Ever wonder why models never smile in advertising photography? Why they always look so serious… aggressive even, sometimes?

Because they want to look perfect, that’s why.

Smiles create smile lines… but unlike you and I, photo editors, Cosmo readers, and models who want perfection call these lines “wrinkles”. And they dislike them, and the shadows they create. Like so:

The aforementioned (and, truth be told, most women) usually prefer this, a very “no-shadow” neutral look where skin is perfect:

If you are shooting traditional model shots, like for a portfolio, that’s what you do.

  1. Puff out some air, like when you voice the letter “P”.
  2. Let face come to a rest; this takes 1-2 seconds.
  3. Leave mouth ever so slightly open.
  4. Ensure that all facial muscles are 100% relaxed.

Result: skin is flawless. No shadows, no unevenness, no wrinkles. No personality is shown. Just beauty.

But wait. The look you want depends on what you are shooting. When you want to depict personality, you can have a person looking angry, surprised, sad… even happy. Like this:

So relax and shoot what you want. Do not shout “smile!” for every shot; but do not avoid all smiles either. If only because your model will feel better. But also because you may indeed want to show different sides of a person’s personality.


A difficult shoot

A shoot Saturday. A club, with no good ceiling or wall to bounce from. And no light to focus. And an audience that did not stand still for a moment, meaning focus was even more difficult. Those were the three main problems.

And yet:

Wow, eh. 325 photos like that.

So what’s the secret?

Boiled down to a few bullets, it is:

  • Expose for a “–2 stops” background, as you know from my Flash courses.
  • Feel free to use high, or very high, ISO values. Use noise reduction in post-processing (e.g. in Lightroom).
  • Use prime lenses, or at least have them available.
  • Shoot a lot: as much as twice as much as you need.
  • Be within about two stops of perfect, and shoot RAW.
  • Take any portraits at least twice, in case focus is off, etc.
  • Look for “moments“, not just steady “grip and grin” images.
  • (Hence): do not be afraid to throw out half your pictures.
  • Be willing to do post work on many pictures.

In Saturday’s shoot I had over 700 pictures, and that boiled down to about 600 usable ones, of which I used 325 (Why? Well, if you have five pictures of a specific moment, you may want to use just one).

I shot the majority of my images at 6400 ISO, 1/25 sec, f/2, using a 35mm f/1,4 lens). And even then I had to push many of the images. 

But with a modern camera, it is doable, and even an impossible venue like Saturday’s can lead to a great shoot.

It’s all about the…


And I cannot over-emphasize that. It is all about the light.

Take this picture. It shows a wrinkled, tired, old-looking photographer:

Now take that same person and move his face into the light, so that the light comes from approximately 45 degrees up, right in front of him. Now we see a much better looking photographer:

The photographer (that would be me) took those yesterday, just a few seconds apart, with his iPhone.  Here they are, side by side:

Keep this in mind when doing any sort of photography: yes, it is all about the light, and yes, it makes a huge difference to any photo. When using a flash, bounce behind you, so you get the left-hand photo rather than the right-hand one. I teach this in my flash courses, of course. But until you take a course, at least keep this in mind. Please!



Tonight, I attended the 25th anniversary of Photosensitive, a collective of Canadian photojournalists.

I am honoured to be a member of Photosensitive, and I have contributed to the last two Photosensitive projects, “Picture Change” and “Aging”.

A few pics from tonight:

One lesson: don’t be dogmatic. No flash here; I merely used 1600 ISO, f/2.8 at 1/100 sec. When you work it out (which I will leave to you), that’s basically two stops brighter than 400-40-4, which makes sense, Normally, if I used a flash ambient would be –2 stops; this time, ambient has to carry the photo, so it’s two stops brighter.

Photosensitive does everything in black and white.

I used only available light and my 24-70 f/2.8 lens. Why? To shake it all up a little, that’s why!

Me in the mirror…:

Black and white rocks for this sort of work. Look at the photos at full size.


Mission: impossible

Sometimes you are faced with a situation that would be easy to solve with a flash.

Like this church, in which I co-shot a wedding on Saturday:

You can see why the situation needs flash. Without it, I am stuck: I expose for the church, and the stained glass pretty much disappears, as you see above.

Or I expose for the glass:

Yeah, the glass is back. But now I lose the church.

OK, flash then. Simple! (If you have done my courses and bought my books.)

But Wait.

It is a Roman Catholic church, and that church is used to an authoritarian top-down command structure, and in this particular case that works against us. Because the photography rules (and there’s a full page of them) say:

“No Flash”.

Now I am stuck. As my colleague George quite rightly says: “we are here for the people” (and you can imagine him shrug). Right he is.

But hang on. There are still tricks we can use.

One: use the built-in HDR mode in your camera, if it has is. Some high-end cameras do, and my 5D Mk3 is one of those.

Select it and press. The camera now takes three pictures (my choice), two stops apart from each other (my choice), and crunches a few seconds, while it combines them into a JPG file:

Now, the bright and dark areas are no longer 12 stops apart.

And that was the problem: the difference between bright and dark was simply too great for a camera to handle in one image.  Select HDR (which you all know stands for “High Dynamic Range”—right?) and hold the shutter down until it has done three shots (or more, if you prefer).

And then you can work the image a little more in Lightroom, if you like. Problem solved. There’s always a solution.


I have moved to Brantford, Ontario. The new studio and classroom welcome you: call 416-875-8770 or5 email