Know your stuff.

You know the exposure triangle, yes?

They work together. All three of these variable affect exposure (“how bright it is”).

  • For a brighter picture, you go to a higher ISO, or a lower “f-number”, or a slower shutter speed.
  • For a darker picture, the opposite.

And to make things easy, we have “main numbers” for each of the three variables.

  • Each of these main numbers doubles, or halves, the light.
  • We call a doubling, or halving, of the light “one stop”.
  • So the main numbers are one stop apart.

Main numbers are like this:

  • Shutter: …1/8 sec, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000 …
  • ISO: …ISO100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200…
  • Aperture: … f/1.4,  2.0,  2.8,  4.0,  5.6,  8,  11,  16,  22 …

Moving ISO “to the right” in the table above makes things brighter; that’s the definition of ISO sensitivity. Moving aperture and shutter “to the right”, on the other hand, makes things darker. (Why? A faster speed means a quicker click, which means less light gets in. A larger f-number gives us a smaller opening in the lens; that too results in less light).

And these can cancel each other out! So if you make one change that would darken the image by a stop, and at the same time make another change that would brighten the image by a stop, you will end up with the same brightness in the resulting picture.

E.g. moving from 400 ISO to 800 ISO (“brighter”) and at the same time going from 1/60 to 1/125 second (“darker”) would result in the same brightness.

Your camera probably adjusts things in steps of one third of a stop, which means it takes three “clicks” top go from one main number to the next (200 to 400 ISO, or 1/125 to 1/250 sec, of f/5.6 to f/8). But the main numbers are the important ones.

You need to know these numbers off by heart.

That way, you can quickly do mental arithmetic like “Hey, I moved the aperture from f/4 to f/8. My shutter was at 1/1000 of a second. How do I need to set the shutter to get back to the same exposure?”. (The answer is 1/250. But you should be able to do that in your head. Which is very easy once you have the series above, the main numbers, memorised.)

So before you go any further:

  1. Do you understand the above? If now, why not?
  2. Have you actually practiced the above (in manual mode)? Not once or twice, but dozens, hundreds of times?
  3. Have you memorized the main numbers?

If you are a beginner, do the three steps above before you go any further. OK, go ahead. I’ll wait. Because if you think you can really learn photography without knowing and understanding this, you are wrong. And if you think you can understand this without trying this many times, you are also wrong. We call this “wishful thinking”.


Michael ( does custom private training as well as group-based training and classroom training; see Contact him now (416-875-8770 or to set up a date.

400-40-4: When To Vary

Regular readers all know my “400-40-4″ setting for inside flash. The “party setting”, as I also call it.

  • 400 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4.
  • Flash bounced.
  • And white balance set to “Flash”.

Easy to remember; fits only one way. And it makes nice photos: well lit subject and warm background. Like this:

But remember that this is a starting point. And starting point implies that changes are necessary now and then. Or perhaps frequently.

So when do you need to change?

First and foremost, when you have insufficient flash power. When the ceiling is high, or the wall you are bouncing off is dark, or you need a very bright flash portion of your image with lots of flash compensation, or the room’s ambient light is very low, then you will will need to change the settings. In this case you can lower the f-number or, more usually, increase the ISO.  Set it to 800 or 1600 and try again. This is rather common.

TIP: One way to know quickly if this is the case in the room you are in: set your flash to manual mode, full power (1/1). If it is still too dark, you have insufficient power. Depending on how dark, select 800, 1600, or 3200 ISO, and try again. Once you have an overexposed picture you can go back to TTL mode.

Note that when you increase the ISO, the background gets brighter. If the reason for changing to a higher ISO was a dark room, this is fine. But otherwise, you may need to also select a faster shutter speed to fight this. Watch your ambient light meter: you are aiming for roughly –2 stops. If, say, you go from 400 to 1600 ISO, you need to change the shutter to 1/160 second to keep ambient exposure the same.

You may also need to change aperture when you need more, or less, depth of field. In that case, set it as needed. You can then change ISO to counteract the exposure change you made: e.g. if you go to f/8 to get more depth of field, go to 1600 ISO to get the same ambient exposure.

