Back to basics

You know that as an event shooter, I use TTL (through-the-lens flash metering, using a preflash) very widely. Much as it is sometimes hard to predict, it is the only thing you can use when things are moving quickly. Like at an event.

But sometimes, things go wrong. I had flash maslfunctions for part of Saturday’s shoots. You see, TTL is not really unpredictable -once you know how it works (metering bias to the focus point, for instance, and an assumption of 18% grey where it meters) it is predictable. So a malfunction is when it becomes actually unpredictable.

As it did Saturday with my dying 580EX II flash. Here’s three consecutive shots – I do everything the same, and yet I got, in rapid succession in the same setup, one dark shot, one light shot, and one OK shot:

Too dark. And the next one, way overexposed:

And the third one, almost OK:

I cannot live with this craziness. So then what do I do? I go back to basics. Actual basics. The basics we used in 1980. Namely, I set my flash to manual power setting (my camera, of course, is already on manual exposure settings).

One quarter flash power ought to do it, I thought, looking at where I was bouncing and what my settings were – and that worked great:

So then for the next dozen or two shots I stayed in the same place, shot people at the same distance, and kept the flash and camera set to the same. Bingo, predictable shots.

So when life hands you unpredictability, force predictability on it If you use the same settings and it’s all manual and your distance to the subject stays constant, the pictures will all be the same.

Sometimes, 1980-style basics work just great. Actually, they quite often do. My camera is very often on the “manual” exposure setting, for instance.


Graduation season

It’s graduation season. Right? So many parents are out to shoot their kids’ ceremony. High School, Grade School, Music School, University: important moments in a life; milestones that really deserve to be photographed. And understandably, you ask “how”.

A High School Grad

A High School Grad

So in that context, here’s a few tips.

You want pictures of graduation ceremonies. Both the “handing out of the diploma” and the crowd going wild. Make it into a permanent memory. Shoot context, too. Challenges: The light is likely to be somewhat low.  Your position may not be great.

Solutions: Use high ISO, a “fast” lens, and shoot lots. Be sure to get the “required” shots – like the one where your graduate is being handed his or her diploma.


  • SLR
  • Long lens over 100mm) for diploma shots
  • Wide lens (24-35mm) for the  crowd shots
  • Use fast lenses (“Low f-number”)!
  • Bring a flash – you may or may not need to, and be able to, use it
  • Bring a Fong Lightsphere: bounceability may be bad, so if that is the case and the light is low, the Lightsphere may be a way out.
  • Consider bringing a monopod. Just in case!


  • Mode: Manual
  • Shutter: usually 1/30th – 1/60th sec (see meter)
  • Aperture: f/2.8 or low as as possible
  • ISO: at least 400 (at f/2.8) or 800 (at f/4) or even 1,600 (at f/5.6)
  • Drive mode: Continuous, fast
  • Focus points: Centre focus point/area
  • Focus mode: One Shot/AF-S
  • Metering: Evaluative/3D Color Matrix, or spot

Situation tips:

  • Arrive early, to get a good seat.
  • Be ready for light changes (someone turns on or off the spot lights).
  • Practice on kids who are in the line before yours!
  • Find out if “getting up” and Flash are allowed, and act accordingly.
  • Shoot wide open (largest aperture), at the highest ISO you can stand. Use the centre focus point (it’s more sensitive in low light).
  • Try to catch the graduate on the way up to receive the diploma, and on the way out with it.
  • Tell your graduate to look at you after he/she is handed the diploma. They may forget – or they may not.
  • And especially, get “the money shot”, with the graduate shaking hands and being handed the diploma.
  • Then change to wide or normal lens to catch the crowd,or perhaps “caps in the air”.
  • Catch the exit line near the beginning – not near the end, where it degrades.

These tips should be enough to get you going. And don’t forget: enjoy these once-in a lifetime moments.


Shooting events

A corporate shoot the other evening, with an assistant/second shooter. A music school shoot all weekend. Many more shoots coming up: lots to do, and lots of fun.

I like shooting indoors events, because with training, it is simple to get consistent results. And as you know, my favourite party lens is the 35mm f/1.4 prime (fixed) lens. It consistently gets you images like this, from the other night:

Event shot, photo Michael Willems

Event shot, photo Michael Willems (35mm prime lens)

I like this style of shooting and it is worth talking for a moment about how this is done.

  • The lens is a 35mm on a full frame camera. On a crop camera, you would use a 24mm lens. Prime lenses are nice and consistent and sharp.
  • The flash is a single 580EX II speedlight, on camera but bounced 45 degrees behind me, slightly to my right to get light onto the subject’s face.
  • The camera mode is manual. It is set to 400 ISO, 1/30th second, f/4. This gives me an ambient exposure of about -2 stops (the meter says “-2” when I look at an average part of the room).
  • The white balance is set to “flash”. That ensures that the subject is natural, but the background, which is lit by tungsten light, is warm.
  • The flash is on TTL.
  • I ensure the subject is close – but not too close. And not right next to the edge.
  • I compose using the rule of thirds – I avoid totally centered subjects here.
  • I look for a background that tells the story (i.e. a corporate cocktail party; people meeting and talking).

Here’s one more:

Event shot, photo Michael Willems

Event shot, photo Michael Willems

That person blurred in the background helps tell the story.

And one more, to inspire you all:

Event shot, photo Michael Willems

Food - always shoot this.

Do not hesitate: you can tilt. You can shoot the food. As an event photographer you probably should not be eating it, but shooting it is OK.

(These, and many other tips and tricks, are part of my special “Michael Willems’s Events Photography” course – soon as a special at Henry’s School of Imaging, as well as here as a one day special: April 3 in Mono, Ontario. Let me know if you are interested. )

The horror.. the horror…

…of walking into a venue where you have to shoot, only to discover that the ceiling is about 1,000 ft high and the walls are black, and there is zero light.

1600 ISO, 1/30th second, f/1.4

My strategy?

In this order, I:

  1. Reduce Shutter to what I am comfortable with.
  2. Open Aperture to what I am comfortable with.
  3. Increase ISO as much as needed.

That is how I got to those values above. Using, of course, my prime 35mm f/1.4 lens. I reduced the shutter to 1/30th, which is as low as I want to go with a 35mm lens if I can help it. Then I went to f/1.4: wide open (focus carefully!). Then I raised ISO until I got light into the background. Phew!

Learning opportunity! Stay tuned for an exciting new “Events Photography” course – details soon. And there are also still spots on “The Art of Nude Photography”, Sunday January 16, 2011 (See yesterday’s post).


(EDIT): When shooting an event, always shoot a “B-roll” of images, as movie people would call it. In your case, as a still photographer you use your B-roll to help establish “where, why, who, what, and maybe even “when”.

So recent shoots I have done have included the following as shots in the first dozen or so:





This kind of storytelling is essential for a successful shoot.

Tip: To arrange your images, use Lightroom collections, where you can order things the way you like, rather than folders.