In the Jungle with Phil Flash


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.

Photo © Bob Krist

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.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Nice captures Bob – The balance between available and flash fit very nicely. Hope you are having a great time, just stay clear of those crazy pirates!!!

  2. bob, did those lemurs freak at the flash, or take it in stride? they look mighty calm in these shots.

    1. Don: Nope, flash didn’t bother the creatures. Maybe it was the Valium-laced bananas we brought with us! (PS. That’s a joke).

  3. Bob: If you dial in -1 stop exposure compensation on the camera would not that also affect the strobe exposure as well since it is attached to the camera in this case. I had been under the impression that the exposure compensation would be global to include the flash as well. I use this technique all the time with a D300 and usually have to increase my flash compensation to equal it out. Not that it is mathematical in any way or that you want an equal balance. Just a little puzzled. But this is normal for me.

    1. Bob: When you put it that way, it makes sense, so maybe I wasn’t equally out the flash, but dialing it down even further. It looked right in the jungle, so I went with it, but now that you mention it, in other situations, when I pull back on the available light exposure, I do have to do away with the – flash compensation or even plus it.
      Man, it’s a good thing we’re shooting digital! In the film days, I’d hate to find out my formula was wrong after flying 8, 000 miles home…

  4. Bob-
    Were you using TTL or TTL-BL with your SB-800?
    Depending on the flash mode, you could get different results from the minus compensation.


    1. Jason: Good point, and to tell you the truth, I think it was TTL BL but I couldn’t swear to it.

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