Open up opportunities

I am often asked “do you always use flash?”.

The answer is “no, but I always consider using flash”. In other words, flash gives me so many more options that I feel it would be a mistake to ignore those options.

One of yesterday’s students in the sun, the way you would have to do it without flash:

But with flash, we have options. Like this:

Isn’t that 100 times better? Emphasis on subject, saturated colour, modeling with light. And the setup is not complicated:

You may notice that I have two flashes shooting into the umbrella. That way, I can get both of them set to half power, which is a lot better than one flash at full power: full power tends to overheat flashes, and the recycle time is slower.

Camera settings for the “proper” shot were: manual mode, 100 ISO, 1/250 sec, f/8.

A couple more examples:

The green gelled flash was there to show it could be done. In a “real” photo I probably would have aimed that green gelled flash at the darker area in the background.

And even with one off camera flash you can have fun:

So now that the summer is here, bring your flash, take a lesson and learn to use it—and have fun creating images that you can be proud of; images where you are in charge of the light.


Light and dark

Ciaoscuro is all about the play between dark and light.

Take this student at Vistek, the other day. Lit from where the camera is, you get this:

Fine, I suppose… competently lit, just barely.. but is that creative? Not really.

Now, lit from the side, with a simple flash with a grid on it, no other modifier, we get this, instead:

I think you will agree that’s a lot better, and for several reasons. One is that there is less stuff. Only what’s important is lit: the rest is simply not lit at all. Second is that the face is now shaped (modeled) by the light. Third is that what is important is lit; what isn’t is simply not lit. Light direction as well as distribution and quantity are now totally under your control.

(Note that the grid is essential: without it, the flash light would spill onto the walls and ceiling and floor and from there to the rest of the room: no black room)

What I used? A 5Diii with a 600EX flash on the camera set to be master (but not to fire itself); and a 430EXii slave flash on our left. that’s all. “Studio setting” (1/125, 200 ISO, f/8) ensures that the ambient light is black.


Only one spot left on my Mastering Flash course this Saturday, 1—4:30pm in Oakville. Let me know soon if you want it.







Setup for outdoors flash pics.

A student just asked me:

When you were at the London Camera Club, you had your usual stand/flash holder/umbrella combo on display. Unfortunately, time didn’t permit me to ask about it. Would you mind mentioning what brands the components are – I would like to have a similar set up for my Speedlight.

I use the following setup:

So that is:

  1. A Light stand. Any brand is OK if it is sturdy enough.
  2. A mount that sits on top of the light stand and swivels. The flash sits on top of this mount. My mount is a Manfrotto,
  3. A pocketwizard receiver. I use the simple Pocketwizard PlusX: $180 for two of them.
  4. A cable between the Pocketwizard and the flash hotshoe. This cable sits on top of the mount, and the flash on top of it.
  5. An umbrella that goes through the mount (you can see the hole in the photo). This should be an umbrella with a removable cover, so you can shoot into the umbrella as well as through the umbrella.

Because this is non-TTL, the flash can be any flash. Any make, and type, as long as it has a manual power level setting and you can disable any timeouts (otherwise it turns off every minute or two).

To a large extent, these are commodity items. There are many brands. Nikon has a kit of mount plus stand plus umbrella for just over $100, for instance, but anything that looks sturdy enough will do fine.

As for radio triggers, I use Pocketwizards because they are the industry standard and rugged, and they use AA batteries; but any other non-TTL trigger will work just as well.

The setup above serves me well: it is what I use for up to 90% of my outside pictures.

Like this scene, the way it looks to my eyes:

And here comes rescue, a.k.a. me and my umbrella:

…which results in:

And the lovely Vanessa from Timmins has a sense of humour:

The good news: this type of dramatic lighting is simple, once you know how!


Want to learn how to do this? I have a couple of spots open on my “Mastering Flash” workshop in Oakville this Sat 23 May, 1pm—4:30pm. This is a very small workshop: 3-6 people maximum. If you are interested, email me: You can book on


Evening work

Tomorrow, I am teaching a course at Vistek Toronto., You can turn up: there are a few spots available still. But they are limited, so turn up at 9:30AM.

So what am I doing now? Something I do regularly, and you should all do: Preventive maintenance on my equipment.

In particular, cleaning electrical contacts. Whenever something does not work, it is often an electyrical issue. I have found that this is often due to:

  • Pocketwizard contacts not clean.
  • Flash hotshoe contacts not clean.
  • Flash contacts not clean.
  • Lens contacts not clean.
  • Lens not seated properly.
  • Connectors not clean.

So cleaning all the above contacts — any electrical contact— regularly can help prevent a lot of problems.

So if you have nothing better to do.. some windex and a cloth, and rub them all clean. Do not allow any liquid to come anywhere near your camera or lenses, of course. But I do not have to explain that to you, right?


Direct Flash: Can It Be Used?

Unmodified flash? Without umbrella, softbox, or bounce? Can I use that and still get good results?

In a word: yes. You do not always need flash to be modified.

For instance, you may intend the look. One single, unmodified flash can give you a hard look, and that may be exactly what you are after, like in this high contrast B/W self portrait:

So sometimes you can use it to deliberately accentuate the hard look of a photo. So this is the intentional hard look.

At other times, you are mixing in ambient light to take away some or all of the hardness. That, in other words, is the minimized hard look. One way to do this is to use another flash; another way is to mix in ambient light, like here:

That was made with one flash; see it on the right here:

The key in all examples here is that the flash may be direct, i.e. unmodified; but it is not where the camera is. In other words, it is off-camera flash (OCF).

Whenever you want to try a new look or technique, my advice: yes, try it and see. You may be surprised by the results.