Turning Strobist Onto Nature

The term "strobist" refers to using off-camera flash to light up a photographic subject, and is the basis for studio photography. It is not too difficult or too costly to get started on the subject. When done properly, beginners will astound themselves by the degree it lifts the quality of their photos.

Strobist photography is typically done in studios or in home with a backdrop, and the subject is typically a person, a pet, or an inanimate object. This article is about turning the strobist lighting onto nature. In other words, hauling the lighting equipment outside and pointing it on subjects such as plants, mushrooms, insects, reptiles, frogs, possums, and even birds. It is not something that I have seen others do (though I am sure there must be others out there who do) yet it will result in spectacular colour, detail, and tones when done correctly.

The best news about it is that this is not too costly. I myself have very basic equipment: a Canon 450 EOSD camera, the two kit lenses that typically come with it, a light stand, a 580 EX II flash, a budget wireless trigger set, and a shoot-through umbrella. In total, my equipment costs about $2000, though you could easily spend more if you do not hunt around for a bargain. The only part of my equipment which could be considered "premium" is the flash. The wireless trigger set comes in two pieces, one piece which connects to the camera's hotshoe and another which connects to the camera and light stand. When you push the shutter button, the piece on the hotshoe will send a signal to the other which causes it to fire off the flash. The most important part of the setup is the shoot-through umbrella which creates the beautiful, diffused light. When applied to people, the setup brings out beautiful skin tones and fantastic colours. As we will see, the setup also works quite well on nature subjects.

A youtube search for Strobist Preliminaries will tell show you exactly how to set up the lighting equipment. Half way through the video is the light stand trigger set and with shoot-through umbrella which is what I use.

You need to learn a bit about how to use the equipment. Generally, the closer the lighting is to the subject, the better the light. The flash needs to be put on manual mode and set up to some fixed power setting. Note that many flashes have a feature to auto-shut off when not used for some period of time. You will need to turn that feature off. The camera needs to be set on manual mode for shutter speed and aperture control. For simplicity, let's assume the ISO is fixed, and we will also assume that the flash is the key light, meaning that it is the dominant light in the scene. This just requires that the flash is stronger than the ambient (natural) light.

Then, the aperture setting will be used to control the exposure from the flash. Once the aperture is set, you can then modify the shutter speed to control the amount of ambient (i.e. natural) light in the scene. There is one catch on this, however: the shutter speed cannot be faster than the flash sync speed (typically 1/250th of a second) or else you will end up with a black band in the image. The shutter speed will have little effect on the lighting of your subject and instead mainly controls the background lighting (this is a slight oversimplification).

Some people have light meters to get the exposure perfectly without needing to guess. Since I'm a cheapskate, I just experiment with the different settings until I find the right one. This doesn't take long: take a shot and look at the exposure. If it is over-exposed, then use a higher f-stop. If it is under-exposed, use a lower value. For advanced information about balancing ambient light with the flash, see Youtube Video: Outdoor Speedlight Portraits: Ep. 201: Digital Photography 1 on 1: Adorama.

In terms of specific camera settings, I always keep my ISO at 100 or 200 because my camera does not produce good results for higher ISOs. I typically have my flash at half power to get as much depth of field as possible and avoiding full power because it kills my batteries quickly. The actual aperture I use depends upon how close the flash is to my subject, which depends upon how close the subject lets me get to it. I'll give the various camera settings for my photos below. Remember to set your white balance to flash mode for the most accurate colour representation.

As a first example, see the wattle flowers below. This photo was taken before sunrise, so it was easy for my flash to overpower the small amount of ambient light, which resulted in the completely black background. I also had to make sure there was nothing immediately beyond the wattles to accomplish this, otherwise my flash would have lit that up too. I had my flash set at half power, exposure at 1/200 of a second, ISO at 100, and aperture at f/7.1. I never realised the beauty of the leaves on the wattle tree until I took this shot.

Emblem of our Land

It gets more fun when you go after insects and spiders. Have a look at the St Andrews Cross spider below. This was taken at ISO 200, aperture f/13, exposure 1/100th of a second, and flash at half power. This shot had some ambient light which allowed me to get the green background, so in this case the flash was not fully over-powering the day light. If I had a camera that could have handled higher ISOs well, then I could have cranked the f-stop up more to get more depth of field. Despite the foreground legs being a bit out of focus, I think the image still came out quite well.

St Andrew's Cross Spider

In order to truly show off the detail that the strobist lighting brought to the spider, I include a zoomed in image of the body below. Have a look at the eyes, the hairs on the legs, and the colours on the abdomen. Isn't she a beauty?

By the way, I didn't use a macro lens for this shot, and this gets back to me being a cheapskate and not buying the extra equipment. Instead, I used my Canon EF-S 55-250mm IS telephoto lens. I stood about a meter back and zoomed in as far as I could (250mm). I always shoot insects this way. This also happens to be the same lens I use for bird photography.

Speaking of bird photography, yes, you can use strobist lighting on birds too, but they are a much harder subject. Last year I did a 12 hour road trip from Sydney to O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park for one and only one purpose: to photograph the regent bowerbird. I had always wanted to see this bird but never had the chance to see it in the wild prior to this trip. O'Reilly's has a reputation for birds and especially the regent bowerbird. They feed right outside the main entrance every morning and the tourists gather around to see them.

I lugged my strobist equipment out there and set it up to point on a fence where I expected them to land. This is with all sorts of tourists watching me and wondering what the heck I was doing with the umbrella on a stick. Well, ignoring how they looked at me paid off, because one such bird landed on the fence right where my flash was pointed and fed right there. Below is a portrait shot of a regent bowerbird feeding. Notice the moisture on the tongue, the redish-orange on his forehead, and the reflection of my shoot-through umbrella on his eye. The camera settings were 1/250 second exposure, ISO 200, and f/8.0 aperture. The flash was on half power.

Regent Bowerbird Eating

Unlike for insects and plants, you can't really go around chasing after birds with strobist lighting, so instead you have to pick your scene, set up your lighting, and then stand back and hope the bird lands where you want it to. For some birds, this strategy is more realistic than others. For example, rainbow lorikeets and honeyeaters will always be feeding on the bottlebrushes in October, so find a nice bottlebrush which stands out enough and has nothing distracting in the background and wait for one of the subjects to come to it.

Last, I leave you with one very important warning. One of the difficulties of taking your strobist gear outside is wind, which can easily blow over your light stand with umbrella. Don't even bother trying it if the wind is not light, because you risk breaking your equipment, and the flash isn't cheap. Also, make sure you weigh down your light stand at the base to reduce the chance of this happening. This means carrying around extra weight in addition to your already heavy lighting equipment. It requires a fair amount of work and planning to pull these shots off, but if you're willing to make the sacrifice, I guarantee you will love the results.

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