Monday, August 5, 2013

High-speed Flash Photography: Hummers and Songbirds

Part 2
There are several people in the U.S. who shoot hummingbirds with high-speed flash, but none I am aware of who have turned their cameras on the much more challenging garden songbirds.  Three things intrigued me about songbirds:  no one else does it, they are around all year, and the shots can yield some truly dramatic images.

They are no less predictable in their comings and goings, and it did not take long to realize that the biggest magnet is not the nearby feeders, but the sound of running water in a bird bath. This is particularly true in the wonderful period of neo-tropicals migration. Those of you in arid environments may not want to come in at night. (I have to tell you that in the autumn of 2013 I fully intended to load all my stuff into my SUV and head west to Arizona. But, Murphy's Law and family life intervened, and that road trip never came off.)

If you have read part one of this post then you already know the technical side of high-speed flash photography from my perspective.  For songbirds you need a reliable point on which to focus. I have requisitioned a fresh branch from the nearby woods and cut it to be somewhat triangular and therefore self-supporting. One good branch will last two years or more in my humid and hot environment, so in the arid west you may never have to replace it.  My recirculating water pump is Laguna mini-tabletop PT 290 (about $20 from Amazon). The water runs through a bronze frog and gurgles into the pool.

Obviously your will need a nearby source of electricity.  I set the water bath close to the feeders so that I have an opportunity at those which are coming to feed as well as drink or bathe. You are likely to have more success if there is sufficient natural cover nearby.  However, don't think of the shrubbery behind your scene is a background. It will be completely black and do nothing for your image.


Group your lighting around the water bath and point the flashes at one general area.  Of course the birds will not land right there, they will and somewhere else on the branch.  Ergo: two cameras and lights pointed at different positions.  Even then you will want the original composition wide enough to accommodate a bird which does not entirely cooperate.

Here is where I set up the 32 x 40 painted foam core background.  If you are artistic or have access to one so inclined, more power to you. This will cover both your shooting locations, and it is this point that I come up short.  I could really used 4 lights on each branch, and one on the background.  For two set-ups in the same location that would required 10 flash units, because you will need background light on two locations. Set the background as far as reasonable behind the point of focus, but be sure the infrared receiver on your flash unit can still be seen by the flash commander.

Some of the shots you get will surprise and delight you.  Here are some of mine, note the distraction of the man-made cable ties in the shot of the mockingbird: