Metering muddles

A word about light meters again – this time, on how to use them.

1. First turn on the meter.

2. Then move the white dome out, not in.

3. Now set the ISO to your camera’s ISO (press ISO and hold it down while turning the dial, until your camera’s ISO is indicated).

4. Now set the metering mode. A modern light meter has two separate modes:

  • Ambient metering (the “sun” symbol at the top left on the display above);
  • Flash metering (the “lightning bolt” symbol on the display above).

If you want to meter available light for a normal available light photo, select the sun (press mode button and turn dial); but for metering flash, where the meter measures brief flashes of light, select the lightning bolt.

Assume for today’s post, that you only have flash light to worry about in your shot. So you set the mode to flash, and set the shutter speed to your camera’s shutter speed. Set the camera to 1/125th sec, and set the meter to this time as well.

Now when the camera measures, since you have told it your camera’s shutter and ISO, when it measures the light it will tell you the aperture to set the camera to. (After all, exposure is a triangle of “ISO – Aperture – Shutter”.)

5.  Now hold the meter where the subject will be, and aim the white dome at the camera.

6. Now press the big “reset/test” button on the side. The aperture now reads “0”.

7. Finally, fire your flash.

The meter now indicates the aperture you should set set your camera to. If this is different from what you wanted

  • adjust the flash’s power;
  • repeat the procedure, until the meter indicates the aperture you had in mind.

This is how you use a flash meter.

In future posts, more.

The One Minute Portrait

Today, my friend Steve at the car dealership asked me to do a quick headshot snap of his managing director.

No time to think: right now!

Never to be one to shy away from a challenge, I quickly did the following:

  1. Move to the available backdrop with corporate logo.
  2. I used my Canon 1Ds MkIII with a fast prime lens, the Canon 50mm f/1.2L.
  3. Quickly, as we walked to the backdrop I put a flash on it: a 580EX II speedlight.
  4. Looking around, I saw a white ceiling above me so I knew I could bounce the flash off that ceiling.
  5. I ensured I bounced the flash 45 degrees up behind me, so that the light would come from “in front” of the subject. At a slight angle to my left, so as to aim light onto his face straight on from a 45 degree up-angle. Now this is important. If I had aimed up, or even worse, in front of me (a classical beginner’s mistake!), then this gentleman would have had raccoon eyes, reflective glasses, and a shiny head. If I had aimed straight behind me I would have had “broad lighting”: also not what I wanted.
  6. To mix a bit of ambient light, I set my camera to manual, and selected 1/100th second at f/2.2 at 100 ISO. I did a test shot.
  7. I found that this mixed too many different colours for my liking (flash and tungsten and fluorescent), so I decided to go “flash only”. To do that, I selected 1/250th second at f/4.0 at 100 ISO. That made sure no ambient light took part: the light was all flash. The open aperture at f/4.0 gives me that beautiful bokeh: the creamy softness of the background.
  8. I used TTL (through-the-lens automatic) flash metering, and in view of the white background, I selected a flash exposure compensation (“FEC”) setting of +1 stop.
  9. I positioned the subject at a slight angle.
  10. Now I did my second shot. Checked it on the back. Bingo, all good. Catchlight, check. Sharp, check. Exposure, check. Loved it. Took a few more just for safety’s sake.

That is ten steps in less than one minute. As an event and news photographer, I have to be quick. “Hang on while I think” is never acceptable when photographing executives.

The result is below, and I think you will agree it is a shot that, especially when you click through to see it at original size (you like sharp? I give you sharp!) cannot easily be distinguished from a studio shot.(I really encourage you to click though a few times until you have the full size pic, then view it at full size).

Managing Director Mark LeRoeye

Managing Director Mark LeRoeye

All that in one minute!

If I had had time? I might have tried softboxes, a longer lens, and even more different angles. But I would have produced roughly the same. As a photographer, I need to be able to think on my feet. As you will have to – so my advice: practice a lot, until these things become automatic.

Just like in flying airplanes, where engine failure automatically results in the pilot going through a sequence like “trim up – turn with wind – look for field – check fuel switch – check primer locked – check main switch on – mags left/both/right/both – carb heat on – mixture rich – check oil T&P – check fuel sufficient – line up – use flaps if needed – brief passengers – radio mayday – main switch off”. No more complex, and no less complex, than what I did for this shot.

Practice makes perfect, they say. In photography, practice makes consistent.

Brrr…. Motion blur!

We have all struggled with motion blur: the blurry nature of a shot where you really want it to be sharp. You shoot some animals (or a model and fellow photographer holding parts of an animal) with your long lens; you look on the display and it looks OK:

And then you see the shot close up on your computer, and it is not sharp.

What happened?

Motion blur. Your shutter speed is too slow for the lens length you are using.

If we look into the EXIF data for this image, you will see a 95mm lens focal length is used on a 1.3 crop camera, with a shutter speed of 1.30th second and f/4, at 400 ISO.

