Ruby Throated Hummingbirds are plentiful in our yard and feed on a wide variety of small insects, spiders, sap and nectar. They linger into early October before commencing on their migration journeys. During Spring and Summer, these tiny birds are commonly seen on and around feeders making them relatively easy to photograph.
Guarding Food Sources
Every time I photograph birds in our yard, I always notice one or two aggressive Ruby Throated Hummingbirds acting like bullies around a hummingbird feeder. This behavior can be described as territorial and takes the form of menacing, purposeful, greedy dive bombing of other hummers who attempt to drink from the same hummingbird feeder.
On this particular shoot, an aggressive female unconcerned with me established herself on a camera level perch very close to the feeder. She spent the whole morning standing guard, watching, waiting, only occasionally coming to the feeder for a quick drink. I also managed to photograph another female hummer (see photo below). She crouched down in the wet foliage to hide and watched for an opportunity to sidle past the sentry and sneak in for a drink at the feeder.
Some (Anthropomorphic) Observations of Aggressive Hummer Behavior
The aggressive Hummer (either male or female) will defend food resources relentlessly, so much so that I wonder when they find the time to get enough nourishment for themselves.
They are not afraid to insistently confront humans when their feeders run dry.
They choose a “watchtower” perch near the feeder that provides the best vantage point from which to watch for trespassers.
They create a “no fly zone” into which all other hummers are considered trespassers. If another hummer gets too close, they initiate an attack.
This aggressive behavior includes: loud chittering, tail and wing displays, dive bombing, pursuing the interloper until he is out of the designated territory, aggressive ramming using their chests, sharp beaks, and claws.
These individuals guard their food source all summer, right up to the time they leave on migration.
Solutions to this behavior include clustering multiple nectar feeders in one area or widely separating them….. making them impossible for one individual to police.
There were plenty of opportunities to photograph the hummers on the feeder, but where’s the challenge in that? I wanted to capture some hummer flight action– but for the most part, the dizzying speed and agility of these little birds left my tracking abilities in the dust. I did manage to capture the aggressor hovering over the feeder in between dashes to and from her watchtower perch.
Hoping for a Vagrant Hummer to Visit
As I sit and watch the birds, I keep hoping I will see and photograph an uncommonly seen species of hummer as she passes through our yard in the Fall or Spring. The most likely species for Southwest Michigan would probably be the Rufous Hummer. More rare and accidental spottings have been documented in Michigan of the more elusive Broad-billed Hummingbirds, the Green Violet-ear Hummingbirds, and the White-Eared hummingbirds.
A soothing fall day. Just a few bright withered leaves drift down. Soon there will be plenty of light.
It’s early October and the number of migrating birds who have interrupted their journeys to take refuge in my yard has dwindled. A few jewels may still appear. The camera and long lens are set up in the house pointing toward the dense foliage near the fountain. The scene is not reflecting much light on this breezy morning. The background is thick and indistinct.
The more I use my flash, the more evident it becomes that AA batteries recharge it too slowly for bird photography. One shot – wait. One shot – wait. This seems true even if I need only a touch of fill light and use a fraction of what the flash can deliver. I have to pause… hold myself back –slow down my shutter action to give the flash gun time to recover.
Wait Time Analysis
Here’s a quick analysis of the situation:
Recycle Rate on Canon 580 EX II Flash is 6 seconds (with fresh AA batteries).
With 8 additional batteries attached, (Canon CP-E4 Compact AA alkalide battery pack) recycle rate time decreases to 2 seconds (with fresh batteries).
The speed of low speed continuous shooting mode can be as high as 13 frames per second on modern Canon DSLR cameras. (Note: Lots of issues can impact the speed of continuous shooting– most especially if you set your camera to shoot RAW rather than JPG).
In ETTL mode, longer distances between flash and subject as well as tight apertures, low ISOs and higher shutter speed settings (Max 1/250 per second in flash mode on my camera) will cause the flash gun to work harder.
Fast draining batteries impact speed and responsiveness of flash unit. In addition, going off task to swap out dying batteries takes time.
No wall power adapter is available for the Canon 580EX II flash gun.
The tube on the Canon 580 EX II flash gun will start to overheat after 15-20 flash bursts paced at 2-5 seconds apart. This bumps up flash recycling time to 8 to 20 seconds. Soon after, the over burdened flash will require a “rest time” of 10-15 minutes. (NOTE: An overly heated Canon flash gun will give thermal warning and shut down flash operation to avoid permanent damage to the flash. There is no override switch to cancel shutdown on the 580 EX II.)
