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Thread: Photography of birds at night

  1. #1
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    Default Photography of birds at night

    I'm wondering what flash / camera settings people use for bird photography at night? Also any other techniques, do you have an assistant to keep a light on your subject while you photograph?
    What species are likely to tolerate multiple photos? and what ones jump at the flash never to be seen again? this info might help me plan some night activities. I wont be a round for a few days to acknowledge any responses. Thanks in anticipation of some useful advice. Apologies for the title, I can spell I just can't type
    Last edited by Trevor Murray; 14-12-2011 at 06:51 PM. Reason: Attempt to fix title
    Kind regards Trevor.

    Website: www.trevormurrayphotography.com

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    Title fixed for you mate. I'll let a few other members chime in and add my tips soon

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    Hi Trevor,

    I do not have as much experience at night photography as someone like Akos, however I can throw in a few suggestions.

    Shoot manual – it’s the only way to go at night. Set a shutter speed of over 1/100s (some people go all the way to 1/250s, but I usually start around 1/80 or 1/125 and go from there). I set an aperture of around f/8-f/11 as you will usually be shooting larger birds like owls, frogmouths, etc so need a bit more DOF. Of course, flash and Better Beamer (BB) are very important. I use a Canon 580EX II, but the 430 EX will work just as well. Attach the BB and adjust the flash zoom to 50mm – this is advised to get best results out of the BB. With my stronger flash, I usually start at -1, but this will need adjustments depending on how close/far away the subject is. If you don’t have a BB, you really need one for night photography to raise the efficiency of your flash. I bought mine sometime ago and had to get it shipped from America as I could not find an Australian supplier. Not sure if this is still the case.

    With owls and frogmouths, most will allow for a fairly close approach and tolerate flash well, so my 100-400 lens suffices well with those subjects. I have taken a Barn Owl photo with the 100-400 sitting in my car – the owl was not phased at all with my car rolling up beside it. The smaller birds like nightjars can be a bit more flighty from time to time and of course are smaller, so you may need the longer lens with those birds. I find the nightjars sometimes flinch a bit when flashing at first, but otherwise tolerate it quite well too.

    With my 100-400, I have a LED Lenser P17 which will illuminate a subject no problems at all (although a bit expensive). You can also adjust the strength of the beam which I find useful. I hold the torch under the lens and hold both the lens and torch with my left hand – takes a bit of adjusting with the torch sometimes to get the beam in the right place, but Akos uses this tactic with the smaller lenses and I found it works well if you cannot find a sucker to hold the torch for you! A bit harder when using the 500mm.

    I found the above works quite well for me. Make sure you fire off a few test shots first to see you have the right exposure and level of illumination. I usually pick an object about 10m away as a guide – get that exposure right (overexpose a tad and bring back in RAW is what I usually do), then you will only need to make minor adjustments to the flash strength depending on how far away the subject is.

    Hope this helps – looking forward to what others find works well.

    EDIT: I forgot to mention ISO. There is no need to be shooting at ISO 1600 or high sensitivities. Flash is going to be your main source of light so there is no need to shoot at high ISOs and then run into noise issues. ISO 400 strikes a good balance I reckon, although I have gone down to ISO 100 on occasions when the bird has been too close. I was shooting a frogmouth which was about 3m away and even with my flash at -3 I was overexposing by quite a margin, so I had to drop right back to ISO 100 before I got the photo to a level where it could be recovered in RAW in PP.
    Last edited by Dale Mengel; 16-12-2011 at 08:03 AM. Reason: Forgot to add ISO
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    Dale covered most things very well.

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    I have shot Boobooks and Barn Owls at night and both have been fairly willing subjects with no flinching at flash bursts. I would suggest using a better beamer flash extender for night work as it will send the flash out a lot further. I use a torch to attain focus and normally use one shot AF mode as then I know that the camera will not fire unless it grabs focus on something (hopefully the bird!!). I normally use ISO 400 or 800 and set the shutter speed manually by testing on something of a similar shade and distance as my intended subject. For the Boobooks I would test things out on the bark of a tree at about 6-10 metres away and for the Barn Owls I tested on something a bit lighter as they are fairly white.
    Something that someone pointed out to me a while ago (I think it was Akos) is that when you review your images on the back of the camera in the dark they will appear a lot brighter than they may actually be. I took a number of Barn Owl images that looked really good when I reviewed them on the spot in the dark but when I got home I found that they were quite under exposed. Just something to be aware of.

