Photography as a business?

If you want to make money with your photography, then I have some advice for you.

Here we go:

  1. First, forget about it.
  2. Then, if you still want to: go for it and follow your dream.

But in that case, do it cleverly – run it like a business from the start. Profit and loss. Accounts. Taxes. Budgets. Forecasts. Marketing budgets. Reviews. And so on. My Small Photography Business course starts again tonight at Sheridan College. I take 20 students through what, as a business executive, as a small business owner, and as a photographer, I have learned over the years.

  • Photography skills
  • Photographic Equipment
  • Office equipment and -tools
  • Marketing
  • Accounting and bookkeeping
  • A business plan
  • Admin work

One small but significant part of a photography business is your web site. Can I suggest the following:

  • Keep it simple.
  • Make it about your clients, not about you.
  • Be clear: why you? Not because you make good pictures: presumably that is a given. What’s in it for the client – why should he or she choose you, not someone else?
  • Remove barriers. No slow-loading flash, unnecessary music, absent email addresses, compulsory fields, or other hoops for your clients to jump through.

I have seen some bad ones, but I think I have just re-found the worst web site I have ever seen. Since it belong to a working photographer I will not share it here, but I am so tempted.


Design, and a few misses

It is ever surprising to me how often large companies have obvious design misses. Here’s a few examples of just the last days:

My new TomTom remote cannot say “metres”. Instead, it says “meep” – it cuts off the word. A bug, and a very obvious one: evidently no-one tried this device set to English but metric (there’s only just enough time to say “feet” or “yards”).

That same TomTom no longer turns off when the 12V power disappears (i.e. when you switch off the car). Drained battery every time, then.

Apple left the IR sensor off the new Retina MacBook. Meaning I cannot use it for the presentations I do (a remote control advances the Keynote presentation to the next page) – hence I need to keep the old MacBook around just for presentations. Since Keynote is a key app for Apple, this oversight seems odd, and it is very disappointing to me. The lack of a $1 sensor makes the laptop non-usable for my work!

Talking about Apple apps; iBooks Author is not bad, but it has some pretty atrocious issues. That’s why my Camera Recipe Book is not out yet – it’s 99% there but the remaining 1% will take me a couple of days yet. The good news: the book’s better than ever. Stay tuned here!

And I haven’t even started talking about Japanese cameras, whose User Interfaces are evidently designed by committee.

In the past few weeks I have encountered many other such issues: it is surprising that corporations fail in such obvious ways. It seems to me that every company needs a Steve Jobs around to kick some sense into people.

Back to my book design.

Delays, delays… but for a reason

Ah, I hear you ask, where are your blog posts?

Coming! I am in the process of finally finishing my long-awaited “Photography Cookbook”. This is taking all my time.. also precipitated by a few new things I acquired:

New 15″ Retina Screen Macbook Pro – the old one had a harddisk failure during  Santa shooting, so I had no option but to buy a new one. First impression: I can never go back to an old screen.. all I see there is pixels. Use a retina screen computer, and never look back. Also, the solid state drive is nice – no disk warm up and slow things down (and make noise).  Quick judgment: recommended wholeheartedly.

iBooks Author – my iBook will be available as a PDF and as an Apple iBook. The latter choice means I am using Apple’s iBook Author. Not a bad app, but with a steep learning curve and with several annoying bugs. I am hoping for a version 3 soon. Quick judgment: recommended with some reservations.

Rest assured I will catch up and answer the outstanding questions (and: keep them coming).

And now.. my quick beginners’ lesson for the day:

If you are still having trouble understanding exposure, try this analogy:

Exposing correctly is like filling a bucket (=the sensor) of a given size (=its ISO) from a faucet (=the aperture), by holding it under the stream of water for a given time (=the shutter speed).

Think this through and try to understand how the three variables, duration, faucet size and bucket size, contribute to filling a bucket to the top, no more and no less. Just like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

Too little water and the bucket is too empty (“underexposed”); too much water and it spills over the top (“overexposed”). That should help you understand how these variables interact.


Today is dedicate to my late father, Eddy Willems, who would have been 83 today.