NOTE: The flash may shut down, but not the camera. If I continue fast shutter action without a flash, I will end up with a lot of very noisy (5000+) ISO images – assuming the ISO on the camera is set to AUTO.
Prodigious Power Users
Modern flash guns are prodigious power users. Lots of photographers choose to replace the AA batteries with powerful, light, versatile and portable lithium ion power packs and chargers designed to recharge faster and last longer.
More Power, Faster Recycle
On a friend’s recommendation, I researched Flashpoint‘s Blast Power Pack PB-960. It was the least expensive lithium ion power pack I could find. The customer reviews were very good.
You can regenerate your flash unit to full power in less than 1 second. When the power pack runs dry, it’s a simple matter to swap it out for a fresh unit. A $20.00 cable to join two batteries to one power pack will cut the recycling time in half.
Power pack battery life is rated to deliver 1800 full power shots.
A bright LED power level indicator on the unit keeps the photographer aware of power drainage.
With very little fuss, heavy duty locking cables securely attach to the flash unit.
Lithium Ion battery recharge time takes approximately 3 hours…which is why you need an extra battery to swap out with the drained one.
NOTE: Wedding photographers must love carrying the Flashpoint PB-960 on their gear belts. It is engineered to power two different flashes simultaneously off the same power pack.
A Better Option than AA
The Flashpoint lithium ion power pack definitely performs faster than AA batteries, providing more consistently reliable, portable power. It’s not a cheap date. I bought the power pack, 2 batteries, recharger, and carrying strap for $350.00.
Controlling My Trigger Finger
What seems like an interminable wait for my flash to respond is really not. I was able to get 3 or 4 different, well lit shots of the Wilson’s Warbler when he came to refresh himself at the fountain. If I feel the need to hold down the shutter in order to get the perfect shot, more of the images will be adequately illuminated with the Flashpoint attached.
However, no lithium ion power pack will be able to keep up with camera bursts, nor for that matter, will the flash gun. I’ll just have to learn to control my trigger finger when using flash.
When I’m out photographing birds, I have plenty of down time to watch and think about the complex relationships and interactions between birds and other species. Recently, I was very interested to read about how Northern Cardinals indirectly help reduce the spread of West Nile disease.
Northern Cardinals (along with most other birds) play an essential role in the transmission of disease to humans. When a female mosquito successfully pierces a bird’s skin to probe for blood vessels, suck blood and then leave behind saliva, that bird will become a host to any viral infections carried by the biting mosquito. The infected bird will then spread the infections to the next mosquito who pierces her. Eventually down the line, an infection carrying mosquito will transfer the virus to a human.
How Northern Cardinals Fit In
Some species of birds don’t offer the same quality disease spreading services for blood sucking insects.
Epidemiologists at the CDC claim that when virus carrying mosquitos feast on the blood of Northern Cardinals and infect them with West Nile Virus, the virus does not circulate in that species bloodstream at the level required to transmit the disease to the next mosquito host. Scientists surmise that this disease can be slowed or even halted by an unaccommodating bird host like the Northern Cardinal. Fewer infected mosquitoes means fewer transmissions to humans. (NOTE: Other species of birds that may also suppress this disease are Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds, and Brown Thrashers.)
So the proliferation of West Nile disease (in the U.S. since 1999) depends on which birds are infected. To make this phenomenon even more fascinating, epidemiologists are finding that the appetites of mosquitoes change mid summer so they are more likely to choose to take their blood meals from poor hosting species like Cardinals, thereby slowing down exposure to humans.
Photographing Northern Cardinals
Northern Cardinals are one of the most common year-round residents in our yard. They are cautiously bold and curious, perching on or around the bird feeders near the windows to forage. No other bird in our yard is as easy to approach with a camera. When I make plans to photograph Cardinals, there is little need for me to venture outside with my camera and become a blood meal for mosquitos and ticks.
It’s the coloration of the female cardinal that I find most eloquent. Subtle olive brown feathers are tinged with red on the crest, eyebrows, wings and tail. Her bold red/orange cone shaped beak matches the male cardinal’s beak, but appears less protuberent against the more understated colors of her face.
When I took the photo above, the sky was almost completely covered with sun obscuring clouds, making for a bright but diffused light. Diffused light softens the contrasts across the whole image, making for a more even and balanced look. This type of light creates less of a distinction between the shadows, highlights and mid-tones.
Showy Bird Crests
When focusing in on a female Northern Cardinal, I normally try to include a capture with her crest held high. If she notices the camera, her crest generally goes down, perhaps an effort not to be detected. When a bird sports a crest, she can raise and lower it to indicate mating readiness, nervousness, excitement, caution, and fear. These upright barbs high on the bird’s crown are made of soft, bendable fluffy feathers which can be raised high in a perky salute or tucked back smoothly on the head. Nestlings and newly fledged Cardinals often display still growing crests that look more threadbare.
