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Off Camera Flash Is For The Birds, Literally | Ray Hennessy’s Bird Photography

By Jay Cassario on January 5th 2015


Darkness and Rain

Wedding photographers often look for different ways to keep their creative juices flowing by finding projects outside of the wedding and portrait world. Ray Hennessy, the owner of the wedding photography studio, KGM Expressions, based out of New Jersey, spends his down time as a nature and bird photographer. Around 5 years ago, Ray and his father started a “tradition“ of photographing birds that would come to land on the feeder at his father’s home. Like shooting fish in a barrel, photographing birds at a feeder seems pretty simple. Where’s the fun or creativity in that?


Ray and his father, who is also a nature photographer, started looking for a project to work on together. Photographing birds at the feeder was a great way to do something they both love while getting to sit in the warm house together during the cold winter months. They wanted to come up with a way to create a more dramatic image of an otherwise non-dramatic scene. Ray knew that if he added a natural perch for the birds to land and feed, he had a somewhat controlled environment and could get a little more creative. Thinking of a way to modify the light to make for a more interesting photograph, Ray added a reflector in the foreground. With the position of the feeder and where the two of them would be shooting from, the birds would almost always have the sun behind them, not ideal. By adding in a reflector, they were able to create much more pleasing lighting for the feeder birds.

Rainy Titmouse

After a year or two of shooting with the reflector, Ray and his father decided to try getting a little more creative. Ray decided to start adding in a single flash, having seen something similar from other bird photographers with good results. While he was able to get some different looking photos than he had with just the reflector, it wasn‘t exactly what he was looking for. Another year passed, and thanks to his full-time job as a wedding photographer, his flash lighting skills had increased dramatically. Ray decided to try using 3 flashes to create much more dramatic images and he finally started getting the results we were looking for.

The lighting setup generally consisted of two flashes on stands positioned behind and to the side of the intended bird perch. A third flash was positioned in the front to add in some fill light.


This year, he has really been able to dial in the lighting to create a very dramatic photo of the regular backyard birds that visit his parent‘s feeder. During Ray’s most recent attempt, there was a light rain all day which helped to create even more interesting photos as you will see. Below are a selection of some of his favorites from the past few years of using flash photography with birds. All of the photos were taken mostly in the middle of the day and sometimes in full sunlight. Ray says he finds that the lighting and stark black background really show some of the personality that these birds tend to exhibit and his intent is to show that off a little.

Blue Jay Landing


      • Nikon D3S or D4s
      • Nikon 300mm F/4 lens and the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens, some with a Nikon 1.4x teleconverter.
      • The ISO between 100 – 400 depending on the existing lighting conditions, lower ISO with brighter sunlight to make the background black.
      • The shutter speed is always 1/250
      • Aperture is in the range from f/8.0 – f/11
      • Flashes are all Nikon SB-900 bare flashes attached to Pocketwizard Flex TT5s
      • On the camera is a Pocketwizard MiniTT1 with a an AC3 Zone Controller
      • Some big clear Ziplock bags work well on the flashes in the raining photos.




Ray first dials in the exposure with the flashes off so he can make the photo almost entirely black with just available light. Next, he turns on each individual flash using the AC3 controller and adjusts the power to get it where he wants it. As long as the ambient light is dialed out of the photo, the flashes take care of freezing the action so the relatively slow 1/250 shutter speed doesn’t matter.

The last thing Ray needs is the birds. The birds are fast so you have to be very ready to photograph them in just the right spot and to get the lighting just right. Ray says he has fun every year by changing up the perches to give the photos a different look and during a recent session when it lightly rained all day, he was lucky enough to get a really unique look for his bird photography.

Hello Over There

Creepy Branch

House Finch Portrait

Carolina Wren Pose 1

Graceful Landing



Carolina Wren Pose 1

You can see more of Ray’s work at

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Jay Cassario is a fulltime photographer from South Jersey, owner of the multi-photographer wedding and portrait studio Twisted Oaks, and Brand Ambassador for Leica Camera USA.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Graham Curran

    Great tutorial.

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  2. Kishore Sawh

    this is very cool. Can’t see myself doing it, but it’s a good, novel use of OCF

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  3. Bill Bentley

    Nice! This what I’m progressing to. I put up a quality squirrel proof feeder this winter on a shepherd’s pole and have enough small trees with open “perches” near the feeder to try this. The birds found the feeder the same day I set it out. They love it. It rains so darn much here in the NW though. :-( Need a dry weekend to get all the gear set up.

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    • Ray Hennessy

      Just add some Ziplock bags to keep the flashes safe and the rain can be a great addition.

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    • Bill Bentley

      Still too risky for me Ray. But if it’s a light rain and the sun starts trying to poke through then it might be worth a try without the flash(es) to get the rain effect.

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  4. David Hall

    Beautiful images.

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  5. Brandon Dewey

    I’ve been experimenting with OCF and birds for a few weeks now. It’s nice to see what other people are doing. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Steven Pellegrino

    I love these. I have a couple of bird feeders in my backyard and would love to shoot some photos like this. Great article!

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  7. robert garfinkle


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