Rule of thumb: your shutter speed needs to be at least one divided by the effective lens length. Preferably much faster! (Yes, VR/IS makes this easier, but it is still wise to stick to this rule). So the effective lens length above is 95 x 1.3 = 125mm, so in that case 1/125th second would be the slowest I would recommend using. Hence, 1/25th second does not cut it: too slow.

Q: Can’t I just turn up the speed and set it to 1/250th, say?

A: Um… yes, but then the image would be much too dark, unless you increase the ISO or open up the lens (use a lower “f-stop” setting).  Or you add more light (by going outside, say, or by using a flash).

Here’s an image shot at 1/640th second at f/4 and 400 ISO:

On close inspection, that one is sharp:

Two more notes:

  • The longer the lens, the faster your shutter needs to be. So a wide angle lens is easier!
  • Use a tripod. Unless the subject itself is moving much, in which case you just simply need a faster shutter speed.
  • When you use a flash, that flash is very fast, so then this determines the “effective shutter speed”, at least for the parts of the areas lit by the flash.

A final note: there are other causes of blurriness of course. Read this post from August to brush up your understanding of this subject.

An Admin Note from Speedlighter

Hi there friends,

Michael here.

I thought it is be time for a quick admin note for new readers, this morning (morning for me: my readers are everywhere from Japan to Canada. My Japanese friends, my thoughts are with you. I know Sendai and I am so sorry to see the devastation in Japan – and so impressed by the stoicism of the Japanese people).

Anyway. A few words about this resource.

  • What it is: is your prime resource for photography training. As you may know, I, the speedlighter, am one of North America’s premier educators and speedlight users. I teach at Henry’s school of Imaging and I teach at – speedlighter is my way of helping spread knowledge. From basics to state-of-the-art technical knowledge.
  • Frequency: I aim to do at least one post a day. I have been able to do this since I started this resource in 2009. This brief, to-the-point article each day educates, trains, gives you a tip, or explains a technique or technology. I aim at everyone from experienced pros to total beginners. You can search through all previous posts – I urge you to read them all.
  • More posts: If I do any “admin” notes like this, they are in addition to, not instead of, the teaching post.
  • Cost: Speedlighter is free, and will remain so. (You can always contribute at, and I would appreciate this greatly, but this is purely optional and you will not see me begging and talking about my kids here all the time).

Due to “registration spam”, which started to arrive every 10 seconds through the day, I have recently had to shut off registration for emails, but I will get this back again soon. Stand by.

A note for Toronto-area readers:

I have spots open for two workshop courses this weekend: “The Art of Photographing Nudes” on 2 April and my all-new “Event Photography” on 3 April, both in Mono, Ontario. “Advanced Creative Lighting” is also still open, for 23 April. These are the last ever Mono workshops, so do it while you can. Go here to book. (And as of next month, “Events” will be taught via Henry’s School of Imaging as a Michael Willems special: stay tuned).

A note for Oakville readers:

I might need an assistant for a shoot tomorrow afternoon, Tuesday, in Oakville. Around noon-3pm-ish, all around Oakville, lifestyle portraits of a politician. This does not pay  much for me (and hence for the assistant) but it would be a great opportunity to hone your skills. I would need someone who knows about photography, but of course I teach while we shoot, so you do not need to be a fully trained pro. Interested? Then email me. Postscript: it looks like this is filled – the power of the Internet! Tony, you are on. Meet you at noon, location to be confirmed.

And now, back to regular programming. Go out and shoot!

Lightshop? Photoroom?

Yesterday, a reader asked:

Just wondering…what are the benefits to using Lightroom over, say, Photoshop?

Good question. And an easy one to answer, for someone like me who spends many hours like this, in both those applications:

Adobe Photoshop (CSx or Elements) is good for “deep-editing” one image. If you want to spend an hour on one image, because you are an illustrator, say, or because you are producing Vogue’s next page, then you should probably use Photoshop. Photoshop is for these photo editors.

Adobe Lightroom is different. It is aimed at people who have a lot of images to organize and edit, like, say, photographers. In Lightroom, you:

  • Organize images. Full asset management, including ranking, choosing, keywording, storing, rating, organizing, sorting, and comparing your images. (You store the images where you like, by the way: nothing is dictated to you.)
  • Do things to multiple images at once (like set the white balance all at once for all images in a shoot).
  • Edit quickly and conveniently – more so than in Photoshop. Although the tools are not quite deep, they cover most of what  a photographer needs. I go into Photoshop (from within Lightroom which keeps managing everything) for around one in 300 images.
  • Never touch the original image – Lightroom does “virtual editing” without touching the original. Ever.
  • Get production functions like publishing to web sites.
  • Get a wonderful print engine.

Lightroom has an Apple equivalent, Aperture. But like many photographers, I use Lightroom even though I have a Mac.

Lightroom takes a few days to learn. But Photoshop takes many months to learn. Any photographer who does not have Lightroom, ought to download it and try it out for free for 30 days. You’ll never look back.