Art on the Wing: Bradford Fuller's Fly-In Studio

I am probably not the only one who has noticed Bradford Fuller's beautifully lit bird photos in the Strobist pool. His artful mix of flash and ambient against a 2-D background gives the photos a lyrical feel. And the red stamps added in post at the bottom make them seem as if they came from faraway lands.

If you pull back the curtains, and you'll see that Bradford is doing all of this with a Nikon D200, a single SB-800 and a piece of mat board.

That, and a lot of imagination...

The photos look as if they are paintings from another time and place -- a look Bradford achieves via his artful mix of flash and a shutter speed designed to either freeze his subject or to allow its movement to paint through the flash exposure. But his "exotic location" is in Maine in the northeastern US, right next to his house.

Using flash for bird photography is easier than you might think. The key to getting photos like this is to realize that if you can control the light and the backdrop, you can control the overall look of the final photo. Add to this the beauty of a natural subject -- and the unpredictability of the flash/blur combo -- and wonderful things can happen.

Bradford's "studio" is much more spartan than the final photos would suggest. He uses a feeder, of course. So he knows where the birds are going to be. That makes everything else an exercise in geometry.

As for the backdrop, it is simply a piece of mat board, made all the more interesting by the many rains it has endured. He places it on an easel, knowing the birds will pass in front of it on their approach to the feeder. This controls his background, and give the photos the look of a 2-d painting rather than a photo of a 3-D scene.

The light is from an SB-800, placed outside of the frame to one side. From the photo at left, he appears to be using a Cactus PT-04 remote trigger, or some other equivalent "eBay" remote.

The mixture of flash and ambient is of course controlled by how he balances the two sources -- usually choosing to lead with flash and fill with ambient. At close range (and with bare flash) his SB-800 easily puts out enough power. He then works on them in varying degrees in post processing.

Bradford says that his work, like many other things, is about 90% "showing up," as per the popular Woody Allen saying. And for him, showing up means shooting through a hole in the screen of his window.

After all, why suffer for your art if it is not required?

His photos have intrigued me to the point that I will trying some of my own this winter. I am already thinking of what the photos would look like with the birds cross-lit on the 45's from top and bottom.

The possibilities for a fly-in studio like this are endless. Given that you are only going to be shooting an a small area (defined by the location of the background) you could choose to develop as complex a lighting scheme as you wanted.

But the simplicity and beauty of Bradford's bird shots will keep me coming back to his portfolios again and again.

You can see more of his work in his Flickr set, and on his daily blog. If you try this on your own, and get a great shot, please share it with us in the Strobist Flickr pool.


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Anonymous Kevin J. Smith said...

Great idea! It makes me wanna splurge on some radio poppers. This seems like a great application for them. It also seems as if they would allow for even more background/ambient control.

August 18, 2008 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those are some nice images. Very oriental art looking.

August 18, 2008 4:03 PM  
Anonymous photorandi said...

Two weeks ago I keep trying to get a good shot of the male ruby throat hummers at our feeders. Each day I tinkered with the light and after 3 days of efforts I finally quit with this one. I wasn't trying to do anything new in bird photography, just make a nice photo for the wall.

August 18, 2008 4:27 PM  
Anonymous photorandi said...

Not nearly as artful but still good enough for the wall.

August 18, 2008 4:30 PM  
Blogger a.i. editor said...

emm.. inspiring..seems like the photographer likes the power of natural flight a whole lot.

August 18, 2008 6:12 PM  
Anonymous Jammy said...

Very interesting, thank you for sharing those David.

You know it's hard to believe he's not using some sort of IR trigger for the camera. It's got to be a bear trying to track a landing bird if he's not.

Perhaps he's shooting very wide an cropping?

August 18, 2008 6:29 PM  
Blogger Beau said...

Thank you for pulling such an original artist out of the pool for us to admire. Its a nice change of pace from the more commercial oriented mind-set that we often seem to be in.

August 18, 2008 7:12 PM  
Anonymous Robert said...

Very creative and beautiful photos. Sometimes just a simple setup is all you need. Great stuff.


August 18, 2008 7:24 PM  
Blogger Rogerio said...

Dave, posts like this are just what makes strobist great! Thank you and thank you Mr. Fuller!

August 18, 2008 9:01 PM  
Blogger carlos said...

Jammy - You don't have to track them if you know where they're going to land. Just set up in the landing pattern and wait. Some will be too high and others too low, but some will come in just right.

August 19, 2008 1:52 AM  
Blogger kyle said...

I did something similar while shooting hummingbirds out my back door. 2 285hv's were used, one on stand from front upper right of feeder, one from behind lower left. Fired using pt-04's.

August 19, 2008 3:20 AM  
Anonymous Greg Lumley said...

WOW, that's effective! I've never vaguely entertained the idea of doing bird photos but these are really inspiring... and simple too :)


August 19, 2008 3:36 AM  
Anonymous wedding photographer France said...

Excellent! This is really bringing studio light to outdoors photography!

It makes me want to try this immediately

August 19, 2008 6:45 AM  
Anonymous chad Banning said...


