Shutter speed isn’t all there is to shutter speed.

“Shutter speed” isn’t all there is to shutter speed.

Uh oh. Michael is The Oracle. What on earth does he mean by that confusing statement?

Well, let’s have a look. Let’s set up a couple of gelled and gridded speedlights (using Honlphoto grids and gels) and get a talented life model. Which is exactly what I did in August 2012 at Brock University, during the 5-day flash course I was teaching for the Niagara School of Imaging.

But wait. Because I want to show you the setup, let’s allow in some ambient light. To achieve this we use a really slow shutter speed, of 0.6 sec. More than half a second, in other words. That lets in some ambient. Not a lot, but enough to see the classroom, some of the equipment, and so on.

The picture, showing the setup with the two flashes, below. Look at the two little gelled speedlights, can you spot them? Purple gel on the left and yellow gel on the right:


OK. Great. Blurry as heck, of course: 0.6 seconds is ridiculously slow. Impossible to hold still. Right?

But wait. Lots of blur, yes, all over the picture, but look carefully. Click on the image to see it full size, and now look carefully at the model. What do you see?

She is sharp. No blur on her: she is tack sharp. There’s blur all over, but not much on the actual subject. A little “ghosting”, but she is substantially sharp.

But that’s impossible: the shutter speed was 0.6 seconds. So she must be blurry! Right?

So that’s where I say “‘Shutter speed’ isn’t all there is to shutter speed”. The shutter speed may be 0.6 seconds, but the model is lit primarily (almost exclusively) by the flashes. And the flashes flash at 1/1000 second or faster. At 1/4 power, they flash for just 1/4000 second. So while the shutter speed may be 0.6 seconds, as long as the subject is lit only by the flashes, our effective shutter speed is 1/4000 second!

And that is why you see a sharp model: there is very little ambient light on her, so the effective shutter speed is determined almost exclusively by the flash speed. Which is very rapid.

So now let’s do a normal shutter speed, of 1/125 sec, so the ambient light is cut out. And here is the finished product:


So anyway. This is a studio shot. So I want no ambient light: the second picture, in other words.  But when I shoot an event, like a wedding reception, I want to let in some ambient light to avoid those cold, black backgrounds. Instead, I want a nice warm background. To achieve that, I am happy to shoot with shutter speed as slow as 1/15 or 1/30 second. And now you know why I can get away with that.



David Honl, whose modifiers as you know I use, and love, just posted a helpful post on his blog. I will show you Part of it right here, namely the corrections you need to make to your flash when using a gel:


Those are useful Numbers, these will save you a lot of effort when you’re using the gels yourself. Which as you know I’m a big advocate of. This  will save you a lot of effort when you’re using the gels yourself. Which as you know I’m a big advocate of.

There is one thing I want to point out in addition to this though. Namely:

To turn a background into colorful, it first has to be dark.

It does not matter if the background is in reality gray, light gray, white, or even black; what is important is that to the camera ot has to look almost black. Then, and only then, can you add your gelled flashes. Then, and only then, can you add your gelled flashes.

If you do not do this, and if the background is, say, white, then adding color will add nothing except perhaps a slight tint   LIgor is not like paint: you cannot cover a color by putting another color on top.

For many people this is the biggest revelation when they start using color gels… So now you know. I just saved you a bunch of time. As did Dave with his table.

To  buy,  click on the advertising link on the right, and when checking out use code word “Willems” for an additional 10% discount. You’re welcome. 


Quick portrait

Prior to a class the other day, I decided to do a very quick self portrait or two. Let me share, and explain how.

How? This is how:

  1. A 1D camera with a 580EX flash on it – with that flash used as a master, and disabled otherwise, so it only drives additional flashes.
  2. The camera set to manual, 1/125th sec, f/5.6, 400 ISO.
  3. An additional flash A on our left: a 430EX on a light stand, with a HonlPhoto grid to avoid the light spilling onto the wall.
  4. An additional flash B on our left: a 430EX on its little foot, equipped with a HonlPhoto gel.
  5. A 1:1 ratio of A:B flashes.
  6. The camera set to choose its own focus point for once, since I am holding it myself!
  7. The camera in my outstretched arm, tilted for diagonal line effect.

Not bad eh?

Finally, one more with a different gel on the background flash: egg yolk yellow, my favourite colour.

Total time taken: Maybe two, three minutes.


Studio light note

Welcome, all, including new students and reader.

Continuing in the studio lighting technique series of posts, today, let’s look at the effect of a background light.

A simple portrait (yes, as you see, I am my most patient model):

That was lit with one strobe in a softbox on our left. Simple, nice, soft light.

But wait. Perhaps a little more light on the background would help offset the model from the background a little better. For this, we use a speedlight, with a grid (so as to avoid the light going everywhere).

Like this, using a 430EX (similar to a Nikon SB600) fired with a Pocketwizard, and fitted with a Honl grid:

And that gives us very different light.

Now we could turn that background up, or down; or change the direction.

The point is that this allows us to play with “foreground versus background” a little. Offsetting your subject from the background is always good – dark background and light subject or light subject and dark background are both good. There’s no one way – it’s more that there are a number of ways of doing things. And by controlling liught, you control those ways.


Designing a one-light self portrait

Here is a self portrait, and the process that went through my head making it. I thought that would be good to share. Here’s how to make a dramatic self-portrait in ten steps.

  1. First, I thought “let’s do a quick self portrait, indoors, lit by simple TTL flash”.
  2. I then thought “But let’s make it off-camera flash”.
  3. I went on to think “I want a dramatic image, so let’s use only flash light: available light should play no role”.
  4. To achieve that, I set my camera to manual exposure,  1/125th second, f/5.6, ISO 100. I took a test shot: black. Good, just what I wanted.
  5. Next, I aimed a single 430EX flash in slave mode at the wall diagonally from the side.
  6. Next, I attached a 1/4″ Honl Photo grid to the flash to avoid lighting up the whole wall; instead, I cast a nice parabola. That grid is my most used accessory, I think.
  7. I added a projected image of a set of lenses, only just visible.
  8. Now I put myself into that parabola: light straight into my face. Diagonal to the camera.
  9. I selected an almost-standard lens length (28mm on a Canon 7D, meaning a “real” 45mm) and off-centre composition, with a heavy shadow dramatically cast by me onto the wall.
  10. Finally, to take the shot I would have used a tripod, but since I had a student available, I asked her to shoot for me (Kayleigh, you know who you are).

And the result? Here it is.

Photographer Michael Willems

Photographer and educator Michael Willems, Oakville, 16 May 2011

(For best results, click and  view at original size)

What do you think? Me to a T, eh? This entire shot took just a few minutes to set up. You can do this too!