Amateur Aesthetic

Today, another example of the “Amateur Aesthetic” or “Snapshot Aesthetic”made popular by such contemporary photographers as Terry Richardson, after Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, two of my favourites.

Here’s mine, a high-key model shot:

We call it amateur, or snapshot, because you use a flash straight on, and aim at the subject, and have the subject stand in front of a white backdrop, camera aware. Like Uncle Fred does. This gives you the drop shadow. It also, however, gives you very flattening light, and models like this: it hides any facial features. Overexposing a little, or rather, exposing brightly, makes it even better in that regard.

Unlike your Uncle Fred, my models and I think carefully about composition, light, and expression and pose. The direct flash means you need to aim the subject’s face down a little, else light comes “from below”, which is never flattering.

So nothing is left to accident, in spite of the amateur look.

For this shot, I used 1/160th sec, 400 ISO, f/5.6 and an on-camera 600EX flash. The flash compensation, like in the examples of a few days ago, was set to +2 stops, and I used TTL flash metering for flexibility.

Your assignment for today: shoot a portrait like this. I am about to teach a TTL flash course, and my student will do this as well. In addition to “proper” flash, you need to know techniques like this as just another tool in your toolbox.


This Report Contains No Flash Photography

Mass hysteria: we see it in humans all the time. Don’t use your cell phone in a gas station (total number of fires or explosions worldwide as a result of cell phones: zero). Don’t use your blackberry in a hospital (a 100 mW blackberry is supposedly a danger, while the doctor’s own blackberry, or the security guard’s 5,000 mW walkie-talkie, apparently represent no danger). Our local hospital has a No WiFi rule—and yet there is a WiFi network all over the hospital, named “staff only”.One presumes staff WiFi is kinder, gentler, somehow. Do not vaccinate (danger of vaccination: negligible. Danger of the diseases prevented by vaccination: immense). And so on. Superstitions are dumb, and I mean that: dumb because they knowingly do not look at evidence, just at emotional “I read it on the Internet” inputs.

One particularly insidious one is the uniquely British “This Report Contains Flash Photography” warning, with an exclamation mark, no less:

Every news item in the UK that has a photographer flashing is preceded by this warning. Even news web sites carry it. Newsreaders say it.  Enough to make you really, really fear flash photography. And as you may have guessed, The Speedlighter cannot let that go unchallenged. It is insidious because it leads to a general fear of flash.

The British justification is that there are some epileptics sensitive to flashes. Which is true, and we should not trivialize the seriousness of epilepsy. I would not: I myself have a brain that is very sensitive to light flashes at certain frequency, and EEGs have shown me to be very close to this type of photosensitive epilepsy: my brain displays distinct epileptiform EEG patterns. I remember the EEG: a weird experience, to have my brain affect the frequency of the flashes I was seeing. Brrr… Br-r-r-r-r-r… Brrrr… B-r-r-r-r-r-r… the flashes went.

However, (a) there are very, very few people with actual photosensitive epilepsy (a few thousand in the UK, The Guardian estimates; it is unlikely that out of those, more than a few are watching any particular broadcast), and (b) they are sensitive to repeated, regular flashes, say at 15-25 Hz, not to individual and irregular flashes from cameras.

The reason this warning is nevertheless carried is, apparently, a regulatory one. Safety above everything, and the law is the law.

And the problem with that is that if we put safety above everything, we do not have a workable society. Of course, in practice clearly we do not do this: we make reasonable accommodations. Else, cars would have to move at 5 km/h with a red flag preceding them. And with two drivers at all times, preferably. We would, of course, not fly airplanes at all; nor would we ride horses. All nuts and nut products would need to be permanently banned, as would alcohol and tobacco—and fat. We would force-vaccinate all kids. All movies that contain any adult situations, nudity, political statements, religious discussion should be banned for fear they may offend.

As you see from these hyperbolic hypotheticals, saying “safety above everything” is unworkable, and we do not do it. We just pretend to, because it is comfortable for simple minds to hear that our governments are removing all risks.

When deciding whether a warning is useful, you look at other places, Do other countries mandate this warning? Not to my knowledge; and yet, there are no hordes of Americans, Germans, Canadians, and so on all dropping like flies from flashes in news reports. So we can safely say: yes, this is another case of mass hysteria. If you are asked not to flash because someone objects, fine. If you yourself have light-sensitive epilepsy, then ask for no flashing. Other than that:


Have you seen my new Video With Your DSLR course on the schedule? Check out‘s schedule page.



