Photographing Wildlife with Multiple Canon Speedlites

January 23, 2018

Using two or more Canon Speedlites is a tremendously effective way to make exquisite wildlife images.  My journey in wildlife photography began with multiple Speedlites four decades ago.  The key is setting the exposure, placing the lights for the best lighting, and getting them to all fire instantly.

In the beginning, I wired photoelectric triggering devices to each flash, and then advanced to using PC sync cords to wire all the Speedlites and camera together.  Both systems were fraught with problems.  Then optical wireless systems became available and things improved considerably.  And with the new radio controls, it is the best time for working with multiple Speedlites.  It is so easy today with modern flash gear, so I hope you will take advantage of it.

Speedlites work especially well when birds and mammals are attracted to a specific spot using food or water.  Among their many benefits:

  1. Speedlites provide plenty of light to allow photographing wildlife when the ambient light is dim.  This is especially helpful when photographing under a dense canopy of leaves, and early or late in the day when wildlife activity peaks.
  2. Multiple Speedlites offer the huge advantage of enabling the photographer to control light direction and moderate contrast.
  3. When Speedlites are the only light source, their flash duration can freeze very fast wildlife motion.  Even bluebirds about to land on a perch or rapidly beating hummingbird wings can be frozen in place.
  4. The color of light emitted by Speedlites is like midday sunshine.  Even under cloudy skies where the light has a blueish colorcast, or the greenish light under the leaves of a tree, the light from Speedlites overpowers the colorcast from the ambient light to produce more neutral looking colors.  And should you wish to color the light, perhaps make the light from Speedlites more yellow, plenty of inexpensive gel filters (CTO — color temperature orange) can be put over the flash head to produce the desirable colorcast.
Often it works best to deliberately combine flash and ambient light. I knew hummingbirds were commonly perching on this pine cone that I had placed near a small sugar water feeder. The cone was just the right distance from the feeder where the hummingbird could stretch out and get the sugar water, but when perching upright, the feeder isn’t seen in the image. The EOS 5D Mark IV is set to Evaluative metering, Manual exposure, 1/100th second, f/5.6, ISO 1250, One Shot AF, and Flash white balance. In this case, ambient light was the main light, and two 600EX-RT Speedlites served to fill in the shadows created by the ambient light and to create more iridescence in the bird’s red gorget. To keep the ambient the main light, the automatic flash exposure is adjusted to minus 1-2/3. As usual, the EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM lens set to 467mm with the aid of the built-in converter gave me both working distance and a narrow angle of view to produce an uncluttered background behind this male rufous hummingbird.

Two Distinct Types of Off-Camera, Wireless Flash

The entire visual look of your flash pictures changes dramatically when you begin working with off-camera flash.  Canon has developed two separate methods to work with Speedlites off-camera, and maintain automatic E-TTL flash exposure: traditional Optical Wireless flash, and the more recently introduced Radio Transmission Wireless flash.  The latter requires Canon-brand Speedlites or Transmitters with “RT” as part of their model name for radio compatibility.

Optical Wireless Flash

Optical wireless flash uses extremely rapid, coded pulses of strobe illumination to communicate from an on-camera sender unit to one or more Speedlites off-camera.  Sometimes, it’s erroneously referred to as “infrared” flash triggering, but that’s technically not the case with Canon EX-series Speedlites.  There are multiple on-camera options, to fire compatible receiver units off the camera:

Speedlite Transmitter (ST-E2)

Canon has produced this small Speedlite Transmitter for a long time.  The ST-E2 conveniently slides into the hot shoe on top of the Canon camera.  It is the device which controls remote Speedlites called receivers.  The ST-E2 sends optical signals to the off-camera Speedlites, telling them when to fire and how much light to emit.  All of this is conveniently done without wires.  The optical signals are sent to the receiver Speedlites immediately before the actual flash is fired.  This happens so fast that we perceive it as a single flash, though, indeed there is a preflash followed immediately by the exposing flash.

Canon’s Pop-up Speedlites

If your Canon camera provides a small pop-up flash on top of the camera, recent models such as the EOS 7D series, EOS 60D and above, and most Rebel models from the T3i upwards, generally are made so the pop-up flash can be set to be the sender unit and send instructions to the receiving Speedlites.  With such a camera, you don’t need the ST-E2 as your camera already has a Speedlite triggering capability. It’s set in the camera’s Built-in Flash Control menu.

Other Canon Speedlites, set for “Sender” operation

If you have enough Speedlites, one can be attached to the hot shoe and set to control Speedlites out in front of it.  It would be less expensive to use the ST-E2 transmitter, but in a pinch, other Speedlites can take its place on-camera.  It is good to remember this, as once while in the mountains of Ecuador photographing hummingbirds, all the special 2CR5 batteries I had with me that power the ST-E2 were used and none could be purchased locally.  Eventually, I remembered that my 580EX Speedlites that I was using at the time could be configured to be the sender unit.  I was back in business as I had plenty of rechargeable AA batteries to run the Speedlite.

