Fill Flash for Wildlife Photography

To supplement light in the bright sun of midday, the blue hour, backlighting, and in shadowed forest areas, using fill flash for wildlife photography can be the answer to many tricky lighting situations.

Fill Flash is supplemental lighting used in scenes or with wildlife under some of the lighting conditions mentioned above. It’s never employed as the main light source but instead provides some gentle light where the natural light is shadowed or weak. The goal is to produce a balance between the electronic flash and the available ambient light.

You should always use TTL (Through-The-Lens) flash metering so that the camera will measure the ambient light and recommend a flash output to create the balance that you want. Sometimes the flash output is too strong, so I’ll dial in flash exposure compensation -0.7 or -1.3. When shooting a scene that has very strong backlight, I’ll add more flash output using flash exposure compensation of +1.0.

(Above) This Serengeti lioness in a tree would be rendered very dark – perhaps silhouetted – against the bright sunset sky. Using fill flash, I was able to create a pleasant balance of flash on my primary subject and beautiful pastel light in the background. Canon EOS-1DX Mark II and Canon EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 158mm. I used +1.0 flash exposure compensation and TTL flash metering.
With animals that have very dark faces, fill flash can not only lighten up some of their facial features but it also provides a catch light in the eye which makes the wildlife subject look much more vibrant and alive. Below, there are two images that were taken mere seconds from on another. The image on the left was captured without flash while the version on the right had some very subtle fill flash. The most important improvement is the catch light – the glint in the eye.
(Above) Without flash.
With flash. Not only is the face lightened up but there is a catch light in the eye.

Fill Flash with Flash Extenders

One big problem using fill flash with wildlife photography is that the light from the flash doesn’t carry very far in distance. This is where a flash extender becomes useful. A flash extender concentrates the flash output into a narrow angle of view covered by a 300mm lens or longer The light output that would be wasted outside of the angle of view is now intensified and focused into your frame. This pushes the power of the flash to a greater distance, making it useful for telephoto lenses. The two flash extenders I would recommend are the MagMod MagBeam Wildlife Kit (it’s a universal fit for speed light models) and the Better Beamer Flash Extender (which comes in different models for different speed light models. make sure you buy the right model).

(At left) Flash extender for fill flash with telephoto rig. This model of flash extender is the MagMod MagBeam Wildlife Kit. The flash extender concentrates the wasted flash output outside the narrow angle of view of the telephoto, extending the power of the flash to a greater distance.

Fill Flash with Wide-angle Lenses

It’s possible to use fill flash with wide-angle wildlife photography. First, it must be said that doing any wide-angle photography with wild creatures can be dangerous (to both the photographer and the subject) since you really need to get in close. Each animal species and situation is different so use good judgement here. If going really wide, be sure to check your speed light for angle of flash output so that it matches the local length of your lens. Below, I purposely set the flash angle at 50mm even though the lens being used was 24mm. That’s because I wanted a spot light effect on the foreground seal while keeping the rest of the scene dark.

I used a wide-angle perspective to capture this cape fur seal with fill flash in the late evening light. Cape Cross Seal Preserve, Namibia. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon 16-35mm f/4L lens @ 24mm.

When using fill flash at close range – such as situations when using a wide-angle lens – the flash output can be harsh and too direct. In these situations, I like to add a small soft box to the speed light to soften the light from the flash. I like the Altura Photo Flash Diffuser Light Softbox that folds flat and fits easily inside my camera bag. The 6×5-inch model works great for me but they also make a 9×7-inch option and a larger 13×8-inch model as well. They attach to the speed light with a simple Velcro strap.

Below you can see the attached Altura Photo Flash Diffuser from the front (left) and the side (right).

When in comes to fill flash, be sure to use it in a subtle manner. You don’t have to compete with the natural light your are given, you want to cooperate with it. Fill flash is never overpowering, it should create a nice balance with the sunlight. Remember to use TTL flash metering for the best balance of fill flash and ambient light and flash exposure compensation to make any necessary adjustments.