From aboard the National Geographic Explorer in French Comoros, Indian Ocean
It may seem counterintuitive to bring a flash into a tropical jungle streaming with hot beams of sunlight, but that’s just what I did when our expedition ship visited M’Bouzi Island, a small island near Mayotte in the French Comoros that serves as a refuge for lemurs.
The trees were loaded with these cute little creatures, found only on Madagascar and the Comoros, but they were usually backlit, or sitting in splotchy light or shade. Digital, and film, hates splotchy light—there’s just too much dynamic range for the chip to record.
Plus, when you’ve got a subject with big dreamy eyes, like these guys, you want to make the most of them and make sure those big eyes have a little catchlight. For the formula that worked the best for me in this situation, hit the jump.
My gear consisted of a D90 with my favorite lightweight tele, the 70-300mm VR Nikkor, and a shoe mounted SB800. I had my ISO at 400, but upped it to 800 and then 1200 as the afternoon progressed and light levels dropped.
I wanted the flash to fill in the shadows and add a little sparkle, but not be obvious. Since the lemurs where jumping around a bit, and never stayed put for too long (until later in the afternoon, after they ate their fill of local bananas), I opted for Shutter priority.
I set my shutter speed to the highest sync speed the D90 allows, 1/200th of a second. I usually shoot aperture priority, but in this case, if I got into bright light, I didn’t want the shutter speed to go higher than the highest sync speed.
It’s important that you shut off the FP, or high speed sync feature, on the camera when you do this. Otherwise, the shutter speed will jump over the top synch speed, but the small pulses of flash that the Speedlights put out in this mode just don’t have the “oomph” to carry very far.
Since I was mixing flash and available light, I backed off on both the flash and available light exposures, settling -1 on my camera for the available light exposure and -1 on the SB 800. In the photo world, two “minus ones equal a zero” that is, a decent exposure.
Think about it, you underexpose the flash by one f-stop, the available light by one f-stop, but when added together they equal a zeroed out, or normal, exposure. Most of the time this formula worked well and really brought out the eyes, but didn’t look “flashy”. If I got a lemur in deep deep shade, I’d drop the shutter speed accordingly. But that -1, -1 ratio worked consistently.
Mixing a little flash with available light is great anytime you have to shoot critters in trees or on plants or anyplace where the light can be spotty. Experiment to make sure you achieve the right balance and avoid that direct flash look. When it works, it looks great, and thanks to my buddy Phil Flash, I had a very productive afternoon in the jungle.