Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Wildlife Fill Flash

field report by Brad Hinkel




Most photographers believe that giant 600mm lenses are the key to good wildlife photography; buy the biggest toy to get the best photos. While the Big-Guns of photography are a great tool (and can be fun to use); the real secret of wildlife photography is fill flash.

Fill flash is one of the key techniques for easily improving wildlife images. Electronic flash improves the color balance of the image, improves color saturation, fills in dark shadows with detail, adds a catch light to an animal’s eye, and may help increase sharpness. I use flash for the vast majority of my nature photographs; for the most part, using the automatic features of the flash to provide fill flash. Many photographers shy away from using their flash because the typical view of images made using flash is one of stark, blown out images; or because they find the addition of flash to their photography complicates their photography.

I believe that the key to adding flash to your photographic toolkit is to let the flash unit work automatically; allow it to do its own magic and don’t worry about how it works. This contrast sharply with the goal that we must all learn to understand and control exposure in order to make good images; but while it is important to understand learn to manually control exposure, flash units are much ‘smarter’ than your exposure meter and should be just allows to work automatically.

Good fill flash for wildlife photography also requires a few key tools; a TTL flash unit (or an automatic unit) with a setting for flash exposure compensation; a flash extender; and an external flash battery.

You can easily create great wildlife photographs by using a moderate telephoto lens (like a 400/5.6) combined with good flash tools.

Image 1 - Shooting with and without Fill Flash

Why Fill Flash?

Fill flash is one of the most sophisticated photographic techniques, but is also one of the easiest to use when using the right equipment. Essentially, it involved adjusting exposure for a scene as you would without a flash unit, and allowing the flash to operate at a reduced setting (usually about ? to ¼ of normal power) to fill in the shadow details in the image. For most flash units, setting the flash for fill flash is a quick one step process.

Fill flash provides significant advantages over shooting without flash. Primarily, fill flash reduces the overall contrast of the image by ‘filling-in’ the shadows with the low power light from the flash; this makes it easy to expose for good highlights, and have the flash fill in the shadows.

Image 2 - Adding Shadow Detail

Flash also improves the colors in your image; even though the light from fill flash does not dominate the light of the image, it can improve the color balance of your image. The addition of properly balanced light from the flash improves the apparent color and saturation within the image. This is most important advantage of using fill-flash – it makes your colors appear richer and brighter.

Image 3 - Fill Flash Improves Color Saturation Especially in Poor Light

Fill-flash also provides light for a catch light in the eye of animal subjects; this is usually a good advantage, but can sometime create a second catch light on days with a strong sun.

Image 4 - Adding a Catch Light

Under certain conditions fill flash can add some detail to an image. Flash always freezes images of wildlife; the flash is typically around 1/1000 sec in duration. Images that would otherwise have marginal or poor sharpness due to long exposures will have some detail restored to the image from the very fast light of the fill flash. This can provide some great, dramatic shots of moving animals that otherwise would appear blurry.

Image 5 - Providing Additional Detail in Long Exposures

Finally, fill Flash can dramatically brighten dark fur or feathers in many subjects, making it easy to expose for the highlights and let the flash fill in the dark areas of the subject.

Image 6 - Provide Color and Detail in Black or Dark Subjects.

How to use Fill Flash

There are basically three types of electronic flash; manual flash, automatic flash, and TTL flash (most TTL flash units support all three modes). Manual flash is not worth the effort, don’t do it; anyone who remembers guide units and calculating manual flash knows that it’s basically an unnecessary pain. Just buy a flash that supports automatic flash, or better still a dedicated TTL flash for your camera.

Automatic Flash

Many photographers wrongly assume that they need sophisticated TTL flash units to use fill flash. In many ways, a good automatic flash unit is as effective as any TTL flash unit for fill flash. Automatic flash units are self contained in their operation; and do not need to communicate with the camera to set the correct exposure. To use an automatic flash unit for fill flash, you merely need to trick it into thinking your film (or sensor) is more sensitive than it really is; set the ISO on the flash unit to be 1?-2 stops faster than your camera is set; if you are shooting your film at ISO 100, set the flash to shoot at ISO 320 or ISO 400. The flash wrongly calculates that the film is more sensitive, and emits less light for fill flash.

To shoot using the automatic flash; set the ISO of the flash higher than the setting on your camera, connect the flash to the camera, set the exposure on your camera normally, and shoot.

