Remote triggers + fill flash - photographing kingfishers -how to

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miccro's picture
Remote triggers + fill flash - photographing kingfishers -how to

Hi my names Mike,

-ive had a few people ask about remote triggers in photographing wildlife so i thought id write a little 'how to' as im currently using a few set ups with a pair of local kingfishers.

I'll try and keep it simple

I'll asume most people reading are already into wildlife photography and have strived for the two big wants in bird photography- good light and ability to get as close as possible to the birds. This leads to craving for longer and faster lenses such as the 600mm f4, 800 f5.6 and 500 f4.

Now i currently own the 600mm f4 and have shot with it for many years and i doubt ill ever part with it however, ill let you in on some HUGE limitations:

1. It weighs 8kg with camera - i hand hold the lens and go out walking with it, but cant hold for more than a minute over a bird, flight shorts are very hard to track hand held and ill often not even bother. So i often take a solid tripod and Wimberly head. Increasing the weight even more and at the limits of what id comfortably carry.

2. I didnt buy the lens to shoot at f4. A common conception when buying fast long primes is the ability to shoot wide open and get razor sharp results. Yes the 600 f4 is very sharp wide open, the issue is at 4.5m focal distance it has a couple of mm of focal plane- once you see what the lens can do you will be getting frustrated with not getting individual eye feathers razor sharp due to slight missed focus. I rarely shoot below f7.1.

3. The minimum focal distance of 4.5m. This is suprissing to some, but i have missed many shots of wrens and other small birds closer than 4.5m to me. I have had to move away from the birds when others are moving closer.

4. it is a big white intimidating lens - field craft/ hides/ blinds are often needed.

5. Focus searching/ scanning- its fast for what it is but if you loose your focus on a bird its easy for the lens to start its scan to infinity and back- it has large heavy elements and is slow compared to smaller shorter lenses, there are ways around this like pre set focus memory but i to be honest i mainly use it in manual focus.

So having spent your $10,000 on a new peice of glass- your in a situation of shooting at a relatively slow apature, manual focusing and with difficulties tracking small birds in flight, along with a sore back. 

Introducing remote triggers/ flash:

Remote triggers esentially allow you to set the camera up on a set target and photograph from a distance allowing the birds to be less intimidated, you can also get closer to the action. Cost wise is a fraction of a fast prime and kit lenses can even be used with great results. 

I use Pocket wizards, but others are available.

Pocket wizards are simple, fast and reliable without any complex functions, they can be used with flash off camera, camera triggering, or both. You can use multiple pocket wizards on the same channel if using multiple flash units.

Another option is the Giga T Pro 2- this sits on the hot shoe of the camera and controller can trigger the camera from a distance. This has multiple functions including interval firing for timelapse photography. So if you want a unit that does several things this may be better, but if you are just into wildlife fast shooting id go with the pocket wizards.

The last optiion is a cable release- a canon or aftermarket version, these can be cut and spliced with extension cable from bunnings fairly easily and you have a very cheap remote trigger- issue is you cant use off camera flash.


Once connected you can use the camera in any mode or set up just like normal.

90% of the time you will set the camera up to photograph a perch/ nest or flight path of a bird, as you are away from the lens you tend to want to pre fix your focus point to where you think the bird is likely to land.

Kingfishers tend to use regular perches and so are great subjects for this. 

once set all you have to retreat to a comfortable distance and wait 


2 of the current trigger set ups im using with the kingfishers -

85mm f1.2 shooting at f6.3

200mm f1.8 shooting at f 5.6

Perch shot-

miccro's picture

So part 1- you have achieved being much closer than before, but you can also start to control some of the other factors that are limittions of the longer primes. You can use low levels of fill flash to control light and you can use shorter lenses to get a deeper field of focus so the bird is sharp wingtip to wingtip.

Flash- There are many ways to use flash but ill just run through how i like to use it.

Now i dislike flash and will avoid using alot of it whenever possible. This is especially true with the kingfishers, their beautiful aquamarine blue turns green and looks unnatural. However very low levels of fill flash can bring out the shadows and allow you to shoot at a slightly higher iso retaining good detail. 

