Advantages of using flash when photographing frogs

Finding a frog is one of the most unforgettable rewards of exploring nature. Being able to immortalize this whimsical encounter is what draw me into the world of macro photography.

As a biologist, I've always had a technical approach to macro photography. For me, it is fundamental to obtain the finest image quality and to preserve the natural history value of every photo. But I'm a wildlife photographer as well, so I regularly try to capture images that are pleasing and artistic.

Cute frog on a leaf
A tiny dose of fill flash was used to create that nice twinkle of light in the eye of this frog.

When used properly, flash can tremendously improve the scientific value of your frog shots by revealing colors, patterns and textures. It can also allow you to create dramatic lighting effects, consequently improving the artistic quality of your close-ups.

Unfortunately, flash can create terribly exposed images when used poorly. Getting pro-quality results from these seemingly complicated devices is not difficult, but it does require you to use quality equipment and to develop excellent shooting habits.

I shoot almost 100% of my frog portraits with the aid of an external flash unit. Why not using natural light? Because some macro subjects, particularly frogs, can benefit greatly from artificial lighting. Sometimes you even have to work with no natural light at all, especially with nocturnal and cave-dwelling species.

A number of benefits from using flash are not necessarily associated with it being off-camera. Now I must warn you, there's no on-camera flash in the professional macro photography world. Amphibians are not the exception. The light on-camera flash produces is so detrimental to your pictures, that the advantages would largely be outrun by the disadvantages.

In contrast to other wildlife, frogs aren't likely to be found under good lighting conditions for macro photography. If active during day, frogs prefer moist and poorly lit habitats, rather than open areas with better luminosity. Since flash produces light whenever you need it, it's easy to get fantastic lighting on less-than ideal situations.

Getting stunning close-up photographs is largely dependant on the amount and quality of the light available to the subject. A challenging situation is a colorful toad in a rainforest. In this circumstance, the ambient light is dim and loaded with undesirable color casts. Using available light to expose for the toad will produce an image that looks dull and unnaturally green in color. But it doesn't have to be like that! The trick to precisely record the rich and vivid colors of the toad is to add light using a flash. Other than making the toad stand out, its colors will be rendered more accurately.

By incorporating a flash, the colors of your subjects will look more vivid and will no longer be influenced by variations in natural light. The result: you can consistently produce stunning pictures that are visually compelling and scientifically valuable.

Since flash produces the amount of light you need to achieve the right exposure, it is possible to use the aperture setting that gives you the most depth of field, which is critical when working with small frogs.

Another powerful advantage is the short flash duration, which can freeze movement to achieve sharp shots even when hand-holding your macro gear.

Nocturnal frog on palm frond
No more than a single off-camera flash was used to photograph this nocturnal frog. The details on the skin are accentuated by the diagonal lighting.

Most frogs are prone to dissecation, so you won't find them under lighting conditions that enable you get a bright catchlight (that lively little glint on the subject's eyes). In these situations, using flash is like bringing your own sun: you will create an attractive sparkle in the eyes of frogs no matter how little natural light is present.

If you're serious about photographing amphibians you're going to need a dedicated flash unit. Modern flash units are called dedicated units when they are made for a particular camera system. Unlike a built-in flash, it is possible to take your dedicated unit off your camera to create directional lighting, which is critical for suggesting depth and revealing details. By using it off-camera, an external flash unit also allows you to more effectively mimic natural light, which greatly improves the quality of amphibian close-ups.

When working in the heat and humidity of the tropics, it all comes down to getting the maximum amount of photos with least amount of gear. A small flash (like the Canon 430EX Speedlite) will work fine for this type of photography as long as it can be used as a "slave" and placed near the subject. When difussed properly, this single light source is all you need to capture stunning close-ups of frogs.

At this point, it's important to bear in mind that much of these fantastic benefits can only be achieved with the proper technique. As I mentioned before, the first and foremost rule is to use the flash off-camera. If you skip this rule, you can be sure that all of the above-mentioned tips are worth for nothing.

Does it using your flash off-camera actually make that a big difference on the lighting? Absolutely, and that's what the next article is all about—how to get the flash of your camera to create frog shots with some dramatic lighting effects.