So, summarising:

  • Start at 400-40-4. Be ready to go to 800-40-4 or 1600-40-4.
  • If the reason was “low ambient light in this room”, that is all you need to do.
  • But if the reason was “low flash light”, be ready to select a faster shutter speed to keep the background the same brightness.
  • If you vary the aperture, the same applies: you may need to vary the ISO to counteract the aperture change and keep exposure the same. ISO Affects

Is all this complicated? Not really. Just remember your exposure triangle, and be analytical (as in “WHY am I changing this variable or that variable”). And remember: practice, practice, practice.


Don’t forget to get the flash book from http://learning.photgraphy. And if you want real, in-person teaching, then a short private training session with me, in the same room or via Google Hangouts wherever you are in the world, is just what the doctor ordered. Contact me via email or phone +1 416 875-8770 to hear more!


Do it now

A note to those of you who want to learn things—some time soon.

My advice is to do it now. Often, that’s the only way to get things done: do them right now. Not “some other time”, since that never arrives. Tomorrow is always just out of reach.

Learning photography is easy. There are many ways to do it. They involve books and training (see, but they all also involve doing it.

Like the relationship between depth of field (“how blurry is the background) and distance to your object. The essence is to try it without varying anything else. For example, look at the background. Is the whiteboard fuzzy or sharp?

35mm lens, f/2.8:

35mm lens, f/2.8:

35mm lens, f/2.8:

All I did was vary the distance. The board gets blurrier as I move forward. (The smile gets bigger, as well, did you notice? Nothing like poking a camera into someone’s face to get a smile—or to get beaten up).

So f/2.8 can give you a very blurry background, or a blurry background, or a sharp background, as long as you change the distance. You could also try leaving the distance the same but varying the lens focal length (by zooming in) or the aperture (remembering to adjust ISO to keep exposure the same).

The key is: do it. Don’t just think about it. Grab your camera (now!) and learn the relationship between aperture, ISO, shutter, focal length, and distance.

The same is true of the learning thing. If you had been thinking of booking some private learning time, or of buying my books, do it now, so your next shoot (even if it is for March Break) will be better. You know my number.

And to finish: one more tip. If you always have your camera at hand, you lose nothing. Like the cat yawning, this morning:


Challenges in a

I shot portraits yesterday. Some were headshots. These are sometimes challenging because you want to get great expressions out of people who are not professional models. Saying “smile” doesn’t do it.

But then, even more fun, the environmental portraits. And these should be storytelling pictures. With good group composition.  Three colleagues:

In these, as you see I like drama, so I expose for the outside. 100 ISO, 1/100 sec, f/8. Why not the usual 1/250 sec? Because that would have meant f/5, and in this case I wanted f/8 for DOF.

The story is to do with the airport, of course. And individual shots are easier: see my friend and assistant Maged yesterday as I was setting up for the shot.

Nice wrap-around light from an off-camera umbrella.

Here, another one:

The biggest challenge? The flash has a big umbrella. This is visible in almost every picture as a window reflection. And it lights up the ceiling: ditto. And I needed an angle that shows the radar tower. So in the event, I moved left and right, up and down, back and forth, and I made the light and the subject do the same, until I finally had one angle that had sufficient light in the subject and that had no umbrella showing, and only acceptable ceiling reflection. It’s always possible: I learned that long ago. But I also learned that it’s always a challenge. So: persevere.

Why not do without an umbrella?

That’s why!


The Prime Requirement…

…of a photo is that it should be simple. That is:

Anything that is in the photo is in the photo because it needs to be in the photo; else, it should not be in the photo.

Take, for example, this shot of Shiva:

Mmm. It has potential, but it’s not straight, another big no-no, and it could be cropped tighter. That way, we get more emphasis on Shiva and we simplify: we lose the doorpost on the right, the door panel elements on the left, and various other “stuff that doesn’t belong”. And every non-needed element that you take out of a photo makes it better! So we get:

Much better. But the first thing my eye is drawn to is that white piece of paper on the mat. Can you see it? It is almost all that I see. So… healing brush, remove! The same for the black piece of dirt in the foreground.

Then, it’s a little dark, so let’s brighten it. That has the additional effect of removing much of the garbage bag.

And now we have the final shot:

When you compare that to the original first shot you see that simple changes made this image a gazillion times better. And that is the official term for it.

Cropping is a major element of my changes here, and cropping/rotating is, as far as I am concerned, allowed.


Learn all this and more in my e-book collection. In six e-books, you learn pretty much everything I know. See for more information, tips and tricks. See you there!