Canon Speedlites with optical-type “Sender unit” capabilities include the Speedlite 600EX II-RT, 600EX-RT, 580EX II, 580EX, and 550EX.  Keep in mind that Speedlites in the 400-series (like the current Speedlite 430EX III-RT) can be used as optical-type “receiver units” off-camera, but do not have optical transmitting capability.

Lewis’s woodpeckers nest in tree cavities. Unlike most woodpeckers, they act similar to flycatchers by chasing and catching much of their insect food on the wing, instead of excavating it out of the tree. In this shot taken a number of years ago, I set two 580EX Speedlites on light stands and put them on a wooden platform supported by construction scaffolding 12 feet in the air. I used a Canon EOS 7D with a Canon 500mm f/4.0 lens to make a tight composition of the nesting woodpecker that was 20 feet away. The nest was in the shade, but the sky background was lit by bright sunshine. I set the ambient light exposure to produce a nicely exposed blue-sky background. The settings were ISO 200, f/14.0, and a 1/200th second shutter speed. Once my ambient exposure was set, I activated two 580EX Speedlites and set the FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) to +2/3 stop to ideally expose the woodpecker in the shade. This is a situation I call “balanced flash.” Ambient lights the blue background and flash lights the tree and woodpecker.

Optical Controllers

So far, I have only considered optical controllers.  These work fine when the sender device that emits the signals are clearly visible to the receiver Speedlites.  But, if the line of sight is blocked, one or more Speedlites may not fire unless you move whatever blocks the signal to let all the receiver Speedlites detect the sender’s signals.  In small spaces where the on-camera and remote Speedlites are close together, and no objects are blocking signals, then optical signals work just fine.  

However, for wildlife photography with multiple Speedlites, much of the best work is done with the photographer and their camera hidden inside a photo hide or blind.  The fabric of the blind usually blocks sender signals preventing the receiver Speedlites from firing.  I frequently ran into this problem in years past, and solved the problem by attaching my ST-E2 transmitter to the camera’s hot shoe with the Canon Off-camera Shoe Cord OC-E3 – a coiled cord with permanently-attached, dedicated flash shoes at both ends.  Attach it to the camera’s accessory shoe, and a flash or transmitter at the other end, and they behave exactly as if directly attached to the camera.  I ran the cord with the ST-E2 Transmitter attached and extended out the front of the blind through the hole the lens protruded from, and taped it to the lens hood.  Extending the optical wireless transmitter this way wasn’t pretty, but it did work.

Speedlites for off-camera, Optical-type wireless flash

Any of these optical “sender” units work with a long history of Canon Speedlites.  I have used them with the discontinued 550EX, 580 and 580 II, smaller Speedlites like the 430EX III-RT, any previous 400-series Canon Speedlite, and compact units like the 270EX and 270EX II can also work as off-camera receiver units with optical wireless flash.  Keep in mind that all Canon “RT” Speedlites that have radio capability also work with an optical sender if you set the Speedlites to respond to optical signals.

Radio Transmission Wireless Flash

Radio signals work over much greater distances — up to about 100 feet or 30 meters from transmitter to remote Speedlite — and can pass through most objects such as the fabric of a photo blind.  I have used them extensively since they first became available and know this is clearly the best way to proceed.  Canon’s Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT is a radio-only transmitter that only works with Canon Speedlites that are made to receive radio signals; as mentioned previously, they’ll have “RT” in their model name.  Their reliability is incredible!  I can’t imagine using any other system.  It is easy and fast to set up a set of multiple Speedlites, and nearly always works with the first attempt if the radio sender and radio receiver Speedlites are set properly.

Speedlites

The ST-E3-RT radio controller only works with Speedlites that are made to accept radio signals.  Currently, these include the 600EX-RT, 600EX II–RT, and 430EX III-RT.  I enjoy using these Speedlites for birds and small mammals that are attracted to dripping water, and for hummingbird photography.  As a result, I own five Canon 600EX-RTs and four 430EX III-RTs too.  The 430EX III-RTs are powerful enough for wildlife, but the 600EX-RTs are almost one stop more powerful in terms of light output.  Power is critical for lighting large objects in the landscape at some distance (something I regularly do), but not so critical for small birds and mammals at close distances.  I tend to prefer lots of light output, so I select the more powerful Speedlites nearly always.

