Good wildlife photos are often about being in the right place at the right time. But right place and time is nothing without knowing the right technique. Or in my case, during a recent shoot in the Maasai Mara in Kenya, Africa, it’s about using the right technique, by accident.
As my safari guide, Twala, and I were ending one of our Safari drives for the day, the sun had gone down well below the horizon and we had begun to make our way home to the Karen Blixen Camp. Of course, on the way back I got distracted with some topi (a large antelope) on the horizon. I had my Nikon 500mm lens in hand, and Twala was willing to stop to let me out of our Land Cruiser so I could try to shoot a silhouette of the topi with the last remaining sliver of blue light set behind them.
I honestly felt a bit rushed knowing I didn’t have much time before the light would be gone for good. Focusing in the low light on a far away subject was challenging. I was crouched in the mud in the tall grass with my lens on a mono pod, so stability was difficult, but I was able to pop off an average set of gratifying topi shapes. Then in my fumbling, one of my fingers managed to accidentally hit the button for the camera’s pop-up flash, and it fired on the next shutter release. The word “oops” quickly came from my mouth, but then I looked at the image and followed up with an “ooh, that’s cool!” The pop-up ended up adding a pleasing bit of light to the grass in the foreground along with the topi’s eyes, creating a more interesting feel for the animals creeping in the night than I was able to achieve with a simple silhouette. The animals felt more alive in the frame.
Admittedly, I had played with this technique before, but it was always with a hot shoe mounted flash. I had never tried it with the camera’s pop-up, but was happy to discover it worked quite well. I also quickly discovered that I could limit the amount of light hitting the foreground by placing my finger over the bottom of the flash. Thus, I was able to take some frames with a bit of green foreground, and some without. Anyway… Oops!
Keep an eye out for the section Showcase in the next issue of Outdoor Photographer Magazine where I use this technique more purposefully on an animal hunting in the dark.