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Home > 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 (588) . Even with a fast f-4 lens, 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 7.25 meters.

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 feet away.

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.



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