Party time

I just shot an event. With a single camera, and a 24-70 lens only. Bouncing my flash, of course, as in this image of incredibly-beautiful-as-well-as-incredibly-intelligent Tatiana:

If you have a camera and a flash, you will have plenty of opportunity this season to do this kind of shooting as well and to get it right. Christmas, Hannukah, New Years’ Day: whatever your favourite celebration is: make great pictures.

I’ll get you started. My settings were:

  1. Camera in manual exposure mode; flash on TTL.
  2. The Willems 400-40-4 rule: but modified to use 800 ISO instead of 400, at the usual 1/40th second at f/4.
  3. White Balance on Flash, with slight adjustment in post every time I bounced off a brown ceiling instead of a white wall. (Brown is just dark yellow, so move the White Balance slider to “Blue” (cold) when adjusting these.)
  4. Flash aimed behind me, straight or at an angle.

To keep in mind, a few notes:

  1. Focus carefully, and yes, in the dark that is difficult and slow. Life’s tough.
  2. Move people to where there is a nice background and you can bounce off a white wall.
  3. In darker rooms, or where the ceiling and wall are higher or less reflective, go to 800 ISO – or higher when you need to! Better to do it in the camera than to underexpose and push in post.
  4. Use the Rule of Thirds.
  5. Think about your light direction. In every shot.
  6. Change flash batteries before they run out, not after they do.
  7. 35mm is a great focal length for people shots (24mm if you are using a crop camera).

More about all this later this month. I took around 300 pictures – fewer than usual because I was a little more selective. We evolve as photographers, and I go up and down in regard to the number of images I make. I like to get them right, rather than fire away randomly.

A couple more samples. Couples in posed shots are great:

Movers and shakers, celebrities, politicians like Mike Harris are used to being photographed:

You can ask people to do things (like “Go on – kiss your wife!”):

Shooting events is fun; people will listen to your suggestions and do what you ask; and if your  technique is good, your clients (or family!) will love your shots. Go have some fun this December!


Tip of the day: Events

When shooting “camera-aware” pictures at events, here’s a tip:

Shoot every picture twice.

You should tell your subjects “we’ll do it twice”, and then do two shots.


  • People blink. But not twice.
  • You may get focus wrong in one shot – but not in both.
  • One or both subjects may relax after shot 1 – or stiffen.

Either way – there is a very good chance that one image will be markedly better than the other. And the better image is the only one you show.

That’s why you do this: it makes you a more successful photographer. Pros cannot fail!


Back to basics

You know that as an event shooter, I use TTL (through-the-lens flash metering, using a preflash) very widely. Much as it is sometimes hard to predict, it is the only thing you can use when things are moving quickly. Like at an event.

But sometimes, things go wrong. I had flash maslfunctions for part of Saturday’s shoots. You see, TTL is not really unpredictable -once you know how it works (metering bias to the focus point, for instance, and an assumption of 18% grey where it meters) it is predictable. So a malfunction is when it becomes actually unpredictable.

As it did Saturday with my dying 580EX II flash. Here’s three consecutive shots – I do everything the same, and yet I got, in rapid succession in the same setup, one dark shot, one light shot, and one OK shot:

Too dark. And the next one, way overexposed:

And the third one, almost OK:

I cannot live with this craziness. So then what do I do? I go back to basics. Actual basics. The basics we used in 1980. Namely, I set my flash to manual power setting (my camera, of course, is already on manual exposure settings).

One quarter flash power ought to do it, I thought, looking at where I was bouncing and what my settings were – and that worked great:

So then for the next dozen or two shots I stayed in the same place, shot people at the same distance, and kept the flash and camera set to the same. Bingo, predictable shots.

So when life hands you unpredictability, force predictability on it If you use the same settings and it’s all manual and your distance to the subject stays constant, the pictures will all be the same.

Sometimes, 1980-style basics work just great. Actually, they quite often do. My camera is very often on the “manual” exposure setting, for instance.


