Bird Photography on a Budget (Part 4)

This week I am wrapping up the "Bird Photography on a Budget" series with a conversation about flashes. I often see postings online that say "I prefer to not use flash on wildlife" and another might say "Flash scares the birds so I don't use flash." I am going to specifically address those two statements and provide you with two options for a starter flashes you can purchase dirt cheap.

First, let me just say that whenever possible I also prefer not to shoot wildlife with a flash. The external flash is a pain to lug around, setup and it is limiting in its light casting ability. There are however times when the flash makes great sense and will actually add to the photograph where shooting the subject with only natural light would not. I am going to outline several scenarios below where external flash is a must.

Deep Shade

Have you ever tried to take a photograph of a subject in deep shade? Perhaps you are in a forest or in a house but the effect is roughly the same. The deep and dark shadows tend to give us less detail and color and frankly turn them into a dark mush if we are not careful. In this situation the external flash is a must. I find myself mostly in this situation when photographing perched birds in the woods. All you can do in situations like this is let the flash expose the scene. In essence it is pretty much nighttime to the camera. The results are not always pleasing as the flash produces a flat and bright reflection off the subject. Without the shadow produced by lights at other angles it will be difficult to render detail effectively, but I would rather get the shot with a bright flash exposure than go home with no shot. Below is an image taken in heavy shade using a very strong fill flash. Here the exposure of this barn owl is almost completely illuminated by the flash.

Open Shade

The slightly less annoying and sometimes pleasurable cousin to deep shade is open shade. Open shade is often found near buildings or under trees in the heat of the day. It doesn't have the extremely dark characteristics of deep shade but does render your images with a blue cast if not compensated for. In this situation you use your flash to fill in the subject rather than lighting the subject completely. This is a process called fill flash or some people call it flash fill. In this situation we are exposing our camera for the ambient light behind the subject and using the flash to "kiss" the subject with just enough light to fill in the shadows and give them a sparkle of light in the eye. I find myself in the open shade situation all the time and this can produce some great photographs. Understand though that with birds, open shade is not the best type of lighting. With the skin of people, open shade is often desirable and sought after, but the iridescent qualities of bird feathers look best in the front lighting of the sun during the morning and evening. Harsh mid day light is to be avoided as it is with other types of photography. Below is an image of a dark eyed junco which was taken using fill flash to subtly open up the shadow and give the bird a catch light in the eye.

Does Flash Scare Birds

Flash produces a very brief burst of light that is closely related to a natural phenomenon we are all familiar with: lightning. Birds live with lightning on a monthly basis and grow used to seeing this kind of light. For the most part birds are not afraid of flash. I have noted that the intense light may give them a slight pause but the shutter on the camera is far more likely to scare a bird than the flash. There have been scientific studies that prove that flash does not scare animals. So take some photographs with flash and don't feel bad about it. You might startle a few but they quickly adapt to the change in light.

On to Equipment

OK, now on to the fun part, buying and using the flash. I have to be honest with you, you don't have to spend a ton of money on a flash to get one that does what you need it to Yes, you can buy the latest ETTL flash with high speed sync, radio slaving and so forth but you don't have to start out with this. In fact, I recommend you don't. Keep the process simple and learn to use a less featured flash.

I am going to recommend two possible options on buying a flash. The first, is the old standby manual flash, the Vivitar 285. This flash will do everything you need including shooting high speed bursts and contains a zoom head to extend its range. I used one of these during my college days and found it useful and currently you can pick one up used, online, for less that $100.00.

Now, if you are really budget minded and would like to buy a new flash, then I am going to steer you toward the Neewer TT520. This flash is completely manual, has no frills and will only cost you about $30 or $40 dollars online. I currently use two of these flashes for hummingbird shots and they get the job done. Are they as great as the latest Canon or Nikon ETTL flashes? No, but we are on a budget and these babies work. Both of the choices I gave you are manual flashes. Learn to use manual flashes well and if you ever upgrade to their larger and more robust cousins then you will already have a great understanding of how flash is used with your subject and this will give you a good advantage over others.

My Final Say on the Matter

Well I guess all things must end at some point and so I hope you have at least received a tidbit or two of useful information in these posts. I wanted to conclude by showing you a matrix that breaks down the cost of buying used and some third party gear to new and top of the line gear. All of the equipment I have recommended can and will produce excellent results. Click on this text to view the budgeted items and comparison in a spreadsheet.

Yep, that is one big savings! By buying this equipment you have saved you and your understanding family about $3,000.00. To many out there this sum of money is nothing but to a great deal of you this is a huge savings. Also don't feel bad if you can't buy it all at once and for Pete's sake don't put it on a credit card! Buy one item at a time by saving up a little each week. Try to put 25 dollars a week into a savings account and within a year or two you will have your "new" gear.

Also I want you to realize that this is just a starting point. Going forward you can continue to save as your budget allows and upgrade equipment like the body and lens. Don't give up and enjoy actually saving money to buy something instead of instant gratification by using credit.

Keep an eye on this blog, because in the future I am going to show you how to actually use this equipment and wow others who are shooting equipment costing thousands more than yours. Equipment is a tool and no matter how much money you spend, if you don't know how to use your gear than you will fail. So why then do "pros" shoot the high end lenses exclusively? Well this is true for the most part but one of the biggest reason that pros shoot with high end glass is because of the durability of these lenses. You don't want your front element falling out of alignment because it bumped a tree while you were walking by it, right? Yes these lenses offer slightly better image quality too but if you ask many pros they will tell you that sharpness is second to build quality for them. So don't worry and keep on shooting! Treat you gear well and it will last you a long time.

Links to Some of my Gear Choices

2nd image shows deep shade with flash. 1st image shows open shade.

Dark-eyed Junco

Screech Owl Portrait

Photo credits: Matt Cuda.

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