JVC Video Action Cam – short review

Those of you who know me know that I do not do a lot of video. Stills, mainly! Why? Because video takes rather too long for my liking to produce. Hours just to load, edit, convert, and so on, even for relatively small clips.

Still, I keep my hand in there! One way is by using a new dash cam I just bought for my car (you never know). It’s a JVX GC-XA1 “Adixxion” action camera:

This is the kind of camera  that you can tie to your bike or helmet or whatever: small, light, one hour battery life (though you can use a USB power cable as well). It is shockproof, waterproof, freeze-proof and dustproof – a step up from the usual small cameras.

It shoots high-def video, of course, up to full 1080p, with a simple wide-angle lens. Remember, wide angle is good because it is easy w.r.t. shaking and it is easy w.r.t. focusing.

Even better, I was able to buy it locally in Oakville, ON – I like to see what I am buying. My friend Steve Jones pointed me to a car-related company that sells these: Johnston Research & Performance at 2344 South Sheridan Way in Mississauga, ON.

So is it suitable as a dash cam? Yes it is, and more than I thought.

  • It is tiny (and well built).
  • It comes with a couple of mounts, suitable for sticking it, as I did, to the car windscreen. The use of a standard tripod socket means you can mount it in myriad ways.
  • It has image stabilization.
  • The wide angle is perfect for dash cam use.
  • It has features even the store was unaware of, including the ability to just record a rolling 15 minutes, where just the last 15 minutes are saved – this can be kept going.
  • The camera can also be used upside down – in my case it is, because it is stuck at the top of the windscreen. Perfect!
  • It has a screen to monitor what you are doing.
  • It links to iPhones, iPads, Android devices, and personal computers. It has many connection and streaming options.

I just tested it during an actual drive. Here’s a 40 second HD link:

Note, this is not the highest quality this camera can do – rolling 15 minutes (and USB -powered operation, which requires it) is restricted to 720p at 30 fps  – which as you can see is pretty great (on that subject, a few encoding tips from Youtube here.)

So is there anything this camera could do better? Well, that’s a value judgment, but if I were to respectfully give the engineers at JVC some tips on how to make it even better, especially as a dash cam, I would say:

  1. Make the USB port accessible for power without having to keep the cover open.
  2. Do not ask every time a USB plug is  inserted whether it is for connecting to a computer or for connecting to power! This is a pain: I should be able to set my preference and be done with it until that changes.
  3. Display upside down while recording upside down! Instead, the camera displays upside down, but as soon as you press record and turn the camera around, it displays the normal way (but fortunately, still records upside down).
  4. The computer app is available only for Windows. Mac app would be nice.
  5. There is no way to save your favourite settings as a “personalized setting”; this, too, would be a useful addition.
  6. Recording while using USB power is only allowed in 15-minute rolling recording mode. Why, JVC?
  7. It would also be useful to have a mode where the camera automatically turns on when USB power comes on (when the key is turned in the ignition).

This is a list of features that I hope will be added in future firmware: I already upgraded the firmware after buying the camera. JVC, please keep me informed of firmware updates on this excellent little camera. Also,  please fix typical “Japanese”: errors in English (“Inversed” is not English; “Inverted” is).

And for your benefit, I shall try some more video in the coming weeks. I am pleasantly surprised by the fact that even with slow North American Internet speeds, uploading video is becoming practical at least for clips. And I am impressed by this great little camera.

Oh, and why a dash cam? Because it is a good way to do some more video.. and also this: go to to find out. Protection in case of insurance claims – or even scams. Try and explain to the cops what happened without video evidence! And I don’t think I ever want to drive in Russia.


New: 1Dx, first impressions

I picked up my new Canon 1Dx camera a few hours ago, and here are my very first impressions. There will be more review posts later on – but first impressions are very important. So in random order:

First the physical. I love the feel. Very good, better than any previous 1-body. And the shutter sound is better, too. The viewfinder is a marvel: bright. wonderful full frame-ness. Love.

The buttons are much better also: they stick out more and are differentiated. There is a new button to set image quality. A Quick button. The buttons next to the top LCD have only one function each, now. All perfect! Many new additions, like an Ethernet port (and options to connect WiFi and GPS equipment) make this a whole new camera.