To view photographs of Northern Cardinals engaged in courtship feeding, press this link.
The birding hotspot that peaked my interest is called Good Harbor Bay Trail off M-22 in the Sleeping Bear Dune National Preserve. It’s a 2.8 mile trek just a short distance from the Lake Michigan shoreline, 20 miles north of Empire, MI. The trail was described as being fairly flat, very wooded, with planks placed strategically along the route to help hikers traverse through swamp areas.
When we got to the trail, it was warm and fairly windy with a storm brewing over the lake. Warblers on migration often come down to rest before and/or during a storm. Dark clouds produced a dull pall over the scene, making details in the woods indistinct. I was prepared for low light photography.
Traveling With Camera Equipment
Prepping for the uneven terrain, we packed the camera equipment onto the cart and headed out to search for migrating Prairie Warblers and Pine Warblers. Car travel allows me to pack (overpack?) any and all equipment we might need. I was sure this was going to be an active bird photography day, so I made sure I was ready. Here’s an itemized listing of the load:
ECKLA Beach Rolly Cart to haul gear on the trails, beaches, docks, boardwalks, or any rugged terrain we might encounter. (NOTE: To negotiate the wetland part of the trail that consisted of single board planks, the two of us lifted the front and back ends and then carried the Eckla cart over.)
Plastic 15 Qt rectangular container to store 1.4 and 2.0 telephoto extenders, Canon 580 EX Flash, Better Beamer Flash extender, bracket to lift flash above camera, cabling, bungee cords, CF Memory cards, extra battery pack for camera, compact battery pack for flash, extra AA batteries, and rain gear.
*The Tamrac backpack is big enough to accommodate the assembled DSLR camera, 1.4 Canon extender and 500 mm lens. Before heading on the trail, we secured all equipment to the cart with bungee cord. (NOTE: The last time we used the Eckla cart, one of the wheels fell off because its cotter pin was not secure and dropped off. Can’t move a full load with only one wheel. We spent several frustrating hours retracing our steps looking for the pin.)
Learning Through Experience
For short treks, it is convenient to have as much of the gear assembled before placing it (zipper forward) in the backpack and then in the cart. For long distance car/plane/train travel (moving around in airports, in and out of taxis and hotel rooms, etc), I pack the various components separately.
I learned the hard way. On one of our long distance birding adventures, my assembled camera, lens and extender were carefully padded and stowed in the Tamrac backpack. In one of the airport terminals, the pack rolled a little too fast off of my husband’s back and landed with a sickening thud. Apparently upon impact, the camera body swung one way and the 1.4 extender and long lens went in different directions. This torquing was too much for the mounts to endure and they all twisted apart. Separate unconnected components would have endured the impact within that heavily padded backpack.
The Canon authorized service center inspected the damage and concluded that all mounts had to be replaced. In addition, the autofocus mechanism on the lens was damaged, so it had to be taken apart, repaired and reassembled. Our insurance paid the $700.00 repair bill, but we were left without a camera for more than a week.
On the Trail…..
We heard a few distant warblings coming from high in the trees, but we only actually saw a chickadee and a mourning dove. It was certainly not the first time (nor will it be the last) when extensive prep and high hopes came to nothing.
Serious bird photographers are often let down. You learn that disappointment is a waste of energy – especially considering that you have no control over nature’s forces. It’s best to include in your birding adventures other avenues of peace and pleasure. We had a very pleasant walk in beautiful country, sans mosquitoes, and the packed Eckla cart made our trail travels effortless.
Photographing the Tennessee Warbler at Home
Lovely trip, but no birds. When I’m on the road, I spend much of my time moving, looking, hoping to stumble upon birds that other birders have seen in the same location. I’ve come to learn that setting up the equipment in one or two places and having the patience to wait until the birds come to you is often a better plan than walking with gear on a long trail.
These photos of the Tennessee Warbler were taken in our yard after we got home. It took a little under 10 minutes to unpack and assemble the gear.
Photographing a Female Black Throated Blue Warbler
First cool day we’ve had in a long time. The mosquitoes seem to be taking a break as well. The camera, 500mm lens, 1.4 extender, flash with better beamer extender, and extra battery power pack are all setup on a tripod at the patio door opening to the deck. One leg of the tripod is on the wood deck platform, but most of this ensemble (including me) are in the house.
