Photographing a Perky Wilson’s Warbler – Dealing with Inadequate Flash Power

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Photographing A Wilson Warbler

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 camera is set on low speed continuous shooting and al servo focusing mode – perfect for fast moving birds. But in low light, it doesn’t matter how fast the camera can burst if the flash is weary after the first one or two shots.

Photo of Wilson's Warbler
Wet Wilson’s Warbler
Bathing at Fountain
Flash Engaged
ISO 400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Slow to Recycle

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.

Photo of Wilson's Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Taken with Flash extender
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

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.

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2 thoughts on “Photographing a Perky Wilson’s Warbler – Dealing with Inadequate Flash Power

  1. Nancy,
    It seems that fountain in your yard is a real bird magnet. I live along a river, and never even considered fountains. Is it the moving water that attracts them? I do use a bird bath which is sometimes frequented. Can you give me the name of the fountain that you have, so I can check it out. Thanks.

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