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. 


Just now in Ajax.

So I just taught part three of a flash course in Ajax, Ontario.

In an excellent day, Ajax Photography Club creative Director Ron Pereux had arranged five of these:


Yup, brides!

And with very simple equipment we did some fun, creative shots using gels, snoots, softboxes (the excellent Honlphoto gear – use checkout code “Willems” for 10% off), umbrellas, and grids.

Some of the work needs some post-finishing when conditions are not right. Look at the backdrop:


And look at the finished product. Yup, a slightly more traditional photo:


And a more edgy photo, the type young brides are more likely to love, full of feeling:


Or even edgier:


Shooting brides is fun, and today I was able to help the Ajax club with a lot of very practical easy to put into practice tips and techniques. Flash photography is so easy once you know it, and so rewarding once you know how to do it well. Take a course – if not from me (, then from someone else who knows his or her business!


Shopping Recommendations

A few Shopping Recommendations here for you today. Read on, because some of them can be advantageous to you.

First: someone asked me for a good framer in the region. I forget who it was who asked, but here you go: Don Corby, of Corby Framing in Freelton (, 905-689-1976). Tell him I sent you. He does a great job with custom frames and affordably. Please print and frame your photos. Please!

Then, printing. As I have said many times here: please, please, please print your work. You will avoid losing it. It will look better, and you will feel much better about your skills and your art. Made into wall art your work will be much more valuable. For prints up to 13×19″ use a Canon Picma Pro or 9500 Mark II. For larger prints, use Fotobox in Etobicoke. These guys and what they do are amazing. Al my large metallic prints are theirs. Top work for a very affordable price. Again, tell them I sent you.

Then, shopping! I recommend you buy here: Henry’s in Oakville (ask for Rob, manager) or Vistek, in Mississauga or Toronto. Go to these guys every time over the big box stores, and tell them I sent you. They will take care of you with great selections, the latest stuff, and excellent product and market knowledge. They will sell you only what you need, not what gives them most commission. They’re like me: they want customers, not sales.

Finally, flash modifiers. Honl, honl, and Honl again. I have waxed lyrical over these small flash modifiers forever: not because David Honl is a friend of mine, but because his modifiers are small, light, sturdy and affordable, and that is an unbeatable combination for a photojournalist and for anyone else except masochists who like to carry more and pay more. Dave has joined me in teaching flash in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Toronto, and he has agreed to put together special kits and to give you a 10% discount on any order if you, as a reader of and/or one of my students, order direct from him by using this link (click here) (or simply click on the Honl Photo ad on this page), and use discount code willems. 10% off on gear that is already affordable and that is the key to unlocking small flash success: what’s not to like? I strongly recommend this. There’s the grid, pictured here; the gels; the unique gell rollups; the speed snoot, the reflectors, the small softboxes: with these tools, small flashes effortlessly and quickly become flexible creative tools. I have a carrying case full of them, and you’ve seen my work: need I say more? Even in my studio I often use small flashes now, rather than strobes. The hair light is always a small flash with a speed snoot, for instance.

End note: I only make recommendations I strongly believe in; “for these, I would put my hand into the fire”, as the Dutch would say. The vendors and tools I recommend will help you become a better photographer, or will help you get more out of your work. Promise.



In yesterday’s shoot with Vanessa Scott in Timmins, Ontario, I used gels to recreate the sunlight that was fast fading below the hills. All shot with Canon’s amazing 85mm f/1.2 len.

(1/200th, f/4, ISO100)

Vanessa looks like she is in that light, because I put a CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) gel by Honlphoto on the main flash, like so:

You will see also that I am using a second flash, fitted with a grid, for the hair light. Two flashes driven by Pocketwizards—that’s all.

One more from this amazingly versatile young woman:

1/60, f/5, ISO100 — I had to adjust for fading light

Again, the flash allows me to offset the subject against the background, which I keep dark. Without the flash, I would lose the nice colour and I would have to make everything, including that background, very bright.

And that’s how the cookie crumbles.