Replacing the sun

The sun, most photographers would agree, is not the friendliest light. It is like a studio with one direct light:

  • Too contrasty for the camera’s dynamic range to handle dark to light;
  • It throws shadows;
  • It makes smooth surfaces (like, um, skin)  look wrinkly.

So you get this, of Joseph Marranca on Monday at the Mono, Ont venue of the advanced creative light workshops:

Back yard in sunshine, by Michael Willems

Back yard in sunshine

Nice, but it suffers from all the problems of direct sunlight.

When you would rather have this, two seconds later when the sun went behind a big sky-mounted softbox: a cloud.

Back yard in shaded light, by Michael Willems

Back yard in shaded light

Nice and soft. Saturated colours. Smooth.

Now the only problem is that if you want highlights, you don’t get them. Can’t we have both?

Yes. And that is where flash comes in.

In the portrait shot below of Oakville’s mayor, yesterday, I first took away the sun, using a diffuser. And then I added a flash. Off-camera , with a Honl grid and a Honl quarter CTO gel (with my white balance set to flash). Plus a bit of fill flash on the camera.

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, photo by Michael Willems

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, June 2010

I think that being in control is better than just relying on too-harsh direct light. Do you agree?

Flash balancing, step by step

Many of you have asked me to give a simple step-by-step instruction of how to balance light using flash. OK, so here we go.

Step one: the normal shot.

Say you are shooting outdoors. And the background is bright. So you get this shot:

Flash demo photo by Michael Willems

1. Background too bright

OK for the foreground – but the background is too bright.

Step two: expose the background right

So you need to darken it. If, say, you are in Aperture mode, just use exposure compensation of, say, -1 to -2 stops. Now you get this:

Flash demo photo by Michael Willems

2. background ok, foreground too bright

Great, the lake is visible.

But now the foreground is too dark. So you need to brighten it.

Step three: expose the foreground with flash.

OK: turn on your flash. That gives you this:

Flash demo photo by Michael Willems

3. Better, now with flash

Much better. If the foreground is too bright, use flash exposure compensation (not exposure compensation!) to darken the flash. Or if it is too dark, you are probably too far away – get closer or use higher ISO, if able.

If your shutter speed exceeds your flash sync speed (around 1/200th second), reduce it or use Auto FP Flash/High Speed Flash (in that case, get really close).

Now you can make shots like this:

A Park Bench in Oakville (Photo by Michael Willems)

A Park Bench in Oakville shot with flash

(Can you also see the half CTO warming gel I used?)

And you can get more dramatic: here, I underexposed the background by two or more stops:

A Stop Sign in Oakville (Photo by Michael Willems)

A Stop Sign in Oakville (Photo by Michael Willems)

Have fun!


I have done two workshops in the last two days, and am preparing for the Vegas one with David Honl in a couple of weeks time (read on, below). Workshops are fun for all concerned and add tremendously to your ability to create great shots. Read all the books you like, but doing in an interactive learning environment is how to really learn.

Saturday was “Creative Lighting”, with Joseph Marranca. We taught a group of students some advanced flash techniques using small flashes:

Students at the workshop in Mono, Ont (Photo by Michael Willems)

Students at the workshop in Mono, Ont

This is a great course and we will be doing it again soon. Everyone goes home with knowledge and experience – and with portfolio shots.

Then on Sunday, I led a group of students through Oakville for the School of Imaging, for “Creative Urban Photography”.

Phone box in Oakville, Ont (Photo by Michael Willems)

Phone box in Oakville, Ont

Now I take a moment to regroup and to prepare for many more.

One exciting pair of workshops coming up in Las Vegas, NV on July 12 and 13.

I am teaching “Advanced Flash” – for amateurs and pros who really want to learn how small flashes work. When to use TTL, and when manual? What are the four technical items you need to know? What are the catches to TTL? How to overcome them? When to use what modifier? Why and when to use gels?

To make it even better, it’s not just theory and technical stuff. I am once again joined in these workshops by David Honl. Yes, the David Honl of the excellent line of modifiers, and the David Honl who shot Saddam Hussein’s trial (with a camera). Yes, that one. Dave will take students through making some great creative shots using small flashes and modifiers, and all participants get to go home with these portfolio shots.

Read up on this workshop here – there’s space, but do book soon to be sure.

Photography is better and easier than ever, once you learn the small flash technique that enable you to do really creative lighting with real ease. Come to Vegas and find out how.

Dave Honl shooting Michael Willems (with a camera)

Dave Honl shooting Michael Willems in Phoenix, March 2010

Battery tips

Sunday’s country workshop in Mono, ON prompts me to talk for a moment about batteries.

Background: We used small speedlights Sunday, with simple and effective Honl modifiers and gels. The studio lights and large softboxes stayed packed away.

Tara Elizabeth in the rain, by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth in the rain

In a shot like this, you make the background darker by “nuking the sun”: overpowering the sunlight with flash.

Overpowering the sun takes, um, power.

In general, therefore, you will set your Pocketwizard-powered speedlites to full power. On many shots we have five speedlites firing at full power. Full power gives you not that many flashes – in the order of maybe 100 flashes if you are lucky.

To use flash effectively, then, here are a few practical tips:

  • Turn off the “Auto power down” on your flashes (this is in your flash custom functions).
  • Move the flashes as close as you can to your subject (remember the inverse square law).
  • Allow 3 or more seconds for the flashes to recharge before you shoot again.
  • Occasionally, fire a test flash to verify that  all flashes are still working.
  • Use NiMH rechargeable batteries.
  • Ensure these are “low self discharge” types like Sanyo Eneloop, etc.
  • Carry a lot of spares. Several sets per flash.
  • Before each new shot setup, replace them. So you never run out.
  • Use a “conditioning charger” that can discharge your batteries fully before charging. I have three of the Lacrosse chargers (check Amazon or the web).

And yes, go wild, and use speedlites for creative purposes!

Model Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Model Tara Elizabeth

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Model Tara Elizabeth striking a pose

Tara Elizabeth, photographed by Michael Willems

Tara Elizabeth and umbrella


Lightroom 3 has cool develop effects built in. I hardly ever use them, because I generally like to think of photography as something that is mainly done in the camera. But I must say, sometimes it is fun to go wild.

Take the “aged photo” effect. Desaturated, basically. Which seems very appropriate for this picture, taken today in Oakville during a Henrys “Creative Urban Photography” outdoor workshop I taught:

A 1958 Dodge, shot in Oakville by Michael Willems

1958 Dodge, shot in Oakville

Or this wall texture:

Wall texture, shot in Oakville by Michael Willems

Wall texture, shot in Oakville

So I suppose my message is: don’t feel bad when you want to do some post-production.