Tutorial: A simple one flash setup for amazing wildlife images
Many photographers, even professionals, are reluctant to use flash in their nature photography. They often give three reasons – flash looks artificial, flash is complicated, flash harms our subjects.
None of these statements is true and, together, they belie a lack of understanding of flash as one of the photographer’s most important tools. Employed well, flash can create beautiful light. Using flash is not that hard. And, while we should take care using flash in certain situations such as nesting birds, flash, as is the case for humans, has no harmful physiological effect on animals.
In this article, I will share a few of my favorite techniques for using just one flash to take great nature photos of subjects ranging from birds to frogs to insects to landscapes. Using flash will quickly open up new creative avenues for you, will allow you to shoot in sub-optimal conditions, and will help you to capture images that stand out from the crowd.
Using flash in a nutshell
Photographers use flash in two basic ways, as main light or as fill light. We can use flash in this way with any type of flash. Though I prefer to keep my camera in manual exposure mode for my photography, these basic flash concepts also apply for any shooting mode.
Fill flash aims to balance natural light with light from our flash. Our goal with this type of photography is to use flash to fill in the shadows while maintaining direction from the natural light. Importantly, we are letting the natural light do most of the work in exposing our subject; the flash is only adding auxiliary light to reveal details in darker areas.
In nature, we most often use fill-flash by placing a flash in the hotshoe or on a telephoto flash bracket to photograph birds or wildlife. Our flash works to fill in shadows while the natural light mandates our base exposure for the brightest parts of the image. This is the simplest use of flash for nature photography.
Start in TTL flash mode and dial in flash exposure compensation between -1 and -3 stops. Fill flash is very easy to learn, and it can quickly improve your nature photos by allowing you to photograph in less than perfect light.
Take these photos of a Collared Aracari taken in the lowlands of Costa Rica below. In the first image without flash, the shadow areas are quite dark. In the second image, subtle fill-flash has helped to reveal detail in the shadows without affecting the background or killing the sense of natural direction of the light.
We employ flash as main light when we set our flash unit to do most or all of the work on our subject. Main light flash is useful in the absence of natural light (e.g., at night), in extreme backlit situations, and when backgrounds are in sun and our subject is in deep shade.
It's not hard at all to properly expose any subject using flash as main light. Simply turn on your flash and let TTL exposure take over. Making main light flash look good, however, takes some practice and an artistic eye.
Look, for example, at the photo of a Red-headed Barbet I took in Ecuador above. The background was lit by very bright mid-day sun, and the bird and branch were in the shade.
I used my flash on a telephoto flash bracket to illuminate the bird, and it is properly exposed. But, it looks absolutely horrible!
Why does this photo look so bad if it is in fact well exposed? When using flash as the main light it's essential to get the flash off-axis. When using flash as fill as described above, we can use the flash in the hotshoe or on a simple bracket with good results.
This is because we can leave natural highlights and shadows from the ambient exposure. Our picture will have depth and will look natural.
When the flash does all of the work on our subject, however, it becomes impossible to create any shadows if the flash is fired straight at the subject.
Direct flash – whether in the hotshoe or on a telephoto flash bracket – as main light on the subject is a recipe for failure in nature photography.
When I have to use flash as main light, I move my flash off-camera and often try to diffuse it in some fashion.
A few years ago, I wanted to photograph a tiny Strawberry Poison Frog hopping around some small cup fungi in a lowland rainforest forest in Costa Rica (above). As with the aforementioned Red-headed Barbet, I was faced with a shaded subject against a bright sunlit background.
I set my camera to expose the background properly. That left me with a very underexposed frog. I used one flash held off-camera and fitted with a small softbox to illuminate my subject.
In contrast to the direct flash work on the barbet above, the flash work on the frog photo looks completely natural. Coupled with the use of a wide open aperture on my macro lens, this lends the photo a dreamy look that is much different from most frog photos we see.
Examples from the field
With some practice and experimentation, it's not hard to start incorporating flash into your nature photography. With digital, all you can waste is time! Here are some examples of how I've used just one standard hotshoe flash to take photos in the rainforests of Latin America.