I use flash on the 600mm with a better beamer - this extends the flash beam and allows you to photograph larger birds that are further away- You may think it wont be worth it but on grey days it alows you to shoot faster and retain detail in the feathers as well as background skies -

Example is this osprey shot- the bird is correctly exposed, with good detail in its front white feathers, retaining the grey of the background. To correctly expose this shot without flash would have led to the sky being bleached out and contrast in shadows lost.

personally i think this isnt a particularly good shot and flash is still to much.

Flash settings- 

For remote trigger use you may still want to retain fast shutter speeds and multi shot. This means you will have to play with the flash and camera a little - but not much!

I work with canon gear so can only walk you through what i do with mine.

First is to set your flash to 'HIGH SYNC'. Most cameras have a sync speed of 1/200s . Ths means your camera will defalt back to 1/200 shutter speed when flash attatched. 1/200 may be ok for a perch but far to slow for a flight shot. 

By pressing the H buton with little lightning bolt on the flash - enables the flash to be used with faster shutter speeds up to 1/8000 sec.

(this is to do with how scrolling shutters work in our SLRs -)

Third button along changes between H sync, multiple flash and off, top line in display shows high sync icon - so flash can be used at the fast shutter speeds. This can be used in ETTL (metered) and M (manual) mode.

High sync will not work in AV mode. TV and M should be fine.

Your good to go but may be limited by flash recycle time( meaning you may get one flash burst for every 3 shutter closes) To improve this you can change the flash set up in your camera functions

connect flash to the camera- 

enter menus - speedlight control

then scroll through to quick flash- enable 

Now the flash will cycle faster with each shutter.

Reflex's picture

Fantastic! Really appreciate this information.

Samford Valley Qld.

miccro's picture

part 3 - exposure 

As i have said i dislike flash that overpowers natural light. Flash and kingfishers is also a fine balance with the colour changing from deep blue to an unatural emerald green.

Kingfishers do however tend to like to nest under shade of trees or overhanging river banks, so lighting is a factor.

I aim to light the shadows and add a little bit of fill light to the bird. To do this i reduce the output of the flash gun. In the flash display above you can see it reads 1/8 on the second line- showing that the flash has been depowered to 1/8 the power. Normally it will show 1/1. This can be done by pressing the button in the middle surrounded by the toggle wheel, you can then scroll through and chose an output. 

for close subjects i use 1/16 -1/8.

If you use diffusers etc this may vary.

You can set the camera to -0.5 or -1 EV if need or your getting over exposed sections. Or simply on manual mode dial in lower ISO or larger F stop.

Then its trial and error:

Too much flash:

less flash and more natural, but had to open up the apature to f2, at 200mm it meant the burrow/ young bird was out of focus. Plus in the flat grey light theres a lack of contrast.

compromise and dropped down to 80mm solving a bit of the focus issue:

I hope thats usefull, happy to answer any other questions




Great post telling us all your secrets miccro. Thanks so much for all the information.

Rick N
Rick N's picture

Great article Mike.

Yongnuo also do a well priced trigger, RF604N 11. 4of for $70.00 delivered.

Got them recently and work great for multiple flashes.

Keep in mind you will need a flash that high syncs for the faster shutter speeds. not all do.

HendoNT's picture

Nice job! Thanks for the info, i have used remote triggers at home on the bird bath, sit back and wait for the shots to come to you!

miccro's picture

No problem guys, always better to share info smiley


GeorgeP's picture

Thanks for the very useful info., Mike.

I presume that the triggers communicate TTL info when you place the flash(es) off-camera. 

Like Rick, I use a few Yongnuo 603 manual pass-through triggers ($35 delivered) for my off-camera flash photography. They do not communicate any TTL info. so I use the flash(es) in manual mode at anywhere between 1/8th power to 1/64th power at a shutter speed of ~1/250th. The short duration of the flash at these flash powers is short enough to freeze any movement plus they re-cycle prety quickly.

Thanks, again, for posting this info. yes Fantastic set of images, too!


Melbourne, VIC

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