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    I generally start at zero flash comp, seems to work well on the 580EXII. If you are shooting a white subject it will tend to underexpose if it is near filling the frame. Regarding reviewing the images, you really should view the histogram to judge exposure, the camera will tend to push the brightness to try and get the image looking near neutral on the LCD.

    This is where it helps to make adjustments to your picture styles in the menu system, set it to -2 on contrast and 0 or -1 on saturation. IF you are shooting RAW (you should at night due to the ability to recover blown highlights etc.) it won't effect the image but will cause the LCD to give a better representation of whether shadows are blocked or highlights blown. This is because the picture style affects the embedded JPEG in the raw which is what is displayed on the LCD and is also used to generate the histogram. If left on standard it will give an overly conservative view of things and often cause you to underexpose more than you need to. This is likely the cause of the false impression on exposure that Paul notes or at least a component of the issue.
    Chris Ross
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    Just rely on the histogram to show where your exposure is. It never lies. I wouldn't worry about clipping blacks since the night is black so if there is black in the BG then it may as well lose all its detail. At least it does not bother me.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ákos Lumnitzer View Post
    Just rely on the histogram to show where your exposure is. It never lies. .
    I agree though you need the right histogram as I described above, It is affected by the picture style you use as the histogram uses the embedded JPEG.
    Chris Ross
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    I totally agree re: histogram but I have found it hard to interpret at night as the spike representing the whites in a Barn Owl image with dark/black surroundings was extremely thin.

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    Thanks very much for the information and suggestions, and to Paul for fixing my typo :-)
    Kind regards Trevor.

    Website: www.trevormurrayphotography.com

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    Paul, that's probably because you have a huge amount of dark tones opposed to light ones. I think.

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    Yep thats what I was getting at Left side of the graph was full of info and the spike for the white (the Owl) was tiny tiny tiny so found it hard to push the whites to the right in this situation.

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    Default Night photography

    I use two TTL flash units mounted on a DIY bracket approx 300mm above the camera and spread approx 150mm apart. This prevents red-eye in most subjects up to approx 10-15m distance and eliminates black shadows either side of the subject.
    To illuminate the subject and enable autofocussing I have a 10-watt Cree-XML LED with an 8 degree plastic TIR lens powered by a 3.6V lithium ion battery mounted on the flash bracket. Lamp and battery weight approx 100 grams
    Camera is set to spot focus area, single shot autofocus mode, typically 400 ISO and I usually use f8 for the initial shot. See example of Masked owl below using this setup




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    Quote Originally Posted by Ninox1 View Post
    I use two TTL flash units mounted on a DIY bracket approx 300mm above the camera and spread approx 150mm apart. This prevents red-eye in most subjects up to approx 10-15m distance and eliminates black shadows either side of the subject.
    To illuminate the subject and enable autofocussing I have a 10-watt Cree-XML LED with an 8 degree plastic TIR lens powered by a 3.6V lithium ion battery mounted on the flash bracket. Lamp and battery weight approx 100 grams
    Camera is set to spot focus area, single shot autofocus mode, typically 400 ISO and I usually use f8 for the initial shot. See example of Masked owl below using this setup




    Hi Ninox
    Being from Engadine and your particular liking of owls I guess you are RJ?
    Would you mind posting a photo of your flash bracket set-up please? Thanks.

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    Default added Boobook shot

    On the note of set-up, I now use my 500 at night, at times on a tripod if I know there's a nest or something that is more static. Otherwise I hand hold with the Wimberley flash bracket and all with the Maglite (big momma) right under the lens foot. Here is a shot of the flash etc. I am really keen on exploring a twin flash set-up although I am as happy to tidy up some red or steel eye in photoshop later. Forgive my friend for poor composition of the image below.


    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails _AGL5080.jpg  

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