“Dear Greg, I’m about to build my own hummingbird photography setup and I’m on a really tight budget. One of the things that I really admire of your hummingbird photography is that you only use a few flashes when compared to other pros and I like your results a lot better! Your creativity with flash placement and settings allows for more freedom and as you say, your hummingbird photos are ever changing and much more realistic than I’ve seen elsewhere. This brings me some hope: talent and creativity are indeed more important than costly 8 flashes setups!
So first of all, thanks for sharing your work and your insight.
Now, speaking about my situation, I’d like to ask you for some advice. I’m looking to build a four flash setup (three on the bird, one on the background). I’d like to buy used 430EX (the older version) which are going for about 200 dollars or less. I am thinking of triggering them using my 580EXII mounted on the hotshoe of my camera. I’m not too sure about this though as I think the 580 always fires a preflash even when it’s set to off and I’m not sure about the impact that this light would have on the set. Maybe the ST-E2 would be a better choice as it only transmits an infrared signal? Then I could use the transmitter to trigger all the flashes, use the 580 I already have on the background and only buy three 430EX along with the ST-E2. But I’m also concerned about the ST-E2 need for a non-rechargeable, difficult to find and quite expensive battery.
I hope you can help me to take the best decision.
Thanks so much in advance!
From Chiapas, Mexico
I use the older versions of the Canon 430 EX Speedlite myself. I bought them new when they were current but if you can find reliable used models, they will work great for you. For Nikon shooters, the Nikon SB-600 is a similarly good option. And I often use a 550 EX on the background. Though the recycling times between the larger and smaller flash should differ slightly, I’ve never run into problems.
For triggering the setup, I recommend the Canon ST-E2 transmitter over the Canon 580 EX (or 550 EX). (Note: I would give the same advice to Nikon shooters. Get the SU-800 Flash Commander for triggering multi-flash setups. It’s a great little unit, and the interface, by the way, is much better than the Canon transmitter’s.) The transmitter is much more reliable and will not give you an extra catchlight in the bird’s eye. Even if you turn the flash away as much as possible, I’ve found this to be a problem when using a master flash rather than a transmitter to trigger the other flashes. One note on the 580 firing a pre-flash, this would only apply to the best of my knowledge if you were working in TTL flash mode (or E-TTL) because this pre-flash is used to measure the proper flash output for the actual exposure. For the hummingbird setups, however, you will be working with the flashes in manual mode. So, no pre-flash.
I totally agree with you that the downside of the Canon transmitter is the strange batteries they use. They are expensive anywhere and it sounds like they’re just as hard to find in Mexico as they are in Costa Rica. By the way, the Nikon commander uses different but similarly non-standard batteries. Perhaps there is an engineering reason I don’t understand, but I really wish they would stick with AAs so that we could use rechargeable batteries for the transmitter. But this aside, my recommendation to you, Francesca, is still to go with the transmitter over the master flash to trigger your hummingbird setups.
There is a Chinese version of the Canon transmitter that I just read about yesterday. It’s basically a knockoff of the Canon version but it has three nice advantages. First, supposedly the price is about half that of the Canon. Second, it uses AA batteries! And third, you can actually swivel the transmitter while mounted in the hotshoe so that it will fire flashes behind the camera (not a big deal for hummingbird photography but for macro work this would be nice). The big question is whether or not it will really work reliably or last for a long time. I’ve heard lots of stories about cheaper third-party flashes and transmitters dying or performing inconsistently, and I’ve had this happen myself with some flashes by Sigma for Canon cameras. So, my rule with flashes and accessories of this type (where you are triggering things through the cameramaker’s own propietary infrared wireless system, not via radio frequency) is to stick with your camera brand. Nonetheless, the Chinese transmitter sure looks cool! You can check it out here: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2010/08/yongnuo-john-snow-st-e2-punches-above.html
By the way, you might also be tempted to think about other flash units that could be fired as simple optical slaves but I do not recommend this for two reasons. First, I find these to be inconsistent as they may not all fire, particularly on a sunny day where the differential between flash and bright sunlight might be too low. And second, even if the aforementioned is not a problem, flashes triggered via optical slave will go off whenever another photographer nearby uses a flash, which can create big problems.
I hope this helps, Francesca. Best of luck with your setup and, if you have further questions, please be sure to follow up by using the comments below.
Multi-flash hummingbird photography takes a ton of gear. Here are some of my favorite items to get you started for both Canon and Nikon.
|Canon 300 mm f2.8 lens||Canon 70-200 mm f4 lens||Canon 70-300 mm f4-5.6 lens|
|Razor sharp, I use this lens often with a 25 mm extension tube for closer focusing. The fixed focal length is a drawback though; you’ll have to move around as you change props.||A 70-200 mm lens is great for multi-flash hummingbird setup work. You’ll want a 1.4x TC, though, if you use this on a full-frame body.||I think this new lens will be the perfect hummingbird lens. Light, sharp, and with reach for any kind of DSLR body, the zoom will offer great flexibility in composing on the fly.|
|Flash Transmitter||Canon 430 EX Speedlite||Canon 580 EX Speedlite|
|The ST-E2 is your choice. There are a number of cheap radio slaves out there but in my experience they aren’t that reliable.||Great recycle time, reliable slave action, and a lower price point make this the flash of choice for building a Canon hummingbird setup.||I wouldn’t spend the money on these to make a flash setup but if you have one, it can be incorporated into the mix with some 430s.|
|Nikon 300 f2.8||Nikon 70-200 f2.8||Nikon 200-400 mm f4|
|Razor sharp, you can use this lens often with a 25 mm extension tube for closer focusing. The fixed focal length is a drawback though; you’ll have to move around as you change props.||A 70-200 mm lens is great for multi-flash hummingbird setup work. You’ll want a 1.4x TC, though, if you use this on a full-frame body.||If you already have this great wildlife lens, definitely put it to use for your multi-flash hummingbird photography.|
|Nikon SU-800 Transmitter||Nikon SB700 Flash||Nikon SB900 Flash|
|The SU-800 is your choice. There are a number of cheap radio slaves out there but in my experience they aren’t that reliable.||Great recycle time, reliable slave action, and a lower price point make this the flash of choice for building a Nikon hummingbird setup. SB600s work great too.||I wouldn’t spend the money on these to make a flash setup but if you have one, it can be incorporated into the mix with some 600s and/or 700s.|
|Impact Light Stands||Manfrotto Articulating Arm||Super Clamp|
|These light stands are light and cheap, perfect for setting up your flashes.||The Manfrotto articulating arms are great to hold props such as flowers. The Wimberley Plamp is not strong enough for this purpose.||The super clamp goes on one end of the Manfrotto arm to clamp the arm onto a light stand, tripod, or tree branch.|
|Mini Clamp||Giottos Mini-Ballhead||Flash Diffusers|
|The mini clamp goes on the other end of the arm. This is what you’ll use to hold your flowers.||This goes on top of your light stand. Put your flash on the plastic shoe that came with it and then screw the shoe into the ballhead — a perfect fit.||I occassionaly will use flash diffusers for hummingbird work. This set from B&H is nice and quite cheap. Note that diffusers will cut anywhere from 1 to stops of light from your flash.|