This shot I made when I lived in Florida. It’s a shame that after living someplace for awhile you eventually become disinterested in the natural beauty that surrounds you. Having spent a good number of years living in Florida – pre-photography days – these majestic birds never stood out to me as anything more than waterfront pylon decorations that pooped on everything. Once I got into photography, everything old became new again. I found myself finding beauty in the common and uncommon alike. This Great Egret was kind enough to stand still while I moved in close with my camera. I love how the feathers on these birds look almost like fur. Watching them hunt in the shallows is a good way to unwind and relax the mind.
I shot this with a Nikon D100 using a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and a Nikon SB-80DX flash/speedlight. The shot was made in broad daylight. The bird was standing on a rail that was up off the water enough that any light from my flash, which was aimed directly at the bird, would not reflect off the water with enough significance to expose. The water in the background was in shade so this helped increase the exposure difference between it and the white bird. Since flash exposure is controlled by aperture and ISO, I stopped my lens down to its smallest aperture of f/32. I set the camera to its least light-sensitive setting of ISO 200. Your ISO must be manually set to as low as it will go. If you leave it in auto it’ll just keep raising it to make a proper exposure based on your aperture and shutter speed. The shutter I set to as fast as the flash would sync with, which was 1/180 sec. The aperture was letting in so little light and the shutter set so fast that any available light in the scene was not allowed to fall on the sensor long enough to develop anything. What happens with this setup is that without the flash firing, you would get a totally black exposure. When I setup for this type of shot, I usually leave the flash off, set my shutter to max sync speed and start stopping my aperture down until I get a black frame. This will vary depending on how much ambient light you have in your shot. After establishing my black shot, I then turn on the flash. Most built-in/pop-up flashes don’t have enough light output for this technique. I had my SB-80DX set to manual control mode and it was mounted to the hotshoe of the camera. I didn’t record the setting but, given the distance, it would be a good guess that I had power set to somewhere between 3/4 and full power. Distance from your subject will be what determines your flash’s power setting and that will vary depending on how big and powerful your flash is. Since my subject was a skittish bird, I tested my flash setting on an object behind me that was nearly the same distance from me as the bird and was a similar white. With everything set, I turned, framed and fired away.
This technique is a lot of fun to play around with. I’ve shot flowers against a midday sky with the same result. This is all about flash power and its distance from your subject. The flash is such a small light source; the closer you can get to your subject the softer the shadows. If you get too far away, it may still expose correctly but if there are any dimensional details to your subject, they could be rendered in a harsh, unpleasant manner. Unless, of course, super strong contrast is what you’re after. Messin’ around is the best way to learn!