Photographing Moving Birds
One of the most challenging aspects of bird photography is the fact that most birds do not like to hold still or stay in one place for very long. “Well, duh,” you say. I have to agree, that on the surface may appear pretty obvious. I guess I’m saying that when you view them through a long lens, it seems to magnify this mobile behavior and it becomes so much more evident than you might have realized. Even the slight turn of a bird’s head can ruin an otherwise good shot. They’ll walk, jump, hop, twitch, spin, stretch, run, and peck. These behaviors require a fairly fast shutter speed if you snap it while the bird is doing one of these movements. Motion blur will result if the shutter speed is too slow.
Open your aperture to let in more light—oops, already opened all the way. Bump up your ISO setting—oops, it’s already set to 1000 on my 7D (2500 on my 5DM3) and that’ll give me plenty of noise to deal with. What else can you do? Maybe call it a day and come back when there’s more light. Or, put an external flash on your camera to create your own light.
External Flash in Bird Photography
A beginner to bird photography may not be able to afford an external flash right away and that is understandable. Even if you don’t own a flash yet, I’m hoping you can still pick up a tip or two from this section for down the road when you do get one.
External flash attachments fit on the camera’s flash shoe which is usually located right behind the pop-up onboard flash. They are much more powerful than the built-in flash on your camera and they can synchronize with your camera in ways that the onboard flash cannot. And, your onboard flash may be useless with a long bird lens on because the flash is not high enough on the camera to avoid casting a shadow made by the long lens.
The way to find out if this will be a problem for you is to do some test shots with your bird lens on. Try close up shots and long distance shots with your built-in flash. If you get shadow problems, please realize that it’s not the camera’s fault. (I’ve read some online forum posts that actually blame the camera manufacturer!). The bottom line for shadows in this situation is to use an external flash.
When mounted on the flash shoe, most external flashes are raised enough to shoot over a reasonably long lens. If it’s still not high enough, a flash bracket can be used to raise the light even higher or off to one side.
I have had no problems with using the Canon flash on the camera’s shoe with my Canon 400mm f5.6L lens. (Faster 400mm lenses and 500mm+ lenses will be much longer than my lens and might introduce flash problems). But for now, my setup works well for me. Update April 10, 2014: About 1 1/2 years ago I upgraded my camera from the 7D to the Canon 5D Mark III (5DM3). To be honest, I haven’t used a flash since the upgrade due to the 5DM3’s superior ability to reduce noise at higher ISO’s. I have also upgraded my lens to the faster (f4) 500mm, which also helps. This certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t benefit by using external flash–there are situations with lighting that flash can improve on (at least in my opinion). I will undoubtedly try using flash again at some point. So no matter what equipment you use, it is always a good idea to know how to use an external flash and in what situations it might help. Any tools that can improve our photos and our opportunity for photos, is a good thing.
As I mentioned in Part Two of this series, I own the Canon 580EX flash. I got it in 2007 and Canon has come out with a newer model called the 580 EX II (top of the line). I paid $386 for mine back then; now (2012) they want $450+ for the II model. The next model down is really no slouch either—the 430EX II at about $250. Both have the high speed sync feature which is very important in my bird photography. I’ll cover a little about both ‘normal’ sync and ‘high speed’ sync below. Update March 7, 2016: Canon’s newest Speedlight is the 600EX-RT at about $550. There’s also the 430EX III-RT at $299. I do not own either of these new lights. I still have not used flash with the 500mm lens. There have been times when it would have come in handy but since I shoot from my vehicle most of the time, the light would undoubtedly get in the way shooting out the window. That makes it not the best idea for me. But for many photographers, consider using a light especially in locations where natural light is lacking.
Using normal flash sync – Depending on the model of your camera body, the maximum shutter speed that can synchronize with the flash is either 1/200 or 1/250. My 5DM3 will sync at 1/200. If I try to use a faster shutter speed with the flash in normal mode, there will be a horizontal dark shadow across part of the frame. For bird photography, this is the mode I use when it’s just too dark to get a shot without the flash–Either real early in the morning before the sun has risen very far, in woods where shade is coupled with dark skies, etc.
These shots will likely not be my best because all of the light is coming from the flash—there is not enough ambient light to even register on the camera sensor. The shot will have the appearance of a home snap shot from a family event taken in a low lit room and it will be pretty obvious I used flash. These types of shots may be good for your documentary files. [Click on the photo for a larger view].
Above is a shot using full flash in a dark area. It’s an American Bittern catching a frog. Without flash, the shot would not have been sharp because I would have had to slow down my 40D’s shutter speed to get needed light, which would have led to motion blur. The Exif data on the shot was 1/250, f6.3, ISO400, at 285mm. The time of the shot was just after sunrise but the day was cloudy so it was quite dark (I don’t mean night time dark). Yes, I could have bumped up ISO to say, 800, and I could have opened the aperture to f5.6, but that still would not have allowed me to shoot at anywhere near 1/250th of a second. I got the shot, I captured the action, and it’s relatively sharp. I wouldn’t have gotten anything without the flash. True, the shot will not be on a magazine cover soon, but I got the shot and isn’t that what it’s all about? Notice the focal length is 285mm…I had my Canon 100-400mm L zoom lens at the time of this shot and the camera used was the Canon 40D.
