Why You Need Fill Flash

Especially here in Germany there’s always a great discussion going on about whether it’s right to use flash for bird photography or not.  In many occasions I have been confronted with akward arguments how I could dare to use fill flash for shooting birds.

The best was something like “I can use Shadow/Highlights filter in Photoshop and get the same effect”…….

To me there are two groups. One groups that doesn’t like flash shooting at all and has ethical concerns and the other group, which just says it’s bad to use fill flash, because they don’t know how to use it. I have to disagree with both. Only in rare cases I’ve flushed a bird because of my flash. This happened mostly in situations where the birds were cautious already e.g. when having larger groups of birds at a feeder. Besides that I had very few negative experiences with it. I’d even go so far to say that in most of the mentioned cases the noise of the shutter or the lens movement would have flushed the birds, too. 75 % of the birds just continue whatever they’re doing and another 20% give you a nice pose and a great headturn after the first shot. Generally, I’d say that the greater the bird, the less cautious it will be towards fill flash.

To me using fill flash is a great way of of increasing your chances to capture incredible bird images. Without flash you would often have to pack up your gear and go home, because the conditions do not allow decent images anymore. Those conditions might be shadow, bright sun light or overcast. Further down I will post a few sample images showing the great differences of using fill flash or not in the same situation. 

Using fill flash saved me many images. Especially when shooting ducks I found it a great tool to show the iridescence of a drake’s head or to maintain detail in dark parts of the feathers. When shooting below trees it helps a lot to fight the shadows appearing on the birds.  When shooting at my feeder I only select overcast days and use fill flash to get nicely balanced and evenly exposed images. There are hundreds of situations where using fill flash saved my day and that’s also why I write this entry. I hope to be able to at least convince people that it is a necessary and “good” tool.

Below you see some images made with and without fill flash. The difference is very obvious I’d say. The upper image would be not useable and no Photoshop tool could make a decent image out of it. Whereas the lower images show a nicely exposed image. The only difference is that the lower images were made using fill flash. The rest of the settings stayed the same. Those are just Raw cnoversions and noithing else has been applied to them



And here a final version of one of the images.


And some more  images made with flash….




I’d love to hear your thoughts about using flash. did you have similiar experiences? Bad ones? None?

Flash Settings and Set Up

I received many e-mails asking for more detailed set up and settings information. I thought this will be of overall interest and so it’s todays topic.

I will not write about how to mount your flash to your tripod. You will see why in a few days….

What you definitely need for fill flash photography besides a flash, of course, is a Better Beamer. It’s basically a piece of plastic that bundles the light and extends the reach. It also helps to decrease the effect of flashed looking eyes. I linked you a store where you can get it.

Here you see my whole set up. Canon EF 600 L IS on a Wimberley Head II with Flash Brackets, Better Beamer and a camera flash cord.

BE CAREFUL: If you leave the Better Beamer on your flash and direct it into the sun it will burn holes in your flash! Might even set your car under fire….

Pic 6

Now we come to interesting part. Chosing your flash settings….First of all you need to set your flash to Highspped synch. CHECK THIS often. If you accidentally turn it off you might end up with almost white images, because the max sync of most cameras ist 1/250. Usually we want to shoot at higher speeds and therefore need the flash set on “H” (highspeed) on Canon flashes. No idea what it is on Nikon flashes.

The next step ist chosing ETTL so that you can manually over or underexpose. On Canon 1 series bodies you can adjust the flash with your camera. If you wanna do so. Leave ETTL on +/- 0. When you press the lowest of the three buttons on top of the camera you can change the values, like you do with your normal under-/overexposing. (Does this work with Nikon or Canon xxD bodies?) This feauture is very helpful when your are in a blind and cannot reach out.

I don’t know why flash photography is such a big mystery. It’s pretty easy actually. In the beginning you want to set the flash to – 1 2/3. That’s a great standard value and is good 85% of the time. After some time you will eventually become familiar with the flash and after some test shootings you get the right feeling, which values are the right ones for the given moment. Never try to shoot with flash in morning or evening sun. It will kill the whole atmosphere and the images will look awful.

When your image looks too flashy at -1 2/3 then try -2  or -2 1/3. If you think it could use more flash then put in on – 1 1/3. Above that you should be careful. -1 is pretty strong and only suitable in some situations. I try to take advantage of the flash, but try to avoid images that look flashed. A perfect picture for me is when nobody sees that it was flashed, but it was 🙂 You have to be careful with dark backgrounds. Due to the low exposure you get flashed looking images very easily, even at -3.

