There are many photographs which are taken in ‘the moment’ where something happens and if you know your camera well enough you’ll be able to quickly respond and get the shot. However, sometimes you have an image or story in you head that you simply can’t move past.
In this new series we are going to look at some examples, where photographers have to dig deep, problem solve and follow their vision. Hopefully lifting the veil on the phrase “Wow you were so lucky to be there just at the right moment, all of those factors came together”. What I’ve come to realise over the past few years is that if you look at the great photographers of our time, many have one thing loosely in common – time. Time to hone an idea, experiment with a subject, to get under the skin of a location, ultimately to fulfil an idea.
I spent the second half of last year working as a scarlet macaw researcher (I’m also a zoologist by training) studying a reintroduced population in a rural part of South-Western Costa Rica. What this gave me, more than any other opportunity so far was that same key factor – time. Quite quickly into the placement I became fascinated with these gorgeous birds, it’s pretty easy to see why.
Away from their clear beauty, I wanted to show these impressive birds flying through the rainforest, how their vivid colours stand out so bright against the green dominated background. But there was one key issue – light. Rainforests are notoriously difficult to photograph any form of action in because they are so dark. The canopy above absorbs the vast majority of the harsh tropical sunlight, leaving it surprisingly gloomy in the undergrowth. Combine that with the humidity that leaves everything with a thin layer of moisture on it (had to put my clothes to rest at the end of the placement, they had gone above and beyond the call of duty!) and you’ve got yourself a hostile environment for camera kit.
A common way to move around this is to use a slow shutter speed (generally your only option) and pan with your subject to capture that sense of movement. This works up to a point but I wanted to freeze the detail so I tried to implement a simple on-camera-flash approach… Again it was progress but not what I wanted to finish with.
Flash on camera approach
NOTE – I was cautious with the birds in regards to using flash (as you should always be with wildlife), these were wild birds, but because of my research position I was in relatively close proximity to them. They were not disturbed by the flash while in flight, however I was aware that I needed to keep the number of flashes down as much as possible per encounter.
Here is a video that we produced midway through our placement. Showing the initial results and set up as well as some of the problems.
Problem 1. Auto Focus
As the X-Series continues to develop, so does its autofocus capabilities. I’ve recently played with the X-Pro2 and wow, it is a definite improvement over the X-T1, which in itself is so impressive considering where the camera started and where it is now thanks to firmware updates. However, even the best cameras in the world would have really struggled with what I was attempting. Tracking a flying macaw under the rainforest canopy, flying at serious speed from tree to tree! This unfortunately meant that focus tracking was out of the window. But as time went on, I began to understand the routes the birds would fly, this allowed me to prefocus and develop my photo idea further.
Problem 2. Light source
With refocusing there still needs to be a degree of flexibility to keep the subject sharp. After all this is a wild animal and it isn’t on a scalextric track from tree to tree, they would often deviate by metres. To minimise these missed opportunities, I needed to use a relatively high F-Stop (F8-11) to allow me a good percentage of sharp images. However, high apertures need lots of light and to make it even harder I needed to use my flash(es) at 1/8 power output or faster. The reason for this is the relative time the flash fires for between full power aka 1/1 and quarter power (1/4), those flash duration are long enough for there to still be some motion blur as the birds are moving so quickly. 1/8 power freezes the birds in flight ensuring sharp details can be seen. HOWEVER, that is all well and good but when using F8/11, 1/8 flash power output and while trying to just about overpower ambient light, you need more than one regular flashgun to make this happen!
This was a key part of the project, it was initially all about finding a balance between the ambient light and the flash so I could still capture some of the surroundings, making it less of a studio shoot. To make this a reality I just dropped the shutter speed from the max sync speed of 1/180 to between 1/60-1/30. The flash would fire and freeze the details of the macaw but the slower shutter speed would create some motion blur and allow enough light from the background to reach the sensor to register the lush green environment.
