Photo by Annalise Kaylor
Try These Techniques to Supplement the Sun
By Annalise Kaylor
Nature and wildlife photographers have the best and brightest light at their disposal – the sun. But most great things have their less-than-good sides, too, and the sun is no exception. The overhead sun, from midday through the late afternoon, creates harsh shadows. Every photographer has experienced seeing their subject in the perfect location, but badly backlit or facing a less-than-ideal direction. As a result, many outdoor photographers give up on midday shooting, and bring out their cameras only when the natural light is at its most favorable.
However, the addition of a flash to your kit creates a whole new world of photographic opportunities. To many, the mention of flash photography conjures up memories of harshly lit snapshots with red eyes and unflattering, overblown highlights. But when used – and understood – in a meaningful way, the addition of flash can take your work to the next level and provide you with many more options. What is photography, after all, if not the art of reading, manipulating and capturing light?
In nature photography, there are essentially two types of flash photography that come into play: using the flash to add a bit more light to your scene, and using the flash as a primary light source. Both techniques are worth practicing and can be applied to every form of nature photography, from the tiniest macro shots to migrating songbirds to the most magnificent landscapes.
Without a flash (left), the flower looks flat. By adding flash reflected from a bounce card, it comes alive. Photos by Annalise Kaylor.
Adding Flash Adds An Exposure (Kind Of)
When using flash, you’re working with two exposures to create one frame – one exposure from your camera and one from your flash. Your camera exposure is always reading the natural, or ambient, light in the scene. The flash exposure will always be focused on lighting the subject of the scene. The easiest way to remember the difference between the two exposures is that your camera should be set to expose for the background of your image.
In-camera exposure for the background is what every photographer is already familiar with: if you want a brighter, lighter background or you want to have some of the environmental context of your location easily visible, you set your camera exposure for that background. If you want a background that is darker and allows your subject to be more prominent, then you reduce the exposure to create a darker background.
With added flash and a slower shutter speed controlling ambient light, the flower in the second photo is more pleasing. Photos by Annalise Kaylor.
Manual Or Through-the-Lens Flash?
Adding flash to the mix offers two options: manual flash exposure or through-the-lens exposure, also known as TTL. Manual exposure with flash is just like it sounds, since the photographer chooses the settings of the flash. While there is no hard and fast rule as to which is better, manual flash tends to be the best option for static, non-moving subjects like flowers and some macro subjects. Generally speaking, if you are using a tripod and taking a fair amount of time to compose your scene around a subject, manual flash offers the most control.
Through-the-lens, or TTL mode, is ideal for moving subjects. This mode puts the camera and the flash in communication with one another, and the flash is reading the light through the lens of your camera, constantly judging the distance between your camera and your subject. As it gathers that information, the flash is adjusting itself accordingly to give you the best flash exposure possible based on the data it receives from your camera.
Using Modifiers With On-Camera Flash
Gone are the days when a photographer sets the flash in the hot shoe and blasts their subject with direct light from the flash alone. Not only does this look harsh in the final image, there are also ethical concerns about ambushing wildlife with a bright flash of direct light. Any time the light from your flash is coming from the same direction as your camera, less will always be more.
Flash modifiers are a great way to add another layer of creativity and control while using artificial light.
The larger the source of light, the softer and more natural the light will be. A spotlight, for example, is small and round with all of its light funneling through that very small opening. On the other end of the spectrum, a large picture window, with a sheer curtain hanging in front of it, will diffuse the light all around the room, creating a soft and even wash of light. This is the same reason a bright sunny day creates harsh shadows, while an overcast day creates even lighting all around. The same principle applies when adding a modifier to a flash.
Lavender with no flash at all (left), and lavender with direct flash mounted on the camera (right). Both images have issues. Photos by Annalise Kaylor.
Most flashes come with a small white card built into them – a “bounce” card that slides up from the back of the unit, allowing the flash to be positioned straight up while the light bounces off this card and forward toward the photographer’s subject on the other side of the lens. The small surface area of this built-in bounce card isn’t ideal, however, so adding a larger, third-party flash modifier creates higher-quality light. This can be a white bounce card with a bigger surface area, or a plastic or silicone globe that diffuses light all around. In a pinch, I’ve even bounced my flash off the white lining of my raincoat!
The same flowers as above, but this time a bounced fill flash creates a more appealing exposure. Photo by Annalise Kaylor.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is focusing flash. By nature, when you set off a flash, the light scatters everywhere. Focusing that light using a modifier, like a grid over the top of the flash or a set of barn doors, directs your flash much like a spotlight at a theater, where the star of the show is illuminated while everything else fades away into the shadows.
Moving The Flash Off Camera
Even more creativity is unleashed when you move your flash off the hot shoe atop the camera to somewhere completely off-camera. Wireless flash transmitters (triggers) are lightweight, fit in the palm of your hand, and allow you to place your flash anywhere in relation to your subject to achieve virtually any lighting setup. The transmitter sits in the hot shoe of the camera while the flash is placed anywhere nearby to achieve the desired effect. It may be positioned off to the side, strapped to a tree, handheld above the subject, or anywhere one pleases.
Moving the flash closer to the subject will result in a higher-contrast image with well-defined edges and shadows. Moving the flash farther away from the subject will create softer edges and an overall more balanced look. Off-camera flash allows the photographer to light a static subject from any angle for a dramatic effect, or even create the illusion of sunlight on an overcast day.
All of the modifiers that can be used with a flash while it’s on the camera can be used when the flash is off-camera, as well. Plus, most wireless triggers work with up to three off-camera flash units, creating myriad lighting scenarios with the addition of each flash.
Books have been written about using flash for nature photography, so this short article certainly can’t cover every aspect. But photographers looking to elevate their work will find a whole new world of creativity and versatility by adding flash to their toolkit. On-camera or off, with a modifier or without, the combination of options is endless. While there is nothing that compares to making a perfect frame in the perfect light of day, being able to make one’s own light comes pretty close.
Annalise Kaylor is a staff photographer and video producer at Habitat for Humanity International, a job that takes her around the world creating visual stories of human resilience. Annalise is a Georgia Audubon Master Birder and spends her free time birdwatching, hiking, kayaking and working in her native garden. A member of GNPA, she is based in Atlanta and lives with her partner Bill and their two dogs, Frank and Susan.