Just a moment.

When I shoot events, of course I do many “smile at the camera” photos. People like those, and with good reason. They show you were there, having a good time. Photos like these:

It is easy to do them: use the right lens, make the background bright enough, use a high enough ISO, bounce the flash upward behind you, and ensure that both people are the same distance away from you. (move yourself, or move them, to achieve that). Most of my images that evening were made at 6400 or 3200 ISO, 1/30 sec, f/2, using a 35mm f/1.4 lens.

But I also like to shoot moments. People doing things. As my fellow photographer Story Wilkins put it to me a few years ago: “if it smiles, shoot it”.

Here are a few examples from my recent Halloween shoot:

Those give you a good idea of the event, n’est-ce-pas?

If you like those, try to do the same, next time you shoot a family get-together—or a commercial event.Reflect the fun. And have some fun yourself, too. Best way to get the mood down in photos.



Last night I photographed a party. Let me take you through that: it is useful to see a real-life shoot as it unfolds.

This was a very quick, rushed shoot: hardly any time at all to set up.

I had two cameras:

  • 1Dx (full frame) with 16-35 lens;
  • 7D (crop camera)  with 24-70 lens.

That means effectively I had 16-35 and 35-105 mm available, i.e. 16-105 in one continuous range. So the lenses were taken care of.

Now the lights. Seeing the need for speed, I quickly set up two speedlights in umbrellas, fired by Pocketwizards. In this example only the one on the left fired:

The final pics look like this:

That’s simple: One umbrella left, one umbrella right. We are looking for competent lighting here, not art. I did not use a meter; just set the lights to 1/4 power and adjusted ny camera settings (ISO, aperture) to that.

Note the mom in the first shot. My shoot was hindered big time by all the moms taking iPhone shots. A trend more than ever before.

Then the rest of the shoot: the 16-35 with one on camera flash bounced against what walls there were.

Easy in some rooms, harder in the ballroom since it had a high, black ceiling. So I started at 400-40-4 modified to 800-40-4: i.e. a camera setting of 800 ISO, 1/40 sec, f/4. That extra stop comes in handy when you are bouncing off high or dark ceilings. Like here, in the middle of the ballroom

Sometimes, I switched to mood lighting: simply increase the shutter speed to darken the ambient light, and the aperture smaller (or lower flash compensation, when on TTL) if you also want less flash:

All in all, a competent shoot.

With some fun too: A panning shot., 1/30 sec and I follow:

The ghosting lends it an interesting effect; and the subject is sharp first because I am panning; second because she is lit mainly by my flash, which is 1/1000 second or faster.

I had just enough time to produce prints for the parents, on my little Selphy printer. All good.

And then quick post work an on to the next assignment!


Want Michael to shoot your family event? He’ll quote a competitive price and deliver quality work quickly. See www.tolivetolove.com for details.


The making of a group shot

I shot this at a wedding the other day: a group shot featuring bride and groom Pat and Jim, relatives , maid of honour, and best man.

Pat and Jim Wedding (Photo: Michael Willems)

How did I shoot this? I thought it might be good to go through the process that went into creating a shot like this.


The day was ideal for photography (bright overcast). So I had lots of options at The Old Mill in Toronto. But therein lies a problem: which one to choose, out of hundreds? So I decided to look for…

  • Background: A nice, full, non-distracting and darker background.
  • Context: the background should say something about the event: it supports the image so it should provide context (notice the venue’s sign).
  • Colour: I want some colour. The flowers provided this.
  • Space: A space large enough to pose over 20 people.
  • 3-D: Preferably some various levels (e.g. steps).

Steps give you an automatically full background, so these steps were the chosen spot.  So far. so easy.


I would often do a sit-stand-lean arrangement, but in this case, all standing is OK.  Arranging 21 people takes time and by the time you tell the last person what to do, the first person has turned around again. So speed is of the essence. I arranged bride and groom, best man and maid of honour, and from there on much of the rest fell in place and only minor adjustments were needed.

I then arranged them so I could see them all. This takes a fair amount of doing, because people move – my experience shooting sports clubs came in handy.

Now I told the group to relax – I would be doing test shots, so no worries yet – and to all breathe in deeply, and then all to breathe out at once. I demonstrated this. Silly, and silly is good, it relaxes people.I avoid saying “Smiiiiile…!” – it brings out the worst fake smiles in people, especially in men.

Then I watch body language and go, “checklist-fashion” through everyone, to see any awkwardness. If I see any, I ask them to adjust.


I used a slightly wide angle lens on my Canon 1D Mk4 body – the 24-70 f/2.8 set to 33mm effective focal length, meaning not very wide (distortion) but wide enough, giving me the following benefits:

  1. The ability to get it all in.
  2. Extended depth of field.
  3. Tolerance of slow shutter speeds.

I first of all exposed for the background. I wanted it to look nice and dark. This emphasises the people, and it also allows background colours to become saturated.

So I set my camera to:

  • f/7.1 (which gave me enough depth of field, which I needed with 8 rows of people!);
  • 1/80th second, which is fast enough for a 35mm lens hand held;
  • Getting a  dark background (between -1 and -2 on the light meter) now necessitated 800 ISO, which is great on today’s cameras. This also enabled the flash to reach far.

I then used my on-camera 580EX II flash to light the people.

On-camera, from the speedlighter? Yes, outside you can get away with it. If I had had more or more annoying shadow I would have used my Honl Photo softbox.

And there you have it. Simple shot, took a minute to make, and with little or no post work.


Flash method

Let me reiterate a simple flash method for camera-aware (i.e. “grip-and-grin”) people pictures at events (like receptions, parties, etc).

  1. Set your camera to “manual”.
  2. Attach your flash.
  3. Bounce your flash off the ceiling or wall just behind you if you can. If you cannot do this, use a reflector (like a Honl reflector) or worst case a Fong sphere. Think about where you bounce in terms of returned light direction.
  4. Use a wider angle lens (say 35mm). I love my 35mm prime on the 1Ds for this type of photo.
  5. Start at these settings: 400 ISO, 1/30th second, f/4
  6. With those settings, aim at an average part of the room (not dark, not light). Watch your light meter. It should read roughly -2 stops. If it reads more, like zero stops, go to a faster speed. If it reads less, go to a wider aperture (and if you cannot then a higher ISO or even a slow speed).

The result will be good.

Grip and grin

Grip and grin

Note that you may, in dark environments, have to go to slow speed and wide open aperture even at high ISO.Watch the light meter and aim for -2 stops ambient light when aimed at an average room area. In a dark night club I may occasionally be shooting at f/1.4, 1/15th second, 1600 ISO!