Problem 3. Focal Length
I really like using a wider focal length with the macaws, however as the previous image illuminates, it often includes part of the canopy in frame. Light which penetrates the canopy shines down creating these blown out highlight trails. Sometimes these work quite nicely, but often they are difficult to make work, especially if the birds fly in front of a canopy gap, then you get these weird looking highlights cutting through the flapping wings!
Problem 4. Single Shot Flash
Fujifilm launched the update for the X-T1, allowing flashes to be fired in continuous shooting mode the week I left Costa Rica! Unfortunate for me, but it made for an interesting process, certainly a character building one. With ALL the other factors that had to be dealt with, I also only had one chance to take a shot per flyby! As you can imagine this got pretty darn infuriating at times. There were many times where I clicked at the wrong time and missed part of a wing, or got the wings up when I wanted them down etc.
Steadily making progress…
Quite a strong light on the face that cast a shadow on the wing.
A softer light but less detail in the wings.
Better detail but just snagged the wing!
Then I raised the shutter speed to try and freeze the bird against a darker background. The reason why it is darker is because little of the flash light is aimed at the background (as multiple flashes were involved, all pointing toward the bird from different directions) and the shutter speed was now was 1/180 (max flash sync for X-T1) so it was 3/4 times faster than previous images.
Focusing on freezing the macaw.
Quite a striking, but studio like result.
I like the balance of blur and sharpness in this one.
Zoomed in to get more of an impact image.
All in all this process went on for three/four months. It was a very interesting exercise, and laying the photos out like this you can see how the project steadily developed. Often with projects like this it is all about problem solving, from fixing kit in the middle of nowhere to getting around problems out of your control, such as the flash-camera interaction. Though incredibly frustrating at times, it was a brilliant experience and yielded some good results by the end.
Here is a 2 minute something video visually summarising my project and its issues.
Hopefully what you will take from this is that if you have an idea, don’t give up at the first hurdle, break it down bit by bit and steadily you can make progress.
What projects are you working on with your X-Series? Why not let Fujifilm UK know, the community is teeming with talent, ideas and people willing to lend a hand – lets bounce ideas off each other.
A little about Ben
Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at:
I am currently in the middle of a six-month research stint with the Wild Macaw Association, gathering data on a scarlet macaw population for a study in Costa Rica, associated with Gent University. This remarkable opportunity allows me to study these birds closely and to explore the surrounding area during our two daily treks. To find out more about this very successful project, in which 75 macaws were released from 2002-2012, please check out this link here.
Scarlet macaws are incredible birds, with their bright colours and quirky behaviour making them very photogenic. However, they are often found within the rainforest and this often means in dark conditions, too dark for even the XF50-140mm F2.8 and high ISOs to capture any sort of motion. This problem will sound familiar to many of you in different situations, where OIS is redundant as the problem is subject movement, not camera shake. There is however one way to get around this: add artificial light. It may not be suitable for some situations but with a little bit of time and understanding this can allow for that otherwise impossible shot.
Here is a video showing how I developed my flying macaw photographs.
For me, there are two reasons to add flash to an action situation; we’ll take a look at both of these in a little bit of detail.
You need more light to freeze the subject/scene
In other words you simply can’t get a sharp image without more light. This is the most common reason to switch to flash. Most will start with the popup flash on their cameras and/or then get a dedicated flash and mount it on the hotshoe of the camera. There are photographers who can produce exceptional images using just this simple technique, and if you have a TTL (through the lens metering) flash then this becomes relatively quick and simple as the camera will communicate with the camera how much flash output there should be. Generally this will be fine for most needs, especially if you are short of time and need to take a variety of photos.
If you do have a TTL flash and you haven’t experimented with manual flash outputs before I would highly recommend that you give it a go. This slows you down and makes you think more about what you want to produce – do you simply want the flash to give a little bit of fill light to an otherwise correctly exposed scene? Or would you rather the camera underexposes the scene while the flash exposes correctly, so bringing the focus onto your subject and away from the darker background? These are all fun things to play with.
