For my most recent “Photography News” article, I showed a photo of a bird in flight. Unless I count the photos I took on my smartphone, it was the last photo I took of 2022. My usual equipment for photography is fairly minimalist – just a camera, a lens, and usually a bird. But this time I used my flashes to capture tiny Coal Tits in flight.

Coal Tit_black background
NIKON D500 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 310mm, ISO 400, 1/250, f/13.0

Much of the Northern Hemisphere is currently covered in a heavy layer of snow. This brings with it complications not only for humans but also for animals. Some species have outsmarted the winter by hibernating (a great way to reduce food and energy costs, by the way). Other species have made it to their exotic wintering grounds by early autumn. However, a number of mammal and bird species are now facing winter starvation.

There is a long tradition of using bird feeders both in Europe and America for these species of birds. Recently, there has been some debate about the merits of doing so. But if you feed birds responsibly (Audubon society link), the benefits outweigh the losses.

Aside from your own enjoyment – and that of the hungry birds – did you know that there are scientific projects that use the public to monitor the abundance and composition of birds at bird feeders? This is a way to monitor bird population trends using a large sample size. And because birds are a great indicator of environmental health, it can be a useful snapshot of how nature is holding up.

But back to the photography. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was able to use flash to photograph birds. The end of the year was very grey and gloomy in the Czech mountains. Dark clouds covered the sun so effectively that it was fairly dark even at noon. With a shutter speed of around 1/400 and an aperture of f/5.6, my camera was metering an ISO of around 8000. What conditions they were!

In conditions like this, and a there were two ideas that I wanted to try. The first was to photograph the silhouette of a bird perched on a spruce branch. A simple graphic, devoid of all color and even shades of grey. A truly black-and-white image.The second idea was exactly the opposite. I wanted to illuminate the bird with a flash and allow the background to turn completely black.

First, I’ll describe how I did the silhouette photography. I hung the feeder on the edge of a spruce tree at the tree line. It was important to have a branch close to the feeder for the birds to perch on. Birds sometimes don’t fly directly to the feeder but sit nearby to check for danger. Then it’s only a matter of time before they choose your branch.

Behind the branch, I attached a thin, white foam board. This used to be packing material, but now it served as a white background. Behind the board, I put a flash with a receiver on a tripod, pointing directly at my camera. With an optical flash trigger set, all I needed to do was sit in my hide and wait.

Coal Tit_white background
NIKON D500 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 400mm, ISO 100, 1/640, f/7.1

With the camera in full manual mode, I set the ISO to 100, shutter speed to 1/640, aperture to f/7.1, and high-speed sync flash. The relatively fast shutter speed resulted in a strong underexposure of the bird. My flash power was about 1/4 the maximum, and I kept the flash beam angle to 35mm to spread out across the foam board.

How did I take a photo with a black background? The behind-the-scenes photo below gives the best clue. The arriving bird needed to be nimble, flying between a pair of flashes with diffusers. One above and one below. I used a black shirt as the background.

Tits_Flash setup
General view of the scene when photographing tits

As for the camera, I used a shutter speed of 1/250 second, which is the flash sync speed. This reduced ambient light to very low levels, ensuring that the background would be pitch black. (If the flashes had not been fired, the photo would have been nearly black, even without the dark t-shirt!)

I set the flash output to 1/16 of its maximum. At this power, the flash duration is approximately 1/10,000s. This is a time that can tame even the very fast movements of fast-flying birds. If motion blur is still apparent at this setting, reduce the power of the flash a bit more and increase the ISO proportionally. By doing this you can achieve flash duration up to 1/40,000s.

To achieve a greater depth of field, I set the aperture to f/13 and increased the ISO to 400. You can completely forget about autofocus. You need to focus on the plane where you expect the bird to fly. With your finger on the shutter release, you are then not looking at the viewfinder, but at the scene in front of you. You’re trying to hit the moment when the bird appears in the camera’s field of view. It’s a bit like some bizarre computer game.

Coal Tit_Flash
NIKON D500 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 310mm, ISO 400, 1/250, f/13.0

Photographing hummingbirds on a flower or at a feeder is a downright static activity compared to songbirds like the Coal Tit in flight. Try it for yourself. You’ll find it’s not only fun, but also an opportunity to discover the incredible flight skills of tiny birds that otherwise escape our slow perception of the world.

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