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)

Nifty Fifty

One lens that should be in everyone’s kit bag, however cheap your camera or however little you want to spend on equipment, is the 50mm lens. A lens they used to call the “nifty fifty”. I have mentioned this lens before.

Many manufacturers have a cheap 50mm lens – Canon and Nikon both have a 50mm f/1.8 version that costs less than $200. This Canon one costs only about $130:


So it can’t be any good, then?

Wrong. It is very good. On film cameras this used to be called a “standard lens”. Now, on crop factor cameras,  this lens has come into a new life as a portrait lens – on a Canon Rebel, for instance, with a 1.6 crop factor, this is like an 80mm lens. Great for “headshots” portraits.

And the nifty fifty is a fast lens – “fast” being somewhat of a misnomer that just means “has a low f/number”, so it allows lot of light in, and allows for selective depth of field (only part of your picture is sharp).

Which in turn allows you to take pictures like this, using only available window light:

Ivka, 50mm, f/2.0, 200 ISO

Notice that at f/2.0 you get very selective focus. This is not bad – it can be used for effect.

Make sure, however, that if you do this you focus carefully, using one focus point, on the closest eye. Looking at the picture above in detail:


If you like that look, and have a window, go get yourself a 50mm lens today.

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.