This all sounds great but flash photography can drive you around the bend if you’re not careful. On current X-Series cameras the maximum flash sync is 1/180sec (except the X100 series because of a leaf shutter allowing 1/1000sec flash sync). Anything more than this will not allow proper flash input. When it comes to action 1/180sec is pretty slow! There is one flash currently available, the Nissin i40, which is different. It offers high-speed sync (HSS), which allows you to use the flash up to 1/4000 sec, this is certainly helpful when adding some fill flash but it does cut the overall output of the flash. The reason for the downgraded power in this mode is because the flash sends out a series of very high speed flashes (instead of one, more powerful flash) that are fast enough to expose the subject within the maximum shutter speeds.
If you want to freeze the subject and aren’t bothered by the background then what you want to do is find an exposure combination that creates a totally black image. For example 1/180sec (max sync), F11, ISO200 – a mix which should require too much light for a lot of scenes, thus leaving your image black/heavily under exposed. The next thing to do is to add the flash that will offer all the light on the subject. If your subject is moving quickly then you’ll want to cut the flash output, this sounds counterintuitive, but as you cut the light output say from 1/1 to ¼ then the flash time is four times faster than maximum 1/1 power. This ensures that the subject is completely frozen.
The scene isn’t dramatic enough so you add artificial light
There are countless blogs on creative use of artificial light and I’m not going to pretend that I am a flash master, instead I’m simply going to show the set up I ended up using and why.
First of all I love off-camera flash, it opens up so many more opportunities compared to simple on-camera flash (this is just my opinion and not fact). So I very quickly knew that for the image I had in mind, I needed to use flashes off camera. I experimented from backlighting the birds to using the two flashes one from each side and then from slap bang in front. But the combination that created the image I really wanted involved having both flashes to the right-hand side, where the bird was flying. One flash was in line with where the birds fly over, while the other was slightly around towards me so giving a bit of light onto the side of the face towards the camera. This gave sufficient light onto the face to freeze the detail (especially as the face is lighter than the body) but didn’t cast enough light onto the rest of the bird to freeze more detail so creating motion. Here is a sketch to indicate what I did.
Different Flash Curtains
There are two curtains in a flash exposure. The first curtain reveals the sensor to the light coming through the lens and then the second that closes the sensor to light, completing the exposure. This is important to understand as it can greatly affect how you use flash.
First curtain flash
Where the flash is triggered as the first curtain opens. This is the most common set up, where your main priority is the flash. The go-to set up unless you’re using slightly slow shutter speeds with subjects or moving lights. It captures the exact action that you press the shutter to capture, if you use second curtain/slow sync then you could miss the split-second moment you were hoping to catch.
Second Curtain Flash
As the second curtain is about to come up and finish the exposure the flash fires making it effectively the last light to hit the sensor. This method does send off a flash initially to get a meter reading if used in aperture priority mode (no meter flash in manual mode). I generally avoid this method as it can give weird results (see video).
Slow Flash Sync
Slow sync is only available in aperture priority/auto-shutter speed modes, generally it is the same as second curtain flash but without the disruptive initial metering flash (note that it can only go down to 1/8sec). This is my favorite option for any kind of action photography and is the method I used for the panning images. The reason why this works best is it lets the ambient light reach the sensor first; correctly exposing the background and THEN the flash is triggered reaching and freezing the subject. This is preferential for panning/slow shutter speeds because it prevents ghosting – where the subject is flashed and but there is time afterwards for some light to reach the subject and any subject movement creates a bit of a psychedelic feel!
There concludes a rough/quick break down of different flash curtain types for the X-Series. To summarise there are a number of ways you can use flash to help your action photography:
Fill flash either up to 1/180sec or higher if using a HSS flash.
Causing a correctly exposed subject with a darkened/underexposed background.
Freezing a subject
Capturing motion with a bit of detail while panning with a moving subject.
Blending ambient light with directional flash light.
I hope that gives you a little bit of inspiration to get out there and try your hand at creative flash photography.