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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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