This long-tailed weasel suddenly appeared one evening at my water drip setup. Being a nervous predator who was probably looking for unwary birds or chipmunks, it slowly approached the pool of water. I knew the weasel would quickly run off — it did — so I carefully focused the EF 200-400 f/4 IS USM lens on its face by using a single active AF point that corresponded with the exact spot I wanted in focus and fired. Three 600EX-RT Speedlites lit the weasel seconds before it scampered away. Normally flash does not affect wildlife, but in the dark with a wary weasel, it noticed the brief light and bounded away. The exposure on the EOS 7D Mark II is set to 1/200th second, f/13, and ISO 500. Since I did not want any of the dim ambient light to be in the image, I set the camera to Manual exposure, but did use automatic flash exposure (E-TTL) with the three 600EX-RT Speedlites that were arranged around the pool of water. The camera was set to the Flash white balance, and the flash exposure was adjusted by setting +1/3 stop FEC. AI Servo AF and High-speed continuous shooting are also used.

Using Multiple Speedlites

Acquire light stands for each of your Speedlites and mount them to the stand by first attaching a mini-ballhead on the stand, and then attaching the Speedlite.  Use the plastic shoe that comes with the Speedlite to mount it to the mini-ball.  The mini-ball lets you point the flash in a variety of directions quickly and easily to achieve excellent light on the subject.  The Speedlite foot slides into the plastic shoe that comes with it, and then the bottom of shoe screws onto the mini-ball’s ¼ - 20-inch thread.

Flash Settings

Make sure the sender and the receiver Speedlites are talking to each other.  A green light shines on the 430EX III-T and 600EX II-RT radio Speedlites when they are communicating with the ST-E3-RT sender unit.  At a minimum, you need two Speedlites for good light, and three or four work even better most of the time.  

Using Four Speedlites for Wildlife at a Water Drip

Many birds and mammals are attracted to dripping water.  Suspend a water hose above a rock pit that you can make, or find a natural depression in a large rock that can hold several ounces of water.  Adjust the flow of water so it drips steadily.  The louder the water drops are when they splash in the pool of water, the better.  Birds and small mammals are readily attracted to the sound of dripping water.  A pool of water that is about one foot across offers reflections, and only a couple of inches deep or less works best.  Birds readily bathe in shallow water when they can stand in it, as well as drink from the pool.  If the back of the rock fills your entire background, then you don’t need to add a background.

Yellow pine chipmunks are readily attracted to fresh water. I use four 600EX-RT Speedlites with the ST-E3-RT remote flash transmitter for most of my multiple flash wildlife photos. Two Speedlites light the front of the chipmunk, one backlights the beast to rim light the fur on top, and the fourth lights only the artificial painted background, to prevent a black background. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, manual ambient exposure using the Evaluative Metering mode of 1/200th second, f/18, and ISO 500. The fully automatic flash exposure is set to +1/3 stop FEC. My ideal lens for this type of backyard flash photography of small animals is the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM; of course, more compact tele zooms could achieve similar results.

Placing the Speedlites

  1. Put one Speedlite about 45 degrees above the spot where the subject will be and perhaps 30 degrees off the camera-to-subject line.  This will be the main light.
  2. Add a second fill light about the same height as the camera and on the other side of the imaginary camera-to-subject line.  Make the Speedlite a little weaker than the main light by multiplying the flash-to-subject distance of the main light by 1.5.  For example, if the main light is four feet from the spot where the subject will be, then put the fill light about (1.5 x 4 feet) 6 feet from that same spot.
  3. A backlight that rims the subject a little and highlights its hair or feathers is always desirable.  Put it slightly above the subject and behind it, but at an angle so the Speedlite does not appear in the image or create objectionable lens flare.
  4. When using an artificial background, make it out of dull spray paints with sturdy paper.  Even large photo prints made from matte paper of non-focused scenes are effective as backgrounds.  Aim the fourth Speedlite at the background.  To avoid glare problems, place the Speedlite so it lights the background at a 45-degree angle to the surface.  Any created glare merely reflects away and does not appear in the image.

Since the small subjects may be at different spots when drinking or bathing, automatic flash exposure works best.  Start by focusing the camera at a spot where the subject is likely to perch and make a shot.  Check the exposure in the usual way, either by observing the histogram or going with the highlight alert.  In my case, I set the camera settings I want (ISO 400, 1/200th second shutter speed, and f/11 aperture) and then adjust the camera’s flash exposure compensation control (FEC), shoot an image, and keep doing that process until the first flashing highlights (blinkies) appear in the image.  Since I shoot only RAW, I go with the exposure that produces the first blinkies.  If I shot JPEGs, then I would reduce the exposure by 1/3-stop.

