About that home studio

One more about the simple TTL home studio. I can give you some pointers to do your own.

Here’s how.

You need:

  1. A modern SLR camera.
  2. A lens – anything over 50mm will do. A 50mm f/1.8 might be a great choice: sharp and affordable (and if you need it, fast).
  3. If you have a Nikon, or a Canon 60D or 7D, just one flash (a 430EX/580EX for Canon or an SB600/SB900 for Nikon).
  4. If you have a different Canon camera, an additional 580EX to command the other flash.
  5. An umbrella (shoot through).
  6. A stand for the flash, with a mount for flash plus umbrella.
  7. A reflector (silver or gold or white, or a multi-purpose one).
  8. A stand for that reflector.

As an option, another flash with a small stand to light up backgrounds, but this is not a must have. You can just move the umbrella and subject closer to the wall if you want the wall to be lighter.

Now that you have the equipment:

  1. Set your flash to “slave” (Canon) or “remote” (Nikon) mode. Use the manual to find out how. On a modern Canon with a modern flash you can use the camera to set the flash.
  2. Set up your on-camera flash to be the “master” (“Commander”, on Nikon).
  3. Ensure that the on-camera flash is not going to fire (it will only  send commands to the remote flash, but it will not actually fire – else you get a shadow).
  4. Move the umbrella close to your subject. For a “standard” portrait, the best position is 45 degrees up, off to the side 45 degrees.
  5. Move the reflector close on the opposite side.
  6. Set your camera to manual exposure mode, f/8, 1/125th second, 100 ISO (or 200 on a Nikon).
  7. Take a test shot.
  8. Check the histogram. If you are shooting a dark subject against a dark wall, you may need negative (perhaps -1 stop) Flash Exposure Compensation; if you are shooting a light subject against a white wall, you may need positive (perhaps +1 stop) Flash Exposure Compensation.
  9. Make sure there is a catch light in the subject’s eyes. Ensure that any glasses do not reflect (move subject or umbrella if they do).

It is as simple as that. You will have studio quality shots, for very little investment. Shots like this (which I made with the exact setup above):

With a modern camera and flash and a little knowledge, it really can be that easy.

Outside flash

As a result of yesterday’s shoot, reader Franklin asked:

Michael, I often use my flash for outdoor portraits.  Since I don’t have anywhere to bounce the flash, I often point it straight at my subject.  In many cases, I end up having to deal with the oily, overexposed skin highlights mentioned in your previous post.  Any tips you could offer to create soft, natural looking skin tone would be greatly appreciated.

Great question. Yes, outdoors flash can be challenging, so here are my tips.

  • First, outdoors you can sometimes bounce. A wall, for instance, can provide a wonderful soft ounce area. If possible, try that first. (A Gary Fong Lightsphere may make this easier if there are some small things that light could bounce off. Like people, trees, a car, a fridge, you name it. The Fong Lightsphere throws light everywhere so it sometimes works.)
  • Second: next, try to soften the light. I often use a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox for this. Sometimes a Honl bounce card.
  • Third: the direction of the light is important. One reason outdoor flash can look unnatural is that the flash is shooting from where the camera is. If you can take it off the camera, using an off-camera flash cord like the ones of Flashzebra.com, you will get much more natural light. Shoot with the light coming from above (even a foot), and at an angle.
  • Fourth: I often add some colour, like a quarter CTO or half CTO filter, to warm up the flash. This removes much of the objective (see yesterday’s picture).
  • Finally: it is allowed, even a good thing, to shoot with direct flash outside. And Photoshop or Lightroom can help remove the nasty skin highlights. Sometimes this is just the price you pay!

I hope that helps!

Portrait note

One more from Sunday’s course.

This time, a portrait of model Tara that I made to help explain multiple flash TTL. Straight out of the camera it is:

Multiple-flash TTL lighting

Multiple-flash TTL lighting

How was this made?

With a small Traveller 8 softbox on the main light, a gridded gelled flash for the background, a snooted flash for the fill light, and a gridded gelled flash for the edge light.

Four speedlights, and all using TTL.

