Saturday Evening Post #85 : Mr. Smith, is the only good light available light?”

AudioAdam, sent me a wonderful note after last week’s SEP.

Essentially the question was, “To Flash, or NOT to Flash”, regarding using additional light to enhance the subject and the moment.

It is an interesting question and Adam is not the first to think to ask.  The irrepressible Joe McNally, then a student, asked of visiting lecturer, the famed photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith,

” Mr. Smith, is the only good light available light?”

Gene Smith responded somewhat along the lines.  “Yes,”  and to quote Joe, ‘from that moment on I vowed to only use the God-given light that fell on subjects’.  That was the touchstone.

But, Smith, took an alternate drink from first a glass of milk, and then a vodka, and continued…

“By that, I mean, any &*%%@$ light that’s available.”

The doyen of flash photography and birds was Eric Hosking.  Eric solved and developed flash solutions for working with birds nigh on 90 years ago. Some of his pictures are still the gold standard for flash photography for birds.

If you think carrying a small flash unit into the bush is a pain, then consider that Eric initially had to carry over 100 kg of gear, which included 12 V car batteries.

Let it also be said, that I am a great believer in Electronic Flash, much of the magazine work I’ve done over the years has been primarily lit by flash.  In days of yore, your scribe could be seen carrying at least two Metz 502 units to the wedding ceremony or deb ball.

We eventually bought into the Nikon system at the time, because of the clever Nikon Flash System Controllers.  (Canon did catchup.)
So when I came to bird photography I did for quite a while use flash regularly.

I shot two seasons of Kestrel nesting with mostly flash support.
Here’s a shot of one of the cameras, and the flash off to the right, subject left.  Oh, its camoed not because it fools the birds, just to stop people asking what I was doing in the middle of the paddock. I used to respond, “Well, as you can see, I’m up a ladder, cleaning out the gutters”, but I gave up trying to explain.  Off to the left in the shot is a radio release receiver, as I used to sit in the treeline about 50m back.

One of the joys of working with flash is a liability with focal plane shutters, the type on DSLR cameras.  It limits the top speed to at best 1/250th of a second.  Hardly enough for good outside shots in daylight.  What I want it to be able to balance the exposure for the best daylight rendition, and then add just enough flash to fill-in some shadow details, but not overpower the shadows and appear like its the main light source.

In the Nikon system, and no doubt the same in Canon, I can run the shutter speed higher using a clever, FP HighSpeed Sync.  Now instead of one single actuation of flash, the flash unit fires off several shorter, less powerful bursts so that the entire frame receives the flash. (Not time to explain all this, just gotta go with it)


In shorter bursts, they are less powerful, and don’t travel great distances, or fill large areas.  Ahh, enter the Inverse Square Law. ISL. (Nuff said.)
However it helps make great for sunlight fill in.

What about at night?  One of the main uses I guess.  And because of that pesky ISL, the subject closeup gets the right amount of light, the backdrop behind does not, and things go black.  Nuff said. Not going to explain the use of several flash-units and their placement in this blog.  Hey, it’s Saturday Night.

So to our lead Image.
This is Mr Darcy. He has just arrived back with a snack for his growing brood.  Unfortunately they had only just that morning flown, and were sitting in another tree wondering how they got there.  He looks a bit perplexed. The nest hole is directly below him—Empty!

Tech details, D200, 600mm f/5.6 manual focus Nikon, 1 SB600 unit off to the right.



And another with the same details.

This is my branch

I once sent this to one of those “Nature are Us” competitions, and it was rejected.
1. Shot in Studio. 2. Captive bird.
Go figure.

And just so you don’t go wandering off all over the web looking for inspiration, here is a final from Joe McNally

“…all the shouldas, couldas, and wouldas that befuddle our brains and creep into our dreams, always remember to make room to shoot what you love.
It’s the only way to keep your heart beating as a photographer.”