I read with some interest a blog post by Tom Mason about the use of a flash while shooting wildlife, and was inspired to respond with my thoughts.
Tom’s article is well balanced, and he includes facts with opinion, and for this I have no issue with the article or the opinion.
But I do have my own point of view.
One of my earliest memories as a child of being photographed by someone who was using a flash was the strange experience of momentary visual disruption caused by the sudden bright light, and then having ‘blue squares’ in my vision for the immediate moments afterwards.
I didn’t find it at all pleasant. Once someone explained to me what this experience was (I would have been only 5 or 6 at the time), and it was nothing to panic about, I grew to accept it, although I was never overly keen on having someone firing a flash in order to take my picture, and if I am honest, I’m still not too keen now.
Now the thing for me is, with the situation above, I was able to have someone explain to me what this unpleasant sensation was; the fact my vision was hindered for a while was off-putting, but it wouldn’t last and had happened because of the sudden bright light emitted by a device that was safe (when used correctly) in order for someone to take a photograph of me.
Once explained it made sense, and allowed me to deal with the event when it happened again.
But here’s my point; we have no way of telling an animal when we use a flash in its presence what the purpose of it is, and that any visual disruption will not be permanent. What must it be like for a creature to have something that to it is unnatural occur right in front of it and not understand why? Some people have visual impairments, and some sudden bursts of bright light can be uncomfortable for them. When photographing animals, how can we be certain if our chosen subject matter finds the experience of a sudden burst of bright light extremely uncomfortable, and even frightening, should it be susceptible to extreme light variations?
Of course with some animals this might be quite obvious; some small animals might simply run away, other larger creatures may become angered and choose to attack the photographer.
Tom makes a valid point in his post: “In wildlife photography the single most important rule is always to maintain the highest levels of ethical practice in order to reduce the impact on a species or creature.” This is a sentiment echoed by Gerry van der Walt of Wild Eye fame for we as photographers should not interfere with the scene which we are capturing to the degree of making the subject matter uncomfortable. When does ‘wildlife photography’ become ‘studio photography’? Is there a fine line being crossed?
So, have I ever used a flash when photographing animals?
Yes I have, but let me explain.
We keep domestic rats as pets (that’s worthy of a blog post all of its own, as they are fascinating and friendly creatures), and I always like to get some decent ‘portrait’ quality shots of them.
Over the years, I’ve photographed every rat we have ever owned, and some of the prints are on display around our house. I do use a flash when photographing them, but I bounce the light off of the ceiling, and the remote flash unit is often to the side of the chosen subject matter, so the flash itself is not in line of sight to the rat being photographed.
To see the result, look at the example on this page.
I’ll admit, I’ve never got it right all the time, and on occasion in the past it’s become obvious when one of the rats has become unnerved by the flash going off, so over time I’ve made it more discrete to the animal, and as such I have managed to get some good shots.
But this is in a controlled environment, in our home. Out in the wild we do not have that control; we’re not dealing with domesticated animals you can subdue with a tasty treat while you line up the shot and a remote flash unit.
It’s a debate that will divide many, and despite the valid points Tom makes, I can’t see myself including a flash in my kit when I head out to take shots of local wildlife. As such I may be limiting the range of shots I can get, but for me its about empathy with the animals who are the subject matter, and I’d feel uncomfortable making them feel uncomfortable by using a flash.
Please note these are my personal views and opinions, and I completely respect Tom’s work and views. Thanks for reading.