There is now a separate joystick to move focus point etc. when you hold the camera in portrait (vertical) orientation, and other buttons are duplicated as well, even the DOF preview and function button. Niiice.

This camera now uses two CF cards, no longer a CF plus an SD. I like this – retrograde step perhaps in some views, but CF cards are more solid, faster, and better, and now I just need to worry about one type of card, not two.

I am less pleased with the “zoom in” function, but no doubt I shall get used to that also. Instead of a separate “+” and “-” zoom button, there is just ONE zoom button, and then you use the small command dial at the front to zoom in and out. Like on a point and shoot. Perhaps it is better – we’ll see what I think after a few weeks.

And then the menus.

They are clear as Canon menus always are. I am less pleased that the menu tabs are now divided into less intuitive “sub-tabs”, but that is minor and I am already used to it. The “Info for HELP text” function is cool.

I am delighted that AF functions have now all been grouped into one large tab, and am very happy with the presets (above), that take the thinking out of what I need to do to set up the little tuning paramaters to meet specific situational needs.

A few default setup options are wrong. For example, you really need to set the custom controls to allow the joystick to move the single focus point you have selected, without first having to press other buttons. That should have been the default. And you probably want to turn off rotating the image on playback so you get maximum benefit from that large, crisp, sharp LCD. And if you shoot RAW, turn off ALO (Auto Lighting Optimizer), so you don’t fool yourself into thinking your images are good when they are not. More about changes from default in a later post.

Now for how it works. First, as said, it is quick, responsive, and it sounds good. First: wow, I see no noise at 1600 ISO and acceptable noise up to very high ISO settings. 6400 ISO and a large print? Surely not? Yes, that is what I am seeing. This is a game-changer. That is why this camera has fewer pixels than the 1Ds Mark 3 – fewer, but still plenty, and much less noisy.  Roll on, next weddings!

12800 ISO, SOOC

51200 ISO, Noise Cancellation applied in Lightroom

Colour: Not that it matters for me as  RAW shooter, but auto white balance is spot on, much better than in previous 1-series bodies. Which means less post work for me! The improvements of the 7D and 5D Mark 3 have obviously been incorporated here, and I am delighted.

My greatest source of delight, however, is that – wait for it – this is a Canon SLR whose autofocus appears to me to be entirely reliable. I have so far shot around 100 images at wide apertures (up to f/1.2), and guess what: 99 out of those 100 are tack sharp, exactly where I want them to be.  Which is amazing – I have been jealous of Nikon shooters who have been able to take this for granted. I am still just getting to know my 1Dx, but so far it seems like its autofocus ability is truly amazing.

I think that as first impressions go, this is the best I have ever written. Canon has a winner here, it seems to me, and I look forward to shooting, and sharing, and reviewing as we go along.

PS: I do not need four cameras, so my 1Ds Mark III and my 1D Mark IV are both for sale. Perfect working order, low actuations, normal external wear, all complete. Interested? Let me know!

POSTSCRIPT: The 1D Mark 4 is sold; now just the 1Ds Mark 3 remaining.


X100 – First impressions

A few first impressions of the Fuji X100 camera:

Fuji X100 Pic - Photo: Michael Willems

This, like all my reviews, is a “first impressions from the field”. Not a full review: for those you can read and other sites.

These sites are great. But 23 pages of review are all very well: what do they really mean? I mean – to a user, a photographer, not someone who sits in his loft obsessing?

I have had my X100 for a day so I think I am qualified.

First, I upgraded the X100. And rather than by following the two-page instructions from Fuji that involve at least two files, I did it the simple way:

  1. Download firmware file (.DAT).
  2. Copy this to a freshly formatted card.
  3. Start camera with RAW pressed while powering on.
  4. Say YES to the upgrade dialog.


Why on earth Fuji needs to include an “upgrader app” file and spend two pages of convoluted instructions making it so complicated I would hesitate to do it, I will not understand. Engineers making it complicated again. I am an engineer so I can comment: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

On to the camera. I am not worried if the review (of the original, not upgraded) software says bad things about the firmware. I want to know what it means to me, not to a theoretical user. So “Auto ISO is hidden” does not bother me – I do not use auto ISO (or if I do, it’ll be all day, so I will find it). And interface stuff you can learn is not a serious drawback.