It’s one of those “happy to be alive” sunny days. The cicada and bird song intermix agreeably with the ringing chimes in the front yard. I have high hopes today because so far this Fall, I’ve seen and photographed 13 species of warblers who have interrupted their journeys south to rest and replenish in our yard. (See Flickr 2016 Fall Migration Album.)
My Canon DSLR camera was set to Al Servo mode for these photos of the female Black Throated Blue Warbler. I activated a splattering of center based auto focus points. Same day, same time, but distinctly different color tones coming through. Different colors are a consequence of the type and intensity of the light. Hard to predict what colors tones will come through with flash… but it is easy enough to correct what you don’t like in post processing by experimenting with the white balance options. NOTE: The color balance for all of these photos was not changed in post processing….and appear “as shot”.
Matching Auto Focus Mode with Shooting Conditions
So many issues and conditions impact the ability of the camera and lens to precisely focus. As long as the light is good and one or more autofocus points are able to lock focus on the target, you can expect accurate focus, no matter what autofocus mode is set on the camera.
If all of the DSLR autofocus modes work great, why not pick one and stick with it- or better yet, let the camera decide?
Because when you are dealing with high level of subject unpredictability, anything can happen. A fast and responsive lens is designed to achieve the sharpest auto focus when you match shooting conditions with camera’s auto focus modes.
Canon’s Auto Focus Modes
Here is a quick description of the auto focus mode choices available in modern DSLR Canon cameras.
1) One Shot…. for use when your subject is mostly stationary. Once the camera achieves focus, the shutter will release- and NOT before. Perfect for portraits and landscapes where conditions tend to be more predictable. (NOTE: The focusing assist beam on the flash gun that bounces light to the subject and then back to the camera to gauge distance and aid focusing will only work in One Shot mode.)
2) Al Servo…. continually tracks, readjusts and re-focuses until the shutter is pressed down completely. This is the most reliable auto focus mode to capture images of birds on the move. Al Servo places the camera in charge of responding to movement, as long as photographer adeptly tracks the action with activated autofocus points.
3) AI Focus….. the photographer relies on the camera to determine if there’s movement at the time the shutter is released. I don’t find much use for Al Focus mode. I trust Canon cameras to make critical focusing decisions with regard to autofocus points – but not to decide what autofocus mode fits the activity level in a scenario that is likely to be constantly changing.
NOTE: You can turn off auto focus on the lens and focus manually. The auto focusing technology built into modern cameras and lenses is so accurate that even in diminished light, I rarely set the lens to Manual focus.
Back Button Focus
When you set your DSLR camera to Al Servo continuous focusing mode you have to keep that shutter button half-engaged to achieve focus. This is highly inefficient, especially when you are tracking lots of action. The Back Button focus function allows you to disengage the shutter button from the focusing function, thus making focusing faster and more precise. To do this, simply focus on your subject by holding down the back focus button with your thumb and get ready to press the shutter release with your fore finger when the peak action starts. The camera will continually focus on the subject, and the shutter will not try to engage focus before taking the photo. Once the subject stops moving, let go of the back button focus and use the shutter button to focus as you did before.
I use Al Servo focus (combined with back button focus) most of the time because this mode puts the lens on the alert for movement. Designed to work hand-in-hand with whatever focus points are activated, it efficiently adjusts and readjusts focus the second it senses motion. Al servo is also essential for panning (following a moving subject) and for bursting.
Read about the difference between shooting modes and autofocus modes here.
It’s high noon, and I think I can see warbler-ish movement on the tree branches. Might just be the discordant breezes. Overhead, winds are moving the clouds around every which way, reducing and scattering light. The clouds are numerous enough that my scene changes by the minute….mostly under lit, with some intermittent and dappled brightness. The small patches of light make for uneven, spotty illumination with distracting patterns of shadows and highlights. The ISO reads 8000+, and then a stray sunbeam will penetrate the scene and the ISO drops down to 3200.
A tiny spider flies on his silken trapeze and touches down softly on the lens. One is crawling on my LCD screen. A puff of breath sends him flying.
Limiting the Focusing Field
When my bird tracking misses its mark, the lens pans back and tries to focus somewhere in the dim woodsy background. I set the range limiter switch on the lens to restrict the field on which the lens can focus to the area within 3.7 m-10m (or 12.1 ft 32.8 ft.). Much better. Doesn’t waste so much time trying to achieve focus in the dark woods. (NOTE: I usually set no limitation on the lens because I often forget to set it back. By the time I figure out why the lens won’t lock focus, the bird is gone.)
