Bird photography is challenging. I don't care what kind of bird you are talking about. A successful photographer has to build a workflow to make great images, and this involves time, practice, perhaps some study of the biology of the creature and proper light.
Before I get into the main topic, I cannot emphasize the importance of studying the biology of your subject. My friend, the great wildlife photographer, Moose Peterson, recommends investing the time to learn about your subject. Otherwise, it might as well simply be referred to as "bird"
It's perfectly ok to set up a photograph area for birds. To learn the process, take one of Moose's classes at KelbyOne, he's an expert and a great teacher. Note that KelbyOne is a member based training platform and it's not free.
When you set up your photography spot you can be much more planful in how you are going to make your images. It's perfectly reasonable to use feeders and such to attract birds, although for maximum success, a little study of species biology won't hurt.
You will often find that your photo area is therefore shaded or darker instead of sitting in the noon sun. You will also find that birds are less active in the middle of the day, and so supplementing the ambient unmanageable light is going to be important.
Your off camera flash is an ideal supplement for this. You will often work with a long lens to get the bird image that you want, but it may not work to have the flash on top of the camera. You will likely get more interesting dynamics with the flash positioned off camera so as to get a catchlight in the eye, but without flattening everything out by having the flash parallel to the camera. Add a solid light stand that is sandbagged to hold your flash and radio receiver, and point the flash at your target.
We understand the inverse square law in terms of light fall-off and it may not be possible to have the flash all that close to the bird. The greater the distance, the more power required per pop, and in normal use you are going to be spraying light all over the place. Even if you have a zoom head on your flash, it may not be enough concentration to keep power use reasonable while still providing proper illumination.
If you've been following my work for a bit, you probably know that I am very much a lighting geek. If I can light things myself, I will. Depending on ambient is like Waiting for Godot. If that means nothing, look it up.
Speed lights allow for a good amount of power in a small package and the better ones have a good amount of power and can be used in both TTL and Manual modes. Whether you use TTL or Manual is up to you. Both work, and work well if you do your part.
Sadly speed lights are built for average purposes and focused light over distance is not one fo those things. Enter MagMod. Hands down, this system is my favourite light shaping tool set for speed lights. An elasticized grip called the MagGrip goes around the flash head. It has two powerful magnets in it. All the MagMod accessories attach via the magnets. There is no faster nor easier system out there. I suggest the basic kit and you can add one to your cart by clicking the image above if you shop with B&H Photo Video.
Fit the MagGrip to your speed light. You will also want a MagBeam kit. This includes a lens holder and two lenses, along with some metal mask plates. One of the lenses is a fresnel lens designed specifically to concentrate the light from your flash and throw it farther. Put the fresnel in the rubberized lens holder, extend the holder and attach it to the MagGrip. Aim your flash at your target and you are good to go.
In addition to the benefit of extra range, the system keeps spill from lighting up everything around the flash. Moreover, the concentration may allow the use of less power for a given distance, and that will mean longer battery life and faster recycling. If you are photographing hummingbirds, for example, did you want to bet on one shot, or have the capability to take many in succession because your flash is now capable of keeping up?
Another real benefit is that you may not need a super high shutter speed, because you are using flash that has a very short duration. Most speed lights at full power only have a flash duration os 1/1900 of a second. Freezing a hummingbird's wings in low light with flash will product a much better image than using a high shutter speed and the accompanying necessary high ISO when the light is not strong.
You'll also pull richer coloration out of plumage and if the bird's eyes are darker, you will be able to light them up a bit. All it takes is your off camera flash, your radio system and your MagMod kit.
You don't have to spend a ton of money on your flash. I have former students who are being very successful with the inexpensive Godox TT685 flash and a Godox X1 transmitter. You will want to add the MagGrip and MagBeam kit for effective range.
Have an idea for an article or tutorial? Do you have a question photo or video unrelated to this article? Send me an email directly at email@example.com or post in the comments.
If you're in Canada, please consider shopping with Henry's in your local store or at www.henrys.com If you're in the United States and shop with B&H Photo Video, please consider doing so through the link on thephotovideoguy.ca as this helps support my efforts and has no negative impact whatsoever on your shopping experience. The product images in this article are hyperlinked to B&H for your convenience.
If you find the podcast or articles of value, consider clicking the Donation tab in the sidebar of the website and buy me a coffee. Your donation goes to help me keep things going. Email your questions on any photo or video topic and I will try to respond within a day.
I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.