Special: Learn Flash!

Learn flash—wherever you are in the world!

I now offer my three-hour flash course, “Mastering flash” ONLINE, one-on-one, using Google Hangouts. And for a limited period, this is only $249 instead of $299. So, before the December festive season, master flash now.

You need flash Indoors. Outdoors. On-camera or off-camera, like in an environmental portrait like this, which should take you under a minute to light:

Go to learning.photography/collections/training-300-advanced/products/flash and book right now. I promise, you will learn fl;ash, you need to learn flash, and you will be delighted you learned flash!


Today, a CEO/executive shoot

Today was one of those great days that everything comes together: a nice Annual Report shoot including a CEO portrait, two green screen executive portraits, and two environmental executive portraits; then some real estate on the way home.

I am standing in for the CEO here.

  • One flash off camera, shooting through an umbrella. On our left.
  • Converging lines converge on the subject from both left and right.
  • Shot at 1/125 sec, f/6.3, 800 ISO. This was the right combination of background and foreground.
  • Flash on manual.
  • Behind me: a very bright window: we positioned me so that that window was exactly covered.
  • The space on the right is for text: whenever you shoot for a magazine, ask whether there has to be empty space for text (and ask: horizontal or vertical?)

Then some green screen; Like this:

So that we can then make it like this (and mouse over the subject to see what I mean):

…and put the subject in front of the eiffel tower, or where ever we want.

For this we used five flashes: Two big studio strobes, and three speedlights (two for the green screen, one for the “shampooey goodness” hair light)

Finally, we did several more environmental portraits, in office spaces. For those, as for the CEO, we used just one off-camera flash shooting through an umbrella. Why not keep it simple, if you can?



I taught two studio/portrait courses at Vistek Toronto today. Great students, lot of fun. The take-home message: it’s not as complicated as it seems; in fact, it’s easy. Especially with the right equipment, I used a mix of studio strobes (two Elinchrom monolights) and speedlights (my Canon 430 EXII and 600EX speedlights, set manually, i.e. used as studio lights).

Here’s a couple of “standard” four light portraits (key light, fill light, edge light, background light), slightly desaturated in post:

That’s the standard. But you can do with less. Like here:

I happen to like that kind of drama in portraits a lot; it shows character and mood— and that’s just one studio light with an umbrella. Really? One light can do a character portrait? Yup. It can. F/5.6, 1/125 sec, 100 ISO)

And here’s a one-flash bounced portrait, shot at f/1.2 to get a blurred background. Yes, f/1.2! and you can call me courageous or mad, whichever you prefer.

(f/1.2 at 1/160 sec at ISO 100)

Bounced off the ceiling behind me, and using TTL (i.e. automatic flash) with an on camera flash. Simpler isn’t possible, and yet you can do great portraits.

The message: make lots of portraits. Set yourself challenges, and one challenge should be: show mood and character. See how many flashes you need. Note the techniques that work best. Often, as one student today noted, “less is more”.

And on that subject, I finish this quick inspirational post with one more picture taken with jkust one flash; this time again of my granddaughter, just a few hours old:

(1/125, f/3.5 at ISO 1000).

That’s a storytelling photo. And a character photo, I suppose: Addison is showing character at only a few hours old.  Also one bounced-behind-me flash.


A new life

My first granddaughter was born today, at 03:22. Addison Margaret May Shepherd-Willems, weighing in at almost 7 lbs.

(1/125 sec, f/3.5, ISO1000, probably with flash assist)

I had to shoot these in a very dark hospital room. Today I used a combination of:

  • High ISO, large aperture, no flash (I had an f/1.4 lens and an f/1.2 lens, as well as an f/2.8 zoom)
  • Medium ISO, flash
  • High ISO, flash assist

(1/100, f/1.4, ISO3200, probably without flash)

The thing is: I am not sure which ones I used flash for. And that is a key lesson to take away from this: good flash photos can often look like no flash photos.

(1/125 sec, f/4, ISO 1600, with flash assist)

Another key lesson: exposing to the right makes for low noise. I call this Willems’s Dictum: “Bright Pixels Are Sharp Pixels”. Shooting at high ISO is fine as long as you expose brightly: exposing to the right is as important as ISO.

In other words, a dark shot at 1600 ISO looks grainier than a bright shot at 3200 ISO. Noise, like cockroaches and politicians, hides in the dark. Do NOT under-expose. Even worse, of course, is under-exposing and then pulling up (thus increasing the noise). Exposing to the right *(i.e brighly) is good; exposing to the right and then darking is even better, if you have that luxury.

(1/250 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1000, flash)

A final note: of course you realize that shooting at f/1.4 means that you have to focus accurately, and that you had better be sure what is important in your picture. But clouds have silver linings: I use the shallow depth of field as a benefit. It allows you to choose one subject to emphasize and to blur out the rest.

Toronto residents: Saturday I teach at Vistek. Studio lighting and portrait lighting. Join me there, a great opportunity to get small class help from me! https://www.vistek.ca/events/ and sign up now: limited space.


Art Discussion, Continued

After yesterday’s post, a reader left a comment (and you are all invited to leave comments and engage in discussion on this blog!) that I consider interesting enough to republish, and to answer/discuss, here today.

1. “More please! please! this stretch into art and feeling is terrific and welcomed in your subject matter here on speedlighter.

>>Do you see them? And do you feel them ?<<
Well no. I have no awareness of Hopper. where do I go to gain more of this, just the museum? But you have provided one here. More please! please!

2. You have written about IP and ownership before. How are you able to post a Hopper photo on your site? no (c), no reference, no link?”

Great, let me answer those in turn.

First, art. Yes, I think photography is part craft and part art, and the art component is something we do not talk about quite enough. Photography is not about bits and bytes and f-numbers. Those are just tools. It is about what you do with them.

Photography is a serious art form. My favourite artistic photographers include such people asNan Goldin, Annie Leibowitz, Mike Disfarmer, Sally Mann, Edward Weston, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Andreas Gursky, Jan Saudek: their images fire up my imagination, speak to my emotions; evoke places and times; and that is what art is supposed to do.

And for painters, Hopper comes an easy number one for me. This is entirely personal, of course, but there is no painter whose work speaks to me more than Hopper. You have not heard of him? I bet you have seen Night Hawks, his most famous painting:

Can you feel the alienation and loneliness?

To learn more about Edward Hopper, my first stop would be here, and of course Google. In general, as a photographer, I recommend you also look at paintings, go to museums, read about art. The various arts have much in common, after all.

Why do these artists resonate with me? I do not know, but I do try to analyze that a little. Part of the fun.

And me? Do I produce art?

I think that is the wrong question; or at least it is one that I do not feel qualified to answer. I do try to put feeling into my work. Like into this self portrait:

…and into my art nudes, like these three examples:


“Panta Rhei”

“Nude Against Drywall in Garage”

And into shots like these two:

“Sailboat on Lake Ontario”, 2013

“Bicycle in Schoonhoven”, 2013

…and there’s much (much) more. I occasionally showcase some of it on www.michaelsmuse.com.

Am I comparing myself to those greats? No, of course not. Comparisons are not useful, anyway: what counts in my work is that it touches me. And if it does that, it has achieved its goal. If anyone else likes it too, that’s great. If someone wants to call it art, good. If not, fine. I do these for me. Or perhaps more accurately, for having done it. Creating an artistic photo is a satisfaction all of and by itself. A tree falling, and I was there to hear it fall.

Finally, then, copyright. On some, or perhaps all, of Hopper’s work, copyright has run out and has not been renewed. But it’s a moot point, because it is generally agreed that under the right circumstances, art can be used under Fair Use rules, and I am sure that this, a teaching blog, constitutes exactly the right circumstances. Hence, no problem.

Analyzing which artists of the past or present inspire you can be a very useful exercise for a photographer.