Windblown Cloud Cover
There is no predicting the where and when of windblown cloud cover so I’ve attached the telephoto flash extender. I’d like to move this camera setup completely on to the deck, just to get the lens a little closer to the fountain and the tree branches where a new bird might perch. It certainly would be better distance wise. I’m a good 25 feet from where my tiny avian target might land. Risky though… the birds might consider me too near for comfort and I don’t want to jinx the possibilities.
Transitioning With the Light
Photographing birds while dealing with extreme changes in lighting is manageable because I switch between telephoto flash when the scene is dark and Auto ISO when the sun’s rays filter through more. If the ISO reading is under 5000 I turn off the flash and shoot with available ambient light. (NOTE: Auto ISO and the previous shutter speed setting kick in the minute the camera does not sense the flash gun.) If low light dominates, as it did when I photographed this Blackpoll Warbler, the flash remains on.
The flash provided ample light so that the camera’s sensor was able to capture the details of the highly branched feather patterns on this little bird. I especially like the first photo (posted above), showing the white downy fluff under the tail feathers.
Avoiding the Look of Flat Light
It’s a simple matter to reach up and turn the flash on and off, as needed. What’s not simple is balancing the light from the flash so the image doesn’t look unnaturally bright in front and too dark in the background.
If the flash head angle is not right, the front lighting on the bird very often looks flat. Flat lighting means that the subject is so evenly illuminated that you see very little contrast and texture in your images. If the shadows and highlights lack variation, the details are less distinct- less alive. Think passport photo.
If you shoot in RAW, a little life can be coaxed into the image in post processing. You do this by boosting the saturation- or fiddling with the picture style to see if you can incorporate enough vibrancy to transform that flat light into something that looks more rounded and shows a broader dynamic range on the histogram.
As always, it’s more productive, creative and satisfying to get the light right in-camera rather then trying to fix problems in post processing.
The purpose of attaching a telephoto flash extender to your flash is to narrow and extend direct illumination– farther than the usual flash blast can provide and powerful enough to brighten subjects at a distance and within the restricted field of vision range of a 300mm-500 mm lens.
Experimenting with Telephoto Flash Photography
For most of my telephoto flash experiments, I set the camera to Manual Mode (M) and my flash to E-TTL. My Canon flashgun has an auto zoom feature. Better Beamer documentation suggests that if you have a zoom feature on your flashgun, set it manually to 50mm focal length.
In E-TTL mode, my Canon 580EX Speedlight flash with Better Beamer attached will work with any auto mode (P, Av, Tv,) or Manual (M)on a Canon DSLR camera to make exposure calculations. The quality of light and the distance between lens and subject change often in bird photography, so I let E-TTL and the camera do the exposure calculations and adjust the flash exposure compensation (FEC) accordingly. NOTE: My Canon DSLR cameras are often set to Auto ISO. When I attach a flash and turn it on, the ISO resets from Auto ISO to ISO 400.
Fine Tuning the Light From A Telephoto Flash
Depending on the ambient light, the flash can send a powerful blast or just enough to fill the shadows. The photographer controls the intensity and distribution of the blast by adjusting the flash exposure compensation dial (FEC) on either the flash unit or the DSLR camera. If the distance between the bird and the lens is close, it is often necessary to tone down the flash output to avoid the look of a harsh blast. If the distance between the lens and bird is farther away, I compensate by setting the FEC (+) to deliver a more powerful surge. If backlighting is excessive, a flash can help compensate to make the light look more evenly distributed.
Most often, I begin with -1 FEC. Finding the sweet spot (the look of well balanced light in foreground and background) for birds perched at different distances from the lens takes time.
Pupil Catchlight and Red Eye
Red eye/blue eye (light of flash reflecting back from the subject’s pupils) is a problem in flash photography. I do try to depress the shutter only when the bird is not looking directly at the camera, but often there is evidence of blue eye that has to be corrected in post processing. (NOTE: This is true even with the bracket lifting the flash above the camera.) In addition, I occasionally have to spend time in post processing making the catchlight in the birds’ eyes look more natural.
Histogram When Using a Flash
One of the most helpful tools to measure the impact of the flash adjustment is the histogram on the camera’s LCD screen. The histogram is an information graph that maps dark to light…and lets you see how the camera is reading exposure. You will be able to check for brightness values and have a visual of whether you are underexposing (left side of histogram) or overexposing (right side of histogram).
I often have to make a quick assessment of available ambient light and the camera sensor’s ability to deliver a sharp image-without the help of a flash. To keep the ISO lower, I could underexpose and then artificially brighten in post processing, but this tactic introduces more noise resulting in less detail, especially in the darker areas. When the light is very low (as is often the case in a shaded yard) and the ISO is reading in the 8000+ ISO range, taking the shot using a Better Beamer telephoto flash extender is often the only acceptable alternative.
