Some photographers seem a bit too anxious to get the perfect lighting for all their photos and go to great extents bothering the birds with extra light and flash for one perfect picture.  I have always tried to take my pictures without flash to prevent scaring the bird and also to get the most natural look to my pictures.  Also I can get multiple pictures (my camera can get some 5 to 10 frames per second) of the same bird in different positions and sometimes this leads to the one out of many shots that is really good.

Under low light conditions the situation gets more difficult and the need for using a flash becomes more severe.  But I have learned that today’s technology will allow for some nice shots (not perfect) without the use of flash.  For example here is a shot of a Ocellated Antbird at ISO 3200, 1/50th sec, f 5.6 with a 100-400 mm Canon zoom.

Ocellated Antbird

I took about 20 photos of this bird and only two of them came out very good, the others where a little fuzzy because of my shaky pulse.  If I had used flash the bird would have fled with the first shot.  Also I found that by taking the photos in RAW mode produces better results, especially in low light conditions.  The RAW format has more information and you can get more noise out of the photo and the resulting colors are more vivid.  Here is a photo comparing jpg vs RAW at ISO 3200, 1/500th sec, f 5.6, with a 100-400 mm zoom.


So it is possible to get good pictures under low light conditions and without flash.  Of course there are limits, for example it would not be possible to get some good pictures without some artificial light in the dark.

So why do some photographers insist in using flash?  The real flexibility that a good and powerful flash can provide is really amazing.  With flash you can manipulate depth of field, speed, and ISO all at the same time!  No more do you have balance between all of the parameters.  How does that happen?  It is no magic, you simply set your camera in manual, set the f stop that you want, set the speed that you need, set the ISO to some ideal number and BAM!  The flash will adjust its power automatically to meet your requirements.  Of course if the flash does not have enough light then the picture would be dark.  There are limitations but for close photography (less than two meters) the results can be amazing.  Here is an example of such a photo with and without flash. Note the greatest depth of field with flash, the camera settings are shown in each photo.

f3.5, 1/100 sec, ISO 400 NO FLASH

f32, 1/200th sec, ISO 100 WITH FLASH

This flash magic has been well known for some time but what I did not know is how it is used, or shall I say abused, to get the best possible bird picture!  Just imagine that you can set ISO to 200, speed to 3200, and f stop to 6 and take a perfect hummingbird picture under poor light conditions?  Well that is exactly what some photographers do and use multiple wireless flashes to get enough light needed to get those amazing ideal conditions for bird in flight photography.  In comparison here is a hummer in flight taken without flash.

f5.7, 1/1328 sec, ISO 3200 NO FLASH

So this is not bad for a shot taken under real light conditions.  But now go to Google, click on image search, and type hummingbird flash photography.  You will get the most amazing photos with perfect backgrounds, color, light, sharpness, etc.  Or if you have purchased some bird photographic books just open and look at the amazing photos.

So what is wrong with using flash?  I searched this information in our superhighway and found that there has been some studies that conclude that no permanent damage is done to the birds by exposing them to flash.  Here is one such link:

From the information available it seems that it is OK to use flash but I am not so sure from my experiences. In most cases the (wild) birds are spooked by the flash but can seem impervious to it in places where people take a lot of flash pictures.

I recently witnessed a flash photographic shoot-out that shocked me and led me to write about this subject.  This was a Wildlife Photography Tour aimed at hummingbirds.  The tour leader removed the hummingbird feeders from the lodge and put a flower with a fake background, and an empty feeder nearby. The hummers that have been depending on the feeders for many years now had the only option of feeding on this flower that was perfectly aimed by five wireless flashes!  The hungry birds where flying everywhere looking for food and when they went to the center stage they got nailed by these flashes that froze the bird in flight with perfect sharpness, depth of field, perfect background, and at amazingly low ISOs.
Later I found out that this group of photographers have been doing this for three consecutive days, taking turns at the shootout, and that there was another group that just went through this lodge doing the same thing just two days prior.  This was torture and it was evident when I almost stepped on the hummingbirds that were on the floor trying to get sugar out of the empty feeders laying nearby.

I wonder if there was enough supplemental food for the many hummingbirds that have always depended on the feeders?

I wonder if there are any studies that take into account the hundreds of powerful flashes that these birds were being exposed for many consecutive days?

Written by Renato
Renato was born in Quito, Ecuador and quickly flew to the USA to learn all about engineering and climbing company ladders. After getting his engineering degree from the University of Minnesota he worked in the Standard-American-Rat-Race-Company for fifteen years. After climbing the ladder to where he could no longer see the ground, he decided to jump off the ladder and migrate south like all normal birds do. To his surprise home did not look like it did when he left as a young fledgling; the towns were bigger, most of his friends had nests of their own, and the countryside was changed. Shocked by all the change he searched for a new life and a new wife. He stumbled across a vivacious young chick who would accompany him inside a volcanic crater to set up a love nest. So, after eight years of nesting inside the crater a new love for nature and birds has sprung a career in environmental conservation and birding tours. Finally this bird has come home to roost!