One thing I often hear is “but it’s been done before”. Whether a landscape, a portrait, or any other subject it can be hard to do it in an original way.

My advice: find your own perspective. It has not been done before: the photons you capture have never been emitted in exactly the same way before.

The Hoover dam has been shot many times, but never with this red car:

Hoover Dam (Photo: © Michael Willems Photographer)

Hoover Dam (Photo: © Michael Willems Photographer)

The drops on this car hood have never happened before, and never will again.

This even applies to the most basic subjects: people have been painted and photographed in many ways, but this particular pose I shot a few hours ago is unique and has never happened before in exactly the same way:

As is this pose: a slight shift makes all the difference…

Or these dying flowers:

Tired Flowers, by Michael Willems

Tired Flowers

So before you give up before trying, I say: try basic subjects in your own way. Ask yourself what is unique in how you are depicting your subject. The subject itself? Or the Shape? Light? Orientation? Setting? Colour? Technique?

There’s so much you can do to put a new spin on an age-old subject, and it all starts with you asking yourself “what do I want to show the world, and in what way will it be unique?”. Once you know that, things kind of fall into place.


Party time

I just shot an event. With a single camera, and a 24-70 lens only. Bouncing my flash, of course, as in this image of incredibly-beautiful-as-well-as-incredibly-intelligent Tatiana:

If you have a camera and a flash, you will have plenty of opportunity this season to do this kind of shooting as well and to get it right. Christmas, Hannukah, New Years’ Day: whatever your favourite celebration is: make great pictures.

I’ll get you started. My settings were:

  1. Camera in manual exposure mode; flash on TTL.
  2. The Willems 400-40-4 rule: but modified to use 800 ISO instead of 400, at the usual 1/40th second at f/4.
  3. White Balance on Flash, with slight adjustment in post every time I bounced off a brown ceiling instead of a white wall. (Brown is just dark yellow, so move the White Balance slider to “Blue” (cold) when adjusting these.)
  4. Flash aimed behind me, straight or at an angle.

To keep in mind, a few notes:

  1. Focus carefully, and yes, in the dark that is difficult and slow. Life’s tough.
  2. Move people to where there is a nice background and you can bounce off a white wall.
  3. In darker rooms, or where the ceiling and wall are higher or less reflective, go to 800 ISO – or higher when you need to! Better to do it in the camera than to underexpose and push in post.
  4. Use the Rule of Thirds.
  5. Think about your light direction. In every shot.
  6. Change flash batteries before they run out, not after they do.
  7. 35mm is a great focal length for people shots (24mm if you are using a crop camera).

More about all this later this month. I took around 300 pictures – fewer than usual because I was a little more selective. We evolve as photographers, and I go up and down in regard to the number of images I make. I like to get them right, rather than fire away randomly.

A couple more samples. Couples in posed shots are great:

Movers and shakers, celebrities, politicians like Mike Harris are used to being photographed:

You can ask people to do things (like “Go on – kiss your wife!”):

Shooting events is fun; people will listen to your suggestions and do what you ask; and if your  technique is good, your clients (or family!) will love your shots. Go have some fun this December!


Faceless faces

Here’s an exercise for you. Capture expressions without visible faces.

Huh? How? Is that even possible?

Yes. Look at this silhouette from Monday’s class at Sheridan College:

Now let’s make it slightly different:

Now let’s make him into a sad Homer Simpson:

Now.. can you tell what he is doing in this one?

That’s right.. he is smiling. You can tell he is smiling from this image without anything else. Amazing. No eyes, mouth, nose – but you can tell he is smiling.

An exercise like this is fun and can be very instructive in seeing how expressive faces can be. Go take some pictures like this – your exercise for the day.

Oh, and and as in yesterday’s post: here’s what Kingsley looks like with his the face lit.

A very expressive and personable person – easy to shoot.


Let there be light.

When I pass away (hopefully not until a while from now), I want my epitaph to be Dylan Thomas’s words:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light.

Light is everything. But in a sense, where you do not light is even more important as a starting point.

In several ways. First, in establishing a starting point. For studio flash shots, the ambient light should be dark. So you start at 100 ISO, f/8, 1/125th second. Try it: whatever room you are in looks dark. So that only the flash will show.

Then add that flash. In this image of Kingsley in last night’s Sheridan College class, one flash is used: umbrella on the left:

The background is not quite dark, is it? So that when we add color in the form of a back light with a bright red gel, we get some, but not a lot:

how do I know it’s not a lot? Let’s turn off the front flash and use only that back flash with the red gel, where all other settings remain the same:

Wow, so there was pure saturated red – it was just blown out by the white. “Saturated” means “not mixed with white”.

The solution? Move your subject and the umbrella back a few metres. Now we get less white, hence more red:

Even farther from that background would have helped even more. As would a softbox close to the subject.

But yes – you need a large studio. True say.


Timmins, Ontario

I spent Sunday in Timmins as a guest of the Porcupine Photo Club: great team of people, excellent all-day seminar. Yes, I teach courses like my Advanced Flash course in places like London, Rotterdam, Las Vegas, Toronto, and…Timmins. Book me if you want to have a great learning experience.

But I am now back.

This was an hour or two ago, when I was about to leave:

Let’s see a few shots from the “Flash” workshop. Of course I was not there to shoot – I was there to teach – but I still managed to grab a few shots. One flash in an umbrella was used for the first picture; same plus a background flash for the second picture.

I do colour too, of course:

But most of all, I try to get it all right. So today one reminder for you.

To get the background right you may want to start with the camera in manual exposure mode, using the Willems 400/40/4 rule as a starting point. 400 ISO, 1/40th second, f/4.

But if you have one on-camera flash, the most important point to remember is: avoid direct flash. It is not flattering. Look at this bad picture (taken as a demo!) of Aurele Monfils, who kindly arranged the workshop:

Now look when we do it properly: turn the flash behind you, upward; raise ISO if needed to have enough flash power, and go for it:

Wow. See that difference? No double chin. No reflective skin. No shadows behind arms. Much (much!) better, and much more the way the person actually looks. Also, the path to the background is now about as long as the path to the foreground, so the background gets a little flash too.

Advice: Learn one thing at a time. Learn flash in small increments. Practice (irt makes perfect). But whatever you do: LEARN FLASH!

Now off to Sheridan College to teach.