Bird Photography Basics: Using a Flash

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In the last lesson, we discussed exposure modes for bird photography and mentioned that using supplemental lighting may be an option in some shooting situations. Arguably the most practical type of supplemental lighting comes in the form of a flash, although to some, it may not seem applicable to bird photography. Flash photography is not only possible when shooting birds, but can greatly improve your photos in many situations. This lesson will describe some of those situations and provide some pointers for using your flash in the field.

Flash Extenders

Before we discuss when and how to use your flash for bird photography, let's talk about the limitation that most flash units have – their effective range. Getting close enough to a bird to be within that range can be difficult. As noted in an earlier lesson, a simple flash extender won't set you back much financially and may be one of the best investments you can make for supplementing the light in those telephoto shots. Keep in mind that leaving the extender on in bright sunlight calls for some caution, as the lens can cause heat damage to your equipment.

Here are a few of the ways that using a flash may help improve your bird photos:

Shooting in the Woods

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Obviously, many of your subjects for bird photography make their homes in the forest. Capturing them in this environment with your camera makes for some seriously challenging lighting situations. Put simply, the woods are full of shadows and birds will take advantage of those shadows to stay hidden. A flash unit can provide the extra light balance your exposure and bring out the details in your subjects when you're in the forest or any other dimly lit area.

Filling Shadows

Even in good lighting conditions, shadows in the contours of your subjects' body shape can hide details

that you'll want to show in your images. After all, birds in the wild aren't usually too interested in taking posing directions. You can use your flash to fill those areas with light, resulting in enhancement of the detail in those areas.

Increased Detail Contrast

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Directional lighting helps enhance detail by increasing the contrast in small areas, similar to the way sharpness and clarity adjustments work in image processing software. Ambient lighting can provide that directional quality, but when it's lacking, your flash can provide it, to make a considerable difference in the way feather detail stands out.

Color Enhancement

In low-light situations, the colors of your subjects can appear muted and muddy in your images. Adding a burst of flash can bring up the intensity of those colors.

Back-lit Shots

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One of the most powerful ways to utilize a flash unit is to add light to the front of a subject in strong back-lighting. Unless you want to deliberately silhouette your subject, bringing out the details in these situations will often require adjusting your exposure beyond the capabilities of your equipment. Flash can provide the light needed to bring our those details while maintaining a good exposure balance.

Catch Light

A flash can provide the catch light in the eyes of your subjects to provide that little “spark of life”.

Freezing Motion

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Nothing freezes motion like a flash. When you're dealing with beating wings, quick little movements and flight, a flash can make all the difference in the outcome of your shots. Even at fast shutter speeds, the wings of small birds will often be completely blurred without it.

External vs. Built-In Flash

Although the general consensus among most photographers is that the built-in flash on your camera is a useless device, and in most situations that's true for bird photography too, it is a much smaller and compact option than an external flash, so don't be afraid to give it a try when you're fighting the brush or in another situation where space is limited.

That said, external flash units are obviously much more powerful and versatile and we highly recommend having at least one, along with an extender.

Using the Flash in Auto

The first thing to make clear about using a flash is that it adds a while new level of difficulty to choosing exposure settings. This is the main deterrent to flash photography for many people in any genre. Others simply set everything on the camera and flash to full auto and that may or may not provide great results, especially when you're using the flash just as fill lighting.

Using a dedicated flash unit gives you the option of setting your camera in aperture priority mode and your flash to Through The Lens (TTL) metering mode. You can then use exposure compensation (EC) and flash exposure compensation (FEC) to adjust the exposure as needed. There are no hard and fast rules when shooting this way, and practice is the best way to learn. A good starting point, however, is with a reduction of 2/3 stop for both EC and FEC. You'll be trying to achieve a balance of ambient light and light from the flash, so make your adjustments accordingly. In other words, an increase in the size of the lens aperture will require a reduction in flash power, to compensate for the additional light entering the lens.

Setting the Flash Manually

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As you've probably already guessed, setting your flash and your camera to work together manually is a complex process and this lesson won't be a full tutorial on flash photography. If you'd like to have a little more control over how they operate, though there is a basic procedure you can follow that will, hopefully, “get you in the ball park”.

  1. Set the shutter speed: Check your camera's maximum flash sync speed and select a shutter speed of that speed or below, if possible. Note: This speed may not sufficient to freeze motion.
  2. Select the aperture size: Choose the maximum aperture setting that produces good sharpness from your lens and provides the depth of field desired.
  3. Set your flash power: Switch the flash to manual and select ¼ power.
  4. Adjust with the ISO setting: Use the camera's ISO setting to adjust the resulting exposure. (Keep Exposing to the Right in mind.) If your ISO setting is approaching the range where noise may be a problem, try increasing the flash power. (Be careful to avoid meltdowns at full power.) If you can't decrease the ISO far enough to obtain correct exposure, you may need to decrease the flash power or the aperture size.

Remember that this is only a basic procedure and there will be flaws to correct in many instances. Practice this at every opportunity to increase your chances of success in shooting “the real thing”.


One or more flash units can be very useful in bird photography, for many reasons. It can be well worth investing in a good, dedicated external flash unit and taking the time to learn to use it properly with your camera(s). Multiple units may even be practical in locations where you have an opportunity to set them up and a controller to synchronize them. Don't fear the flash; learn to use it!

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