Size matters.

…the size of your umbrella, anyway.

I am using a big Photoflex umbrella today. How big? Here’s how big:

Big Photoflex Umbrella

Big Photoflex Umbrella

This umbrella, which can be used to shoot into, as I am doing here, or to shoot through, is huge. Which makes the light softer.

It is also very reflective, more than most. And that helps: I was able to overpower daylight on an overcast day with the single Bowens 400 Ws light set to 3 (out of 5), somewhat close to the subject. With my regular, smaller and less reflective umbrellas, I would have used a setting of 4 to 5 for that shot.

So, all this amounts to:

  • Softer light (since the source is larger),
  • Greater distance I can bridge,
  • Less spillover behind the umbrella (which in a studio is important)
  • A lot more shots out of my battery pack,
  • Faster recharge time between shots.

Here is that battery pack:

Bowens battery pack

Bowens battery pack

At full power, I get 150 shots out of a small battery (attached at the bottom); at power level 3, it is closer to 300 shots.

So by using a nice umbrella, metering to minus two stops ambient (minus three if metering off the dark garden), then setting the flash to the aperture thus achieved, which was f/5.6), I get this shot:

Nancy, photo by Michael Willems

In the back yard, lit by flash

As you can probably see, I am also using a speedlite on the camera left, to separate the hair from the background and to give some edge lighting interest. That speedlite is fitted with a Honl Photo 1/4″ grid to avoid the lens flare I would otherwise get.

Time for this snap: couple of minutes.

If all that is confusing, as it will be to beginners, then just take one of the flash courses and learn how to do this. It is fun, and well within reach of amateurs – not just for pros!

Michael’s Quick Judgment:

  • Photoflex large reflective umbrella: recommended.
  • Bowens Travelpak power pack: recommended.


OK, so I also tried the “Strobella”, from

The strap goes over your flash, so you shoot with it as a “shoot through”, between your flash and your subject.

This device is similar to a softbox, except it is going to throw light behind you too, so it will be good in a room with reflective white ceiling and walls. Or outdoors, where you have to shoot quickly and using direct light.

Results I got were similar to using other diffusers, but in the situations above, better than many. Here’s without, and then with, Strobella.

First without:

No strobella

No strobella

Nasty shadows and harsh look. Now we put the Strobella on:

With Strobella

With Strobella

As you can see, the shadows are much less harsh.

So when you are shooting something that you know will be bad (close up subjects where your flash is the predominant or only light), this works. It’ll save me regularly.

Drawbacks, other than the fact that you perhaps look a bit silly? It cuts one to two stops of light. Is it fairly cheaply made. It is small (the larger the light source, the softer the light).

Michael’s Quick Judgment: No panacea, and it will not last forever; but for the few Euros it costs, it’s not a bad thing to have one in your bag.


When you turn forty, you need glasses. This is the way it is for many of us. Yes, I know my youthful good looks belie it, but I am in fact… oh, who am I kidding? Yeah, I am well past 40.

So I need glasses to see my camera. But to see anything a couple of feet away or beyond, my eyes are great. So all day I put my glasses on, take them off… put them on, take them off… ad infinitum. My head has indentations where they live half the time.

There is now a solution. Hoodman, they of the excellent Hood Loupe you cannot live without (and I mean that!), now have these:

Hoodman Photoframes glasses, photo Michael Willems

Hoodman Photoframes glasses, photo Michael Willems

So, photographers’ glasses, made with titanium, one size fits all. They are flexible at the back, so really will fit all. And they come in a sturdy case. To make them work, you have your optician put your own lenses in (a simple job: I had it done at Great Glasses here in Oakville).


Here’s why!

Hoodman Photoframes glasses, photo Michael Willems

Hoodman Photoframes glasses, photo Michael Willems

A-ha! That handy little tab allows you to lift the glasses, one eye at a time. That way you can:

  1. Look through the camera with one eye, and keep looking at distant objects with the other
  2. Lift the lens to take a photo, instead of “remove the glasses to take a photo”.

The first point does not work for me, since I am left-eyed. (Yes, we are left- or right-eyed, did you know that? Handsome, intelligent people are left-eyed.. oh who am I kidding!). But the second point works just great. Now when I do a shoot I flip my left eye’s lens up, look through the viewfinder, and shoot. And flip down when I am done. Or to review, use my right eye, so no moving-of-glasses is necessary.

So, one more indispensable tool from Hoodman.

Michael’s Quick Judgment: excellent tool for use during shoots, and you will see me with these!

Panasonic GF-1 notes

So now that I have used the Panasonic GF-1 for a few days, a few quick notes. This is part of a new category on the blog: “Michael’s Quick Judgment“.