The second photo (above) of the female Scarlet Tanager was taken without flash…using a much wider aperture (f/5.6) and slower shutter speed (1/250 second) than I normally use in bird photography. The 5000 ISO shows some noise, but after post processing, I think the clarity and noise levels are acceptable.
Proper Depth of Field
In low light, I often have to widen the aperture to get proper exposure readings. With a flash attached to the camera, I have much more control over how I set the aperture and consequently, am able to achieve enough depth of field to get all of my image in focus.
The color and quality of light is ever changing… depending on the light source (or combination of light sources) atmospheric conditions, time of day, diffusive impact of clouds, rain and fog, and most importantly, the potency and the directionality of the light. Combining flash with ambient light often introduces unnatural tones of color in all or part of the image. If you shoot in RAW, this can be corrected in post processing.
In low light situations, a telephoto flash will most certainly bring out more detail and color information in the bird images.
Flash Power Recycling Requirements
I take a lot of shots when I am photographing birds and both my cameras react quickly and efficiently. However, bursting is not practical with a flash attached because the flash unit can not keep up. My Canon 580 EX automatically shuts down if it gets too hot to prevent damage to the unit. This often means a lot fewer photos and possible lost opportunities.
NOTE: The recycle time was so slow on my Canon 580 EX flash gun that I had to attach an additional compact battery pack (adds 8 batteries) to speed up flash recycling.
NOTE: If the flash does not have sufficient time to recycle (or goes into auto shutdown mode) before the next shot, I often keep shooting. The shutter will revert out of max flash sync speed to the shutter speed previously set on the camera. I preset the shutter to 1/350 second in Manual mode just in case the flash does not fire. I consider this to be a more reliable bird photography shutter speed for sharp photos (on a tripod) then the 1/250 second max flash sync speed.
Sometimes you just need to take a break and walk away from your tripod mounted gear. Please be aware that flash gun with a fresnel extender set up on a tripod and pointed toward direct sunlight will get very hot, very quickly and may damage the flash unit and the camera (and possibly much more).
Flash as A Necessary Tool
Overall, I was reminded of how gratifying and comparatively effortless it is to work with adequate natural light. I’m also thankful for a responsive light sensor on my DSLRs that delivers quality images in relatively low light.
The goal of attaching a speed light with flash extender is to shed directed, intense and metered light on your distant subject and still maintain a natural look in low light environments. For the longest time, I have snobbishly shunned telephoto flash bird photography. But I was too hasty and missed far too many bird photographs, especially those warblers who so commonly hide in the shadows or under foliage. It is time for me to forget the arrogance and figure out how in low light situations I am going to balance ambient and flash light to get the best natural looking bird photos that I can.
At least now when I get up on a dark dreary morning, there’s hope. 8-}
It’s mid summer and the trees are lush with light blocking foliage. The three tiered fountain near our deck is attracting lots of Robins and a few new visitors. We are on the Lake Michigan migration corridor, so I expect (and desperately hope) that a lot avian transients will pass through our yard as it gets colder.
As the sunlight filters down through the branches in our back yard, it creates only a few sparsely placed patches of light. More often than not (and depending on the time of day) I can expect uneven light, high (8000+) ISOs, marginally sharp focus, and unappealing dark blotchy backgrounds.
Somehow I’ve got to introduce some more light, hopefully before Fall migration starts.
Modern Camera Sensors
In low light, attaining correct exposure without flash often means taking the ISO high. High ISO numbers indicate that the subject was not adequately lit (after calculating shutter, ISO and aperture values) and the camera’s sensor had to increased its sensitivity in order to attain adequate exposure. The tradeoff to achieving correct exposure in low light is added noise.
It must be said that modern digital camera sensors need much less light than ever before to produce very good image quality (IQ) at relatively high ISOs. But IQ is so much betteron these modern cameras at base (or close to base) ISO.
The goal of introducing artificial light is to improve image quality by lowering the ISO. (NOTE: All light does not look the same to a camera’s sensor. A color temperature guide for photographers is available at this link.)
Plug in strobes provide powerful light sources and enough of them can make your photos look like you used only natural light. These tools are expensive and cumbersome…more for studio lighting. Other types of continuous (or steady) lighting…like LED lights are not as efficient for illuminating the scene outdoors. Power requirements and light output are very low for LED, substantially lower compared to a flash gun where you can stop action and achieve close to base ISOs.
For a long time, bird photographers have attached a “flash extender” to their long lenses. The purpose of flash extenders is to more precisely direct and (more importantly) extend the illumination reach of a concentrated flash blast onto a distant subject and (hopefully) keep the look of natural light.
