I photographed Richard Dawkins tonight. In the sold-out Bader theatre in Toronto, where he introduced his new book to an enthusiastic crowd:


Usually, theatre lighting is quite simple – if you get to sit in the right place. Since my son Daniel and I sat in the very front row, today was no exception. The background is dark but the subject is lit brightly:


I did not need more than 400 ISO, which gave me 1/100 sec at f/2.8. In manual exposure mode, of course.

“No flash“, the slightly inept people from the publishing house (who did not believe I had talked to their colleague on the phone earlier – Simon and Schuster Canada, you lost out on some free shots!), said time and time again. (The Dawkins web people aren’t very responsive either: four attempts to contact them. to multiple email addresses, offering free coverage – and zero responses: instead, I helped their own shooter, who was an ’emerging pro’ and asked for some advice).

No problem!

The only problem was focus. My 50mm f/1.4 lens front focused on the 1Ds MkIII by at least 6 inches, which is disastrous. I had to adjust it to a setting of “+17” (out of a possible 20!) in the ten or so minutes before prof Dawkins arrived. The 35mm f/1.4 and 24-70mm lens would not properly focus at all in this light (they were consistently way off), so while I switched many times, I kept coming back to the 50mm lens with +17 adjustment.

One day Canon will make a camera that focuses well. Perhaps. I am not holding my breath.


Anyway, I got some nice shots. Photojournalism is never easy, but sitting about 10 ft away from Richard Dawkins makes up for a lot.


(A few more shots here)


This cat, a niece’s friend, shows the coolness of wide lenses for really selective depth of field. Scroll down to see the sharp bits. Really sharp.


1Ds MkIII, 35mm f/1.4L, 1/30th sec at f/1.4

Remember, always focus on the eyes – the closest eye, to be precise. And at f/1.4 you have to be precise.

Click on the picture to see it at larger size.

Black and white…

..is underrated, I think; especially for portraits. Or else why don’t we do it more?

A good black and white photo can full of character; moody, even. Especially in portraits, where the absence of colour means the absence of distraction, and the ability to concentrate on the essence of the person.


35mm f/1.4, 1/30th sec, available light

For a good B&W picture, you need to realize that the background and the subject need to contrast, and that where we see clear colour contrast, in a B&W picture we may see none.

B&W works especially well where colour distracts. It can work where the subject either has blacks and whites, or is high-key or low-key. A good B&W picture can be a study in shades of grey.


35mm on 1.3 crop camera, f/8, 1/200th sec, strobe in umbrella.

When I shoot black and white, I do the following.

  • I shoot in RAW. This is essential.
  • I always set the camera to “Black and white” also. Even though this has no effect on the RAW images, it gives me a preview of roughly what the image will look like.
  • I ensure I do not overexpose the whites, but I do “expose to the right”. I.e. until the histogram almost hits the right edge.
  • Then I finish the image in Lightroom. In the DEVELOP module, I use the GRAYSCALE adjustment in the HSL/COLOR/GRAYSCALE tool. This gives me the easy ability to change different colours’ brightness.

This last step in particular has made B&W a practical endeavour once again for a busy guy like me. You know what they say: “no rest for the wicked”. And if I were, oh, 35 years younger I would add a “LOL” at the end of that.

Finally: B&W does not have to be moody – or rather, the mood does not have to be serious. Here’s my friend Keith, and his happiness and intelligence, big parts of his personality, really shine though here:


50mm f/1.4, 1/1000th sec, available light

Go ahead, give it a go. Have fun shooting B&W. And because you are shooting RAW, you can always go back to colour at the touch of a button.

A very hard softbox.

Try this next time you want a person lit by a softbox and you have no softbox:

Use a computer monitor.

Display a white background (e.g. open a word document) and hey presto: a big and efficient softbox. And if you use a fast lens (e.g. a 50mm f/1.8), it’s plenty bright as well.

And you can even use it as part of the picture:


Tell me that’s not cool: photographers improvise.

Close-Far Adds Depth


In my teaching role, I am often asked “why are my pictures not spectacular the way the real thing was”. Usually in the context of something impressive and grand, like the eponymous Canyon.
The reason is usually “because you have added no depth”. Our eyes help our brain see in two dimensions, as does the fact that we move about. In a photo, neither of those happen. So your photos can look flat.
As I have mentioned before, there is a way to avoid that. As said earlier, we call this technique “close-far”. By adding a close object, and making it large, the far distance seems more distant – i.e., we see depth.
To do this, we use a wide angle lens and get close to the close object.
One thing I have not pointed out before is why exactly this happens. Is it due to the way wide angle lenses are constructed? Something special in the glass?
No. It is simply “where you are”. The difference in relative distance. In principle, any lens would do this.
In the picture above, Lynda is three times farther away from me than the glass. That is why the glass, being three times closer, looks three times bigger – giving my rain a clue as to its whereabouts. If I stood back a few meters, the glass and her face would be almost the same distance away from me, so they would look equally large. That’s all – relative distance. The lens does not come into it – except of course if I stood back and had a wide angle lens, Lynda and the glass would both be very small. That’s why I would use a long lens when standing back.
That, and that alone, is why we use wide lenses close to a close object to emphasis distance to a far object.