In a few words:

The camera is a delight. The hybrid electronic/optical viewfinder is a. ma. zing. The camera is well built. Retro looking. Solid. Offers excellent image quality. Has a JPG conversion engine that does a great job: this camera may be the first one in many years that  I actually use in JPG mode. Great 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm “real” lens).

So this is basically a Leica M9 at a fraction of the price?

Sure. But since there are no free lunches, what are the drawbacks?

That is what I am talking about because this camera is so good.  Get one, unless one of the issues below is a showstopper for you.  I am skipping through the trivial ones (“auto ISO is hidden”, “The ISO dial turns the wrong way”, and so on.). These, while true, are unimportant. But there are some real ones – “issues that could get in the way”, rather than “issues I’d rather see done some other way”.  My main ones among these are:

  1. The focus points are hard to shift. I want a quick way to shift my focus point. I do this in every image. So it must be quick. Instead, I need to use both hands in unusual positions. I can never find the button without looking at the back, necessitating me moving the camera away from my face.
  2. Focusing in low light often fails.The battery/memory card door opens way too easily. Happens regularly.
  3. The central “Menu/OK” button is very hard to press, unless you have the fingers of a six month old embryo. You will inevitably press the other, surrounding, buttons instead.
  4. Battery life is not great if the “quick start” option (which is needed!) reduces it by half.
  5. Focusing is impossible at less than 80cm (ca 2.5 ft) unless you use the electronic viewfinder.
  6. Even with new firmware, startup time is slow.
  7. Not enough buttons are customizable.
  8. The maximum speed goes down with large ISO and aperture settings. At 400 ISO and f/2, the camera cannot shoot above 1/500th second, for instance. And the ND filter which was designed to handle this is many key-presses away.

These are not fatal, but they are the ones I really notice as a photographer. Many of them (though not point 3) will be solved in upcoming firmware, I imagine.

A few snaps (where as per previous posts, I make the viewer tell his or her own story):

Fuji X100 Pic - Photo: Michael Willems

Fuji X100 Pic - Photo: Michael Willems

Fuji X100 Pic - Photo: Michael Willems

I think “street”… I cannot wait to get to Toronto to do some street photography with this wonderful camera. It’s winning – and not in the Charlie Sheen way.

Canadians: Happy Canada Day. More tomorrow.

Post Note: As reader Duke S. points out: I could well refer to this camera as “Preciousssss…”

Post post note: Second impressions and third impressions now also online here.

Reader lens question

Richard, a frequent reader, asks:

I have been researching the Canon L series lens’ 16-35 F/2.8 vs 24-70 F/2.8. I have my daughter’s graduation in May, which combines an indoor ceremony with an outside function. I expect I will be further away for most shots, but want sharpness, quality and a fast lens in either case. I also have my Canon 50mm F/1.4 for the real nice inside close-ups, where speed/blur is important. I am leaning towards the 24-70 F/2.8 as I think I will get more long-term use for the various kids events, sport shots, family gatherings etc.

And I agree, Richard.

First: an f/2.8 lens is going to be much better than a f/5.6 “consumer grade” lens – two stops more light, and two stops more blurred background, whenever you like them. Get fast lenses and you will never regret it. Nothing beats low f-numbers.

I actually own both those lenses, so I can tell you about them – they are great lenses both. Both those “luxury” lenses (that is what “L” stands for in Canon-speak) are very sharp, focus quickly, and have good build quality.

What do you use them for?

  • If you own a full frame camera, 16-35 is very wide, and 24-70 is a “wide to almost longish” general purpose lens.
  • If on the other hand you own a crop camera, 16-35 is “wide to standard” and 24-70 is “a bit wide to a somewhat long”.

Wide is great for landscapes, architecture, parties, perspective. The 24-70 range, on the other hand, is a general purpose workhorse lens. Some pros only own this one lens. Yes, 16-35 is fantastic, but not general purpose: 24-70, on the other hand, is general purpose, from weddings to parties to portraits.