The most prevalent device on the market for telephoto flash photography is the “Better Beamer Fresnal Extender.” This inexpensive contrivance uses a plastic fresnel lens to redirect the burst of the flash so it is not wasting light by lluminating a wide area. Instead it and narrows and extends its reach. Think lighthouse!
Attaching a fresnel extender does indeed extend the reach of your flash The operation is fairly easy, and you can control the amount and angle of light. Most importantly, the flash beam does not appear to bother the birds.
More light = faster and more precise focusing.
The E-TTL function (on most advanced DSLR flashes) allows the camera and flash to work together to automatically meter exposure. I usually set the camera to manual mode “M” and the flash unit to E-TTL mode. (NOTE: If I set the flash unit to manual, I would be giving up the benefit of letting the camera and flash do the math for exposure calculations.)
Attaching a flash unit directly to the camera’s hot shoe and angling it so it is pointing directly at your subject can produce dark backgrounds, harsh shadows, overexposed subjects and red eye. This is less true with telephoto flash extenders because of the distance involved between the lens and the flash unit. Hoisting the flash higher so it is positioned above the camera body helps to avoid some of these problems. NOTE: Raising the flash above the camera requires a modest investment in flash accessories. 1) Camera flash bracket made for telephoto lenses that will raise the flash off of the camera; and 2) an TTL off-camera flash cord so you can sync the flash’s E-TTL functions to the camera.)
AF assist beam on the flash unit (helps to focus in low light and tighten the subject’s pupils so that red-eye is less noticeable) only works in single shooting mode- but since this assist beam is designed to work within an area of 10-12 feet, it is useless in telephoto flash photography.
Draining flash batteries produce lower flash output and longer recycling times. Flash recycle times can be improved dramatically by attaching an extra battery pack to the flash. This will allow the flash unit to tap into 12 (instead of 4) batteries for power.
Flash maximum sync shutter speed for flash photography for my Canon cameras is 1/250 second. NOTE: For flashes to work properly, shutter timing must be within limits of the max flash “sync” speed. This is because there must be enough of a time interval between when the 1st and 2nd camera shutter curtain mechanisms move. If the flash is not able to burst in this space when the whole sensor frame is lit, your camera will capture a portion of one or the other shutter curtain bar.
If High Speed Sync Flash is an option on your flash gun, you can set your shutter speed higher than the max flash sync speed and the flash will synchronize to the higher shutter speed. The flash duration for the High Speed Sync Flash is longer but the burst is less powerful. The faster your shutter speed, the more your flash power decreases. More battery power is used in this mode. I did not use this function because flash at the camera’s maximum sync shutter speed does a good job of freezing the action.
My flashgun automatically sets the Auto ISO to 400, so noise is not an issue.
The sparkling pinpoint of catch light in the subject’s eyes that is so attractive in natural light photography is not as impressive when photographing birds using a flash. NOTE: To avoid dead-eye, the catchlights must often be inserted in post processing.
It takes a little time to adjust the tilt of the off-camera flash so it is aimed correctly at your subject.
Time to Experiment
Experimentation is critical in attaining the right balance of light. Too much or too little flash mean unnatural looking images and headaches in post processing. I need time to practice and experiment more. Stay tuned for Part II of Flash Extender Bird Photography.
The Lapland Longspur is an uncommon winter visitor in SW Michigan. Come Spring, this species migrates north to colder climates. Finding a Lapland Longspur in early summer, interspersed with other ground feeders like Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows is a real treat. These rare sightings put me on high alert. I do NOT want to miss the shot.
Luxury of Composition
I found this avian treasure late one morning while driving on a deserted county road in the Allegan State Game Area. He was foraging in a spent corn field near the edge of the road ideally close to the camera. Warm earth tone colors dominated the scene; consisting of mostly dark, plowed chunky earth in umber and ochre colors. A few dried golden stalks from last year’s corn lay in the field, reflecting the morning sunlight and complementing the bird’s plumage.
Before I brought the car to a full stop, I lifted the camera, 500mm lens and 1.4 tele extender from my lap and rested it on the bean bag cushion protecting the car door window. The Lapland Longspur noticed me immediately and stayed less than a minute, but it was enough time to get off a couple quick bursts.
That’s often the way it goes. The bird is long gone before I have a chance to think about the compositional options available to me.
I feel less pressure when an uncommon bird is unafraid and lingers within close view of the camera’s lens. I find myself taking more time to compose thoughtfully and precisely.
