How to Photograph a Bird In Flight

bird in flight

You might wonder why this post about photographing birds in flight is filed in the “Flash” category.  Take a look at a closeup of that bird.  See the catchlights in the eye and beak?  See the shadow from the speedlight underneath the beak?

gull closeupWe sometimes forget that in many of our flash shots, the flash itself can act like a fast shutter (about 1/1000 of a second), and can have a sharpening effect on pretty much anything we shoot.  This is real sharpening:  Not the pretend sharpening that photo editing programs use.  The degree to which flash sharpens an image depends partly on the brightness of the ambient lighting vs the brightness of the flash.  As the ambient dims, the role of flash increases, and with it the sharpness of the image because of the flash.

This bird was probably about twenty or thirty feet away.  When shooting fast-moving subjects like birds I usually turn off auto-focus and manually focus on something at about the range I’m expecting.  When I’m throwing bread for these outings, I’ll throw a piece and set my focus on the spot where it landed.  It’s important to be sure that your camera is capturing the largest possible size (pixels wide x pixels high), because often you’ll be cropping down to something other than the middle of the frame.



The Beauty of White Ceilings

white ceiling

If you’re a speedlight shooter and are standing in any room, be sure to look up to see if the room has a fairly low white ceiling.  If it does you’re in luck:  Point your flash straight up and have a ball!

Bouncing light off a white ceiling works because it takes the tiny light source on top of your camera and turns it into a giant light source that bounces light back down onto your subject.  The result more often than not is soft shadows that give depth and flattering skin tones, expecially compared to a shot taken with the flash pointing at the subject direcly.  Sometimes the technique is criticised if standing too close to the subject because of “raccoon eye” shadows, but that’s easy to fix:  Take a step back and try again!

The white ceiling technique is so valuable, that I remind flash buyers to avoid any flash that doesn’t swivel UP.  If you want to save money by avoiding flashes offered by your camera’s manufacturer fine, but check the imports that DO swivel – preferably both up and to the side – rather than one that doesn’t.

A few tips:  Watch for fixtures like ceiling fans that interfere with the effect, or worse that cast shadows on the subject (dappled light indoors?).  Also, the higher the ceiling the less useful it is. And never EVER bounce from a ceiling that has any color at all!

How to Photograph People in Dappled Light

Getting great shots of people in full sunlight or full shade is one thing:  Getting them in dappled light is something else!  An experienced photographer will seek out any shady spot over high-contrast (“raccoon eyes”) sunshine, but the really experienced ones will be careful to exclude the the shade under trees, or anything else that lets spots of light shine through onto the subject.  Those spots are called “dappled light”.

So alright, the clients prefer a treed location, and the sun is ruining every shot, like the one above (don’t even think about fixing it in post-production).  What to do?  Can a white translucent diffuser disk be held over them to remove the spots?  If not, then you may have another technique that’s pretty much sure-fire… IF you have the equipment and skills to use it:  Speedlight flash.

The technique involves two steps:  First, turn the subject around so the dappled lighting strikes their back rather than their front.  That’s easy enough, but now the camera is shutting down in response to the bright light, which in turn starves the shaded side of your subject.  You can try adjusting the exposure with EC or any of the three exposure controls (shutter, aperture or ISO), but you’ll find that the contrast and colors of your subject will be disappointing at best.  The second step of this technique remedies that.  It’s to simply replace the light lost when turning them around with a gentle pop of flash as shown below.  Note:  Here we actually lowered the exposure using shutter speed in manual mode, then letting flash illuminate the nearby subject.

Flash: The Experts’ Secret Weapon

If you don’t think that flash is for daytime shots, then think again.  The next time you’re outdoors and the sun is beating down, flip up your tiny built-in flash and see what you’ve been missing.  It gets better than that though:  For the real show, spend a few dollars on an external flash unit that slides into the hotshoe on the top of your camera (if it’s so equipped).  Stay with one built by your camera’s manufacturer if you can afford it, or if not, be sure it’s designed to work with your camera.  There’s more technology here than just a light popping, so brace yourself for a learning curve.  Is it worth it?  Have a look again at the picture above.

Camera engineers and camera salesmen look at external (so-called Speedlight or Speedlite) flashes differently. To a salesmen they’re options that can add to their earnings. To engineers though, they’re a necessary part of a sophisticated light management system that should NEVER have been taken off the camera in the first place. They must wince whenever they see their amazing cameras struggle in high-dynamic range lighting to get the exposures right without flash, and that’s especially true in bright sunlight! We’ll return to this often here, but for now just consider and digest this:

Begin to see TWO light-management regions in most of your shots:
Flash is for the foreground out to about twenty feet:  The camera’s job is everything beyond that.