3 ways to use flash for better nature photos

We nature photographers adore great light. We stay out late, get up at early hours, sustain ourselves with caffeine in the addiction to capturing golden hours, blue hours, and the ever elusive red fives. But one thing I’ve learned as an Oregonian living in a coastal temperate rainforest is sometimes, you have to make your own light.

On sunny days, the dappled light cutting like laser beams through the tree canopy, or the glare bouncing off the ocean’s surface wreak havoc on the ability to get an even exposure – or even a usable exposure. On rainy days, the flat light can be the most wonderful natural softbox, or it can be just that – flat. Gray, cold, monochrome, uninspiring.

Flash, however, transforms those hours and hours of daytime that would be lost time to photographers into opportunity to keep shooting. Flash can be your best friend, your most powerful tool, your image savior – if you learn to use it with creativity and confidence.

Have I inspired you to give it a try? Good! Now let’s talk about three ways it can be used to benefit your nature photos.


1. Fill in shadows

capture cool skies or backlight opportunities


 

When the light gets harsh or contrasty, don’t be tempted to put away your camera. Instead, pull out your flash. Use this tool to your advantage to fill in the shadows anywhere in your scene. 

Adding a soft box on your flash will provide a smooth, subtle bump of light. This allows you to counter the brightness of sunlight without the foreground or your primary subject looking harshly lit. Your goal is for viewers not to notice that you’ve used flash – just that the scene is pleasing to look at. 

As you balance out the light, you’ll find you don’t have to sacrifice highlights to get detail in the shadows, or vice versa. You can retain the bold, beautiful color in the sky, and capture the richness of your entire composition. 

Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon
Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, using an off camera flash with a 20″ softbox to diffuse the light.
Gooseneck barnacles at low tide at sunset. Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon
Gooseneck barnacles at low tide at sunset, using a flash with softbox to fill in the shadows and capture the flare of the setting sun. 
Details can also mean patterns, light, textures, colors, and so on.
Sword ferns in the understory, photographed using a flash with a softbox to fill in the shadows and set the fronds apart from the rest of the forest scene. 
California mussels, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Newport Oregon
California mussels photographed with a low-power flash to bring out the detail and warm up the colors in the foreground while also retaining the detail in the cloudy sky.

2. Add dimension to a natural setting

 

Set a mood or highlight a subject in a setting


Flash can be used as the primary light source in a scene, which gives you the opportunity to truly craft an interesting composition.

In flat light, you can use a flash to build more contrast between highlights and shadows, which will set a subject apart from the rest of the scene. This adds depth and interest that otherwise wouldn’t be available. 

Or, you can play with exposure and the direction of light to create a certain mood, whether that is mysterious, dramatic, inviting, or so on.  Try using multiple flashes to light foreground and background in intriguing ways. 

wild Oregon irises (Iris tenax)
Wild Oregon irises (Iris tenax) photographed in situ with a flash and softbox to selectively light the foreground and cast the background in shadow so that a single blossom stands apart. 
Ensatina salamander photographed with a Sigma 15mm diagonal fish eye and external flash.
Ensatina salamander photographed with a Sigma 15mm diagonal fish eye and external flash to set the salamander apart from the rest of the bright forest scene.
Banana slugs are common sights in the damp temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. Newport, Oregon
Banana slug photographed with a flash and softbox to highlight the slug in a dark forest setting. Only a small amount of the dappled sunlight in the forest scene still shows up in the background. 
Darlingtonia californica, or the cobra lily, is a species of carnivorous pitcher plant. Darlingtonia State Natural Site is the only Oregon state park property dedicated to the protection of a single plant species. Oregon
Compare and contrast: Filling in shadows vs setting a mood — Darlingtonia californica, photographed with a bit of fill flash that balances the light on the subject with the light from a bright blue sky.
Darlingtonia Californica carnivorous pitcher plant, Florence Oregon
Compare and contrast: Filling in shadows vs setting a mood — Darlingtonia Californica photographed with a fast shutter speed and a flash with a softbox to create a moody feeling and selectively light a single plant in a field of cobra lilies.
Oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus. Canon 100mm macro lens with external flash. Newport, Oregon
Oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus. Canon 100mm macro lens with external flash. Newport, Oregon

3. Get the studio feel while outside

 

darken your backgrounds or build dramatic side light


If you really want to play with dramatic light and isolate a subject from the rest of the scene, a flash is a must-have tool. 

Use a fast shutter speed and place your flash in various locations around the subject to create different effects.

You have the ability to make your own backlighting, side lighting, balanced light with multiple flashes… the only limit is how many flashes and spare batteries you brought!

This strategy is most effective with macro photography, since it’s difficult to light a large outdoor scene so selectively. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. Be careful… this can be addictively fun. 

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungus, usually the only sign of the extensive web of mycelium that forms a complex symbiosis with other species around it. Newport, Oregon
A minuscule mushroom growing on a log, photographed with a flash set to the side and slightly behind the log to create dramatic side-lighting. A fast shutter speed darkens most of the rest of the scene, allowing the mushroom to stand out against a dark background. 
goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia)
A goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia) found during mid-day stands out from the scene. A flash with a softbox set low under the flower evenly lights the spider, while a fast shutter speed allows only the lit subject to be recorded. 

Because I won’t remove plants or animals from the location where I find them, flash is essential if I want to create studio-style images in situ.  Below are three examples of the exact same flower photographed in situ, with the same lens and flash set-up. I only needed to move the flash around or adjust the power output to create a different look. I took dozens of photos of this flower while playing with light – then left it healthy and unharmed in its forest home. 

Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon
Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon
Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon
Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon
Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon
Western trillium (Trillium ovatum), photographed wild, in situ, Big Creek Park, Newport Oregon

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