When I first started reading up on the many different websites, online tutorials and blog posts offering to ‘help out the newbie’ using a flash is seldom mentioned. In fact, I can’t recall any of the sites I looked at mentioning using a flash for bird photography although it is something many bird photographers do. Using a flash seems to be one of the ‘big secrets’ of bird photography and very few bird photography enthusiasts seem willing to share this fact, and I don’t understand why. An external flash or speed light is an essential bit of kit for bird photography, and if you have one to hand and actually use it I guarantee you will see a big improvement in your bird photos.
You don’t use a flash to overpower the sun and act as a primary light source when taking photos of birds as this is not possible. A flash is used to provide a little kiss of light to lift the shadows, reduce the contrast and bring out details that would be lost. There will be many times when the birds will be in the shadows of the trees, there will be many times when the light levels simply aren’t sufficient to get a well exposed shot using fast shutter speeds and there will be times when the birds are out in the open being backlit by the sun. In all of these situations using some fill flash will result in a better exposure, and hence final photo.
Birds can be timid creatures and will often be a long way off in the distance and because of this you want the most powerful flash, i.e. the one with the highest guide number you can get. When you have too much flash power you can always dial it down to get the right exposure, but if you haven’t got enough flash power you’re pretty much stuck and there is nothing you can do about it.
A bird photography flash also needs to have TTL, i.e. automatic mode. Setting the flash power manually s cumbersome and takes too long, and you will miss shots while doing so. When a flash has TTL you can let the flash decide on the power it needs and you can tweak this using flash exposure compensation. The TTL mode of modern day flashes and speed lights is very good and accurate, and often requires little tweaking, which means you an focus on framing and composing the shot, setting the correct aperture/shutter speed for the look you want and actually creating the photos.
A bird photography flash must have a high sync (“HSS”) mode. Bird photography requires fast shutter speeds to eliminate camera shake and also to stop blurry photos as a result of subject movement. Shutter speeds of 1/250 of a second (the maximum sync speed of most flashes and speed lights) isn’t going to be sufficient to prevent camera shake or freeze subject movement and the only way around this is to use a flash with HSS so you can use faster shutter speeds.
Providing the flash is powerful, has TTL mode and also HSS modes it is suitable for all types of bird photography, and there are plenty of speed lights out there that not only fit the bill but are also affordable too.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.