“I need pro equipment”… ?

I hear this a lot: students almost apologizing for “only” owning, say, a Digital Rebel camera, or a similar “starter” model. Because, they say, “of course you need a pro camera for pro results”.

Pro lenses, maybe. But pro camera? Not always, not at all. And even the lenses: this, for example, is student Veronic this morning, using a Yongnuo 50mm lens for Canon (a clone of the cheap Canon 50mm f/1.8, but cheaper):

Veronic. (50mm f/1.8 Yongnuo lens, Yongnuo manual flash, two pocketwizards, Honlphoto grid.)

If you were to see this at full size, you would see it competes very well with photos taken with my pro equipment.

Those of you who take my lessons learn all about this; for the rest of you: be a little skeptical with regards to what you read. Yes, equipment is important. But no, it is not always needed for a quality picture.

“Smile”…?

“Opa en Oma Willems”

To emphasize what I wrote yesterday, look here. My grandparents, in 1928 in Tilburg, the Netherlands. In other words: just before they were to set sail to the Dutch East Indies, or “Ons Indië”, as they called it at the time: “Our India”.

They were headed to the city of Batavia, where they settled down, both teachers, and had a family, namely my father and his two younger sisters.

Batavia is now called Jakarta, and the entire family has long since passed away. None of them made it to a very old age, all dying in their 60s or early 70s, probably at least in part due to their experiences for a number of years in several of Batavia’s Japanese concentration camps, including the infamous Camp Tjideng “hell on earth”. The entire family survived, which was not all that common, but they were marked. They never talked about it much: the little I know, I heard from my father’s younger sister Chris.

Willems, G.B.H.7733643, 13, 11, 93853

In the photo, they were of course unaware of what was to transpire. The line above shows their record in concentration camp Tjideng in April 1944: mother and three children. (A couple of months later, at age 14, my father was transported alone to the “men’s camp”.)

After the war, they were held in the camp by the British for “security purposes” – my father always resented this, almost as much as he resented the Japanese and in particular Emperor Hirohito, in whose name all this was carried out. Not being one to listen to authority, he escaped and walked back to Tjideng–not a very safe thing to do at the time. Shortly after they were eventually released, they were all put on a ship to The Netherlands (which my father had never seen, of course) and handed 25 Dutch guilders and told, basically, to get lost.

In any case, the photo.

First, of course old photos are an invaluable way to travel back in time, and they should be valued as such. Priceless. And they should be preserved (the above version is my restored version of the original, where I fixed scratches, fading, sun discolouration, and so on. If you have old photos, have me restore them.

Second, the actual portrait. A fabulous professional work. Perfectly lit (the technical terms are “Rembrandt Lighting” and “Broad Lighting”. Great expressions. And they are not standing there posed military style, smiling at the camera. They are looking out, to we know not what—their future in the East, perhaps? Or are they looking back at the first half of their lives? She seems more apprehensive than he, pensive, perhaps a little sad, even. He is more “bring it on”, but is holding back somewhat at the same time.

This is what a great portrait should do. So while I understand the liking for “stand there and smile”, it is also a great idea to consider some more artistic portraits, that bring out the subject’s personality. Posterity will be very grateful.


See www.michaelwillemsphoto.com for information about the store/school/studio in Orléans, Ottawa. See you there!

Get Cool

Today, I was reminded of how I should not let you all down – the many people who read this blog. Like one reader, Dr Jason Polak, who kindly dropped by in the studio today to have a chat.

(Hint: anyone near Ottawa, feel free to come say hi. The store is open 9:30AM–9pm weekdays, and slightly shorter hours at weekends). So anyway… I promise I’ll write more. Starting today.

One thing to write about is portraits. And how I love doing them. And how I like doing not just the “stand there and smile” pictures, but also slightly more creative pictures. You do not need to look at the camera smiling, not in every picture!

So here’s one I took this weekend—one of a series:

A simple shot; I used two speedlights with Honlphoto grids, driven by Pocketwizards; and one strobe in a softbox, also driven by a Pocketwizard. Took two minutes to set up.

If you need to learn how to do this, it is remarkably simple. You might buy my books or attend my courses, for example. It’s worth the effort!

Here, another one, again showing action:

And that same day, a photo of a dog who was nearing the end of its life: it was sick, and was about to see its suffering ended. A sad event, but good to create a lasting memory:

The message is simple: shoot some portraits that are not just “stare at the camera and ‘smile'”. Worth the effort and you will be happy with your results.

One more, then:

And finally: a new course for those of you near Ottawa: “Take Better Photos Of your Kids”. Sign up soon, because as usual, classes are limited to four people.

Square circles

I frequently encounter people who want, say, a 4×6 file printed as an 8×10 – but without white edges or cropping (or indeed stretching).

So I thought that perhaps this picture may help why that is not possible.

You get to choose—but you have to choose. It’s one of the three. Either that, or you break the laws of logic and physics.

Two Stops

Taking flash photos of events, like family get-togethers, is easy. Here’s how.

Use a speedlight, i.e. a flash on top of the camera (not the pop-up). Put that flash on your camera. Aim it backwards, behind you, 45º up.

Now set your camera to manual mode, 400-40-4: 400 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4.

(Adjust your exposure, if needed, until the meter shows about minus two stops. That way the ambient light is not too dark, not too light: just right. Goldilocks. Use aperture or ISO to achieve that (or, if it’s too bright, you can use shutter speed instead)).

Now the meter reads -2, And you are bouncing your flash against a wall or ceiling behind you. Then you get this:

Mission accomplished.