In Real Life

..In real life, you only have so much time when shooting an event. So you need to be quick, and you need to really master a bunch of little things.

Take this picture, taken with a wide angle 16-35mm lens at 800 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4, with bounce flash aimed behind me. . Attentive readers may recognize the Willems 400/40/4 formula in that, modified slightly (800 ISO instead of 400) because it was so non-reflective.


Nice, but why are the verticals tilted inwards toward each other at the top?

Because the photographer was aiming the camera upward! That results in this tilt.

If the camera had been pointing downward, you would have seen this instead:


And it is only if the photographer aims the camera straight ahead, parallel to the horizon, that we get the proper picture:


And now a little secret: that one, the third, was in fact the actual photo taken by the photographer, Because the photographer, and that was me, knows to hold the camera parallel to the horizon. Check the verticals before you click!

So how did I create the other versions? Simple, by using TRANSFORM in Lightroom. And just like I can make a good picture bad, I can make a bad picture good.

So why not just shoot as you like and fix them all later? Mainly because this takes that most valuable of all commodities, time.

So. Last question. Flash you say. Really? How do I know this isn’t just ambient light?

Well, let’s take one with the flash OFF. Here we go:


Now, we could have used ambient like this but just increase the exposure by three stops. That is true (higher ISO, lower f-number, and/or slower shutter). But then two things would happen: a) you would notice the drawbacks of those actions (e.g. more motion blur, less depth of field, more grain), and b) the picture would lose its magic. You would get this:


Well, de gustibus non est disputandum, but I prefer mine:


Isn’t this “creative” stuff fun?

Want to learn from me in person? 5 hours in Brantford, Ontario, on Sunday Oct 2. With a maximum of 5 students. Sign up tonight and save big: 

HANDS-ON SESSION: Master On- and Off-Camera Flash, Manual & TTL

Sunday, Oct 2, 2016, 12:00 PM

Michael Willems Studio
48, Wilkes Street Brantford, ON

2 Emerging Photographers Attending

UNLEASH YOUR CREATIVITY, LIKE THE DUTCH MASTERS, AND BECOME A FLASH PRO!This unique small and intensive hands-on workshop, held in my fully equipped studio, will be both practice, for those who know a thing or two about flash, and a revelation, for those who do not.I took this picture  two days ago, on Friday. In a dark Niagara Falls restaurant …

Check out this Meetup →



I shall now repeat a flash trick I have mentioned here before years ago. Time for a refresher.

You all know how important it is to avoid, at least when the flash is on your camera, direct flash light reaching your subject. Both in order to avoid “flat” light, and especially to avoid those nasty drop shadows, like this (don’t do this at home, kids):

But you have also heard me talk (and those who come to my upcoming flash courses will learn hands-on) that you should “look for the virtual umbrella”. For most lighting, this means 45 degrees above, and in front of, the subject.

So when you are close to that subject, you aim your flash behind you to get to that point. Good.

But what when you are far, as when using a telephoto lens? Then the “virtual umbrella” may be in front of you. And aiming your flash forward is a no-no, since the subject will be lit in part by direct light.

A-ha. Unless you block the direct part of that light!

Like this:

As you see, I use a Honl Photo bounce card/gobo to block the direct light. Simple, affordable, and very effective. I use either the white bounce side, or the black flag side, depending on the ceiling and position.

Simple, effective – done!

And one more thing. Direct flash is not bad per sé. Not at all. As long as it is not coming from where your lens is, it can be very effective, like in this “funny face” shot of a recent student (you know who you are):

Lit by a direct, unmodified flash. And the hairlight, the shampooy goodness? Yeah. The sun. Just saying.

(And yes, that too is something I will teach those of you who sign up for one of my upcoming flash courses.)


Direct the light

Following up from my post the other day about simple light. Remember this shot:

As I said, the bounce light was directed so that the subject’s face is lit. That is the key here.

Let me show you what would happen if I did not do that right.

Say I just bounced the flash behind be. That would be “OK”, but no more  than that. The face would look dimensionless – flat, even:

And if I bounced behind me on the left – nowe that would be just plain wrong:

Badly shot (deliberately, and kudos to student Kayleigh for allowing me to demonstrate on her!)

Go back and look at all three – see how much better picture one is?

So the essence is: shoot not from your camera’s perspective, but from your subject’s perspective. Decide where the light should be coming from with resepect tou your subject; then direct your light to that point.






Ready.. aim (flash)… shoot!

An event shoot the other night prompts me to point out how important it is to bounce your flash into the right place.

When you shoot an event, you:

  1. Set your camera to a good starting point: Manual mode, 400 ISO, f/4.0 and 1/30th sec.
  2. Use the right lens: perhaps 35mm prime (on a full-frame camera, or 24mm prime on a crop camera).
  3. Aim your flash roughly behind you.
  4. Fire.

That gives you images like this:

You now adjust aperture, shutter and ISO according to ceiling height, available ambient light, background colour, and “how you like it”. For a neutral, normally lit background you want your in-camera meter to read roughly -2 stops when taking an average reading. So take a test shot, adjust where needed, and carry on.

Fine. But where exactly do you aim?

You aim the flash:

  1. Where you want the light to come from. Usually this means behind you.
  2. And it should throw light into your subject’s face, not onto the back of their head.
  3. This flash bounce area must be outside the image area.
  4. And it must have a nice bounce surface (not too far, not too coloured).

If you do not get the bounce area right, you get this, where I got it wrong (I aimed the flash too far forward):

Instead of this, where I did it right (I aimed it behind me):

Because I aimed correctly, the wall behind me became a big virtual umbrella, and cast natural light throughout the room, not mainly into one area like in the previous shot.

Another couple of shots from the event:

I like warm backgrounds. That’s my style.

Dancing in dark rooms is hard to capture. Shoot a lot.

Yes – you can shoot in wood-paneled rooms too, but it can be challenging.

Want to read more? Watch out for the June/July issue of Photolife Magazine, with my article on “Flash: 20 problems, 10 solutions”. It should be in the stores any day now.


What if there’s no wall?

I keep recommending that when you use TTL flash, you bounce it off walls or ceilings.

So what if there is no wall or ceiling?

Then you do the following.

  1. Ensure you expose the background well, with high ISO, open aperture, and slow shutter as needed.
  2. You may be able to bounce after all, when your ISO is high and aperture is open. Flash can reach farther than you think! So – try.
  3. You can move the subjects! Ask them to “move over here for a second” – near a wall. Every venue has some wall or other, or perhaps a low ceiling in one part of the room. No reason you cannot ask people to move!
  4. If that fails, bounce of “anything”, using a Fong lightsphere. Not creative light, so this is not your first choice, but it can save your behind.
  5. And if all else fails – direct flash, but perhaps still modified by a bounce card (or even a Fong thing aimed forward). And do not forget flash compensation.

So you see, there are always options.