All cameras have a flash sync speed. This is the fastest shutter speed that can be used with the flash. Invariably this is between 1/160 and 1/250sec, but if you are not sure what yours is then your camera manual will tell you, writes Andrew James. With some of the more expensive flashguns it is possible to override this and use High Speed Flash but for most of the time you don’t need to do this.
If you set a shutter speed faster than the sync speed the resulting image will have a dark area across it. This is because one of the shutters that opens to let the light in has got in the way as the image has been taken. If this happens on any of your flashed images, it means that you have set a shutter speed higher than the sync speed. The solution is easy – lower the shutter speed!
If you want to freeze something that’s fast-moving, you’d normally pick a shutter speed of 1/1000sec or more, but when using flash you don’t need to do this because the momentary blip of powerful light is freezing the moment for you.
All this technical info is hopefully useful, but when it comes to wildlife photography, the use of flash can be a contentious issue, especially when employed with nocturnal species, such as owls. That said, there are hides that offer overnight flash photography sessions where nocturnal species return again and again. I can’t help thinking, if it bothered them that much, they wouldn’t come back!
At our day-time workshops we do a ‘studio’ session where we use LED lights. This isn’t because flash is wrong, it’s simply because it avoids the need for everyone to have to keep swapping the triggers that fire the off-camera flash in sync with the shutter, plus you can immediately see the modelling the continuous LED lights give you. I’ve discussed the use of flash with Andrew, our bird-of-prey expert at Bird on the Hand, and he’s convinced it wouldn’t make any discernible difference to a night bird like an owl. Perhaps if a bird was crowded for a long period of time by a throng of ‘flashing’ photographers, like a celebrity being ‘papped’ coming out of a nightclub, it would be intrusive and alarming. But when would this happen? Here’s a picture of Scarlet, the red kite taken under the LED lights. Jon shows you how he processed his shots of this bird in the tutorial Enhancing bird portraits in raw.
I’ve never used flash for ‘action’ wildlife photography, simply because I’ve never found myself in the circumstances where I’ve been able, or needed, to illuminate a moving wildlife subject with flash. But, if I felt this approach would get the shot, I would take it, probably using rear curtain flash to ensure the flash fires at the end of the exposure.
It’s standard for the flash to fire at the start of the exposure to illuminate the subject. However, if you want to do something creative with a moving subject like a running fox, if you used first curtain flash, the flash would ‘freeze’ the subject at the beginning and then capture its movement with the ambient light during the rest of the exposure. This might look a bit odd to the eye since the movement would be in front of the subject, and we have the sense that any motion trails behind a subject.
With rear curtain flash, the flash will only fire at the end of the exposure so the movement captured by the ambient light will be seen behind the flash-illuminated subject. Of course, to capture that sense of movement before the flash fires, you need a longer exposure. The longer the exposure, the more movement you’ll see – provided it’s not so long that the subject blurs out and disappears altogether! Plus, you can create additional movement by panning the camera with the subject as you fire the shot.
Really, the main issue I have with flash is that while illuminating a subject is important, unless the end result is good, why go to all the bother? My photography has always been about trying to get interesting and, dare I say it, creative imagery, so a flat, front-lit flashed subject doesn’t cut it for me.
But, take the flash off the camera, and we have a different ball game. As you all know, I will often use flash as a fill light for insect photography – butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies and so on. I’ve written about using the flash off-camera for insects so catch up with that here.
I can still count on one hand the number of times for species other than insects, I’ve wanted or needed to use flash. The occasion that worked best for me I’ve written about before, but I make no apologies for bringing it up again because it gave me some beautiful images.
I was perched on some rather high and slightly treacherous cliffs in The Falkland Islands photographing black-browed albatross. The weather wasn’t being very kind. By using an off-camera flash, I could illuminate the birds heavy ‘pecking’ sessions, darken the background sea as much as I wanted, and capture some beautiful details in their feathers for some quite intimate portraits. I think the shots I got with this technique have a clarity and detail that would have been impossible any other way.
For me flash is always going to be a useful technique for wildlife photography but it’s not one that I need often. If at any point when using flash, I could detect the subject was in some way being harmed or unduly alarmed by it, I’d stop. I am sure you would too.
For this article, I thought it would be really useful to get Foto-Buzz member paul Cecil’s opinion too, because as you know, Paul spends a lot of time photographing his local foxes at night. Here are Paul’s thoughts on the subject from his experience.
I’ll leave you with a couple of Paul’s most recent and rather splendid fox photos, taken using either bounced flash or off-camera flash so the angle is improved. If you have a view on this subject or some experiences you’d like to share with the community, add it in the comments below.
Great fox photos, Paul. You’ve really mastered your subject.
AJ – this is the first time I’ve seen your albatross photos – they are so very beautiful. Don’t hesitate to keep sharing them!