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.



I shall now repeat a flash trick I have mentioned here before years ago. Time for a refresher.

You all know how important it is to avoid, at least when the flash is on your camera, direct flash light reaching your subject. Both in order to avoid “flat” light, and especially to avoid those nasty drop shadows, like this (don’t do this at home, kids):

But you have also heard me talk (and those who come to my upcoming flash courses will learn hands-on) that you should “look for the virtual umbrella”. For most lighting, this means 45 degrees above, and in front of, the subject.

So when you are close to that subject, you aim your flash behind you to get to that point. Good.

But what when you are far, as when using a telephoto lens? Then the “virtual umbrella” may be in front of you. And aiming your flash forward is a no-no, since the subject will be lit in part by direct light.

A-ha. Unless you block the direct part of that light!

Like this:

As you see, I use a Honl Photo bounce card/gobo to block the direct light. Simple, affordable, and very effective. I use either the white bounce side, or the black flag side, depending on the ceiling and position.

Simple, effective – done!

And one more thing. Direct flash is not bad per sé. Not at all. As long as it is not coming from where your lens is, it can be very effective, like in this “funny face” shot of a recent student (you know who you are):

Lit by a direct, unmodified flash. And the hairlight, the shampooy goodness? Yeah. The sun. Just saying.

(And yes, that too is something I will teach those of you who sign up for one of my upcoming flash courses.)


Portrait lesson

A quick portrait lesson today.

Here’s student and photographer Emma, in a coaching session on Friday:

For this photo I used a 16-35mm lens, set to 16mm. On my full-frame Canon 1Dx camera, that is a proper wide angle lens – like a 10mm lens on your 5D, 60D, Rebel, D90, or similar.

So first, let’s put paid to the adage that “you cannot make portraits with a wide angle lens”. Yes you can: environmental portraits, where you do not fill the frame with the subject. Distance between subject and photographer is the only important thing, not lens angle. A wide lens gives you that wonderful “wrap around” effect that we love in this type of portrait – the subject in, and as part of, her environment, rather than as a standalone object.

So that out of the way, what about camera settings?

I used the Willems 400-40-4 rule for indoors flash. Since our indoors environments are often roughly the same brightness, a manual setting of 400 ISO, 1/40th second, f/4 will give you a starting point that is ambient minus two stops.

Which is what I want if I want to see the background, but not too brightly: just like Rembrandt, I want to make my subject the “bright pixels”. Because as a reader here you also know Willems’s Dictum: “Bright Pixels Are Sharp Pixels”.  So that means a slightly darker background.

OK,  so that is the background  taken care of: -2 stops, give or take. How about Emma?

I used an off-camera 600EX speedlight, driven by an on-camera 600EX that was set to only command the other flash (using the new radio interface). I equipped the flash with a Honl  photo Traveller 8 softbox for that wonderful light – and that wonderful circular catchlight in Emma’s eyes:

Good, so we are set.

But what about the idea of making it a monochrome image, to stop the red distracting us? In Lightroom, simply select “B/W: in the Develop module:

You may or may not prefer that to the colour image. If you do, then consider dragging the red to the left a little in the B/W module. That means red light will be used less in the conversion, i.e. it will be less bright in the black and white image:

Now we have gotten rid of the red place mat almost entirely, allowing us to concentrate on Emma. That is often a good reason to go to black and white: you get very extensive creative options.

Mission accomplished, in a very simple-to-do shot that is miles beyond a snapshot.

Yes, simple – once you know how (this is what I do, and it is also what I teach).  Invest some time and effort in learning these techniques – you will love what your new photography allow you to do creatively.


Light.. action!

I shot a few shots of Kelly, the hair stylist for a shoot the other night.

Here she is:

Nice. So how did I light that?

Here’s how.

I used my 1D Mk4 camera in manual mode, equipped with a Pocketwizard to drive the following flashes:

  • A 400 Ws Bowens light with a Bowens softbox. Powered by a battery (the Travel Kit); driven by a Pocketwizard.
  • A 430EX flash with a Honl Photo 1/4″ grid and a Honl Photo gel (green in the pullback shot above; egg yolk yellow in the real shot) to light up the background. This was also fired by a Pocketwizard, connected via a Flashzebra cable.

The other flash was a spare and I did not use it. I set y exposure for a dark background, then metered the flashes with a light meter. I used the speedlight to light up the background to provide hair separation, since I could not get it in the back aiming forward to light the hair, which I would otherwise have done.

A fairly simple setup for a nice shot, no?


Cool colour

I shot some demo product shots with my student Merav today, and I thought I would share them here to underline the importance of colour.

Here’s one, a simple one. Lit by a softbox on the leeft, an umbrella on the right, and against a grey backdrop. That gives us this:

Bit boring? Yes it is. So I add a gridded, “egg-yolk yellow” gelled speedlight aiming at the background. (I use the excellent Honl Photo grids, gels, and other small flash modifiers):

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Much better. Then we added another light – a green-blue gelled speedlight shining in from the left:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Then we reversed the gel colours:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Then, tried another background colour, rose purple:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

And finally got to a background coloured Just Blue, which had been Merav’s idea all along:

Product Shot (Photo: Michael Willems)

Which one did you prefer? Can you see how different they all are?

To shoot this I used this setup:

Product Shot Setup (Photo: Michael Willems)

This works as follows:

  1. Put the bottle on a table, with white paper underneath
  2. Put up a grey backdrop, far from the bottle so it does not get any light
  3. Get the main lights right – use a light meter to set them to your desired values (I used f/9 and 1/125th second at 200 ISO). Main strobe is fired with Pocketwizard; secondary strobe by its cell.
  4. Add a background light: a small flash also fired by a Pocketwizard, through a Flashzebra cable. Set to 1.4 power. Equipped with a 1/4″ Honl grid and a gel.
  5. Add a side light: a small flash also fired by a Pocketwizard, through a Flashzebra cable. Set to 1/4 power. Equipped with a gel.

Simple. Once you know!

Why the rum? It was the only bottle I had in the house. Amazingly, for the first time I can remember, I had not a single bottle of beer or wine or anything else available in the house. Time to hit the liqor store!