Graduation season

It’s graduation season. Right? So many parents are out to shoot their kids’ ceremony. High School, Grade School, Music School, University: important moments in a life; milestones that really deserve to be photographed. And understandably, you ask “how”.

A High School Grad

A High School Grad

So in that context, here’s a few tips.

You want pictures of graduation ceremonies. Both the “handing out of the diploma” and the crowd going wild. Make it into a permanent memory. Shoot context, too. Challenges: The light is likely to be somewhat low.  Your position may not be great.

Solutions: Use high ISO, a “fast” lens, and shoot lots. Be sure to get the “required” shots – like the one where your graduate is being handed his or her diploma.


  • SLR
  • Long lens over 100mm) for diploma shots
  • Wide lens (24-35mm) for the  crowd shots
  • Use fast lenses (“Low f-number”)!
  • Bring a flash – you may or may not need to, and be able to, use it
  • Bring a Fong Lightsphere: bounceability may be bad, so if that is the case and the light is low, the Lightsphere may be a way out.
  • Consider bringing a monopod. Just in case!


  • Mode: Manual
  • Shutter: usually 1/30th – 1/60th sec (see meter)
  • Aperture: f/2.8 or low as as possible
  • ISO: at least 400 (at f/2.8) or 800 (at f/4) or even 1,600 (at f/5.6)
  • Drive mode: Continuous, fast
  • Focus points: Centre focus point/area
  • Focus mode: One Shot/AF-S
  • Metering: Evaluative/3D Color Matrix, or spot

Situation tips:

  • Arrive early, to get a good seat.
  • Be ready for light changes (someone turns on or off the spot lights).
  • Practice on kids who are in the line before yours!
  • Find out if “getting up” and Flash are allowed, and act accordingly.
  • Shoot wide open (largest aperture), at the highest ISO you can stand. Use the centre focus point (it’s more sensitive in low light).
  • Try to catch the graduate on the way up to receive the diploma, and on the way out with it.
  • Tell your graduate to look at you after he/she is handed the diploma. They may forget – or they may not.
  • And especially, get “the money shot”, with the graduate shaking hands and being handed the diploma.
  • Then change to wide or normal lens to catch the crowd,or perhaps “caps in the air”.
  • Catch the exit line near the beginning – not near the end, where it degrades.

These tips should be enough to get you going. And don’t forget: enjoy these once-in a lifetime moments.


The order of things

When I shoot an event, in difficult light, here is how I start:

  • Camera on manual;
  • 1/30th second at f/5.6, ISO400;
  • Flash aimed 45 degrees up, behind me.

I check if that gives me a reading of -2 stops on the light meter. I do a test shot. Hopefully, it simply works.

"Ed The Sock" and Claudia Christian, Toronto, March 2011 (Photo: Michael Willems)

"Ed The Sock" and actress Claudia Christian, Toronto, March 2011

But if the above does not work for me because of low light (I cannot bounce or it is too dark), then I will do the following:

  • If I can, move to a better place (e.g. one where I have a wall behind me);
  • Then, if the previous fails, raise ISO to 800 or beyond;
  • Then, use a Honl Photo bounce card/reflector Velcro’d behind the flash using a Speed Strap;
  • If all else fails, use a Gary Fong lightsphere.

But if on the other hand it fails because the light behind the subject is too light rather than too dark, I will:

  • Raise the shutter (to a maximum of my sync speed, e.g. 1/200th sec);
  • After that runs  out, lower ISO and close the aperture (higher “f-number”). I realize when doing this that I may need to get closer: my flash will not reach as far.

That is my sequence. Yours may differ, but it is important you get a flow, a routine: a checklist, if you will. Having a checklist is not a sign of weakness – ask any pilot. I still recall my engine out checklist from flying Cessnas as long as decades ago – I’ll get it right every time even now. Try to make your photography as routine, so you can start seeing the shot, rather than worrying about the technical settings.

Tip: Look for my article on success factors for event shooting in the upcoming June/July issue of Photo Life Magazine.