You Must Upgrade. Or Must You?

A student just emailed me this:

I currently have a Canon 40D but it has been suggested [by someone whose judgment I trust] that for event photography I need to upgrade to a Canon 80D.

OK. Interesting. Let’s tackle this one.

First, always be highly suspicious when someone says you “must” do this or that. When it’s “my way or the highway”, I usually take the highway.  Be suspicious of simple solutions and dogmatic statements, just as you should be suspicious of them in politics.

Second, why so specific? Why from a 40D to a 80D? Why not to a 6D, or a 5D Mark III, a 70D, or some other camera altogether?

What the “expert” probably meant is this:

“You want to shoot events. Events often take place in low light. That means you will need to shoot at wide apertures (i.e. need good lenses) and slow shutter speeds. But even then, and especially if you are bouncing a flash, you will inevitably need to shoot at high ISO sensitivity values. And that is the one reason why you may want to upgrade the camera every few years: the ability to shoot at high ISO values, without crazy noise, increases with every new generation of sensors. So an upgrade to a more recent camera wold be good. If the budget stretches, consider a full frame 6D. If not, consider a 70D as well.

But all that said, no-one “must” do anything, and there are other solutions too, like investing in more, better lenses. A 35mm f/1.4 prime lens is great for many types for events, for example. A more powerful flash, if you now have a lower power flash, is also an option. Or you may need nothing at all: photogs shot events a few years ago very happily with this camera. Why not now?

So now we get into the “what type of event”. What type of event do you want to shoot? This, more than anything, will decide for you what you start saving up for.

That is a much more measured statement, isn’t it? That’s how *I* would have answered this.

All this, incidentally, including the differences for different types of event, is what gets discussed in detail at my “Event Photography” workshops. Which I regularly hold: there’s one coming up in Toronto in a few months (list soon), but more importantly, I can run this privately with as few as two or three students., or solo if we do it in Brantford:

  • On demand, any time (minimum one student if held in Brantford, 3 if elsewhere): Event Photography. In this workshop I teach you the secrets of successful event photography, for any type of event.

 That’s it for today, folks. Enjoy your camera and go shoot something cool!

The simplest…

Sometimes, when you are immersed in a profession, you forget that not everyone is even familiar with the language used in that profession, let alone with some of its principles and practices. As an engineer who teaches, I try never to fall victim to that thinking. But sometimes even I do. So in the next series of blog posts, I will briefly define some of the basics. Just in case.

Starting, today, with flash modes.

Your small, camera mounted, flash has a “mode” button. That button gives you access to some of the following modes:

  • TTL (also, “E-TTL”, or “TTL-BL”, etc). This means “automatic flash power”. The camera and the flash together sort out how much power is needed for every photo. They do that with a mechanism that I explain in my courses, books, and workshops. That mechanism is called “TTL”. You do not have to worry about your subject’s brightness, at least in theory: the camera and flash sort it out.
  • MANUAL (Also called “M” or “MAN).  In that mode, you set the flash power. You can, for instance, set it to 1/1, or 100% power: the brightest power level. Or 1/2 (half power), 1/4 (one quarter of its top power), 1/8, and so on. On some cameras, you can go as low as 1/128 power, a very low flash level. So in this mode, if your flash is too bright, you would turn it down to a lower level (or move back from what you are lighting); if it is too dim, you would turn it up (or move closer).
  • Repeating flash, or stroboscopic flash. In this mode, the flash will flash not once, but a defined number of times, with a defined interval. You need to define the number of flashes, the interval, and the power level. (E.g. “5 flashes, at a frequency of 10 flashes per second, at 1/16 power”). That allows you to make photos of, say, a runner against a dark background, where you see not one, but ten images of that runner as she moves through your photo.

There may even be modes additional to this. Depending on the flash you use, there may also be a setting that tells the flash that it is a remote flash, and there may be a setting that allows the flash to be used at fast shutter speeds, but at a reduced power level (“High Speed Flash”, or “FP Flash”). There could be other settings as well, like a “dumb slave setting” (Nikon calls this the “SU-4” setting).

All those additional settings are not modes, but they are what I called them: additional settings. I know, that may be confusing to you (“what is a mode and what is an additional setting?”), but if so, don’t worry about it. It’s what the engineers decided to do. The reasons for not calling these settings “modes” are not important right now.

So there you have it. Some flash “basic basics”.

In my flash courses, I explain al this in detail, of course.

Want to learn more: buy the pro flash manual, and if you are in Toronto, sign up right now for the 25 March portrait and model lighting workshop.  See you there?

Nothing changes?

Well, not in 8 years. Here’s a technical note in the form of a post from October 2009 that is still valid…:

A reminder to all flash photographers: you need your shutter speed to be below the camera’s flash synch speed.

What does this mean? Let me explain.

The flash fires for the briefest period, of course. Like 1/2000th of a second. That is why we call it a flash.

So when it fires, if the light is to reach the entire film or sensor, the shutter needs to be totally open at that point.

That much is obvious. But what is not obvious is that there is an engineering limitation in your shutter. Beyond a certain shutter speed, the camera’s synch speed, the shutter never totally opens. Instead, a small (increasingly narrow) slit travels across the shutter to give each pixel a brief exposure time.That’s cool – the shutter does not have to be super-fast and expensive and you get a fast shutter speed.

But this gets in the way when you are using flash. When you fire during those short exposure times (on most modern cameras, faster than about 1/200th second), the light does not reach the entire sensor. Look at this example I shot to illustrate this, at speeds from 1/200th to 1/1000th sec:


You can see that as I exceed the sync speed, the light only reaches part of the shutter.

