Nature close up

Nature can be beautiful, as in the snap I made in downtown Toronto yesterday afternoon:

Bird, Fountain and Flowers (Toronto, 29 August) - photo by Michael Willems

Bird, Fountain and Flowers (Toronto, 29 August)

Sometimes, as in this example, nature is best seen close up; sometimes better using wide angles.

That is the kind of thing we will be going over in the upcoming full-day Nature Walk workshop, which, take note, has now been brought forward to 11 September. It is also one of the subjects I go through in the Henry’s “Creative Urban Photography” half day walkaround I do in Oakville.

Choosing the right angle is a very important part of making (not “taking”!) a photo, and it is one of many subjects covered.

Oh, the photo? A 70-200mm f/2.8L lens, set to f/4 (I wanted the bird to be sharp, and these birds never sit still for more than a moment). At 200 ISO, that gave me 1/250th second. I used the Canon 7D camera, because its 1/6 crop factor gave me a longer reach (the 200mm effectively became 320m).

Colour has to be real


Um, no, of course not: colour is a tool for you to use in your artistic endeavors.

And colour can be anything you like.

A few nights ago, I though I would see how long it would take me to recreate a lighting setup that my friend Dave Honl (yes, he of the excellent Honl Photo modifiers) did recently. So I looked at his shot and put it together the same way he shot it, in exactly 20 minutes:

Fun with gels, Photo Michael Willems

Fun with gels

That is including:

  • Setting up four light stands.
  • Connecting four flashes (3x 430EX, 1x 580EX) to Pocketwizards using Flashzebra cables.
  • Mounting these on the light stands using ball heads etc.
  • Equipping the key light with a 1/4″ grid and an Egg Yolk Yellow gel.
  • Equipping the fill light with a 1/4″ grid and a Follies Pink gel.
  • Equipping the hair light with a small snoot and a Steel Green gel.
  • Equipping the background light with a long snoot and a Rose Purple gel.
  • Setting the power levels correctly (by trial and error, combined with histogram: key light = 1/4 power, fill=1/8, hair=1/8, background=1/16).
  • Setting the camera up correctly (I used the 7D and set it to manual, 100ISO, 1/125th, f/6.3).

Huh? Egg Yolk Yellow, a crazy bright colour, to light the face? Are we crazy?

No, just having fun. Yes, of course Dave could have made his shot using no colour. Here’s what the same shot looks like without the gels. (Of course I switched the camera to an aperture one stop tighter, namely f/9, to compensate for the extra light once I removed the gels):

Grids and snoots, photo Michael Willems

Grids and snoots

Yeah, nice, and appropriate for a corporate head shot. But compared to the previous, it is kinda boring, no? So next time you shoot someone, unless they are a law firm executive, you might have fun and try some colour. You don’t need to go crazy and use four colours, but a splash here and there can really help your picture come alive.

By the way, what was the colour of the backdrop?


Remember the following equation:

White – light = black

Similarly, in practice, black + enough light = white.

And finally, a real person: my son Daniel (“sigh, not again, Dad”):

Daniel, photo Michael Willems

Daniel in colour

But here’s the thing. After seeing it, he grinned and said “Rad.”. That‘s a first!

Can you use a Canon 7D at high ISO?

Yes you can. Especially when you use Lightroom 3 noise reduction.

I want to show you this picture again – a repeat, but now with full sized crops and re-edited with Lightroom 3’s magic noise cancellation.

Here is the cat, shot with my 7D and a 50mm lens set to f/2, at 3200 ISO. And.. pushed 1.67 stops.

Meaning I underexposed, and increased exposure on the computer. This results in the worst noise you will ever see, much worse than you will see when using the camera properly.

Here is a detail from it, in the original size crop with no noise cancellation. Click to see it at real size.

Cat's eye with noise, shot by Michael Willems at 3200 using a Canon 7D

Cat's eye with noise

Now we apply 90% noise reduction. Magic:

Cat's eye with noise reduction, shot by Michael Willems at 3200 using a Canon 7D

Cat's eye with noise reduction

The finished picture:

Cat with noise reduction, shot by Michael Willems at 3200 using a Canon 7D

Cat with noise reduction

So do not be afraid of high ISO when you need it. It’s fine. Relax.

Focus where you want.

…where you want, I mean. Not where the camera wants. So as a tip for beginners and reminder for others, a few words about how to focus.

When you look through your viewfinder, you see focus areas, also known as focus points. Depending on your camera there are three, five, seven, nine, or even 11 of 45 of them.

When you press the shutter button half way, the camera indicates one or more of these by flashing them; then it beeps. As long as you hold your finger on the shutter button, these selected focus points stay active. Meaning that when you press down, that’s where the camera will focus.

How does it select which points to use?

It looks at all the focus points, and selects those that are on the closest subject. That’s how. So you’ll get this:

And therein lies the problem. What if you want not my hands in focus, but my face? Or what if you are shooting a relative in the forest and you keep getting that closest branch in focus rather than the relative?

That’s why you can disable this automatic selection of focus points.  And most people do most of the time. Ask a pro how many focus points he or she is using and the answer is almost always “one”.

Then you can:

  1. Select a suitable focus point
  2. Aim that one point at your subject
  3. Press half way down until your focus points locks and the camera beeps
  4. Hold your finger on the shutter, do not let go
  5. Recompose if necessary
  6. Press down and take the picture.

Q: In a portrait, what really needs to be sharp?

A: The subject’s closest eye. The rest is optional.

My student yesterday in a Henry’s Canon 7D class, taken with the 7D with 35mm f/1.4 lens using available light and, um, a TV:

Advanced users, did you know the following:

  • Focus selection is done in areas that are actually wider than the indicated focus spots.
  • The centre spot is the most sensitive.
  • The faster your lens (low F-number), the better it works.
  • Focus squares detect lines. The centre spot is sensitive to horizontal and vertical lines. Others can usually detect only horizontal or only vertical lines!

Well, now you do.

And if you are new to this, here is your assignment: reproduce this photo. Hand sharp in the very corner of your photo.

(Use aperture mode with a low “F-number”, or use program mode and get close).

New firmware for Canon 7D

There’s new firmware for the 7D, here:

I’ll update mine this morning.

UPDATE: I just updated it. All well, but note, the upgrade reset my image number to 1, which I do not like. (NOTE: never use “do not import suspected duplicates” to ON in Lightroom, since LR appears to look just at the file number. This has cost me images!)