DSLR camera composing guidelines (available via the menu system) are customized to help the photographer visually arrange what she sees through the viewfinder. They serve as a starting point by overlaying a 9-part grid intended to help compose more artistically.
This framework allows you to mentally apply the “Rule of Thirds” by compartmentalizing the image into equal parts, horizontally and vertically. You then compose the scene by positioning the subject(s) in the frame in or around those intersecting lines, thusleading your viewer’s eyes to your subject(s).
Compositional Food for Thought
I find that applying the Rule of Thirds helps me pull together and balance elements when I’m composing — to accentuate the subject in a more pleasing and/or stimulating way. It also helps me visualize a square frame through the viewfinder, instead of the usual rectangular frame. (NOTE: To read more about image composition, press this link.)
Judicious cropping in post processing becomes easier when I pay attention to the rule of thirds while composing. So often my images have the bird positioned smack dab in the middle. That’s OK, but sometimes it’s compositionally prudent to shift your subject away from the middle point and accentuate other parts of the scene that may reveal a more complete story.
Of course, it helps when there is something captivating within the scene of my viewing screen to pull together.
Setting the Scene
Although I mentally apply the Rule of Thirds when photographing birds, I do not activate the viewfinder gridlines in my DSLR cameras because I find them distracting. I am more likely to use the grids when photographing people or places… where I have the time physically manipulate the camera and/or the subjects before I start shooting.
Being Prepared Only Goes So Far
Ultimately, being prepared only goes so far in bird photography. If I stumble upon unexpected bird activity, the primary objective is to deal with the limitations of light and location and capture the moment quickly. There’s rarely time to stop everything to indulge in the lavish luxury of setting the scene.
That said, I like to think that my quick GET THAT SHOT response to bird photography also includes a spark of compositional creativity. 😎
While I watch for birds to photograph around our home, I often see a fox, thin and young, with a shaggy tail and reddish coat blotchy with mud. I think of foxes as being wiley….clever, stealthy, patient and quick, but this one just comes ambling through the backyard in broad daylight, looking around for an easy opportunity (perhaps a sleeping squirrel?) as she passes through. She does manage to displace some of the birds – though they don’t look especially worried about her presence.
The Purple Finches photographed here were watchful of the fox, but did not scatter as she came trotting through the area where we keep our feeders. I did not expect any threatening encounters as the finches rarely hop down to forage at ground level, nor can that fox climb trees.
A Different Approach
Early one morning I watched this fox gingerly carry her small, helpless baby kit in her jaws. That started me thinking about workable camera/tripod layouts for a different sort of photo.
The camera setup (as it is situated in my library) offers an eye-level view of birds in the nearby understory trees. It is targeted to capture up-close shots of song birds; on this day, Purple Finches. The minimum lens focusing distance of a Canon f/4 L II 500mm lens = 12′ 14″. The feeders are closer to the library window than that, but the tree branches nearest to the feeders upon which birds alight are between 13 and 18 feet from the windows. Lots of interfering branches and leaves near this foliage and in the immediate background, but with the camera and long lens positioned so close, it’s not hard to isolate the subject.
As comfy and convenient as my indoor set up is, it would not work for my new imaginary scenario. I would have relocate outside at ground level within my heavily wooded yard and close to where the fox regularly visits.
Steps to Actualize Dreams
Fabulous bird photos don’t just land in front of your camera lens. Once you become inspired, well thought out plans and actions are required.
Setup must not interfere with my bird friendly environment.
Setup arrangement would have to have enough clearance for the lens to successfully track moving subjects, at least minimally.
Stealth is necessary. Must determine the best spot to set up blind, taking into consideration background, light, time of day, telephoto lens (see field of vision post), wind and weather.
Within the blind, I must adjust the tripod legs so they are as low to the ground as possible – 12″. (Tripod center columns removed.)
I will be in the blind for long periods, so I insert my campy chair. (The Crazy Creek Chair, light weight nylon, adjustable, light, padded, low to the ground, with back support.)
Watch attentively, wait and hope.
Preparation Does Not Always Lead to Opportunity
It took a couple days, but I successfully re-created this dream scenario into an actionable setup. I have watched and waited for many hours in that blind. So far, lots of resident song birds, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and deer roaming about, but no fox; at least none that I saw within the confines of my blind.
Perhaps this fox is more deft than I thought.
Resilience and Tenacity
Watching the birds interacting with their environment and visualizing possible scenarios to photograph constitute a lot of what nature photographers do. Then comes the strategizing and setting up to actualize those dreams. Often nothing comes of it, but there’s always a chance that you will be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment.. and you get the shot.
If something serendipitous happens while you’re out there, all the better.