Telephoto flash – what are you using?

A lot of interesting mammals are nocturnal, or are best seen under difficult lighting conditions.

One approach is to rely on the spotlight that are used by wildlife guides during night drives.  In Sabah at Deramakot or Tabin this is mostly what I did, and have used this approach in Africa as well.   It can work, but it usually requires very high ISO on the camera.     Also, the guides lights vary quite a bit.  I have found that LEP (laser excited phosphor) flash lights are better in brightness and color temperature than any of the big guide spotlights, but they have a very narrow beam.

My go-to lens for night drives is a 600mm f/4;  one can get a faster lens at shorter focal lengths, but the subject becomes very small in the frame.

Some on-camera flashes (aka speedlight) such as the Canon EL-1 or the Nikon SB5000 will automatically zoom out to 200mm focal length.  I have also tried this, and for relatively short distances, at moderately high ISO it will work.    An animal in the road, or at the side of the road, is often close enough for this approach.   But things farther away, or way up in a tall tree (like in Sabah) usually puts the subject out of range.

Having the flash zoom to an approximate field of view of 200mm is still way too broad for a 600mm but for fairly close animals it will work better than a conventional speedlight (which tends to zoom to 100m).

The “better beamer” and several similar attachments add a fresnel lens to a standard speedlight with some velcro and elastic bands.  The good news is that these are cheap.  That’s also the bad news – they are flimsy and fall apart, or droop enough that the beam misses the subject.  This tends to happen just when you need them – at least for me.

I decided to design my own system, which is picture here.  It is based on a 6 inch diameter carbon fiber tube.  Inside is a Godox AD 200 Pro flash, which is about 2X the power of a typical on-camera speedlight.   It does wireless TTL with a transmitter on my Canon camera – but would work with Sony, Nikon or just about any other recent camera with the appropriate.

Yes, it is huge and bulky, but it is very light – it hardly weighs more than the Godox flash unit.  Later this week I will take it to Zambia and Zimbabwe for a month.

The downside of a flash like this is that you can get incredibly strong eye-shine from the subject.   But the only way to prevent that would be to have the flash pointed by an assistant that was not near the photographer.  That obviously does not work for most night drives.

One other point is that this sort of system can also work as a fill flash for animals in shade.  This is particularly true for mammals with dark fur in the shade – they can be like the proverbial black cat in a coal bin at midnight.  I hope to photograph a black leopard later this year, and this is a consideration.

Some people worry that flash will harm an animal’s eyes.  So I decided to check this out.  In case it is of interest to people on the list,  here is what I found.

First, if that were true, then fashion models or celebrities would retire blind from all of the flashes from red carpet appearances and photoshoots.  They don’t because the flash is actually less light you typically get from sunlight, so it is not harmful to human eyes.   That is also true for mammals – even nocturnal ones – because they are invariably able to be in daylight without harm, even if that isn’t their typical habitat.

This study for example, concludes that white light flash on camera traps in caves is “minimally invasive” for hibernating bats inside caves.    For large mammals, this recent (2021) Norwegian master’s thesis says there is no statistically significant impact of white light flash   The context is behavioral studies for camera traps but it seems quite relevant.  This 2021 paper from Italy has a similar conclusion for urban mammals,136508,0,2.html .

Second, the exposure on the camera is an independent source of information that this isn’t the case.  Let’s say you put a spotlight on an animal and the camera’s internal light meter says you need a 1 sec exposure without flash.  That’s too long to get a good picture; a flash will make that take 1/1000 of a second.   But assuming the flash reaches the same exposure, the total amount of light is the SAME.   The impact of light on a retina, or a camera sensor, is about the total amount of light delivered.

One can always posit that the animal might have a momentary dazzle from the flash, but they will get that from the spotlight also.   Spotlights during night drives generally linger for much longer than just the exposure time.

Net-net, I don’t think that flash is a significant harm on the animals that I go to watch and photograph.



Post author

Nathan Myhrvold


  • Lennartv

    Always interesting for me to see a new perspective on this subject. The setup certainly looks impressive! Those that are less handy than you might consider buying the Magbeam Wildlife Kit. It seems to work according to the same principle. I have that one myself.

    I have used it in a couple of places, but in the end I decided to turn back to working only with the torch and not with flash. As you have pointed out already eyes light up very easily with enhanced flash and if the lighting up extends beyond just the pupils it is very difficult or impossible to nicely fix in Photoshop afterwards. For me it makes all the difference in a picture when the eyes are looking natural or lit up.

    I typically shoot at ISO 12.800 these days, but with the new noise reduction software like DxO labs these days this usually produces a decent picture. You work with a really good lens (although it is heavy) which should allow you to go for even lower ISO. I work with the Canon RF 100-500 which has an aperture of 7.1 at 500mm. The benefit of a smaller lens like mine is that it is possible (although not very easy) to hold the flash with one hand far away from you and taking pictures with the other. That can be a solution when you are alone and don’t have anybody to hold the torch. Also with the newer models it is more an more common to be able to shoot 20 frames (or more) a second which allows to have much more keepers even with low shutterspeed.

