Flashing wildlife – is it ethical?

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.

Paul Cecil:In general, if a fox is bold enough to hang around (usually because they think food is on the menu) they will normally tolerate the use of flash. Food trumps discomfort almost every time. It varies though, and much depends on how early you get them used to it.

Most of the foxes I see have been visiting since they were cubs so just regard flash as an environmental feature! Cubs don’t mind at all and are more spooked by noise/movement. Once they get used to you, almost anything is fine. There will always be bold ones who will tolerate just about anything, and shy ones who always hang back or run.

Some foxes are easily spooked and will retreat rapidly if they see a torch or camera flash, even through a window. I suspect this is more about their reticence to be around humans, and once a shy fox, always a shy fox! I’ve had numerous regular foxes who are almost impossible to photograph as they scoot at the merest hint of my presence. That said, all foxes are much more likely to be spooked by sudden noises or movement. They are very reliant on hearing and windy nights make them very skittish.

As to harm from flash, I am more considerate nowadays, but have in the past used direct (on-camera) flash for close-ups (ie right into their face from less than three feet away). The tolerant foxes don’t seem to mind, but it’s not a nice thing to do to them and these days I either bounce the flash or use off-camera lighting. It must affect their excellent night vision. Foxes use hearing and smell as much, if not more, to locate prey so are not impacted in the same way that an owl might be (i.e. they won’t miss a night’s hunting because of the flash).

Although their eyes provide good night vision, overall foxes have relatively poor eyesight (they are short-sighted) and are better at detecting movement than detail. This last bit explains why a rabbit freezing in an upright position may well evade any lurking foxes.

Some other points. A problem with flash is eyeshine as the flash reflects on the tapetum lucidum in the back of the eye. Any flash from a distance will cause this and it is very difficult to eliminate. Closer-up (4m) and the eye will show generally as blue (or maybe yellow) and can be cleaned carefully in Photoshop (LR animal eye tool is ok, but not always perfect).

I’ve developed various techniques for this, but the quickest is to mask the eye and use the ‘replace colour’ tool by reducing the ‘lightness’ to almost 0. You can then add a catch-light manually if needed. Fox cub eyes are blue anyway, so that’s a natural look in very young foxes and shouldn’t be Photoshopped.

The closer you are, the less of a problem this is, and from around 2-3m the flash won’t impact on eye colour at all and you get the lovely brown-eye look. I’ve also found that angling the flash down on to the fox reduces eyeshine, and side-on shots are even more successful at eliminating it. Pre-flash may cause the fox to blink, but may also be kinder on the fox!

Lastly, with a new adult fox I will generally only take one or two frames at first, just to get them used to the idea of flash and then leave them to get on with whatever they are doing. Sometimes they tolerate it, sometimes not. If not, then usually they never will. This also applies to badgers!”

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.

Published in Camera Skills
1 Comment
  1. 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!

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