I use fill flash mainly in situations with difficult light like shadow, overcast or harsh sunlight. It balances the images and helps you to maintain details in dark parts. If I have clear evening skies, I never take the flash out.

I will post some images and write the flash settings to them and describe the given situation and why I used this setting.


clear skies, early mroning in light shadow of a tree in my backyard. Here only a tad of fill flash was needed. Thus I chose  Flash -2. Camera +/- 0


Heavy overcast, almost rain. However, a light green background and yellows on the bird you don’t want to blow out…. Flash -1 2/3. Camera  +/- 0

JCW_1038-0111 am harsh light. Hence I gave it a bit more power Flash -1 1/3 Camera – 1/3


terrible dark shadow. Almost not worth shooting. I gave every I had….more or less…. Flash -2/3 (quite strong) Camera -1/3 (to save the whites)


same location as the Hawfinch, but later and with sunlight in the background. So I gave  Flash -1 1/3 Camera +/- 0

That’s it for today. Please feel free to comment or e-mail me with further questions. I will write more on set up and batteries soon.

The Full Rig

When it comes to flash photography it’s not done with just a flash and a few batteries.

I recommend to read my review on Naturescapes. It shows you what hardware parts you really need. LINK

here’s a list what you additionally want to have:

 Better Beamer

Camera Flash Cord

Rechargeable Batteries

And a Battery alá Quantum Turbo 2×2

Today I wanna talk especially about the latter two. I explained the Better Beamer already and the camera cord it pretty much self-explanatory.

To run my flash is use POWEREX 2700 mAH Batteries: LINK

They last quite long and I use the same batteries for almost 3 years now without having them lose much capacity. Additionally you can purchase a great charger that loads 8 batteries at once. I own 4 set of the POWEREX, which is enough for 2-3 days.

So why do I need an additional Quantum Battery ?

When we are shooting with cameras that easily make 5 or more fps we are facing the problem that the flash cannot keep up with that high frame rate. So only every third images or so is flashed. That’s not necessarily bad, but can be pretty annoying, when shooting under conditions that require flash. At below 1/160 the POWEREX will do the job just fine and almost all images will be flashed, even without additional power supply. However, when we reach greater shutter speeds, we definitely need an extra source of power. Even with the strongest Quantum (Turbo 2×2) we will not be able to have every image flashed, but the vast majority. At 1/800 you can shoots 5-6 fps and the flash will fire in every frame. At 8 or 10 fps the flash just cannot keep up with the reloading time. I would highly recommend the Quantum Turbo 2×2, it’s strong, expensive and heavy, but worth it. At least for me. Doing serious flash photography without additional power doesn’t do it for me. With a turbo battery you are able to influence your images to a great degree, without it’s just a matter of luck, whether the “perfect” pose was flashed or not.

If someone found a good way to mount the Turbo 2×2 to a Gitzo let me know ! 🙂

It’s late so enough for today. I hope it has helped a bit 🙂


5 Responses to “Flash Photography”

  1. Ofer Levy said

    Hi Jan,
    Just read your article about flash photography. It is fantastic!!
    I was very spoiled for the last 5 years or so in Australia with wonderful early morning and afternoon light so never really needed a flash. However, this summer was horrible with cloudy days – 90% of the time!
    I will definitly follow your wonderful guidance and get into flash photography.
    The funny thing is that in my work as a function photographer I do all my photography – indoors and outdoors using flash….(-:
    Would you be so kind and send me a link to the Quantum (Turbo 2×2) unit I should get?
    is it this one – http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/502464-REG/Quantum_Instruments__Turbo_SC_Battery_Pack.html

    Thanks Jan,



  2. JC said

    Hey Ofer,

    thanks for the kind words 🙂
    4 more month, then I’ll be in Australia for a full year 🙂

    This is the one I have.

    The SC you have in your link is good too, but has less power, the advantage is that it is much smaller…

  3. David said

    Jan, very good article and nice and illustrative examples.
    Nevertheless, it should be emphasized, that in Canon system, one has to stay in M (manual-on camera setting) exposition mode to get real “added fill flash” effect. Otherwise, the Canon E-TTL metering system changes the exposition little as soon as you turn on the flash so the background will be darker. I do not know if it should be avoided somehow (working in Av/Tv mode with E-TLL), but I don´t think so. For me, it´s a bit annoying. What is your experience?

  4. I love the Better Beamer. My take on flash for birds is – “it all depends”. I think it all comes with experience and with a short study of the light as it occurs. You can’t take a purist approach – you just have to do what’s needed.

  5. […] just stumbled on this article about Wildlife Flash Photography I found to be pretty interesting considering that I’m a […]

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