The female lazuli bunting is attracted to this location by dripping fresh water from a garden hose into a natural cavity in a rock. For the water drip setup, I use three 600EX-RT Speedlites, two on the front of the bird and one as a backlight. I am in a cloth photo hide, so using the radio ST-E3-RT remote flash transmitter with the radio Speedlites is highly effective, as the radio signals readily penetrate the cover of the blind. Once again, I eliminate ambient light by setting my 7D Mark II to 1/200th second, f/13, and ISO 500 in this shady spot. Since I am never quite sure where the subject will be around the water pool, I set the Speedlites farther away to light a larger area — that hopefully includes the subject — and use automatic E-TTL flash metering where I set the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) to +1/3 stop. The EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM is, of course, my lens of choice. Many other Canon lenses will work here though, such as the lightweight EF 400mm f/5.6L USM.

Hummingbirds

Multiple Speedlites are perfect for photographing hovering hummingbirds as they drink sugar water at a feeder.  For best results, the trick is to light the hummingbird well and hide the feeder so it does not appear in the image.  It is easy to do with three or more identical Speedlites.

Three 600EX-RT Speedlites light this rufous hummingbird. Two light the front, one lights from above and to the rear for backlight, and a fourth only lights the photo background. The ambient light exposure is set to exclude nearly all ambient light, so I used 1/250th second, f/18, and ISO 250. Both ambient exposure and flash exposure are set manually. The flash is set to 1/32 power to freeze the wings. With the small amount of flash being used per shot at 1/32 power, you can shoot using high-speed continuous Drive for several shots before the Speedlites fail to light the bird. I have learned since this image was taken that the flashes keep lighting the bird up to nine images per second when using 1/64 power. And the lens is the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM.

Attract hummingbirds to a specific spot and let them become programmed to come to that precise spot by keeping a hummingbird feeder there continuously.  Never let the sugar water get stale or run out.  When hummingbirds regularly visit the spot, remove the feeder, and put a hum-button, which is a commercially sold tiny hummingbird feeder, in the spot.  Search for Hum-button for hummingbirds to find info on the Internet.  Use a wire wrapped around the hum-button to support it.  Fill if full of sugar water.  Let hummingbirds get used to feeding from the hum-button.  Being small, fill the hum-button regularly.  Then put a potted flower in front of the hum-button and carefully hide the hum-button behind a flower blossom.  If hummingbirds see the hum-button, they readily use it, but the feeder hidden behind the flowers doesn’t appear in the image.

Set up four light stands, each with a Speedlite mounted on it. For hummingbirds, it is best to use the identical Speedlites manually. Set the Speedlite controller to manual and each Speedlite to 1/16th or 1/32nd power. Put one Speedlite above the spot where the hummingbird will be and point it to light the hummingbird when feeding at the sugar water feeder. A distance of approximately sixteen inches works well. Set a second Speedlite close to the camera-subject line about twenty inches away. This one also lights the front of the hummingbird, and fills in shadows created by the main light above it. A third Speedlite provides backlighting. Set it above the spot where the bird will be, but light if from the rear at twenty inches. Use an artificial background about four feet behind the hummingbird and use the fourth Speedlite at a 45-degree angle to the background to light it. Otherwise, without the fourth Speedlite on the background, it will appear black. Camera settings should be about f/16, ISO 400, and the maximum sync speed which normally is about 1/200th or 1/250th second, depending on the camera model. Be sure the camera is set to Manual exposure. With any autoexposure modes, the camera attempts to light the hummingbird with ambient light, and since you are using multiple Speedlites, ambient light isn’t wanted. The incredibly short flash durations at 1/16th or 1/32nd power easily freeze the rapidly beating hummingbird wings.

Flash is frequently used to freeze fast action, but it can be used to allow motion blur too. When using only flash, hummingbird wings are frozen in place — not by using a fast shutter speed, but by using Speedlites at very low power — 1/16th to 1/64th for example. The flash durations are less than 1/10,000th of a second at these short flash durations. However, here I wished to allow the wings to blur, so I manually set all four 600EX-RT Speedlites to 1/4 power. The longer flash duration (roughly 1/2800th second) lets the wings blur, but the body remains sharp. The 7D Mark II is set to Manual exposure, 1/250th second, f/20, ISO 100, AI Servo AF, and High-speed continuous. This is fun to do, but two things you should know right away. At 1/4 power, much of the energy stored in the Speedlite is used during an exposure. This means the Speedlites must be farther from the hummingbird to reduce the light, and you can’t shoot consecutive photos quickly. It may take 3-5 seconds before the Speedlites are ready to fire again. Here the EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM is set to 400mm to capture the image.

Use continuous autofocus to focus on the head of the hummingbird when it comes to feed. Since the Speedlites are all pointed to light a small area, the hummingbird must be feeding at the hum-button or quite close to be ideally lit from the Speedlites.

You will find numerous uses for multiple Speedlites for many wildlife situations where you know the subject will be at a certain spot. And naturally, multiple Speedlites are useful for so much more including close-ups, landscapes, and portraits.  Let your imagination guide you.  Anytime you need light, Speedlites offer an easy way to add light for wonderful artistic effects.  It is precise and reliable.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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