So this is the flash mode that I use in those “all or nothing” situations. If I don’t use the full power of the flash, the photo will be too dark, blurry, or noisy. Now let’s look at another flash mode available with the 580 EX.
Using High Speed Flash Sync – This mode is activated by pressing the button that has a lightning bolt on it. Press it repeatedly until the LCD shows a lightning bolt with a letter ‘H’ next to it. I’m now in high-speed sync (HSS) mode. Now, I can activate the shutter at any shutter speed for which I have adequate light. I am no longer limited to the 1/250 shutter speed ‘normal’ sync limit.
This mode is used when I have plenty of ambient light and I just want to add a bit of flash to fill in unwanted shadows or just hit the bird with a bit more light. Sometimes I use this when the bird has uneven lighting. Many times when I use this mode, it is hard to tell that I used a flash, which is usually what I aim for.
Let’s say I have my ISO set to a ‘comfortable’ 400, and my aperture is wide open at f5.6 (in my case). I have preset these on my camera and I either know from experience, or take a test shot of mid-tone colors in this semi-shady area to determine that a shutter speed of 1/800 would get me a shot I could work with in Lightroom. My external flash is already attached to the camera, as is the Better Beamer to the flash. Both the camera and the flash are in the ON position but they are not powered up because I always have my camera and light set to power down if they are idle for more than 2 minutes. When I see a potential target, I pick up the camera and touch the shutter button so the camera and light wake up. Remember, the flash is set on high-speed sync, so it will work with the 1/800 shutter speed.
Before I actually take the shot, let me explain one other subject and feature on the flash and 7D (and probably most other Canon bodies). I can adjust the power of the flash to my needs by overriding the flash’s exposure calculations by using flash compensation (FC). “Flash compensation? What’s that?” you ask. Well, it’s just like exposure compensation except it applies to the flash’s power. There’s a dial on the back of the flash that allows me to adjust its power by 1/3 stop increments, up or down. While the flash always tries its best to expose my subject properly, my definition of ‘properly’ sometimes is different. I typically set my FC to -2/3 of a stop to knock down the power just a bit. I don’t necessarily always leave it there but this is a good starting point for many situations. The last thing I want is for the flash to blow out whites on my next bird subject!
On top of this, there is an even easier way (at least for me it’s easier) to adjust the FC on my camera. I can customize the 7D (and my 5D Mark III) by programming it to control the flash from its LCD screen. When I activate the Quick Control Screen (by pressing the Q button), my camera shows me almost all settings related to the shot I’m currently taking, one of them being flash compensation. I just use the little joy stick button on the camera to move the highlight around the LCD screen until it’s on the FC setting box. A couple clicks of the main dial and I’m set to -2/3 FC without having to touch the flash dial.
I kind of got off on a tangent there talking about FC but it’s very important. I now want to get back to my 1/800 shutter speed and how it works in the HSS mode. Why doesn’t this mode leave a horizontal shadow across my frame like it does when I use a shutter speed faster than 1/250 in normal sync mode?
My answer is not very technical but basically, in HSS mode, the light actually pulses flashes, thousands of times per second, continually for a “long duration–maybe up to 1/250 of a second. This is a much longer time than the very short burst of light outputted in normal sync mode. There are two shutter curtains in your camera that work in tandem. They basically work such that a thin slit is opened across the whole frame. When our “long” flash duration is activated in HSS mode, light is available for a long enough time to reach through the slit in the shutter curtains and expose the whole frame.
With this technology, I can shoot at any shutter speed with flash in HSS mode. But at these faster shutter speeds, there isn’t much time for much light to get in between the shutter curtains. So it’s not like there’ll be enough light to expose a bird if it is in low ambient light. I need to use normal flash sync to get the flash power to light up a poorly lit bird. HSS mode will give me that “kiss” of light that just might boost colors or detail in a bird’s feathers.
When I set the external flash to HSS mode, it will automatically use normal flash sync if I am using a shutter speed at or below my camera’s normal sync speed of 1/250 of a second. If I change the shutter speed to 1/500, HSS will automatically kick in so I don’t have to keep turning the HSS mode on and off in different lighting situations. This is a good reason to leave my flash in HSS mode all the time.
If you’d like to read a detailed article on this subject, check out this website: http://www.rpphoto.com/howto/view.asp?articleID=1026. It’s well written and gives you the whole story about high speed sync.
When I’m shooting with the external flash (and Better Beamer) attached to my camera, and I’m shooting from my vehicle, there are times when the window frame of my truck limits where I can point the camera/flash combination. This makes it necessary for me to hold the camera all the way out the car window and shoot handheld. Sometimes if I’m pointing up at a bird, I’ll rest the flash, the Better Beamer, or my lens against the window frame to help steady it. But for a bird at camera level I can usually still sit the camera with the flash on my bean bag and shoot comfortably. My truck’s windows are tall enough to allow this. (Another reason I really like my old truck!).