A Garden for Acorn Lodge Bed & Breakfast Guests and Using Flash for Wildlife Photography

June 03, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

After working on the garden for two days, well painting the summerhouse and putting up a fence surrounding it and some of the garden for our Acorn Lodge Bed & Breakfast guests to use (www.acorn-lodge-dartmoor.co.uk). My wife and I went to our nature reserve on the edge of Dartmoor Devon to sit, relax and see what’s going on there. Driving along the lane just before the entrance to our nature reserve we noticed that either side is covered in bright yellow poppies. It turns out that this poppy is a Welsh poppy and it differs from other poppies by releasing its seeds through slits rather than the “pepper-pod” style head. We watched a buzzard being harassed by a crow, as it flew around, until it finally sat in its usual place the big beech tree. We also noticed that there was a mistle thrush flying from the wood; settling in the field and then flying back again, no doubt, to a nest. This is another bit of wildlife to add to the ever growing list. There are quite a few purple patches in the field where clover is coming out.


On Sunday morning I went out very early, 4:30am, with my camera hoping to get a photo of a cuckoo. I was in position on the moor hoping to see it fly from the trees on the farm. I have still yet to hear from the farmer about permission to go on his land so I stayed on the moor. About 5:15am, before the sun rose, I saw the cuckoo fly out and away from me towards the next valley. I stayed in amongst the gorse noticing that a lot of the yellow flowers were dying off. For the next couple of hours I took images of a Willow warbler, Linnets, Meadow pipits, a Yellowhammer and a Wheatear. I then noticed a Mistle thrush had landed in a clearing. As I slowly edged nearer the clearing I stepped on a boulder and as I put my weight on this foot its hold gave way. I twisted trying to protect my camera equipment and yelled as I did my back in. I never got the photo of the mistle thrush.


A few weeks ago I did no photography at all due to the good old British weather. We British love talking and moaning about the weather mainly because the weatherman, and weatherwomen, cannot get it right. It appears that the only real way of telling the weather is by looking out the window, but I digress. The light was dark grey and most of the time it was raining and, at times, it was hailstones that were coming down. I don't mind bright grey days because it saturates the colours and it narrows the contrast to fit the camera’s sensor and you can expose to the right for the whites but also get a good amount of detail in the shadows. Some people think bright sunny days are best for photography but not me because it is too contrasty for a camera’s sensor. If you expose to the right and get the exposure right for the whites then the shadows will be underexposed and just be a black shape. Here is an experiment you can try just to see how your camera’s sensor is limited in what it sees. Pick a nice bright sunny day and go out with your camera. Look at something, a tree or bush for example, which has the sunlight hitting it from the side so you can see a bright side and a dark side. When you look at it you can see detail on the bright side but you can also see detail on the shadow side. Now stay where you are, using your camera with a 50mm lens if you have a full frame camera or a 35mm lens if you have a cropped camera, take a photo, exposing to the right so you expose the whites correctly from where you are standing. If you don't expose to the right you will blow the highlights which means that there will be no detail in the highlights. When viewing that image you will notice that the shadows are very dark and you might see no detail at all in that area. This is because the camera’s sensor can only see about six stops, tones, of light from black to white whereas a human eye can see about sixteen stops of light.


So if the light is dark grey then the image turns out quite flat and dull and if it is bright sun the image is too contrasty, so what can we do about it. Some of it could be sorted in post production but if you go too far you start introducing artefacts in the image. Another way is by using electronic flash as a fill in. In dull light fill in flash will brighten up your image, give a bit more contrast to your image so the feathers or hair will appear sharper and give a catchlight to the eye of your wildlife. In bright sun fill in flash will punch some light into the shadows to bring out some detail and give a catchlight to the eye of your wildlife especially if it is backlit. I still don't like doing wildlife photography on bright sunny days flash or no flash. Some people like using flash and some don’t. Some of the ones that don’t like flash is because of ethical concerns, more of this later, some don’t like it because of the type of flashed image it can produce and some don’t like it because they don’t know how to use it.


There are a few problems with electronic flash it can give the wildlife red eye or green eye (animals) or steel eye (birds). The subject might be correctly exposed but the background is just black, if the wildlife moves during the exposure, most camera's flash sync speed is 250th sec, you can end up with a double exposure type of image where part of the subject is like a ghost and because the light from a flash falls off quite quickly you have to be very close to the wildlife to get it lit by the flash.


