How I Made the Cover of "National Wildlife"

A 2009 Photo Contest winner explains the complicated system he used to capture the December-January cover photo—on film!

02-26-2010 // Bernard P. Friel

The photograph of an indigo bunting that graced the cover of our December-January 2010 issue was taken in the field in Florida by Bernie Friel. Friel explains the extraordinary set-up (seen below) he used to capture the photo—including why he still uses film, not digital, to photograph birds. See galleries of our  2009 Photo Contest winners  and honorable mentions .


I have always contended that no self-respecting bird would fly to a feeder surrounded by so many pieces of equipment, but to my surprise and delight, in an average five-hour period I will get over 200 images, even though fewer than a third of the birds going to the feeder trip the camera. So it is clear that the birds are not put off by the equipment, the flash or the noise of the camera rewind.

The set-up consists of two integrated infrared triggering devices, four hi-speed flash heads integrated through an electronic control box and connected to a 12-volt battery, and one medium format film camera. I add to that a background of local flora, or something to simulate that or the sky, and a bird feeder.

It takes about two hours to set up with light stands and tripod and a framework for the triggers. The birds take their own photograph when they fly through that point in space about a foot in front of the feeder where the beams of the triggers have been arranged to intersect. That intersection is where a gray card is temporarily placed to take a flash-meter reading so I can select a proper f-stop.

Three of the flash heads are aimed at the trigger intersection where, hopefully, a bird will eventually appear, and one at the background. All fire simultaneously with the camera for 1/15,000 to 1/30,000 sec. depending on the light heads in use. The light heads have a lumens output equivalent of airport runway strobes.

Hi-speed flash set-up by Bernie Friel

My camera choice is a Hasselblad ELM camera with a leaf shutter in the lens which has a virtually instant response to the trigger. The focal plane shutter in the camera body is kept in the open position.

For fieldwork, cameras with only focal plane shutters, while usable, pose problems, as do digital cameras, for even a slight delay in shutter response will find the bird long since departed from the focal point.

On the camera, the shutter is always set to 1/500 second, and meter readings usually require an f-stop of f16 to f32 depending on lens in use and film, and film is always Fuji Velvia ISO 50 or 100.

Unfortunately, this system results only in about one good image every 50 frames, and one like the cover indigo bunting, about every 1000 frames, which makes me pine for a digital camera with an instant response to the trigger.

Hi-speed flash images capture and freeze with amazing clarity and sharpness, an instant in a bird’s flight that our sight alone cannot.

Bernard P. Friel is a retired lawyer who lives in Mendota Heights, MN. For over 40 years he has combined his zest for adventure travel with nature photography. Bernie is a charter member and former president of the North American Nature Photography Association, former board member of its Infinity Foundation, and a member of the American Society of Picture Professionals. See more of his photos at .

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