About Michael Willems

Michael is a professional photographer and photography teacher and private coach. Based in Ontario, he teaches and shoots worldwide. See more at www.michaelwillems.ca and www.speedlighter.ca

Blurry Backgrounds

Those blurred backgrounds we love? That’s why we have an SLR camera in the first place, right. A beginner’s note on this subject today.

As you know by now, a lower f-number (= a larger aperture) means a blurrier background. So a photo made at f/1.2, for instance, will have a blurrier background than one taken at f/32.

Photo made at f/1.2: blurry background.

Photo made at f/32: sharp background.

But the f-number is not the only thing that affects the depth of field (= how blurry the background is). The other two factors are:

  1. Proximity to subject. The closer you get to your sharp subject, the blurrier the background gets.
  2. Lens focal length. The longer the lens, the blurrier the background gets.

Take these two recent photos, both taken at f/5.6:

Photo taken at f/5.6: SHARP background

Photo taken at f/5.6: BLURRY background

Photo taken at f/5.6: BLURRY background

What is the difference?

The top picture was taken with a 16mm lens. The bottom pictures were taken with an 85mm lens. The 85mm lens is longer than the 16mm lens, so it gives us a narrower depth of field(= a blurrier background).

So you can only say: a lower f-number means a blurrier background, all other things remaining equal. In other words, you cannot necessarily say “f/4 will result in a blurry background”, or “f/16 will give you a sharp background”.

This is why using a prime lens is a good idea: you remove one variable, thus making it easier to get predictable results.

If this is not all clear to you, then do the following: with the camera in aperture mode or manual mode, go take pictures around the house, until you do get it. Try to alter only one variable at a time (i.e. do not alter zoom, distance and aperture all at the same time: you will have trouble seeing how it all works.


Point Of View

A portrait is simple, right? Look at the camera and smile.

Not so much. Apart from the “smile” thing, there’s also angle. And the same person can look very different if shot from different angles.

Like me, a couple of days ago:

Michael Willems (www.michaelwillems.ca)

Michael Willems (www.michaelwillems.ca)

Michael Willems (www.michaelwillems.ca)

Michael Willems (www.michaelwillems.ca)

Can you see how they are all different, and yet the same person? Some work better than others. So when you do portraits, try all sorts of angles, and then analyze which ones work. Model the face (avoid even lighting, for interest). Watch for shadows and ensure you get good catch lights.

And note that all of these work better in B&W than they would in colour.

So…. try some B&W portraits from various angles, lit by softboxes.


All the difference

Look at Mau the cat, who is pretending to not notice me:

I used my 85mm f/1.2 lens on the 1Dx body. The settings were 1/60 sec at f/2, 800 ISO.

Let’s think about that for a minute. 1/60 sec is about the slowest speed I can hand-hold: any slower and I would shake; and the cat would move visibly also. So that’s a given.

800 ISO is nice. Much more, and I start getting visible grain, certainly on cheaper cameras.

So unless I want to use a flash, f/2 in my kitchen is what I need.

Now… imagine I had a consumer lens,. like the 17-85 f/3.5–5.6. The latter designation means that when I zoom out I can get as low as f/3.5, but when I zoom in I cannot go any lower than f/5.6.

If I used this lens, I would have to go to a much higher ISO. To keep the same exposure, if I want to keep the same shutter speed, I would have to change ISO as follows:

  • At f/2 I need ISO800
  • At f/2.8 I needISO 1600
  • At f/4 I needISO 3200
  • At f/5.6 I needISO 6400

So with the cheaper “consumer” lens zoomed in, I need to go to 6400 ISO. Which would, especially on smaller cameras, give me a lot of grain; a bad quality picture, in other words.

So the more expensive, “faster”, lens gives me a huge benefit here. One not to be scoffed at, which is why we like prime lenses. Which are not all expensive: you can get a 50mm f/1.8 lens for just over $100.

Which I hope you have done!


