the flash into a narrower beam, increasing its effective range. I consider this to be an essential piece of kit when using flash in wildlife photography.
Flash Photography Tips 7 – Multiple Flashguns
If you’re shooting at a location where it’s feasible to spend time setting the scene you can use multiple flash guns. One flash gun is used as the main light source and a second is positioned slightly to the other side of the camera and set on a much lower power setting – about a quarter. The second flash is used to soften the shadows without competing with the main flash gun.
This is a very similar technique to using fill flash, except the main light source is another flash gun rather than natural light. An ideal time to use this technique is when photographing badgers or bats.
Flash Photography Tips 8 – Second Curtain Sync
Most flashguns fire as soon as the shutter opens. This is fine for moving subjects if you’re trying to freeze motion. However if you want to take more creative shots and show motion blur, a slow shutter speed is required. What will now happen is the flash will fire and then the shutter will remain open, recording the motion blur using natural light. Unfortunately the motion trail appears in front of the subject rather than behind.
The answer to this is second curtain sync (sometimes referred to as rear curtain sync). This changes the timing of the flash so thast it occurs at the end of the exposure just before the shutter closes, resulting in the motion blur appearing behind the subject.
Flash Photography Tips 9 – A bright subject in direct sunlight
This Egret has white feathers and is standing in the sun. This is too much contrast for your camera to handle. The result is that the highlights (the egret’s feather details) are blown out. This means the Egret has become completely white with no detail at all.
Not a great look is it?
Using flash we can make the subject stand out from the background more and capture the feather detail.
Ignore the flash at first and simply set your camera to underexpose the background making it very dark. Then use a burst of flash to light the subject just enough to reveal the feather details:
Flash Photography Tips 10 – A dark environment
Sometimes you may be in a dark environment. Under tree cover in a forest for example. This Sun bittern is spreading its wings in a threat posture to predators. It’s a great potential shot but the Bittern is hard to make out because it is so dark.
The trick here is to use just enough flash to make it look like natural light bursting through a gap in the trees.
Shadows will show that you’ve used flash. The best way to avoid this is by using 2 flashguns.
The amount of flash needed to get this subtle effect varies on distance. If the subject is further away you will need more flash power i.e. less flash underexposure.
Purchasing a Flashgun – Cut through all of the jargon and discover exactly what to look for when purchasing a flashgun.
Fill Flash Photography – Discover how to use the main flash photography technique used in wildlife photography.
Flash Extender – The range of your flashgun can be extended very cheaply when using long telephoto lenses.
Camera Flash Bracket – What to look for when buying this essential flash photography product.