When photographing wildlife at a distance with an automatic flash, you may wish to set the flash to a higher setting; shooting at around 1 stop faster. There are a number of good automatic flash units available, but the classic units are the Vivitar 200 series (currently 283 and 285); these are both around $100 to $140 and work with any camera that has a flash sync. The Vivitar units are also very bright flash units for their size.

TTL Flash

TTL flash units are the easiest for using fill flash, since most of these units have built-in settings for fill flash. The disadvantage of these units is they a dedicated part of an electronic camera system, not all cameras have TTL flash units available, and they are relatively expensive. But if you intend to use a flash unit regularly, get the dedicated TTL flash unit designed for your camera from your manufacturer. You won’t need to remember to reset your flash whenever you change film or camera settings; the TTL flash does all the thinking for you. For Nikon’s electronic cameras, these include SB-27, SB-28, SB-50 and SB-80 flash units.

For most TTL flash units, you merely need to set the exposure compensation on the back of the flash unit to under expose -1? stops. On the SB-28, this requires pressing the minus (-) button unit on the flash unit until the flash exposure reads -1.7. Then put the flash unit on your camera, set your exposure normally and shoot. The camera and the flash do the rest.

Image 7 - Set the TTL Flash for Fill Flash

Image 8 – Tools for Fill Flash

Tools for Fill Flash

For Wildlife photography, there are a few essential tools for using fill flash.

Flash Extender (essential if you shoot with a 300mm or longer lens)

A flash extender puts a Fresnel lens in front of the flash to concentrate the light and project it further. This works well when using long lenses (more that 300mm). A flash extender is essential for photographing wildlife at moderate distances over 40’. The flash extender also concentrates the light from the flash, making it more efficient, and reducing the recycle time of your flash. The unit I recommend is the Better Beamer (Michael has a review of the Better Beamer)

External Battery Supply (highly recommended for wildlife photography)

One problem with electronic flash units is the time it takes the unit to recharge; many flash units will take 2-5 seconds to recharge. Additionally, flash units can run through a lot of batteries quickly. For wildlife photography, you need a quick recycle time to keep up with the action, and a day of shooting can run through a whole box of batteries. I recommend using a rechargeable, external battery for your flash. The unit that I recommend is the Quantum Turbo Z; this is about the size of a paperback book, weights about 1½ lbs, and holds enough charge for a long day of shooting. With this unit recycle times are usually reduced to less that ¼ second. This battery can clip onto your belt or onto your tripod and attaches to the flash unit via an adaptor cord. The Turbo Z cost about $400 with an adaptor cable.

Flash Brackets (useful for 500mm and 600mm lenses)

If you are shooting with a very long lens, it is likely that you’ve invested in a dedicated quick release system for your tripod heads, cameras, and long lenses. A quick release system makes shooting with a tripod a pleasure rather than a nuisance. The two best quick release systems are sold by and Both systems offer additional brackets to mount the flash a few inches above the lens, this helps get the flash slightly out of line with the axis of the lens to helps prevent redeye and provide more dimension to the image. If you use a Flash Bracket you will need an extension cord to connect your flash unit to the camera; for a TTL Flash unit this is a dedicated TTL sync extension cord.

Image 9 – Freezing Action


How Far will it Work?

This is the most common question that I get regarding fill flash for wildlife photography. The simple answer is it works for most photographs of small mammals and birds; distances typically up to maybe 100’. But in reality, there is no simple answer. The effective range of the flash depends on the ISO setting of your film(faster film provides for longer distance), the aperture of the lens (wider aperture provides for longer distance), the tonality of the subject (lighter subjects can be photographed at longer distances), and the ambient light. TTL flash units also work better at longer distances since they are measuring the light directly through the lens.

Ethical Questions

I am also questioned if wildlife is disturbed by electronic flash. In my experience, most often the animals appear to not even notice the flash, and if they do, they appear not to be startled by the flash. I suggest that sometime when you are out in the field with a friend, have them make a fill flash photo of you at about 100’ just to see how bright the flash appears.

In any case, if an animal appears startled and nervous by any of your actions, you should relax, stoop or sit down, or even back away from the animal to allow it to calm down. There is never any reason to stress animals for a photograph.


For Comments post in our News Group

2000-2007 Digital Outback Photo