Anatomy of a portrait

My younger son, who is a rapper, told me tonight, on his birthday, that he needed  a new portrait for publicity for his new album. So I obliged, before cooking dinner and while simultaneously doing laundry. Here he is:

That image took maybe twenty minutes, half an hour tops – but a lot of experience and thinking and equipment goes into a portrait like that.

First, what is required? We discussed, and he clearly wanted a serious, dramatic, look. In a grungy setting. The T-shirt text and the bling should be clearly legible and visible, respectively.  So OK – the briefing being clear, I used the basement studio, and freed just enough space to do a half body portrait.

Then the light. Speed was of the essence: I was about to make dinner. So I used speedlights. First, I set up a light stand with a 430EX flash set to manual, 1/4 power, and driven by a pocketwizard. I equipped it with a Honl photo 8″ softbox. I feathered the softbox to get the right amount of drama in the light, and to get Loop Lighting, almost Rembrandt Lighting, on his face.

The camera was a 1Dx with a 50mm f/1.2 lens, set to 1/125th sec, f/11, 100 ISO. I knew the 50 was perfect for a half body portrait in a small space.

I tried, and the photos were OK:

Not too bad, but we wanted a little more emphasis on the writing. And more texture of the shirt. And clearly visible bling. So I added a second speedlight, this time with a 1/8″ grid, for a tight line of light, and aimed that at the shirt. Also equipped with a pocketwizard, and set to lower power (1/16th). Not having had time to prepare, I took my time finding things like cables and a bracket that fit the flash – all part of the fun.

I set the lights to the camera’s desired settings of, if you recall, 1/125th sec, 100 ISO, f/11. I used a light meter to verify that.

And there you have it. A few pictures – I took a total of 30, and we chose his preferred one, the one at the top. I could have done the light thing, the vignetting, in post, but call me crazy: I call that cheating if I could have done it in camera.

As a result, almost nothing needed to be done in post, but that still takes time: selecting, removing the odd bit of dust, any perspective correction, and so on.

Total time taken, as said, less than half an hour including getting things ready, setting up lights, moving stuff, and the entire discussion and post work. But that’s only because I have done this before. Experience is important. The good news: you can gain experience too and it costs very little.



If you want to learn, and you live near Oakville, Ontario: evening Flash course on 3 Oct, and 5-evening course with a weekly evening lesson starting  2 Oct. – both these small courses have open places still.



From Hopper to Leibovitz, hotel rooms have always been a fascinating setting for art portraits.

I portrayed myself in a hotel in Timmins, Ontario, Wednesday morning, evoking feelings of these prior artists, but especially, creating with light. Straight out of the camera.

If I say so: my best self portrait. Ever.

Click to see larger:

I did this in my suite in the Timmins Day’s Inn. I was alone and I used:

  • Camera perched on an upturned Ottoman
  • Main light is a 580EX flash with a Honlphoto Traveller 8 softbox, clamped to a desk chair.
  • Additional flash is a 430EX speedlight with a Honlphoto Rust coloured gel, for some nice warm light.
  • Camera at 100 ISO, f/5.6, 1/60th second.
  • Flashes fired with Pocketwizards.

Camera prefocused and using its self timer. This took me only a couple of attempts to get right.

The main light: a flash connected with a Flashzebra cable and mounted with a ball head onto a clamp, clamped to a chair. Note the second flash sitting in the background.

And no, the name “selfie” doesn’t do it justice, does it?



I often, of course, say this - “Limit: when using flash, you cannot exceed your camera’s fastest sync speed (usually 1/250th second)”.

And then almost as often, I hear the following objection:

“But Michael: you can use High Speed/Auto FP flash!”

And that way, you can exceed the sync speed. Sure – like in this photo of Aurèle Monfils of the Porcupine Photo Club, which I made yesterday with the standard sunny day blurred background setting (write it down!) of:

  • 100 ISO
  • f/4
  • 1/2000th sec

…using an on-camera flash fitted with a Honl 8″ Traveller 8 softbox:

Yes. You can, as you see!

But now I have a “but”.

The high-speed mode works by effectively making your flash into a continuous light, at least for the duration of the shutter speed; it flashes pulses at 40 kHz. Fine, but most of those pulses reach the closed part of the shutter, so most energy is wasted; hence, your effective range is reduced dramatically. Maybe just over a metre at 1/2000th second when using the flash without modifier; with a softbox as I was using here, maybe 30cm, no more.

Hence the slight “wide angle” look in my image above due to me having to be close, with a wide lens. As in this one of Aurèle’s daughter Lisa:

So while it is true that high speed/FP flash solves the sync speed problem, it’s  not a panacea, and in practice, it is only occasionally usable.

Footnote: Lisa is turned away from the sun: It is behind her, meaning she is not squinting, and the sun becomes the shampooey goodness™ light on her hair!


Want to learn to use modern Flash technique? I travel worldwide for hands-on seminars. Vegas, London, the Netherlands, Phoenix, Niagara, Toronto, or Timmins: wherever you want me, I’ll be there for you.

Building a studio portrait

A “standard” studio portrait is very simple to build if you have three or four flashes; and it is entirely repeatable, that is its beauty. Here’s how you do it in six easy steps:

ONE set the camera to settings where the ambient light does “nothing”. Like 100 ISO, 1/125th sec, f/8. Test this by taking a non-flash picture: it should be dark.

TWO set up your main light, using softbox or shoot-through umbrella, at 45 degrees from the subject, 45 degrees up. Turn your subject into that light.

THREE then add a fill light on the opposite side. You can use a reflector, or another flash with umbrella, set two stops darker than the main (“key”) light.

FOUR then add a hair light, for that shampooey goodness™. This is a light from behind at an angle, using a snoot or grid to avoid lighting all of your subject.

FIVE then add a background light – another flash.

SIX then decide if you want colours anywhere – like the background. I used a complementary colour here – complementary to the subject and her clothing:

A Studio Portrait (Photo: Michael Willems Photographer,


Here’s my Sheridan College class on Monday, practicing this:


Want to learn this? Next week’s workshop (April 10) in Hamilton, Ontario is about this very subject: studio photography. In one evening, learn to do this, use a light meter, use pocketwizards, compose, etc. There are still spaces, but this small, intimate studio workshop is limited to 10 students, so book right now! : come see me talk this weekend in Toronto about Flash Photography, and even better: book online and use promo code Michael2013 to get 50% off a weekend pass. See you then!

Shampooey Goodness™

You have heard the term “hair light”? It’s the Shampooey Goodness™ look that makes hair look alive and wonderful. That is why we use it in portraits.

In yesterday’s flash course, I shot a few images of one of the wonderful students, especially to show you in today’s post. Here’s Becky lit with a single TTL flash (a 580EX shot through an umbrella) without the Shampooey Goodness™ secret ingredient added:

Pretty – but now let’s add a second flash, behind her, fitted with a Honl Photo Speed Snoot (a rolled up tube, that concentrates light). That gives us the desired Shampooey Goodness™, and now, in this scientifically objective and neutral comparison, we get:

See what I mean? That’s why we so often in portraits like to add a “hair light”.

Of course there’s something else missing from this image. Can you see what?

Yes – that background is a little dull. So we add a third flash, fitted with a blue-green gel:

Bingo. A great subject, soft light, Shampooey Goodness™, and a lit background. That’s how you do a portrait. Three TTL flashes with simple, small modifiers.


NEW: Learn this from me personally in Hamilton, Ontario on April 10 or May 14: the full schedule on and sign up today.