Always look on the bright side

When lighting skin, there’s one rule I go by: I light it brightly.

This student on my college course looks great and pretty:

But look what happens when I light her up 1.66 extra stops:

Her skin looks even better.

So when I use flash, I expose 1-2 stops over normal, by using flash exposure compensation when using TTL flash, or by increasing flash power, or by simply exposing more when using available light. You will see a lot of high-key images in my work:

Those are from a shoot I did today. One on camera flash, manual, 1/4 power, camera on 400 ISO, 1/125 sec, f/5. And one flash on my left, set at 1/32 power, aimed direct at the subject through a 1/4″ Honl photo grid.

Can you seen the effect of the individual flashes, and of exposing so brightly?


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!


Things you can’t do

There are many things that conventional wisdom says you cannot do. Like shoot at slow shutter speeds when people are moving.

But I say you can, and damn the rules.

Like this, of baby Aubrey and her dad Dave at her 1st birthday party, which I photographed the other day:

(Shot at f/4, 800 ISO, 1/30 sec; focal length 35mm using the 16-35mm f/2.8 lens).

I used a flash, bounced as usual up, behind me. The challenge is white balance: I could have gelled my flash the same colour as the light, but that was difficult under the circumstances, so I ended up with blue and red light mixed. Not to worry, the compromise white balance, where I balanced mainly for the tungsten spotlight, since the baby is more important than the tables in the background, is just fine.

Back to the shutter speed. It was 1/30 second, and with the baby waving her hands and feet this of course causes unsharpness. In this case, the unsharpness is not a problem. It shows the fact that the baby is happily waving her arms and legs to show that she is delighted to be the centre of attention. Without that, the photo would have been boring. With it, it shows the joy of the occasion.

Success, even though you are not supposed to do this, 1/30 sec with rapid movement in the subject.


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Last night I photographed a party. Let me take you through that: it is useful to see a real-life shoot as it unfolds.

This was a very quick, rushed shoot: hardly any time at all to set up.

I had two cameras:

  • 1Dx (full frame) with 16-35 lens;
  • 7D (crop camera)  with 24-70 lens.

That means effectively I had 16-35 and 35-105 mm available, i.e. 16-105 in one continuous range. So the lenses were taken care of.

Now the lights. Seeing the need for speed, I quickly set up two speedlights in umbrellas, fired by Pocketwizards. In this example only the one on the left fired:

The final pics look like this:

That’s simple: One umbrella left, one umbrella right. We are looking for competent lighting here, not art. I did not use a meter; just set the lights to 1/4 power and adjusted ny camera settings (ISO, aperture) to that.

Note the mom in the first shot. My shoot was hindered big time by all the moms taking iPhone shots. A trend more than ever before.

Then the rest of the shoot: the 16-35 with one on camera flash bounced against what walls there were.

Easy in some rooms, harder in the ballroom since it had a high, black ceiling. So I started at 400-40-4 modified to 800-40-4: i.e. a camera setting of 800 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4. That extra stop comes in handy when you are bouncing off high or dark ceilings. Like here, in the middle of the ballroom

Sometimes, I switched to mood lighting: simply increase the shutter speed to darken the ambient light, and the aperture smaller (or lower flash compensation, when on TTL) if you also want less flash:

All in all, a competent shoot.

With some fun too: A panning shot., 1/30 sec and I follow:

The ghosting lends it an interesting effect; and the subject is sharp first because I am panning; second because she is lit mainly by my flash, which is 1/1000 second or faster.

I had just enough time to produce prints for the parents, on my little Selphy printer. All good.

And then quick post work an on to the next assignment!


Want Michael to shoot your family event? He’ll quote a competitive price and deliver quality work quickly. See for details.


Lighting schemes

A short note today. About portrait lighting.

There are many lighting schemes photographers know. One of them, as you know, is split lighting:

Split lighting means that you light exactly half the face.

Let me take away a misconception: It has nothing to do with where you shoot it from: this is short lighting; if I shot the subject from his other side, it would be broad lighting.

More on all the lighting schemes in my upcoming book “Powerful Portrait Photography”… stand by for an announcement!