You should also note that especially when using external flashes with Pocketwizards or similar, flash takes time to set up. My 1Ds MKIII has a synch speed f 1/25oth second but as you see, at that speed it is already beginning to cut off. Best stay a bit below your synch speed (I typically set my shutter, when I am using studio flash, to 1/125th second).

(There is a way to overcome that: fast flash, which some high end flash units offer. This continuously, all the time that the shutter travels, pulses the flash at a very rapid rate, so that the slit, as it travels across the sensor, has light coming in throughout its travel time. It works great – do use it when taking flash images outside – but it uses a lot of energy, and hence decreases the range of your flash.)

(Advanced tip: I know of at least one photographer who uses this effect to introduce an electronic version of a neutral density filter or a barn door: he sets his camera to 1/320th second while using flash, and turns the camera upside down. That makes the top part of the image dark, at least as far as the flash part of the light is concerned!)

An Essential Tool

If you take your photography seriously, you need to avoid one thing in particular: running out of battery power just when you need it. (Have you noticed, batteries never fail at a convenient time?)

The solution is simple. Buy a battery tester, and use it before you go and shoot.

A battery tester, which sells for about $7–10 in your hardware store, is a meter with a “battery” mode. That mode does not just measure voltage; instead, it measures voltage under load.


You recognize it by its mention of batteries (like “AA”, as in this example).

Before every shoot, measure your batteries, and if in any doubt, replace them. That takes away one big drawback of battery-powered equipment.

  • Where do you use rechargeables? A: In gear that you use intensively and often: namely, in your flashes.
  • Where do you use Alkalines? A: In equipment that uses little current and that lasts many months between battery changes. Namely, in your PocketWizards and similar radio triggers.

One more note: if you use rechargeable batteries, make sure that you use an appropriate meter. NiMH batteries have a lower voltage than Alkaline batteries, so you cannot measure NiMH batteries with a meter intended for Alkalines (or vice versa).


It’s coming. Be ready.

Hold on tight and be ready. Those are words that can instil fear. Something is about to happen, and you somehow need to understand it and be ready for it, “or else”. It happens to everyone in life, and it happens in every industry, but its effects are particularly dramatic in an industry where technology plays such a central role as in photography. Things change, and they change dramatically.

An example everyone knows is Kodak, which went from being the premier company in photography to essentially disappearing in the course of just a few years. Oh, they saw “digital” coming all right, that wasn’t the issue; they saw it coming like a thundering express train while they stood there right in the middle of the track, not moving, sheepishly staring at the disaster that was about to befall them. Paralyzed, they stood there until, well, until… splash.

The general consensus has it that the reason was that they really didn’t understand what industry they were in. They thought of themselves as a chemicals company. They employed lots of PhD chemists, and got chemistry prizes and awards and patents. Chemistry experts, that’s what they were. Except, of course, they were not. They were an imaging company, and if they had realized that they would’ve switched simply from chemicals-based imaging to transistor-based imaging. They would not have been hit by that train.


Glass plate, celluloid, or phototransistors: who cares?

Today that pace of change is still happening in the photography field. The pace of change is enormous. You learned on an SLR with film; now you need to know how to use a digital SLR. You shot at 100 ISO; now you happily shoot at 6,400 ISO. Yes – but wait. Maybe we will switch to mirrorless cameras next year. Or to 3-D cameras. Or to cameras that allow you to focus after the fact. You are a photographer, but perhaps in ten years you will think of yourself as an image – based storyteller.  Or something entirely different. Maybe  instead of a photographer, you will consider yourself a computer image manipulation expert. Or maybe you’ll become a videographer.

The point is: be ready for constant change. If you have not experience the following changes yet, chances are that you will:

  • Photoshop to Lightroom.
  • Low ISO to High ISO.
  • Crop frame to Full Frame.
  • Mirror to Mirrorless.
  • PC to Mac (or, for that matter, Mac to PC).
  • Disk storage to hybrid storage.
  • Hybrid storage to solid state storage.
  • Local storage to cloud storage.
  • Stand-alone photography to photography integrated into web, social media, cloud, etc.
  • Stand-alone hardware to “the Internet of Things”.
  • No GPS to built-in GPS everywhere.
  • CF to SD; SD to Micro SD.
  • USB to USB 2 to USB 3 speeds.
  • USB connector to Mini USB to Micro USB.
  • Proprietary to universal formats (even Sony is stepping away from proprietary to industry standard, who could have imagined!)

Now, those are just a very few predictable changes—so you can get ready and prepare for those, and you should. Plenty of help available (I, um, know an experienced educator and photographer who, um, wrote a series of books and teaches, um, a whole lot of courses (more coming soon!). And there’s Internet resources, like this blog.

But there are also—and here, unusually, I will give Mr Donald Rumsfeld credit—such things as “unknown unknowns”. The changes above flow naturally out of known trends, but many changes do not; they are the result of unexpected events. Black Swans. No-one in Hammurabi’s Court could have predicted Quickbooks Accounting software. No-one in 1217 could have predicted electric drones (“Look! It’s a miracle! I see a buzzing angel”). No-one in 1736 could have predicted DNA-based crime analysis. And so on. These are the things that will make you feel old. And I know that you do not want to feel old.


So my advice to you is this: take courses, do seminars. Join photo clubs. Read up on the Internet. Read books on photography. Read blogs, like this one. Listen to blogs, like TWIP (This Week in Photo). And see yourself as a maker of imagery in the broadest sense. It is silly to waste any brain-energy on questions like “Canon or Nikon?”—especially when perhaps 20 years from now you will all be using Apple i-See (or iSight) cameras. Do not fossilize.

Do not look from the tools to the end product, as Kodak did (“we know chemistry, so we will make chemical photography stuff”). Instead, look from the end product back to the tools (“we want to make beautiful images, so we will use whatever technology is most suited for that today”). That’s how you stay honest and fresh.