I have a lot of friends who are nature and bird photographers. They have expensive lenses, tripods, heads and the list goes on. When I first started getting into photography, I too was photographing birds. They are everywhere and don’t require a model release. Here in Florida, we have quite an array of species from woodpeckers to Roseate Spoonbills. I call egrets the “Florida Chicken” as I see them by the road and in rural areas. After shooting birds for about a year, I pretty much had my fill. Until, I met some new folks who are what I would call professional bird photographers. The photographs that they come back with after a morning shoot are truly spectacular.
Since I’m a flash type of person, I was wondering how it might be possible to photograph birds with flash. Some say this is a no – no and others say go for it. I’ll leave that debate to the camera clubs. I was at a popular rookery in Venice, Florida awhile back and I saw a photographer with a flash on his camera. This intrigued me, as I know that external flashes are good for about 30ish feet depending on the settings that you are using. However, attached to his flash was a strange looking device. It had two arms that came out with a plastic piece in front of some sort. I asked a few questions and I got fewer answers. I’m not sure why some photographers are afraid to share information. Have any of these folks heard of the INTERNET? Anyway, I did some research and I found the device, it’s called a Better Beamer.
As I mentioned above, depending on the settings on your external flash, they can go some distance before petering out, but they are no match for a strobe with a long throw light modifier. After some reading, some users were saying that they were getting as much as a 100 foot light extension from this device! Now this was getting interesting. I checked out the product on B&H site. They make the Better Beamer for different kind of flashes. If you are Nikon, Canon, or another brand, chances are you will find a match to your flash.
This is what I would call a “low risk item”. As if it didn’t work out, my heart and my checkbook wouldn’t feel the pain of disappointment. As the time of this writing, I paid $39.95. They also got me for the Lens Coat holder to transport it. So at this point I’m about $80.00 into this. I figure what the hell, if I don’t like it, I’m sure some of my “birding” friends might like it. Of course like any photographer, I wanted it yesterday so I could play with it. I restrained on the overnight shipping, but when for the two day.
It was packaged in a nice plastic bag. I was glad that I got the Lens Coat holder for it though. As I was looking over all the parts, there was orange WARNING sticker all over this thing. I thought what did I just buy? Is this going to launch a missile? The warning consisted of causing BLINDNESS at close distance. Really? Ya, think? After closer examination, the plastic piece that had seen earlier is actually a lens. It’s the same type that you might buy in a bookstore to help make the type on a page bigger. This lens is going to throw the light further out there for you. The directions also mention that this device is to be used with lenses 300mm and longer. OK, easy enough, I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to photograph birds with a 24mm lens! I put everything in the Lens Coat bag and put it aside.
A couple of weeks later (hey, I got busy) I was asked if I would make some pulled pork. Making pulled pork is an all day process. So I got up early, even before Mr. Sun showed his face to get the smoker around and get the fire and wood going. As dawn was just breaking the horizon, I was hearing all kinds of birds in the area singing their morning songs. I had heard how peaceful it is in the morning, but I’m usually going to bed as the sun is coming up. Once I got the smoker and meat situated, I thought why not and try to photograph some of these birds with the Better Beamer. I went back inside the house and fitted my Nikon D300 with a 80mm-400mm lens and a SB800 flash. The Better Beamer comes with a strip of Velcro to attach it to your flash. They also supply a small piece that you can permanently attach to your flash to help it from falling off. I’m in the camp of no sticky stuff on my equipment. So I went with just the strap as seen in the above photo.
Since this is a variable aperture lens, I chose an f stop of 5.6. This is the minimum that this lens will go to at the 400mm end. The directions on the Better Beamer suggest that for the best results, zoom your flash head out to 50mm. I made that adjustment as I was off to the backyard. Just to get an idea if this thing was really going to do what it was advertised to do or not, I took a couple without flash.
He was about 100 feet away. Now it was time for the main event. I powered up the flash and framed the bird in the viewfinder. I pressed the shutter and I saw something I had never seen before. The bird actually shook his head and almost lost his balance on the wire! So that was my first inkling that it was working. After looking at the LCD on the camera and histogram, I actually needed to power up the flash. I also zoomed the flash head out to 105mm as that is the max setting on this particular flash. He moved further down the wire (smart bird) and I fired off another one. This was much better. I couldn’t believe the distance I was getting with this device. After nuking the poor thing, I adjusted the flash power to mix in with the sun that was now coming over the horizon.
As you can see in the photos, there is quite a difference. Also, I’m HAND HOLDING this 400mm lens! Using flash allowed me to get a faster shutter speed. So far I’m impressed. Woody and I got to know one another and he let me take his portrait as he moved closer to me.
So there it is. It works and it’s light and cheap. Here is another thought, what if you had family that was in high school sports or a play? Know where I’m going with this? With this device you could actually throw light into the middle of the field, gym or stage and get a properly lit photograph. Even if you have a slower lens that goes to f/5.6 like my 400mm lens, this will allow you to hand hold the camera and over come the poor lighting conditions that are in these venues. With that said, I wouldn’t use this close up on a person or animal as I’m sure you could BLIND THEM. Common sense here folks.
If you try this, leave a comment below. I would be interested in hearing about your adventure.
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean