Amateur Aesthetic

Today, another example of the “Amateur Aesthetic” or “Snapshot Aesthetic”made popular by such contemporary photographers as Terry Richardson, after Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, two of my favourites.

Here’s mine, a high-key model shot:

We call it amateur, or snapshot, because you use a flash straight on, and aim at the subject, and have the subject stand in front of a white backdrop, camera aware. Like Uncle Fred does. This gives you the drop shadow. It also, however, gives you very flattening light, and models like this: it hides any facial features. Overexposing a little, or rather, exposing brightly, makes it even better in that regard.

Unlike your Uncle Fred, my models and I think carefully about composition, light, and expression and pose. The direct flash means you need to aim the subject’s face down a little, else light comes “from below”, which is never flattering.

So nothing is left to accident, in spite of the amateur look.

For this shot, I used 1/160th sec, 400 ISO, f/5.6 and an on-camera 600EX flash. The flash compensation, like in the examples of a few days ago, was set to +2 stops, and I used TTL flash metering for flexibility.

Your assignment for today: shoot a portrait like this. I am about to teach a TTL flash course, and my student will do this as well. In addition to “proper” flash, you need to know techniques like this as just another tool in your toolbox.


Friday the 13th. not a bad day so far. I am shooting an event tonight; first, some more writing (the Travel Photography book: I am making good progress and I trust I will have it finished before Xmas), and some admin.

A quick note, today, about TTL flash. You can of course set up a studio setup with manual flash, and when you have time, you do that. But when you do not have time, use TTL for off camera flash. Remember:

  • Use flash exposure compensation when needed (when the camera decides to over- or under-expose the shot).
  • Avoid reflections.
  • Meter off something mid grey.
  • Disable your on camera flash (so that it sends commands, nothing more).
  • If you have two flashes, set them to “A” and “B”.

Now set ratios between groups (Canon) or adjust groups to taste one by one, by stops (Nikon).

I had two flashes here: main flash A on the left; hairlight B on the right.

A:B = 1:1 (Canon) or A and B both set to 0 FEC (Nikon):

A:B 8:1 (Canon) or B -3 stops FEC (Nikon)

A:B 1:8, or A -3 stops FEC (Nikon):

Although the way of setting them differs a little (ratios vs per-group adjustments), the end result is the same. And the benefit of using TTL for this is that it is very fast. TTL with some knowledge and some adjustments when needed, and Bob’s your uncle. Try it, if you have several flashes.



Flash or fake flash?

You know that on many cameras, like the Canon 7D or the Nikon D90, you can use your camera’s pop-up flash to drive other flashes. Or you can use an on-camera “master/commander” flash to do the same:

A student asked me yesterday: “how do I turn the on-camera flash off, so it does not flash, and only the external flash fires?”

I told her how to set the on-camera flash to off. On Nikons, in the flash section of the pencil menu you set it to “-”; on Canons you select the option where only the external flash shows, so only it will fire.

“But it is still firing”, she mailed me back.

No. It is not. That is a misconception. Try this: turn off the external flash, then shoot. You see the flash, but the picture is all dark!

How come? What were you seeing?

You were just seeing the flash fire commands at any external flashes in the room, using “morse code”. I.e. you were seeing TTL preflash activity, not a “real” flash, fired when the shutter is open. This was just techie stuff, all before the mirror is raised and the shutter opens. After the shutter is open, nothing.

It helps to know these little techie facts, doesn’t it?


For more: : 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!


Here, from Friday’s workshop, is a photo of Rhonda:

Wonderful smile, truly! So that photo is good before we even start – how can you fail with a subject like that?

And yet, we have to get the focus and exposure right. Especially exposure is worth mentioning. hence this post.

Yesterday’s shots (scroll to yesterday to see them) had a pale-skinned subject in light clothing. Today, a darker-skinned person with dark clothing. So after the first person, do I need to, like, adjust anything?

If you are using manual flash settings (a typical studio shoot, with flash power set manually, perhaps using Pocketwizards): no. It’s set right, then it’s set right, never mind the subject.

If you are using TTL flash (automatic flash), then yes. You need to adjust flash exposure compensation – down. Down, somewhere between, say, -1 to -2 stops perhaps. Else the metering circuit will try to expose this shot just as light as the last one, and Rhonda will look light grey.

So remember: TTL (automatically metered) flash is convenient, but you have to know how it works and realize that depending on the subject, it potentially works differently each time you click.

What you need

A studio setup usually uses big, wall-outlet powered lights (“strobes”) and more.

But here’s me, on a recent shoot:

As you see, I used speedlights there. They are smaller, lighter, easier.

The setup was:

  1. Camera and a backdrop.
  2. Two light stands.
  3. On each light stand, a bracket for mounting umbrella and flash.
  4. On each light stand, a Pocketwizard (as received) and a Flashzebra cable to connect pocketwizard to flash.
  5. Pocketwizard on camera (as sender).

All you need to do simple portraits like this:

But the real minimum is this:

1. One light stand

2. One bracket like this:

3. One remote flash to put on that bracket

4. One umbrella to put into that bracket

5. One way to fire the remote flash using TTL (the on camera flash is set to not flash, but to just send “morse code” commands to the remote flash). This local master flash can be a large flash (SB-900, 600EX) on your camera, or on certain cameras like most Nikons and many recent Canons, the pop-up flash.

And that is really all as a minimum!

When using that, you simply mix available light with flash, using the techniques outlined on this blog. Then you can do shots like this, of Dan and Kristen, whose engagement photos I made recently in Hamilton: