Photography > Techniques
> Flash > Better Beamer
Using a Flash Beamer such as the Better Beamer or
Kirk Flash X-Tender
If you like to take photographs of wildlife, and
especially birds, than you will find yourself constantly dealing with
difficult lighting conditions that force you to make equally difficult
decisions about lighting. Do you expose for the highlights or for the
shadows? How do you deal with the challenges of birds perched high atop
trees leaving you with impossible backlighting? Birds in flight also
cause terrible backlighting conditions.
As happy as I was with this immature bald eagle, the
dark underside left me with little detail to work with. Try as I may,
Photoshop can't create detail that doesn't exist. The underside of the
eagle was far too underexposed to repair.
When photographing wildlife, photographers learn to compromise.
They may bracket their exposures, hoping that they'll get an image or two that
are acceptably exposed but they are torn by the hope that they'll
discover a better way to deal with these challenges. The good news - there is
a better way!
Why not use your flash to fill in the deep shadows?
Suddenly your birds in flight have well illuminated undersides. Birds
perched high in trees are clear and well lit.
Unfortunately, most commercial flashes don't have
sufficient range for working with long telephoto lenses. Their flash
output won't reach the distances necessary for wildlife
and birding images. As an example, the Canon 580EX II has a guide number
of 58 meters (190.3 ft) when zoomed out to 105 mm (ISO 100). This means that for an aperture of f-8, the maximum
flash distance is 7.25 meters or 24 feet (58÷8) . Even with a fast f-4
the maximum distance would be 14.5 meters or 48 feet.
The guide number of a flash is a measure of the
effective distance of the flash at a particular f-stop. The maximum effective range
is calculated by dividing the guide number by
the desired f-stop. In the above example, the guide number of 58,
divided by the desired f-stop of f-8 leads to a maximum flash range of
How do you extend the reach of your flash? Use a flash
beamer such as the Better Beamer or the Kirk Flash X-Tender. These
Fresnel lenses can add up to two stops of additional
reach for your flash. This may allow you to use your flash up to as much
as 30.5 m or 100 ft.
Nothing could be simpler. Flash beamers are simply two plastic wings with a
Fresnel lens at the front.
This acts to concentrate the beam of the flash and allow it to extend farther into the distance.
Here is a real life example. I was photographing a great
horned owl's nest. Without a flash, the young
great-horned owl was backlit resulting in deep shadows around the eyes and tail. While not
a bad image, it would require a fair bit of time in Photoshop to repair.
The following image was taken by using my Kirk Flash X-tender. I
set the flash exposure compensation to -1-2/3 so that the flash would
not over power the image. In this image the eyes are now clearly visible
and the details in the tail are much brighter. At the same time, you still get the feel
of the rim lighting on the head. In my opinion there is no
comparison between the two. These are unretouched photos with the
exception of a little output sharpening and red eye reduction. No exposure compensation or
other tools have been used.
Dealing with Red Eye
One of the challenges of using the Better Beamer or Kirk
Flash X-Tender is the tendency to cause red eye. I was very surprised
when I first encountered this on birds photographed from more than 60
The solution to red eye is generally simple - increase
the distance between the flash and the lens axis. You can do this by
moving the flash off camera. In my case, I use the Wimberley Sidekick
with my long lens. They offer an off camera flash accessory that helps
to solve this.
This bracket helps to raise the camera slightly above
the lens plane and will help reduce red eye. If the problems persists,
you can buy an additional extension from Wimberley to move the flash
even further from the lens axis.
The best way to deal with red eye is to prevent it.
Moving the camera off of your flash helps - you just need to make sure
your flash is still aligned with your lens axis.
Be Careful of Bright Sunshine
Ouch. I had just received my shiny new Canon 580EX II
and very nearly toasted it. The Fresnel lens on the front of flash
beamers can also act as a magnifying glass. After a few minutes
photographing Clark's nutcrackers on a bright day I looked at my flash
and realized that I had almost burned a hole right through the plastic
case (see photo below).
You can clearly see grooves carved into the surface by
the concentrated sunlight as well as one shallow hole and one much
deeper hole. Luckily neither of the holes penetrated the plastic case
but now my shiny new flash looks like my old battle scarred Vivitars.
Remember, the lens can also cause eye damage so be very
careful where you point it. This has been an important lesson for me.