De gustibus..

…non est disputandum. You can’t argue over taste.

As regular readers know, I like to shoot “in camera”, and keep post editing to a minimum. For the most part, my photos are basically SOOC: “Straight Out Of Camera”. But sometimes. I make exceptions.

One is this style, a very bright, contrasty, cool, desaturated, sharp style that mostly loses everything into pure white, making eyes and other features stand out dramatically.

Here’s another example, before and after, so you can see what I did. Here’s the original, before the edit:

Shot at the following settings (press “i” in Lightroom repeatedly to cycle through the Information options):

After the enhancement:

Note: the “before” picture was not bad. I strongly believe that you should use techniques like this to enhance, not to fix.

I like this so much that I made it a User Preset. After making your adjustments, click on the “+” in the Develop mode’s preset panel on the left.

This preset consists of the following adjustments:

…in addition to which, I set “sharpening” (in the DETAIL panel) to +80 and “noise reduction” to +20.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of an image before and after:

I like that sharp look a lot.

Be careful not to overdo it and apply a particular “look” to all your work. Aim to do it in camera, and apply styles (via presets) only when needed, when they add something. As I believe this one certainly does.


BUT MICHAEL, I hear some of you say. “you are giving away your secrets”. Yes, I am. Because adjustments can be found anywhere. What cannot be easily copied is my artistic insight, people skills, $30,000 in equipment, and experience.

Would you like more secrets? Be my guest: have a look at the Christmas Specials on see right now.

Take direction.

I took a few photos today of talented photographer Lisa Mininni, to demonstrate flash direction to her when bouncing; and I thought I would share them with you here.

I often see people, even pros, walk into parties bouncing their flash straight up, at 180 degrees. Here:

Not good: dark eyes. Because of the straight-up bounce, the light comes from straight above. So the eye sockets fill with, well, with darkness.

Next, I see people all the time with their flashes aimed 45 degrees up, forward.

What’s happening here is that the light lights up the subject’s forehead, and the ceiling above and behind them. As we go down, it progressively lights less.

Now, we use a reflector. I have seen those in use many times before. I get:

Not bad. But.. a little harsh. The light could be better.

And when I see “better”, I mean bouncing 45 degrees behind me. Provided there is a roof, cekling, wall, somwethign to bounce back light, you can do this. Even with high ceilings, as in the studio I made these in, where I would estimate they were at least 13 ft high:

Perfect. To really see the difference, view them large and download to your computer.

Now, keep in mind:

  • 45 degrees behind is merely a starting point. And a good one. But the real way to do it is to start with the subject’s face. From there, mentally draw a dotted line to “where the umbrella would be” if you were in a studio. Now continue that line, and where it hits a wall or ceiling, that’s where you aim.
  • What I am talking about here works—usually. But each situation is unique, so “never say never”. Sometimes, “straight up” or “forward” are the way to go.
  • I am mixing with ambient light. A good starting point for that, as regular readers know, is the “Willems 400-40-4 rule”: 400 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4.
  • Watch your power. If the ceilings are too high, or if you need to use a small aperture like f/8, you may have to go to higher ISO values.

Using a flash is easy once you know how. Learn, and see how amazing the options are that are now open to you.


TIP: My courses and books will help: see—special Christmas pricing applies. Joining the Facebook Speedlighters Forum on will also help: many people will help you learn.


High speed flash.

High Speed Flash. Also known as High Speed Sync, or HSS, or “Auto FP” flash. Your camera/speedlight combination probably has it. Let me explain what it is, why it’s good, and why it’s nevertheless seldom useful.

First, the term “High Speed” is a misnomer, since it is actually slow speed flash. Let me explain.

Normally, a flash lasts 1/1000 sec or less. At 1/32 power, it’s only about 1/30,000 second. Very, very fast.

But there’s a problem: the shutter cannot keep up. You see, the shutter needs to be fully open for that quick flash to be able to illuminate the whole sensor, but at speeds above 1/250 second, the camera makers use a trick to get faster shutter speeds: instead of opening fully, an ever narrowing slit of light travels down the sensor, so the shutter is never actually fully open.If you try to use flash, only part of your picture will be illuminated.

But there is a trick: HSS, or “Auto FP” flash. When using HSS, instead of flashing once, the flash goes FlashFlashFlashFlashFlashFlashFlashFlash very rapidly (at a rate of 30,000 times a second).  This makes it into what is effectively a continuous light. As the narrow shutter slit travels down, the FlashFlashFlash keeps going on and hence the flash illuminates the sensor gradually.

So, set your camera (Nikon: camera menu, select “Auto FP” flash sync) or flash (Canon: set flash to HSS symbol) to high speed and you are set to go. You can now use any shutter speed, up to whatever. 1/4000? Sure. Go for it.

The problem? HSS loses most of your power (you are illuminating the closed part of the shutter, after all), so your flash range is reduced. At 400 ISO and f/8, my flash has the following maximum range:

  • 1/30 sec:     9m
  • 1/60 sec:     9m
  • 1/125 sec:   9m
  • 1/250 sec:   9m
  • 1/500 sec:   3m
  • 1/1000 sec: 2m
  • 1/2000 sec: 1.5m
  • 1/4000 sec: 1m
  • 1/8000 sec: 0.7

So up to 1/250, varying the shutter speed, as you would expect, has no effect. But then HSS kicks in, and the range starts to drop dramatically. At 1/8000 sec, my flash, at full power, only reaches 70cm (about 2 ft). And if you are using a modifier, like an umbrella, forget that: you would be lucky to get a few inches.

So while HSS is a great idea, it is not very useful in most practical situations. Because you are most likely to need to need it when it is bright outside, but that’s also when you need most power and cannot afford to lose any. Catch-22, since HSS steals from Peter to pay Paul. Now you know.

Math buff note: can you see any math logic in the numbers above? Yes, every stop faster shutter speed loses you the square root of 2 (roughly 1.4)  in available range. So, two stops faster shutter means half the range.


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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