Executive summary: I love it, and it will be a very cool addition to my toolbox.

Cool, and sexy:

But that is not enough to spend money. So why would I actually buy a small camera?

Well, for one, because it is lighter and smaller than an SLR. My other cameras (a Canon 1D Mark IV, a 1Ds Mark III, and a 7D) are all very considerably heavier and bigger.

Second, it is easy to take street photos with a small point and shoot. And you can always carry it.

And it is allowed where “pros” are not (London’s Trafalgar Square, Oakville Place Mall, and many other places where “professional” cameras are frowned upon.

So there are places where it fits in, in spite of not being an SLR.

But until recently, small cameras weren’t quite good enough. The small sensor created a lot of image noise at any ISO greater than 100. No longer. With large sensors like the one in this “Micro Four Thirds” spec camera, this is becoming practical.

I came late to the party. These cameras have existed at least since last year. But I like to be a settler, not a pioneer, and as said, David Honl’s Leica two weeks ago in Las Vegas really inspired me. I was carrying a big SLR; Dave had a point and shoot. And got essentially the same shots.

So to start off, here is a shot I took during last Sunday’s Creative Urban Photography course in Oakville:

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, by Michael Willems

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville

And a full size detail from that shot (click to see it at its actual size):

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, by Michael Willems

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville (detail)

Now I noticed that Lightroom introduced a little noise there; noise I do not see in the original. Look at the sky. Odd, but a very small tweak of Lightroom’s excellent Noise Cancellation fixes that:

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville, by Michael Willems

Knox Presbyterian Church in Oakville (detail 2)

So let me summarize my feelings about this camera:


  • The coolness, let’s face it. This camera is very cute, almost Leica-cute.
  • The great image quality. And that is what it is all about.
  • The large “micro four thirds” sensor.
  • That flat 20mm f/1.7 lens (equivalent to 40mm). They call them “Pancake” lenses because they are thin, and they do not come out when you turn on the camera.
  • The small form factor.
  • The ultra-sharp live-view LCD.
  • The flash hotshoe – for my pocketwizards.
  • A very convenient (and customizable) AE lock button.
  • RAW images.
  • Customizable Fn button.
  • Great manual focusing, when you choose to use it (turn the ring and the preview zooms in).
  • In general, the amazing camera customizability (including tweaking the LCD colours!). This is a camera for pros.
  • Super fast response speed: no shutter delay, like on cheap point-and-shoots.

Muuh… neither here nor there; “I can live with it”:

  • No viewfinder (an optional extra).
  • The tiny fragile flash.
  • No in-camera image stabilisation.
  • No continuous focus with the 20mm lens.
  • Video (but I do not use this camera for video: I have my SLRs).
  • Face recognition (including some stored individuals).
  • Scene modes (I don’t need them: laudably, you can disable them).
  • The way the custom modes work.

Minor dislikes:

  • The slippery, nigh-impossible to turn control wheel.
  • The click wheel: push to switch functions. Combined with “slippery” above this is a bad combo.
  • The “My Menu” that you cannot store the way you want it.

Overall: I am lovin’ it so far, and I have no doubt that this will continue. Amazingly, I am waking around with a small point and shoot.

The big sensor is smaller than an SLR’s, but large enough to give me great selective depth of field, and low noise at higher ISOs. The depth of field and the ability to use fast prime lenses are the main reasons I chose this camera over the excellent Canon G11.

I would normally not dream of shooting the police scanner on my desk in dim office light at 320 ISO and at f/1.7:

Scanner, by Michael Willems

Scanner at f/1.7, 320 ISO

But now I can. And do. Look at the images in yesterday’s post. And at this: the 20mm f/1.7’s lens has an amazing ability to produce those wonderful blurred backgrounds. Large aperture and close focusing ability (20cm) produce pictures like this:

Camera strap, by Michael Willems

Camera strap, GF1 with 20mm f/1.7 lens

Beautiful bokeh – but the amazing thing is that there is any bokeh at all in a small camera.

And then there is the ability to judge exposure before you take the shot, and to lock the fast-reacting spotmeter on a mid-grey object: very cool even for an experienced SLR shooter.

Megapixels, you ask? Not important. If it has more than six, it’s enough. Too many means more noise. This camera has 12, which is about the ideal number. ‘Nuff said.

Of course Nikon, Canon et al are also going to do “small cameras with big sensors”; and in any case, if I had a spare $8k I’d go with a Leica for fun, but this is almost as good and it’s here now, for a fraction of that cost.

Michael’s Quick Judgment: highly recommended, 8/10.

Postscript: see a few more GF1 shots in today’s blog posts, including some taken with an external flash and Pocketwizards.