I used a variation of the simple fill-flash technique to produce this unique portrait of a flying Scarlet Macaw in Costa Rica. With a flash in the camera hotshoe, I set up for a standard flight shot but with a couple of twists. A slow shutter speed (1/50th) allowed me to blur the background as I panned along with the bird as it flew.
A brief pop of flash produced added sharpness and brighter colour on the bird.
For this portrait of a bullet ant gathering nectar on rainforest poinsettia flowers in the Peruvian Amazon, I employed flash as main light.
Even though I took this shot during the middle of the day, I completely underexposed the image so that I could use flash as the only light. This allowed me to stop down to f14 for added depth of field. I held one flash, fitted with a softbox, off-camera with a TTL flash cord. Careful flash placement and good diffusion helped to create light that looks completely natural.
I used the exact same technique as in image two for this very tight composition of the eye of a Dwarf Iguana in a cloud forest in Ecuador. Here I was using the Canon MP-E 65 mm macro lens for extreme magnification. Using flash as the only light allowed me to gain valuable depth of field even while handholding.
Incorporating flash into landscape can open the door to eye-catching wildlife in the environment images. For this photo of a boa constrictor in a tree on the shores of Lake Arenal in Costa Rica, I set the camera to properly expose the sunrise sky.
This left my subject a complete silhouette. I worked handheld and had a friend hold a flash with softbox and warming gel off-camera to illuminate the boa and the branch.
Thinking like a landscape painter and paying attention to light source, direction, and temperature is key to using flash well for this type of scenario.
Landscapes can benefit from flash too, particularly when they have a strong foreground element. One of my favorite techniques is to slightly underexpose a landscape scene and then use flash to draw attention to an important element, such as this giant liana in a rainforest in Costa Rica. I light painted the liana using multiple flash pops during a 13-second exposure.
For this photo of a Reticulated Glass Frog protecting its egg clutch in a lowland rainforest in Costa Rica, the flash is again doing all of the work. I completely underexposed the natural light and used one-flash held off-camera and fitted with a softbox.
I used a radio flash transmitter on the camera and a receiver on the flash as this allowed me to hold the flash behind the leaf to create the backlit look I wanted. The awkward location of the leaf and a slight breeze meant using a tripod for a natural light exposure was out of the question. By using flash as the main light and going handheld, I was able to quickly get my shot and then leave the frog alone.
My recommended gear
Godox V860 II
I love the Godox flash system as it’s full-featured and smoothly integrated from their largest studio strobes to their tiny bluetooth flash for smartphones. This V860 II model is the same as a Canon or Nikon flagship flash and offers TTL, high-speed sync, and radio master and slave capabilities for a fraction of the price.
Godox XPro Flash Transmitter
Another great feature of the Godox V860II flash is that it will work with all of its features no matter what camera system you use. Simply buy the X Pro flash transmitter for your camera system(s) of choice and fire your Godox flash off-camera, even in TTL and high-speed sync. Transmission is via 2.4 GHz radio frequency so you don’t need line of sight between your camera and flash. The range is about 100 meters.
Vello Off-camera TTL Flash Cord
An off-camera cord is the cheapest and easiest way to move your flash off-camera for macro work while maintaining rock-solid communication with your camera. This Vello model works well at a good price. I like the
3 foot long version to make it a bit easier to place the
flash where you want it.
Lumiquest Softbox III
This is a great softbox for providing soft light due to the size and the translucent plastic material used. It is a bit large, however, and the mounting process is slow and a bit awkward. It does give great results, though, and I use it often for frogs and reptiles.
Westcott Micro Apollo Softbox
A smaller alternative that mounts much more easily is the Westcott Micro Apollo. The light it provides is not quite as soft as the Lumiquest Softbox III, but it still gives very good results. I use this product a lot for frogs, flowers, and even for my multiple-flash setups for hummingbirds.
Small collapsible 12” reflectors are easy to carry and can provide nice fill light when working with one flash. I prefer the silver/white variety. In a pinch, aluminum foil, a piece of white paper, or even the palm of your hand can work as a reflector! ❂