If you read this blog, you know I am all about proper lighting. And proper lighting is about off-camera flash technique, modifiers, and so on.

But it is also about making exceptions. One of those is what I like to call the “Terry Richardson look”. Look him up: he is one of the world’s most highly paid photographers and his typical work consists of putting famous people (think Barack Obama, Miley Cyrus, and every other celebrity) against a white wall and shooting with a direct, on-camera flash.

Normally, this is a recipe for disastrous snapshots. But he somehow carries it off, and we call it the “punk/amateur aesthetic”. And so I like to think I can carry it off too. Have a look at some shots from yesterday:

So why do these work, against all better judgment?

Because they have a recognizable look. And because they are what I would call urban cool. And they provide wonderful, even, beauty lighting that compliments skin and fills in any facial features (think wrinkles). And because lighting skin brightly is very complimentary. This Terry Richardson technique can take ten years off someone’s age.

The images above were made in the studio with a simple on-camera flash aimed straight into the subject’s face. I used TTL flash and (this is crucial) I set flash exposure compensation (FEC) to +2 stops. 400 ISO, f/5.6, 1/125th second.  You need a powerful flash (I used a 600 EX): the pop-up flash will not do.

But the above is all you need. And—here’s the kicker—because of this simple, all-filling light, no post work needed to be done on these images.

A few more examples:

Triptychs work well, too:

So this technique may look like a snapshot technique, but it is in fact well thought out and executed. Of course I would not recommend doing this in all your pictures, if only because twenty years from now, this will look dated. But for sure, Mr Richardson is on to something here. And I am happy to have this available as one of my techniques.


Note: if you want to also see the nudes from this session, head on over to


Ring Flash!

If, like me, you do not like Terry Richardson’s hard flash shadows (Google it…), then you prefer softer shadows. And so, traditionally, do most fashion photographers.

And they often use a ring flash for that. A flash that forms a ring around your lens. Because it is the only flash that can work great when fired straight on to the subject, as in this image of one of today’s Advanced Flash students:

Wow. Direct, unmodified flash ON camera is acceptable?

It is when you use a ring flash. And the ring flash achieves that by being a circle of flash around the front of your entire lens. So there’s not so much “no shadow” as much as “shadow everywhere”. Look at the typical “halo” shadow:

See that halo? Since the model is bigger than the camera, the shadow lines move outward. If we move the model farther from the wall, it gets even larger:

And if we move the model closer to the wall, it gets smaller, and more difficult to notice:

Also, of course, the wall is brighter (she is closer to it, i.e. it is closer to her: the Inverse Square Law doesn’t get much of a chance).

You can get donut-shaped highlights if you are close to the model. I like these. If you don’t like them, move outward a little.

So do I like ring flashes? Yup. For fashion, and for some macro work. Love them:  a great addition to the serious photographer’s kit bag.

But—one note of caution: you will get red-eye. In the images above, each eye was red, and I had to use Lightroom’s Red-eye correction feature. Which is very able and simple, so it’s no big deal. Unless you forget!


White Balance Tip

Why, I was asked yesterday, do I need to set my white balance to “Flash” when shooting studio-type pictures like the one of friend Liz below? Isn’t “Auto” enough?

Well, in a sense Auto is OK, since you can always correct later—assuming you are shooting in RAW format. (If shooting JPG, you must set the white balance accurately when shooting). But while you can shoot with the wrong balance, why not get it right? Your previews will look great, and there’s less work later.

So why is Auto wrong in this case?

The key phrase is “studio type” shooting. That is distinguished from speedlight shooting in one major way: namely, that you connect to the flash via either a cable or a radio trigger such as a Pocketwizard.

And that means the camera does not actually know you are using flash! So it does not set its white balance to Flash for you. And Auto is wrong, because you cannot measure flash white balance automatically. Why not? Because that measuring is done before the picture is taken, and before the picture is taken there is no flash! So the camera will base its white balance on the lightbulbs in the studio rather than on the flashes. And that’s wrong.

So now you know yet another little thing about flash!


If you are in the Oakville, Ontario area: I have one spot open for Sunday’s Advanced Flash workshop. be quick and be part of this!

Also, of course, there’s the e-books: go check out what people are saying. The books and courses work very well together.

And finally, I have that 50mm f/1.2 lens for sale. Check that out too: and remember, $125 off for readers of this blog.