There are two ways of dealing with red eye or steel eye. The first is by post processing but, to me, it never looks right and why give yourself more work to do. The second is by moving the flash further away from the axis of the lens either by raising it or placing it further away to one of the sides, either top right or top left is the usual position. Remember to aim the flash correctly. This can be done by using stands, flash brackets etc. Apart from the stands or flash brackets you will also need an off-shoe cord to connect the flash to the camera’s hot shoe. If the subject is correctly exposed and the background is black then you can use a second flash to illuminate the background or you can reduce your shutter speed so that the ambient light will light up the background. The trouble with reducing the shutter speed is that wildlife moves and if it moves then you will get a ghosting effect which, I think, does not look very good. Remember that most camera's flash sync speed is about 250th sec and to stop movement from wildlife you will need a minimum of 1,000th sec.


The maximum distance you can use flash is about 5 metres so you have to be quite close. With a subject at 5 metres the light of the flash is already reducing so you will get very little light from the flash on it. For some animals and birds you being closer than 5 metres is within their circle of fear (for more info on this please read www.robinstanbridgephotography.co.uk/blog/2015/12/entering-the-circle-of-fear-stalking-and-hides-part-one ) so as you can see there are problems using flash for wildlife photography. The way to get around the limited maximum distance is to buy a flash extender or better known as a Better Beamer. This will extend your flash from 5 metres to about 30 metres. Most flashguns have a zoom range to use with a lens of up to 105mm but you can use the Better Beamer with telephoto lenses of 300mm or more. You should set your flash to the 50mm setting when using a Better Beamer to light up the whole image and obtain an even coverage. The longer the setting then the narrower your flash light beam will be. Remember to buy adjustable flash brackets and set the flash and Better Beamer (FBB) to aim where you are pointing your lens. I use Wimberley flash brackets which help aiming the FBB by moving it up or down. They are quite expensive but because they are well made they stop the FBB from sagging. It is designed for use with a 300mm lens so if you use a larger telephoto lens you will be wasting some light but it still works with bigger lenses. It increases the flash output by more than 2 stops. It clips on to your flash head, so you have got to buy the right one for your flash and it holds a Fresnel screen in front of your flash. BE AWARE THIS SCREEN IS A LARGE MAGNIFYING GLASS AND CAN BURN AND DAMAGE YOUR FLASH OR CAMERA IF LEFT IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT. You should work in and set your flash to automatic flash mode, ETTL is the better choice because you can manually overexpose or underexpose to suit the image you are after. There is no need to make any other adjustments because the flash will turn off when the desired level of flash is obtained.

Flash with Better Beamer attached.


So the Better Beamer extends the distance but what can we do about the shutter speed well this is where high-speed sync flash comes in. In normal mode the flash waits until the cameras curtains, front and rear, are fully open before it fires to expose the image. In high-speed sync mode the flash fires several short bursts as the curtains are going across the front of the sensor. Because the speed of the flash is very fast 1,000th sec or more is easily achievable so this fixes the slow shutter speed problem.


Finally I’ve told you one way of getting rid of a black background but I do something different. To begin with I have my camera settings set to expose the image normally, in other words, with no flash. Because I am only using the flash as a fill in I then reduce the flash output / power by setting the flash to either -1, -2, -3 stops or a setting in between. My most used setting is round about -2. Because you have different flashguns and cameras you will have to test out your own settings and either remember them or write them down and take them with you. Have different settings for all types of light you might encounter. If you think about it if the flash fails to fire for some reason your image should be perfectly exposed without a black background and this is the perfect setting for fill in flash. If the flash fires it is only throwing enough light to fill in the shadows on the subject so again you will not have a black background. The best type of image produced is when people cannot tell if a flash was used.


  Kingfisher with no flashKingfisher with no flash Kingfisher with flashKingfisher with flash


This is the kind of effect I am looking for. The first photo was taken on a dull day and does not do justice to the Kingfisher. You can see the difference that a small amount of flash makes with the second photo. The flash should be set up in a way to light the subject but keep the light in the background the same. It has done everything that I want it to, it's boosted the colour and it's brought out the detail in the shadow under the bird.


One big tip I will give you is do not use flash when photographing wildlife at dawn or dusk as it tends to ruin the “golden hour” light.


When photographing wildlife, we often take several photos in rapid succession to capture sequences of action, but if your flash is powered only by the batteries in the flash head, it is impossible to do because it can take several seconds to recharge. To get around this problem you have to use an external battery supply. You might also need a proper cable that connects the external battery supply to your flash. Using this kind of outfit you will find that you will need several batteries and I find rechargeable batteries, especially, typical, it’s the dear ones that recharge the flash quicker than normal ones.

Photo of a setup similar to mine


Does using flash scare wildlife? Well my honest answer is I don’t know but in my experience, I have used flash on several occasions, I have never seen any detrimental effects to wildlife when I have used it. No wildlife has ever run away or flown away when I have used flash. That’s something I cannot say when I have taken photos with one of my old cameras with the motor drive on, it was louder than a machine gun. Happy hunting (with a camera)



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