I recently went on a little mission to try and capture some images of snowy owls near Vancouver, BC. Whilst I didn’t find what I was looking for, I spent some time shooting a few other birds in the area and I snapped a picture of my setup and posted it to Instagram. I got a few questions from people asking I was using a flash with my long lens, so I thought I’d show an example because this is an important lesson in wildlife photography.
In this setup I’m using a Canon 7D Mark II and a Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS (review) with a Canon 600EX RT flash sitting in the hotshoe. The weather on that day was overcast, and that’s an important factor in the decision to use flash. On a very bright sunny day, you might come across an animal in the shade, and a flash would help you to balance the light in the shade with the brighter background light. On an overcast day with even, diffused lighting, why use a flash?
The answer is all in the eyes! Many animals have very dark eyes and they can look like a black hole when there is no direct sunlight on them providing a catch light. A flash can give you back that catchlight in the eye and make the animal look much more alive.
They key to using flash in this way is to use it as fill light, not as a key light. Fill flash simply means that the light output from the flash is not as bright as the ambient light on the subject, the flash is not defining the exposure. There’s no specific “fill flash” setting on a flash, you simply dial down the flash compensation if you are shooting in ETTL. Now you are using your flash just to fill in the shadows a little bit, and with animals this not only adds a catch light to the eyes, but can also reveal more textures and details in their feathers or fur.
The key to successful fill flash with animals is subtlety! Each animal and scene requires a little experimentation, but in general you will probably be in the area of -1 to -2 stops of flash on the flash compensation dial.
Flash / No Flash
For the most part, I think I can just let the image comparison do the talking. Pay particular attention to the catchlight in the bird’s eye. It really bring him to life! It also adds a lot more texture to the feathers and opening up some of those shadows gives you more latitude to play with in post processing. Now of course, the effect of the flash on the features or fur of the animal will vary greatly depending on their colour, but the catchlight will always be added and that is often reason enough to use a flash on an overcast day like this.
A Note On Better Beamers
If any of you are already familiar with the use of flash and long lenses, you might be wondering where my Better Beamer is! For those that don’t know, a Better Beamer is an accessory that mounts to your flash to extend its range. Most hot-shoe flashes are not intended to shoot with lenses above 200mm, but a Better Beamer uses a fresnel lens to focus the flash beam on a point that’s much further away. Effectiveness varies depending on your focal length and also the zoom setting of your flash head, but it can add 2-3 stops of flash power.
I do have one but when I took this BTS photo I just didn’t need it as the birds were so close to the camera that I had no issue lighting them up. In general, they are very useful accessories and since they are so cheap, there’s no good reason not to have one in your kit bag. They really do work!