Experimenting with Light

Welcome to issue 10 of The Flack’s Photography newsletters. I hope that it finds you safe and in good health!

To all our regular subscribers, thanks so much for all your feedback and input to date! It is much appreciated and a great encouragement. To all our new subscribers, thanks for joining and I hope you enjoy the issues that follow. All our previous newsletters can be found on our website – https://www.theflacks.co.za/subscribe/.

This month’s issue will be focusing on the creative use of back lighting to create images that are a little different from the rest, and I hope it inspires you to push your own creative boundaries.


Experimenting with light

Towards the end of last year, I set myself a specific goal; I wanted to capture a backlit image of a Southern Red Bishop that was different to what I had seen before and showed off the bird’s unique character and habitat.

Featured image: A Southern Red Bishop does its typical breeding display; where it flaps its wings and spreads out its tail feathers, at a small reed bed in Balgowan, South Africa. After spending many late afternoons watching this single Southern Red Bishop I worked out its routine, learnt what time of day made for the best backlit conditions and figured out where I needed to stand in order to get the image I had visualised.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/8000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -5 | no Flash

I find that setting specific goals for myself and verbalising what I hope to achieve is a good first step in the creative process. It creates purpose and starts to make an idea reality. Some goals remain unaccomplished as the practical nature of them is sometimes too difficult or the resulting shot isn’t as exciting as I thought it would be, but just having a goal tends to lead to something and gives me the focus I need to get out there and persevere.

In the case of my “Backlit Bishop” project, I found an attractive reed bed where there were a couple of striking, male Southern Red Bishops. They were in their full breeding regalia and were very active in their attempts to court the nearby females. In fact, if birds were humans, these Bishops would have been locked up for harassment and public indecency! :)What made this scene full of potential and different from others I have previously stumbled across, is that the sun set directly behind the reed bed, and thus in the late afternoon the light would light up the reeds and indeed the frolicking Bishops. Added to this, the reed bed was next to a hill and this allowed me to get eye-level with my subjects.

This discovery coincided with my desire to experiment more with backlighting and see if I could create an image that really appealed to me. If I am honest, I am not the biggest fan of backlighting, as I feel it can be overused and often doesn’t work. And for these reasons and more, it is very difficult to master; especially given that you only have an hour or so of light; early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to get the shot you are after.

A backlit, Violet-eared Waxbill perches amongst acacia branches as the sun rises over Dinokeng Nature Reserve, South Africa. I have always wanted to capture an image that exemplifies the feeling one gets when on an early winter’s morning game drive in the South African Bushveld. You wake up before sunrise, equipped with your Stanley flask of coffee, and travel slowly through dense patches of thornveld. The dawn chorus serenades you as the surrounding bush begins to light up with the first rays of the sun. This image transports me to this habitat and its wonderful sounds and smells.

But why Southern Red Bishops? At least for me, some of the best backlit shots, select subjects that when exposed to the right light conditions add an extra dimension to the photograph taken; for example, birds with crests such as African Hoopoes and Grey-crowned Cranes or birds that pose with large, open wing spans like African Darters or Reed Cormorants. In the case of Southern Red Bishops, I noticed that their head’s glow a beautiful orange colour when exposed to back lighting. Not only this, but when displaying to nearby females they spread their tail feathers and flick their wings, which causes both their tail and wing feathers to light up when the sun is directly behind them.

I took this backlit image of a Village Weaver building his nest at Benvie Garden in the Karkloof, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv | Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 3200 | 1/800s | f5.6 | Pattern Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

With the goal, scene and subject set, now all I had to do was persevere and hope for a bag full of luck! After the first few visits I got a good feel for how the bird/s behaved, when was the best time of day to photograph them and where I had to stand to create the shots I was after. One of the benefits of this project was that the ideal time for photography was from around 17h30 to 18h30 and hence, I only had to pop down to the reed bed, which was a mere 10 minute walk from home, for these short window periods. What made this challenging, however, was that this only worked if there was no cloud cover. Furthermore, given I only had an hour of shooting time, frequency of visits was the order of the day if I wanted to be successful!

After a couple of visits, I took images that I felt created the mood and feel I was after but required significant darkening, by means of post processing, to achieve the final result. An example of these first attempts can be seen below.

