An engagement shoot, this morning. It was cold, but the young lovers, Kristen and Dan, aren’t showing it:

In a shoot like this, you may want to keep in mind a few things.

  • There is bright stuff - the sky and directly sunlit areas – and dark stuff – the rest. It is impossible to get both in a shot well exposed (unless, of course, you use flash to light up whatever darker areas are important to you. Like your subjects.).
  • The White Balance of both areas are different. Shady areas look very blue if you white balance for the sunny areas (or for your flash, which is equivalent).
  • You need to simplify. Take out annoying branches, cigarette butts, and so on.
  • Do not pose. Position, instead.
  • Spontaneity is good. But sometimes you need to direct. Take a detached view.
  • Use the Rule of Thirds.
  • You can shoot a little wide and then crop later, if you wish.
  • However nice the wide angle shots are, also shoot some close-ups. Or vice versa.

Here’s a couple more samples of this wonderful couple – with minimal adjustments made in post. It is good to shoot it in camera if you can.

Technical details: I shot with the camera on manual, set for the right background. For light, I used an off-camera flash on TTL (using light-driven remote TTL).

So what do I do for a shot like this, which needs slow shutter?

Tricky. To get the slow shutter, I need a small aperture. But that kills my flash power. So I compromise:

  • I use the flash with no modifier (which also steals light).
  • I manually zoom the flash in to 200mm. This concentrates the beam, leading to higher available power.
  • Then go to the smallest aperture that gives me acceptable flash output.

Note that “just use an ND filter” is the wrong answer. Unless you have lots and lots of flash power to get through that filter. Which brings me to my last suggestion: use multiple flashes. Each doubling of the number of flashes gives you an extra stop of flash power!


Michael teaches these techniques and many others. Contact him to see how he can help you through a course, some coaching, or through a number of other methods all designed to increase your state-of-the-art speedlighting knowledge quickly.


Direct flash

You cannot use direct, unmodified flash.

Oh wait.

Yes you can. and sometimes you have to.

Like when you are outdoors and you want to reduce the ambient light, and light your subject with flash. This gives you control over the light. But it is not simple, at first.

  1. You want to reduce ambient exposure.
  2. You do this by setting your aperture , ISO and shutter to give you a darker background.
  3. You start with choosing a low ISO and fast shutter speed. But your ISO cannot go below 100, and if you wish to add flash, your shutter cannot go beyond 1/200th second, if that is your “flash sync speed”. So you set those values. 100 ISO, 1/200th second.
  4. But… too much light still, on a sunny day.  So now you must reduce your aperture to what you are happy with – say, f/5.6.

When you do this you will find that you get darker backgrounds. All right. Not as dark as you would like but not bad.

Now the challenge will be: at 100 ISO and f/5.6, how far will your speedlight reach? The answer: not far. Not if you add softboxes, umbrellas, reflectors or other modifiers, anyway.

So now we are where I thought we would get: you need to use a bare flash.

And that is fine. But take it off camera.

Direct flash is just “OK” if the flash is near the lens. Like in this image of volunteer model Vanessa in today’s class:

Not bad, and well eexxecuted. But there could be more shape to the face, no?

That is why it is often nicer when the light source is off to the side. The face now gets shape, like in this example:

Now, to be clear: light straight into the face is OK – just as long as that is not also where the camera is!

Like this example – this is just fine:

And that is direct flash, unmodified.

So yes – you can do this, whatever anyone else says. Just as long as the light is not in line with the lens.





Pocketwizardry Tip

Quick tip.

When using Pocketwizards to fire your flashes or speedlites (use Flashzebra cables for the latter if necessary), perhaps for pictures like this:

Evanna Mills by Michael Willems

Evanna Mills, photo by Michael Willems

You get a choice of three settings: local, remote, or both.

Local means “when triggered, fire the device connected to the Pocketwizard”. “Remote” means “when triggered, use your radio transmitter to fire the remote devices that may be listening”. Both means both.

Tip: In any normal situation, set your device to remote on the camera, and to local on the others, that have a flash attached.

Why not just set them all to “both”?

  1. Many radio signals will be sent each time, leading to an increased chance of confusion.
  2. More power is spent this way too.

Yes, I know, radio all over can even make things more reliable. But in my opinion it is as likely to make things less reliable. And yes I know, radio does not use a lot of power and the PWs last forever on two AAs. But “forever” does not actually mean “forever”. The longer you make the batteries last, the better.

It’s one of those engineering things.

PS: in the menu on the right, you can sign up for email notifications every time I post – which is typically once, or sometimes twice, a day. Handy and recommended so you do not miss anything.

One more quick recipe

Quick recipe for you.

Remember this shot, done in the workshop I taught three days ago in Las Vegas with David Honl?

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas, by Michael Willems

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas

Shot how, you ask? I mean – at what settings and such?

  • Camera: 1D Mark IV with 35mm f/1.4L prime lens.
  • 100 ISO.
  • Camera on manual, 1/320th second at f/16 (slightly exceeding the 1/300th sec synch speed).
  • Flash is an SB900, also on manual (“M” rather than “TTL”); set to full power (“1/1″).
  • Flash is on a boom, and is fitted with a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox (notice the nice round catchlights), and is held a couple of feet from Yasmin’s face.

And you know that at full power, with a softbox, an SB900 will give you those settings.

A 430EX will need to be about twice as close to her face.

Try your own flash at those settings: how close do you need to hold it to ensure proper exposure, using the modifier of your choice. Once you know that, it will always be the same. Simple, really.

Note: the SB900 flash will overheat at these settings, especially in Las Vegas. A dozen shots in you will suddenly get no more flashes. The Nikon flash cannot be used at full power, while the Canon flashes can. With a Nikon SB800/900 flash, I would simply go to half power and live with that. If I needed more light, I would add another flash.

Want to know more? Want to learn all this and go home with a few cool portfolio shots? There is still space on the all-day Advanced Flash workshop Sunday in Mono, Ontario. Book now to get a spot.

Oh, one more thing. Am I cheating? Is this just sunlight lighting up Yasmin?

I think not. Here is the same shot without firing the flash (always a good thing to do to test your settings!):

I rest my case.

Replacing the sun

The sun, most photographers would agree, is not the friendliest light. It is like a studio with one direct light:

  • Too contrasty for the camera’s dynamic range to handle dark to light;
  • It throws shadows;
  • It makes smooth surfaces (like, um, skin)  look wrinkly.

So you get this, of Joseph Marranca on Monday at the Mono, Ont venue of the advanced creative light workshops:

Back yard in sunshine, by Michael Willems

Back yard in sunshine

Nice, but it suffers from all the problems of direct sunlight.

When you would rather have this, two seconds later when the sun went behind a big sky-mounted softbox: a cloud.

Back yard in shaded light, by Michael Willems

Back yard in shaded light

Nice and soft. Saturated colours. Smooth.

Now the only problem is that if you want highlights, you don’t get them. Can’t we have both?

Yes. And that is where flash comes in.

In the portrait shot below of Oakville’s mayor, yesterday, I first took away the sun, using a diffuser. And then I added a flash. Off-camera , with a Honl grid and a Honl quarter CTO gel (with my white balance set to flash). Plus a bit of fill flash on the camera.

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, photo by Michael Willems

Oakville's mayor Rob Burton, June 2010

I think that being in control is better than just relying on too-harsh direct light. Do you agree?