Lighting a face: a small detail

The title says it. Detail, and attention to it, are what makes you a pro.

Look at this image, from last Friday. The lovely and talented Vanessa Scott, whom I photographed in Timmins, Ontario:

(ISO100, 1/60 sec, f/5. Lit with two flashes, direct, no umbrella. Left flash gridded 1/4 power, right flash unmodified 1/2 power.)

Not bad. But look closely at Vanessa’s face. Closer!

See the two little bright areas next to her mouth? My right-side flash was as little too low, so the shadows are not quite right.

Let’s start up Lightroom and make it better with the Develop module’s healing tool. Two little clicks and I fill those light areas:

Proper Rembrandt lighting. So the whole image now looks like this:

A subtle change, but much better.

And as said, that’s what makes you a good photographer. Attention to detail. When you hire a pro, like me, this is the kind of thinking he or she will engage in to get you the best possible images.


I have amazing deals for portraits this month. From corporate headshots to family photos: give me a call or send me an email to hear the options.


A photo is not a photo until it is printed. And you should print your photos. Today, I am making a case for doing that.

You are reading this post because you are into photography. You are a beginner, or an advanced amateur, or a seasoned pro who would like some new techniques. Either way, you have come here to learn about something dear to your heart: making images. And for many of you—especially the beginners—this means you have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of images that live only on your disk drive.

Great. But that is not the whole job. You are leaving out the last step. A very important step; I would say an essential one. Creating a print from the best of those electronic files.

Like here, in my living room, which as you can see is decorated with one artistic nude, three travel photos, and one “selfie”:

Why is printing images so important?

For many reasons, of which I am going to mention the top six.

It is the only way to preserve the image. Digital images get lost. Let me repeat that: Digital images get lost. All information carriers (Papertape. Magnetic tape. Floppy disks. Hard disks. CDs. DVDs. CF cards. SD cards. USB keys. Every single type!) lose their information in anything from a year or two to a decade or two. I cannot stress that enough. You will lose your information. CDs, DVDs, hard disks: all of these are meant for temporary storage. there is as yet NO permanent storage solution other than cuneiform clay tablets. “The cloud” is no solution either: things get lost.

Also, even if by a stroke of luck you do not lose the data, you cannot read old media (try to read an 8″ floppy disk: I challenge you!). We may be the generation that takes more photos than any preceding generation; we are also the generation that will lose more photos than any preceding generation. This is a tragedy. Please.. print, to preserve.

They decorate your living room very nicely. There is a reason there is no hotel without prints on the wall. Prints add style, class, to your environment. Not just to hide stains: prints look beautiful on your wall and you can choose something to complement your environment (e.g. urban scenes in a country cottage, and vice versa).

Prints look much better than displays. Prints can be much larger (the nude above is 40″ wide); they can be on metallic paper (that one is); they have wonderful colour saturation, and they are, when done properly, much better than a display. Yes, printing needs to be set up properly, but it is worth doing.

They are a great way to share. Having photos on a hard drive is ok, but how often do you show them? A print on a wall is seen every time someone walks by that wall. And not just for ten seconds: for the entire evening, if you have dinner guests.

There are many possible formats. I love fold flat photo books with hard pages. There are many formats, from canvas wraps to such books: you can go wild. All this amounts to much more than just your LCD screen!

You will feel good about your skills. There is a special thrill in seeing your work large, as it is supposed to be, on your own wall. Your work instead of some IKEA artist’s work! This is an important motivator to keep shooting, as well.

My recommendation is a strong “go make some prints from your best photos—today!”

EXTRA: TIP for readers in the Toronto area: for great prints, in a wonderful variety of types, go to Fotobox in west Toronto, on the Queensway. Tell them I sent you—they have done my large metallic prints, and I am delighted with their service, attitude, skills, quality and pricing. Fotobox, 936 The Queensway, Toronto, ON M8Z 1P4(647) 430-8499. See www.fotobox.ca. (And no, before you ask: I am not being paid for this mention.)