The Guru College

Using Off Camera Flash In Nature Photography

The Problem:

Recently, I’ve been trying to do a better job of capturing the wildlife in and around the house. The best times for shooting birds and squirrels is usually when the light isn’t at it’s best – early morning or late evening – and at this time of year, that’s a cold time to be outside. It doesn’t help that animals are skittish about having photographers hanging about at the best of times, and laying in wait in below freezing weather when a warm bed and a pair of rowdy kids inside were calling to me wasn’t going to happen. I decided to use a combination of off-camera flash and remote shutter triggers to help my problems.

Things You Need:

  • Flashes
  • Flash triggers
  • Flags or GoBos
  • Wireless shutter release
  • Tripod
  • Camera/Lens
  • Translucent Plastic
  • Bird Food
  • Patience

I’m a fan of re-using things from around the house, and digging about under the house, I found a sheet of clear perspex and an old light diffuser panel from a ceiling light. I washed both of them off, and found that they were happily scratch-free and mostly unbroken. I grabbed a pair of buckets and headed back outside.

The Setup:

I flipped the buckets upside down, and put the plastic sheets on top of them (the clear one because it was fairly rigid, the diffuser as it would add a little bit of texture). I also dropped a bag of cement on one side, to keep squirrels from knocking the whole setup over.

Next, on the ground, between the buckets, I put my Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 flashes, each set to CLS remote. I also added flags to each flash to keep the light from the flash from spilling back into the camera directly. Flags are also called GoBos, (go-betweens), and they go in between the flash and the camera, to block the light coming from the flash from illuminating parts of the image. Mine are made from cardboard, duct tape, and velcro, and are velcro’ed to each of the flashes.

While we’re on the subject of the flashes, if you don’t have Canon AWS or Nikon CLS, you can use radio triggers, PC sync cords, or simple optical slaves to trigger the flashes. Nikon’s CLS-enabled flashes are spend, but I got them before kids, and it’s incredibly useful to be able to remotely set the power on the flashes. I highly recommend it – especially when it’s 27°F/-3°C outside.

Once I had my stand setup, I poured some bird seed on it, positioned my tripod, and mounted my camera with a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8. The lens was dialed all the way back to 70mm, and it’s the sharpest zoom I own. I also went ahead and set the focus manually to be just at the center of the bird seed, turned the ISO to 400, and set the camera to f/8 and 100th of a second. Finally, I turned the camera from it’s usual “high speed” shutter release mode over to “wireless remote”, and headed inside.

With the magic of CLS, I dialed both flashes down to minimum power – 1/128th power – so I wouldn’t have a risk of running the batteries out. Batteries work less well in the cold, so this is important on cold days.

This setup allowed me to wander around in the house all morning, while were cooking, cleaning and playing with the kids, and snap pictures whenever I saw a creature outside getting a snack. I hope this tutorial helps you get the shots you want. Here is another shot from today’s work, and while the effect is far more subtle, it helped balance the shadows and highlights to produce a useable image:

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