A Southern Red Bishop watches the sun go down from his reed bed perch near Balgowan. I loved how the afternoon “back lighting” would light up their red heads and necks and wanted to capture an image that displayed them in a unique and memorable way. To achieve this look and feel I cropped the image and then darkened it (using the curve) in photoshop.
Camera and Lens: Canon 5d mkiv| Canon 600 f4 mkiii lens
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1000 | 1/800s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -1.7 | no Flash

As much as I liked these images and felt that they met the brief, I was determined to create something in camera that required little to no post processing. Perhaps it is the purist in me, but I felt my first images required too much post processing, and that this took away from their authenticity. Fortunately, this was nothing a few more visits and experimentation couldn’t fix. With the right settings in place, I returned a few more times to the same spot and was eventually rewarded.

The end result was the featured image in this newsletter. For me this image tells the story about these characterful birds. I love that it captures the bird’s typical breeding display; tail spread and wings flapped back; and that it highlights their stunning, reed bed habitat in a unique way. I also feel that back-lighting, in this case, adds to the mood and feel of the scene and pushes the image towards one that is different from the rest.

A portrait of the very same Southern Red Bishop taken at dusk. They are such stunning subjects!


Many photographers will tell you to wait before posting your recent images. It allows the euphoria and excitement of the sightings to wear off and enables you to look at your images with a more objective set of eyes. As much as I completely agree with them, I tend to go with both approaches; post/share the ones you love immediately and then go back a few months later and see if some of the other images have grown on you.

The below image of a beautiful, White-bellied Sunbird is an example of the latter. It was taken in September 2019 in the Waterberg biosphere while on a two-week family holiday. Until January, I had never shared it, but it is now one of my favourites of the trip.

A petite White-bellied Sunbird feeds on the nectar of tiny blue flowers at Lindani Game Lodge in the Waterberg biosphere, South Africa. The plant is a Freylina tropica, which is a scarce endemic to the Waterberg.

This next image of a Little Bee-eater couple was from the same trip, but appealed to me immediately. Somehow I think both approaches have their merit.

One of the highlights of our trip to the Waterberg biosphere in September 2019 was having a pair of Little Bee-eaters staying within a few hundred metres of our accommodation. Their close proximity made for some wonderful photographic opportunities of this pretty couple.


In November last year, the editors of the Toyota magazine contacted me to write a piece for their upcoming magazine. I always thought I would make it into the Toyota Magazine by rally driving through the Sahara, but I guess having one of my bird photographs featured in one of their latest editions will have to do!

Thanks to the Toyota Magazine team for the feature!

The Critically Endangered Blue Swallow

Next month’s newsletter will be focusing on South Africa’s critically endangered Blue Swallows, what is being done to conserve them and how we can contribute to their cause. With only an estimated 40 breeding pairs left in our country, this exquisite species really needs our support!

If you would like to make a donation to support these endangered birds in the meantime, you can do so by donating to Birdlife South Africa (who are overseeing the Blue Swallow Project in South Africa) at https://www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/donate/. Add your name, email address and phone number. Click on the donation option; “other”. And specify “Blue Swallow” in the space provided. Or alternatively you can email Dr Melissa Whitecross at melissa.whitecross@birdlife.org.za.

Thanks so much to Peter Nicholson, Nathan Bam and the Roseland Outdoor Centre for their wonderful hospitality and for all their support to date!

Note for South African Birders: If you would like to visit Roselands Nature Reserve and see their incredible Blue Swallows, Nathan can be contacted on +27 63 697 7225 . There is a small fee payable to visit the birds (R200 per birder/photographer with maximum of 5 birders per visit. A whole morning time slot can be secured for R1000). All guests are accompanied by a guide.

A male, Blue Swallow captured on his favourite perch at Roseland Nature Reserve near Richmond, South Africa. My favourite moments in January were spent watching a pair of breeding Blue Swallows going back and forth from their nest location at Roselands Nature Reserve. These intra-African migrants are critically endangered in South Africa; with only an estimated 40 breeding pairs left, and undoubtedly need our help. With limited photographs of these exquisite birds available, I was taken aback by the incredible moments I experienced with them and am hoping that the resulting images will help raise awareness for their plight.
I hope you have enjoyed my latest newsletter and look forward to telling you more about our critically endangered Blue Swallows in the next issue.As always, please let me know what you think and feel free to send me any questions or considerations for my future issues.

Yours in bird photography