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Light On Wildlife

The Eyes Have It! • Animals And Flash Photography • How Far Can You Take It? • Sharing A Bunch Of Images

Eyeshine On A Rufous Hummingbird. Photographed with a long lens and projected flash attached to the camera’s hot-shoe, this hummer shows some serious blue eyeshine, predictable when the light source is on the same axis as the lens. Canon EOS 5DS, Canon EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM with Canon Extender EF 2X (1600mm), 1/180 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 400, Better Beamer Flash X-Tender

The Eyes Have It!

Q I’m using flash in my wildlife photography both as a fill and as a main light source. Sometimes I get eyeshine, and sometimes I don’t. What’s the answer to consistently get rid of it?
B. Jamison
Salt Lake City, Utah

A Eyeshine is a problem when light enters an animal’s dilated eye; the intensity and color depend on the size of the pupil and the anatomy of the eye. It is, of course, more problematic in low-light photography since the animal’s pupils are more likely to be dilated and the photographer is more likely to be using flash. But it’s also possible when using projected flash in daylight to open shadows or expand detail.

Here, we can take a lesson from wedding photographers who are always fighting the red-eyed demon bride. You’ll notice that the pros position the flash on a tall arm above the camera. Getting the flash as far as possible off the axis of the lens is the answer, for brides and all the other wild creatures.

Some species, especially night hunters, are very susceptible to eyeshine, and others seldom exhibit the problem. In a stationary setup, position the light stands on either side of, and away from, the camera. Don’t mount a flash on the camera’s hot-shoe. If you’re working with a flash attached to the camera because you’re moving around, get a system where the flash is raised as far as possible above the camera, higher than the standard wedding photography rigs. Or, have an assistant hold the flash and position the light on the subject from an angle away from the camera. You’ll need a focusing light on the camera to show the assistant where you’re focusing, and to actually focus. If you have the chance, get into a zoo or find someone who has a pet animal that normally would show eyeshine, so you can try out your system in a controlled situation.

Photoshop, Lightroom and Elements all have tools to eliminate red-eye in people, and they do a reasonable job on some animals, as well. Or, dust off your Photoshop skills to convincingly remove that red, green, white or yellow reflection in the animal’s eye.

Animals and Flash Photography

At my recent Salt Lake City seminar on wildlife photography, the question of whether animals in the field are affected by electronic flash was raised. I’ve used flash for decades, both as a fill and main light source, for bird and animal photography, in daylight and darkness; in that time, only one animal has actually rejected me and the flash. The big silverback gorilla at the Miami Zoo was pretty clear about it: After the first shot from my projected flash (to fill in all the black on his body), he turned away from me with a disgusted look and wouldn’t show me his face again.

I’ve used flash at close range and projected flash from a distance on subjects as diverse as big cats in Africa, big-horned sheep in Yellowstone, polar bears in Canada, grizzly bears in Alaska, marmots in the Rockies, and foxes and black bears in my backyard in Colorado, and a huge variety of birds on all continents, all with no reaction whatsoever. Flash directly into the dilated eyes of night hunters can disorient them; for this reason, flash photography often isn’t permitted in African reserves in darkness. While flash photography is still banned at all times in some controlled locations, the biologists in charge have never been able to provide me with a reason, except in the Galápagos Islands, where the purpose is to minimize the litter from flash bulbs, clearly, a long-standing rule.

Here’s the rule I’ve established for myself: No photograph is worth jeopardizing your subject, and some subjects just aren’t meant to be photographed. Be alert to reactions to your flash (and your presence), especially when photographing vulnerable subjects such as nesting birds. Back away if feeding is disrupted. Discontinue the use of flash if the animal repeatedly reacts to it, changes behavior, gives you some form of the one-finger salute or tries to leave.

Be respectful. After all, we’re nature photographers, not paparazzi.

How Far Can You Take It?

Q I’m about to start a photo project where higher ISOs will be needed. I’m photographing early in the morning and later in the evening. I hope to publish the results and maybe even enter the images into contests, so I need good quality. How far can I take the ISO and still get excellent image quality, and what camera might I need to accomplish the highest ISOs possible?
G. Brent
Via email

A Everyone has his or her own standard of quality when it comes to images. In this case, we’re talking technical quality, and your intended use of the images for publication and competition narrows it down a bit. Of course, editors and photo judges also have different ideas about what constitutes “good quality.”

Each new generation of cameras offers expanded ISO capabilities—that is, improved sensitivity of the image sensor. With increased sensitivity (higher ISOs), faster shutter speeds are possible, improving capture in low-light situations, but increasing the grain, or noise. While our ability to use higher and higher ISOs and still maintain acceptable noise levels in our images improves in each generation of cameras, some cameras are particularly designed to best accomplish this. I work primarily with Canon DSLR cameras and will use Canon’s latest cameras for my analogies.

If you’re looking for a camera mainly designed for studio and landscape work (unmoving subjects), the ISO isn’t that critical. You can expect incredible image quality, but you’ll use lower ISOs. These cameras aren’t designed for going after the very fastest shutter speeds for sports and other action. I use a Canon EOS 5DS R, and with 50 megapixels, I can easily go up to ISO 800 and make huge prints showing no noise. But because I do make large blowups, I’m conservative in what ISOs I use. Now I’m testing the new EOS-1D X Mark II, at 20.2 megapixels, which is designed for speed in sports and wildlife imaging, and the camera is incredible at ISO 1600, and still very good at ISO 6400. Keep in mind that we’re talking about the criteria for publication and competition you mentioned. In the Nikon area, these criteria would be covered by the just-introduced D5. Other manufacturers also have excellent cameras with a high ISO capability that allows for “good quality.”

All the cameras available to us have ISO capabilities far greater than what I actually use, and in many cases, an ISO of over 100,000 might solve a problem and yield an excellent image that otherwise couldn’t be captured, but not within the quality standards you seek. Some noise mitigation can be accomplished in post-capture software; I use Canon’s DPP software and also “Luminance and Color” noise elimination in Adobe’s Raw Converter found within Photoshop. There’s always a trade-off; if you use software to minimize noise, expect to lose some sharpness.

So the answer to your dilemma is to purchase a camera designed for the work you’re trying to accomplish (still subjects, or subjects in motion), perfect your technique, and become proficient with the software to help you get just a bit more quality out of those images with a little noise. In either case, even slightly expanded ISOs will improve your low-light options.

Sharing a Bunch of Images

Q I’ve scanned about 400 portraits of family ancestors to TIFF, because I plan to clean up the files in Photoshop. The files and the folders have descriptive file names I wish to keep and economically send to 15 cousins and brothers. Is there a way to put them into a program and/or send them by email?
Via email

A My suggestion is to do your cleanup in Photoshop and save the work in TIFF somewhere on your computer system (be sure to back up the files) and then convert the files to JPEGs in either Photoshop or Lightroom. Keep the compression at a lower level (JPEG image quality 8 or higher) so the people receiving the files can print them with good results. You can organize the files in folders in any way that you wish.

When I send out a number of large files, I use Dropbox ( The first 2 GB of space is free; you won’t use that much with this project. You upload the folders and enter the email addresses of the folks with whom you want to share the images. Dropbox sends a message to each of the recipients, who then can download the folders to their own computers, even if they don’t have their own Dropbox account. Once all the downloads are completed, you can delete the files off your
Dropbox account and use the space for other projects. It’s all very simple and secure.

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One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.