    Lately I have been experimenting with attaching a flashlight to my camera with Smallrig gear. It seems to be a really nice solution for me for those situations when I need a record shot quickly. I think I will write a short report on this setup soon.

    For reference I have a couple of pictures. This one was shot with my latest setup with a Fenix HT18 attached right above the lens.

    This was shot at about 40m away with ISO 12.800 in torch light just to show that you can get pretty good quality even with small subjects.

    This was also shot with ISO 12.800 but more up close which can bring really good results

  • JanEbr

    Better Beamer is so flimsy that is creates bad reputation for an entire field of products. I am using MagBeam and I quite like it – it’s lightweight, packs to a very small package and it works quite well. The main problem in using horseshoe-mounted flashes with focusing optics actually isn’t the focusing optics nowadays, but the horseshoe mount and the mechanics of the flash itself. I had a second-hand Canon 580 and what gave up was the mechanics of the mount . Now I have a Godox 685 – it holds better in the mount, but the mechanism that allows the top part to rotate around horizontal axis is not great and it sometimes points a bit off. This is probably overlooked by almost everyone as without the extra optics, it doesn’t matter.

  • Alan D

    I second the use of a MagBeam. It’s worked great for me on two trips to Sabah and numerous other areas. Is it perfect? No. But, it’s stable and as reliable a solution as I have found coupled with my Nikkor 200-500mm lens.

  • Nathan Myhrvold

    I have a MagBeam, but I find that it droops – the body is flexible and when extended the lens flops a bit. It’s a big improvement over the Better Beamer, but the failure of getting it to work is what motivated my more extreme solution. Which might turn out to be great, or might have drawbacks of its own.

  • charleswhood

    Charles Hood and Jose Gabriel Martinez Fonesca have done a lot of night shots for book projects. For mice and herps and bugs — things relatively close and done with a macro lens — you really do get better results to use a wireless transmitter and an off-camera flash. For on-camera flashes, we also are fans of after-market diffusers. I use both Godox and Nikon speedlights, with a bit of fill light from a handheld spotlight. That plus medium-high ISO usually gets a nice, non-redeye, non-over-lit image. You can pull out a lot of detail afterwards with Lightroom. As for the harm from flash, another justification that I use to quiet my own guilt is to think about lightning. Surely animals are evolved to “withstand” that kind of light? A lightning flash seems brighter than anything my own camera can produce. / ch

  • Nathan Myhrvold

    Off camera flash is almost always better than on-camera! If it is logistically possible then by all means use off-camera flash triggered wirelessly. I also agree that diffusion is very important for macro flash. It’s even more important for insects, reptiles and amphibians than for mammals. Shiny scales or wet shiny bodies can be problematic with an undiffused flash, even more so than mammalian fur. Diffusion also has its place for mammals. However the distance zone for diffused flash is close (as in macro) or at most, modest distances. For telephoto flash I want to throw the light a long way, and usually quickly when an animal is spotted on a night drive. In that case there is no time or ability to set up an off-camera flash. So even if there is a risk of redeye it sometimes is the only game in town.

  • Nathan Myhrvold

    A comment, which has not posted yet, but was sent in email asked how the system has worked for me so far. The answer is very well – I used it in Zambia and Zimbabwe to photograph Pel’s fishing owl, African porcupine and other species. I then made some tweaks. One drawback is that the Godox AD200 pro flash is heavy, and on top of a heavy telephoto lens it was a bit much. However Godox has a remote flash head kit that lets me keep the heavy part off the camera and runs a cable to the much lighter flash tube unit. That helped a lot. I have used that version to photograph the San Joachin kit fox in Carrizo plain national monument. Another issue is achieving focus – I had been relying on somebody else to hold a spotlight to get focus. I have recently integrated a LEP flashlight to the unit, with a circuit (similar to the circuit used on modeling lights in studio flash) that will shut the focusing light off when the flash fires. I will test that version in Kenya in a trip later this month.

  • Nathan Myhrvold

    For clarity, my recent update was inspired by the post by PaintedTraveler which for some reason didn’t wind up being adjacent to my reply.

  • Nathan Myhrvold

    Very good shots lennartv! I have modified my flash a couple times – I now have an integrated flashlight for focus, I also use a cable to connect the body of the Godox AD200 pro to the head, so that takes the weight of the battery pack off the camera.

    It’s true that it is quite a handful – mostly because I went with the large lens to get more concentration (and thus maximum range). but the big tube is mostly empty, and the fresnel lens weighs almost nothing. The big advantange is that it is very robust – when bouncing around on bad roads it doesn’t wiggle loose, or droop the way others (even MagBeam) do.

    MagBeam is a big improvement over Better Beamer (name not withstanding). But I like my homebrew unit even better. I have used it successfully out to 100 meters. I have made several modifications – I now use a cable to connect the flash head to the body of the Godox AD200 pro, which takes the weight of the flash battery pack off of the camera. I also attached a flashlight for focus, with a circuit that shuts the flashlight off when the flash occurs (just like a modeling light on a studio flash would do).


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