David, I am with the AZ Strobists group and we have developed a group logo which is now up and want to make some shirts and hats for the group. I am wondering if we would have permission to use your tagline "Less Equipment, More Brain"?

Could you email me at

This is our logo and shirt design.

August 19, 2008 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice indeed, i do love the off tangent stuff that isn't all portraits of people standing about which can sometimes get dull. I'm not convinced on his use of photoshop it's very heavy handed and dodgy in alot of ways but the feel the smaller versions of the images creates is very strong. perhaphs david hobby could improve on this quality aspect?

August 19, 2008 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Fascinating. I love the ingenuity, and the truly interesting results.

August 19, 2008 3:05 PM  
Blogger Dima said...

Great shots. I like a simplicity in technique, which need a lot of patience to catch these situations. But I was very disappointed by bad quality of shopping backgrounds. Seems that Bradford have a little bit darker monitor, that cause to miss some brighter areas in dark background.

August 19, 2008 5:43 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Somewhat off topic here, but I really liked the pics and wanted to browse through all the pics on the photostream.

The Strobist community might find the firefox plug-in below; which will load all the pics into something like a movie wall and allow you to scroll quickly through all the pics in a photostream. I've found it useful for uncovering gems at the start of someones stream that otherwise I wouldn't have time to page all the way through to.

It's a wee bit limited, or rather could be improved, if it allowed you to see the comments when you zoom into a pic, but otherwise a useful tool for browsing flickr.


August 19, 2008 5:47 PM  
Blogger lse322 said...

Beautiful action-art photos. Thanks for another post that brightened a stormy afternoon!!

August 19, 2008 6:29 PM  
Blogger Vohwinkel Photography said...

This is a great idea - need to put the remote triggers to good use :)

August 19, 2008 7:19 PM  
Blogger Vohwinkel Photography said...

this is a great idea - will have to try that out.

August 19, 2008 7:21 PM  
Anonymous Tim O said...

This isn't related - but I just got the DVD's -- I can't stop watching them.. I'm going to have to call in SICK to work!!!!

Thank you David, you are great!

August 19, 2008 9:10 PM  
Anonymous ar_chee said...

I wonder if shutter speed at 1/200 could catch the action?

Does he used high x speed?

August 19, 2008 9:52 PM  
Anonymous Nathanael Gassett said...

Great post, and lovely images! Very unique. Kind of remind me of postage stamps... but if stamps were beautiful. I will most certainly be playing around with this when the weather gets a little cooler.

August 19, 2008 11:17 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Adams said...

May I suggest you add Stern's photo gallery of Olympic images to your quick links for photo coverage.

Great photo editing on Stern's part to put together a collection of images that are interesting and unique.

August 20, 2008 1:01 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Have you seen this article about Olympic photography on Newsweek? Some great photos and pocket wizardry:

August 20, 2008 10:01 AM  
Blogger Joel Heffner said...

Yikes! Now I've got to add birds to my list of things to try out! Thanks!

August 20, 2008 10:41 AM  
Anonymous tarjei99 said...

People who do bird photography should have a look at the bulletins at

Arthur Morris promotes himself vigorously in the bulletins (and on the site in general), but he also explain how the picture was taken and important here; how it was lit. And how it was post processed.

I've found the bulletins inspirational so far.

You should also consider buying/lending his bird photography books. One is printed and is based on film being used, the other is digital in more than one way. Both are sold at his site.

I bought the paper version and I am contemplating buying the digital version.

August 20, 2008 3:46 PM  
Anonymous Kurt said...

OK, these are great works of art but are they photographs? These are so highly processed that I don't feel they are photographs. I really don't see where the picture ends and photoshop begins. I would be nice to see some of the orginal shots - not so highly processed. I don't think they will be that impressive. Just as an aside, I showed these to my wife and she said - "nice paintings." I think that sums it up.

August 21, 2008 12:04 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Acomb said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I am an avid bird watcher and love photography. I've been very fortunate to have some rare birds frequent my home here in the Pacific Northwest. I've always wanted to try a better and fairly inexpensive way to capture the beauty of these birds that visit my feeders. I'm going to try this out over the coming winter. Thanks again.

August 21, 2008 1:23 PM  
Blogger Pat Morrissey said...

What's really great is going through Bradford's blog and seeing how much effort he's put into developing an original and unique style to get the images that he's obviously had in mind.
Results like this remind me of the old adage: "1% inspiration - 99% perspiration".
Great work Bradford!

August 21, 2008 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Bradford Fuller said...

Thanks for all the comments and to David for expounding the Strobist viewpoint.

August 24, 2008 11:12 AM  
Blogger Christopher Perez said...

Incredible! Outstanding execution.

Simple is better.

August 25, 2008 5:51 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Mumma said...

I have happened across Mr. Fullers work in the past. Very creative.

In my quest to learn lighting and do something different, I have tried various techniques. Including Better Beamer on camera. I'm not happy with the outcome so I started my strobist kit this winter to attempt this in spring. before finding this thread. Your site has been very helpful.

My bird gallery:

January 11, 2009 5:01 PM  

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