Less is more.

Sometimes, simple is all you need. Like in this headshot:

This shot is simple in many ways:

  • Shot with simple camera settings: f/5.6, 1/125 sec, 400 ISO.
  • I am using just one flash on camera, aimed 45 degrees up, behind me. The catch lights are the circle that my flash throws onto the ceiling.
  • The flash is using TTL (automatic flash metering, in other words). Of course since this is a high key scene, I set flash compensation to +2 stops.
  • I am filling the frame. Yes, cutting off the head is allowed.
  • The pose is a simple one, as is the composition.
  • The location is a simple white bathroom: smaller is great since it allows great bounce without the high ISO values you would otherwise need.
  • The dress is a simple white shirt, against a simple white background.

All this “simple”, combined with the right model and a razor-sharp (obscenely sharp, some might say; look at full size) 85mm f/1.2 lens, makes for a good shot. No studio complexity needed in this case; no pocketwizards, no complicated anything. Simple does it; less is more.

So if anyone tells you “you cannot do this, you need more equipment”: it ain’t necessarily so!


Art Discussion, Continued

After yesterday’s post, a reader left a comment (and you are all invited to leave comments and engage in discussion on this blog!) that I consider interesting enough to republish, and to answer/discuss, here today.

1. “More please! please! this stretch into art and feeling is terrific and welcomed in your subject matter here on speedlighter.

>>Do you see them? And do you feel them ?<<
Well no. I have no awareness of Hopper. where do I go to gain more of this, just the museum? But you have provided one here. More please! please!

2. You have written about IP and ownership before. How are you able to post a Hopper photo on your site? no (c), no reference, no link?”

Great, let me answer those in turn.

First, art. Yes, I think photography is part craft and part art, and the art component is something we do not talk about quite enough. Photography is not about bits and bytes and f-numbers. Those are just tools. It is about what you do with them.

Photography is a serious art form. My favourite artistic photographers include such people asNan Goldin, Annie Leibowitz, Mike Disfarmer, Sally Mann, Edward Weston, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Andreas Gursky, Jan Saudek: their images fire up my imagination, speak to my emotions; evoke places and times; and that is what art is supposed to do.

And for painters, Hopper comes an easy number one for me. This is entirely personal, of course, but there is no painter whose work speaks to me more than Hopper. You have not heard of him? I bet you have seen Night Hawks, his most famous painting:

Can you feel the alienation and loneliness?

To learn more about Edward Hopper, my first stop would be here, and of course Google. In general, as a photographer, I recommend you also look at paintings, go to museums, read about art. The various arts have much in common, after all.

Why do these artists resonate with me? I do not know, but I do try to analyze that a little. Part of the fun.

And me? Do I produce art?

I think that is the wrong question; or at least it is one that I do not feel qualified to answer. I do try to put feeling into my work. Like into this self portrait:

…and into my art nudes, like these three examples:


“Panta Rhei”

“Nude Against Drywall in Garage”

And into shots like these two:

“Sailboat on Lake Ontario”, 2013

“Bicycle in Schoonhoven”, 2013

…and there’s much (much) more. I occasionally showcase some of it on www.michaelsmuse.com.

Am I comparing myself to those greats? No, of course not. Comparisons are not useful, anyway: what counts in my work is that it touches me. And if it does that, it has achieved its goal. If anyone else likes it too, that’s great. If someone wants to call it art, good. If not, fine. I do these for me. Or perhaps more accurately, for having done it. Creating an artistic photo is a satisfaction all of and by itself. A tree falling, and I was there to hear it fall.

Finally, then, copyright. On some, or perhaps all, of Hopper’s work, copyright has run out and has not been renewed. But it’s a moot point, because it is generally agreed that under the right circumstances, art can be used under Fair Use rules, and I am sure that this, a teaching blog, constitutes exactly the right circumstances. Hence, no problem.

Analyzing which artists of the past or present inspire you can be a very useful exercise for a photographer.


Seat of the muses

The muses inspire us, and we each have our own muses and inspirations. My inspirations include the work of painters, notably John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper, two American painters of, respectively, the 19th/20th and 20th century.

Here’s a Hopper, “Morning”:

And when I say I am inspired by Hopper, I mean not that I copy him, but that he evokes certain feelings (like a combination of “alienation” and “nostalgia”), and places, and times in me. Hopper is an easy artist to admire.

But it is also easy to recognize similarities. Like in this recent photo:

The moment I took that I was struck by the many obvious similarities to the above Hopper: similarities in shapes, colours, and subject; even in mood.

Do you see them? And do you feel them like I do? Perhaps, and perhaps not. The first one is a good thing: that is what learning art is all about. The second one, feeling them a I do, is not necessary, not even desirable: we should not all be struck by the same things.

But seeing them, that is what “learning” art is about. And appreciating the basis of good art, like simplicity. Since the above picture is art, not photojournalistic, I feel free to make changes in post-production. What change did I make to this picture? I removed a line in front of the subject’s face:

Can you see how distracting that is? So the objective part of creating art is that sort of thing: no-one can argue with me that that line is not distracting: it should go. The subjective part is the appreciation of the art itself, and there we can differ.

Oh, and that “seat of the muses” in the title? That is what “museum” means, and that is where you will find Hopper and Singer Sargent; and that is where you can go for inspiration.



Deep. As in, “this photo has depth”:

One of my cars, outside the mechanic’s yesterday.

So how do you get depth? You know!

  1. Have a close-by object (we call this: “Close-Far”);
  2. Have diagonal lines in the image (the foreground needs lines or texture, preferably)
  3. Use a wide angle lens.

The wide angle lens facilitates 1 and 2, and also has two other advantages: it is easy to get everything sharp if you wish (here, I did not wish); and it is easy to shoot at show shutter speeds.

So pack your 16-35 lens if you have a full frame camera, or your 10-20 or similar if you have a crop body, and go shoot some depth pictures.

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Experiment with aspect ratios

Your camera produces an image in the aspect ratio 3:2 (or 4:3, if you use a four-thirds camera). But why not let go of that, and use your own ratios?

Like square.

Or like wide.

Or odd-shaped.

I am a firm believer in “make the picture whatever shape you think fits the picture best”. Not “whatever the frame-makers in China or the paper-makers in Switzerland have decided for you”. Make the picture the way you like, and then cut white edges off paper, and have custom frames made.

On that note: no, you cannot print a 4:3, say, on 3:2 paper without either cropping the picture or cutting off white edges. It’s the reality of life.

I have found that often, people do not understand this: “yes but I want my 4:3 picture to fit on this 8:10 paper and no, I won;t accept cropping or white edges”. Well, here’s news: you have to. To understand why, imagine you have a square picture. Try fitting that on an 8×10 piece of paper, and now you will see why it cannot be done. So you either crop to the paper aspect ratio prior to printing (Lightroom is very good at that), or you print with white edges, which you then cut off. It’s one of those “it is what it is” things.