One Photographer's Quest For Something Completely Different Birds in Black and white at night with flash

I love photographing birds and learning more about them. Ive had lots of chances to photograph birds in all conditions. On a trip to Florida a few years ago, I went out on an expedition hoping for an opportunity to shoot something very different. This time, I wanted to show another side of the birds I was photographing near the water. They have a dream-like quality that I wanted to recreate in a photograph.

I went to Estero Lagoon on Fort Myers Beach at twilight to try to capture this quality. I decided to experiment with bird photography in a way I never had before. I wanted to shoot near (or just after) dusk using a flash.

I set up my camera and lens on a tripod and used a top-of-the-line flash connected via a sync cord. I was working at 800mm so I could isolate a a bird. While conditions were perfect, there was one big problem -- no birds. After waiting about an hour, I packed up my gear and headed back to the hotel determined to try again the next night.

The next day was even better since the water was calmer. This time there were birds – too many of them in fact. It took me a while to find a single bird (or group of birds) that were relatively still.

I had to wait for it to get dark enough to capture a black sky and a white reflection. I could accomplish this in manual mode by simply adjusting the shutter speed in combination with the flash on manual at full power. (Shutter speed controls ambient light in manual flash mode – aperture controls exposure.) But in my mind, I wanted the scene to be as natural as possible, so I waited. Luckily, so did the birds. They stayed in nearly the same spot for more than 20 minutes. I had discovered that birds in Florida are plentiful and tamer. They seem to be used to people. They didn’t startle as easily as birds Id photographed in other regions of the country, so it was easier to photograph them.

As I was getting ready to shoot it dawned on me, though, that the flash might spook the birds. (Flash doesn't harm birds unless they are hummingbirds, sitting on an egg in a nest) I decided I had better get it right the first time since the next morning I was flying home to Washington State.

I set my ISO to 400 and my aperture to f/6.7. I set the flash to TTL but turned off the automatic balance function. With the balance function on, the flash tries to get a perfect mix of flash and ambient light. For the shot I had in mind, that wouldn’t work. I had the camera on a tripod and used my free left hand to get the flash off the camera. I gauged the exposure using the scientific “eyeball” technique.

As the color seeped out of the scene, it hit me that this would be a cool monochrome shot. On the fly, I had to re-think everything to make sure this would work. But I could tell that black and white was going to be the way to go for this shot.

Color would highlight the breeding plumage of the bird, but in black and white you’d focus on the bird’s faces. Color captures beauty, black and white focuses on the mood of a scene.

I moved my camera position to get a bit closer to the birds. I moved slowly to avoid spooking or disturbing them. Because these birds had been amazingly tame, I had no trouble selecting my final spot.

I made sure all my gear was set, double-checked that my flash and camera were set the way I wanted them, and then I let go with a single shot from the camera. I half expected the birds to flush but they were completely unphased. It turns out that birds rarely react to flash photography, but since I hadn’t tried using flash in a similar situation, I didn’t know for sure what to expect. These birds gave me three more minutes before flying off into the night, and that was more than I needed to get my shots. I found a pair I really liked and a few singles.

Back at the hotel I loaded the images into my computer and confirmed a successful series of shots. I had captured the dream-like quality I had imagined and felt while birdwatching at twilight. My flash technique, though previously unproven, worked as I had hoped.

In post, I converted the images from color to black and white (I now use Macphun Luminar or Tonality Pro for this task.) Even though the scene was nearly monochromatic, there was a hint of color that I had to remove.

As I worked on these images, it became clear to me where the inspiration for the black and white image came from. I never dream in color.


When you're looking for something different, open your mind and try to think about the scene the way you want it to look on the wall. It works for me and helps me keep my photography fresh.

About The Author

Photo Courtesy Levi Sim

Scott Bourne is an Olympus Visionary and a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of This Week In Photo, Founded Photofocus.com and is co-founder of the new Photo Podcast Network (photopodcasts.com.)

Scott is a regular contributor to several photography related blogs and podcasts and is the author of 11 photography books.

Scott is available to speak to your birding group, photography group and for both private and small group bird photography workshops. For more information on engaging Scott as a speaker or workshop leader, or for image licensing and print information, e-mail scott@scottbourne.com.


Copyright Scott Bourne 2017 - All Rights Reserved - scottbourne.com - scottbourne.photography.

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