So on the whole, I would say 24-70 first, and 16-35 later. For a graduation, 70mm may not be long enough if you cannot get close to the stage, but you can, in that case, always rent a 70-200mm lens for a day. Renting is good!

Another of Richard’s questions concerned extenders – I shall address this at a later point.

Shout it out

Or rather, perhaps you should not.

I do not much like to use branded camera straps – like the Canon camera straps on my Canon cameras.

First of all, much as I love all my Canon equipment, without being paid for it I am not sure I should be an advertisement. Also, my fashion sense likes to think I do not have to match everything with Canon red. Black is easier.

More importantly, when I travel I like to avoid anything that draws attention to my gear. Every little bit of theft avoidance helps: tape over the name, a brandless lens cap (if you even use them), and these non-branded straps.

So I use these Domke straps on all my cameras:

Domke Camera Strap

Domke Camera Strap

These aftermarket straps have several other big benefits:

  • The rubber strip through the material ensures a good grip on my shoulder.
  • The strap is removable: two fasteners can be opened, and then the strap is gone. This is very handy when I want to switch to my Black Rapid strap, and need to remove the usual strap.

That is why I give my pick this:

Michael’s Quick Judgment: a big thumbs up.

Gizmo of the day

The gizmo of the day is this Photoflex bracket:

Photoflex dual flash bracket

Photoflex dual flash bracket

Intended mainly to put two small flashes in a softbox. For which it works well. Adjustable just like it should be.

But I have another use for it.

You see, I am a speedlighter. I use small flashes. And pocketwizards, when I am not using TTL. So I am always looking for ways to mount those flashes and Pocketwizards, and no-one has yet come up with any good ways to do it.

So that’s where this bracket comes in. I use it to put one flash and one Pocketwizard onto a light stand. I mount it on a ball head, which I put on the light stand.

In order to do so, I had to use a metal saw to remove the little tag that sticks out: you can see it on the very top, sticking out next to the screw. I am not sure why they put that there: much better without.

But that done, I now have a bracket that allows me to securely, safely and sturdily mount two flashes, or a flash and a pocketwizard, for use on a light stand.

Michael’s Quick Judgment: recommended, provided you have a saw.

Think Tank Airport Security

Always short of space to put things, and never one to shy away from adding to my number of bags, I recently bought myself a Think Tank Airport Security™ V 2.0 bag. This huge rolling bag (allowed onto aircraft in the USA, but too big for most of the world) now holds my lighting gear.

Not cameras or camera gear: just my lighting gear, like so:


Airport Security V2 Roller Camera Bag

That holds all my  clamps, ball heads, five Pocketwizards, three or four speedlites, cables, grids, gels, my light meter, and more. In addition, the side compartment holds the other Honl Photo modifiers, a gray card, and other small materials.

Michael's Big Lighting Bag

Michael's Big Lighting Bag

This bag is well built and has many cool gadgets. Such as three separate locks (two of which can be opened by the TSA). Emergency backpack straps. Many removable compartment sides. Two lockable cables to attach things to it, or it to things. A rain cover. Many things I will not need, like a tripod mount.

Small areas that could perhaps be improved:

  • The cutouts do not fit large Canon bodies (they are on the wrong side), so you need to remove your lenses if you are to use this as a camera bag. Quite an oversight.
  • Not quite enough internal compartment dividers for my liking: I had to add one or two dividers from another bag.
  • The lid hinges at the bottom, so things may spill out from pockets in the lid when it’s open.
  • The front external compartment is a little too small.
  • The external “laptop compartment” seems a bit of an afterthought and is rather insecure (yes, it has a cable to attach to the laptop – still not quite secure enough for me).
  • The uneven bottom made it a one-hour job to decide how to fit in all my gizmos. But that’s OK.
  • The handle that you use to roll the bag is flimsy and even has a warning, “do not lift by this handle” – that is a design flaw, if you have to warn people how not to use a product.

But those are small gripes. It’s a fantastic bag.

Michael’s Quick Judgment: recommended. This is one huge bag – where I carried two before. Anything that reduces my bag numbers is good. This bag does it in style and with intelligence. And all my lighting gear in one bag, in neatly arranged divisions: utterly fantastic.