A few things to remember in such portraits:

  • You need a catch light in the eyes.
  • Set your white balance to “flash”.
  • If you have space, longer lenses are good (in this case, though, I use a 50mm prime lens).
  • Avoid the ambient light doing any work: choose 1/125th second at f/5.6 or f/8, say; and be sure to disable “Auto ISO”.
  • Lighting is all about what you do not light: avoid bathing the room in photons. Think about what you light, and how.
  • With Canon’s e-TTL or Nikon’s CLS/iTTL, you only get two or three groups of light. So if you have four lights, some of them will have to be in the same group. My fill and edge light are thus both in group “B”.

Keep those in mind and your portraits will be well lit.


Typically, a portrait needs to show catchlights in the eyes.

Those little sparkles of light. Like in this portrait of a recent client, Mo Vikrant, an amazing (and amazingly well educated) young financial advisor in Toronto:

Mo Vikrant, photo by Michael Willems

Mo Vikrant

Can you see how those dots of light add life, add sparkle, to this portrait?

Now, I am not as adamant as PPOC, the Professional Photographers of Canada, that every eye must have a catchlight (and only one), or it is a failed portrait. But I do think that typically, yes, they need to be there, and they need to be round.

So I used a speedlight shot through (not reflected off) a partially-unfurled umbrella for that portrait.I cold also have used the Honl Traveller 8 softbox – this too would have given me nice round catchlights.

Detail is important!


OK, so I also tried the “Strobella”, from http://www.strobella.com/:

The strap goes over your flash, so you shoot with it as a “shoot through”, between your flash and your subject.

This device is similar to a softbox, except it is going to throw light behind you too, so it will be good in a room with reflective white ceiling and walls. Or outdoors, where you have to shoot quickly and using direct light.

Results I got were similar to using other diffusers, but in the situations above, better than many. Here’s without, and then with, Strobella.

First without:

No strobella

No strobella

Nasty shadows and harsh look. Now we put the Strobella on:

With Strobella

With Strobella

As you can see, the shadows are much less harsh.

So when you are shooting something that you know will be bad (close up subjects where your flash is the predominant or only light), this works. It’ll save me regularly.

Drawbacks, other than the fact that you perhaps look a bit silly? It cuts one to two stops of light. Is it fairly cheaply made. It is small (the larger the light source, the softer the light).

Michael’s Quick Judgment: No panacea, and it will not last forever; but for the few Euros it costs, it’s not a bad thing to have one in your bag.

One more quick recipe

Quick recipe for you.

Remember this shot, done in the workshop I taught three days ago in Las Vegas with David Honl?

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas, by Michael Willems

Yasmin Tajik in Las Vegas

Shot how, you ask? I mean – at what settings and such?

  • Camera: 1D Mark IV with 35mm f/1.4L prime lens.
  • 100 ISO.
  • Camera on manual, 1/320th second at f/16 (slightly exceeding the 1/300th sec synch speed).
  • Flash is an SB900, also on manual (“M” rather than “TTL”); set to full power (“1/1”).
  • Flash is on a boom, and is fitted with a Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox (notice the nice round catchlights), and is held a couple of feet from Yasmin’s face.

And you know that at full power, with a softbox, an SB900 will give you those settings.

A 430EX will need to be about twice as close to her face.

Try your own flash at those settings: how close do you need to hold it to ensure proper exposure, using the modifier of your choice. Once you know that, it will always be the same. Simple, really.

Note: the SB900 flash will overheat at these settings, especially in Las Vegas. A dozen shots in you will suddenly get no more flashes. The Nikon flash cannot be used at full power, while the Canon flashes can. With a Nikon SB800/900 flash, I would simply go to half power and live with that. If I needed more light, I would add another flash.

Want to know more? Want to learn all this and go home with a few cool portfolio shots? There is still space on the all-day Advanced Flash workshop Sunday in Mono, Ontario. Book now to get a spot.

Oh, one more thing. Am I cheating? Is this just sunlight lighting up Yasmin?

I think not. Here is the same shot without firing the flash (always a good thing to do to test your settings!):

I rest my case.

It's too bright outside. Quick! Hand me a flash!

We do not use flash “because it is too dark” – at least not just.  We very often use flash because it is too bright outside.

By using a bright flash, we can:

  1. Decrease the exposure of the background, thus making it less bright
  2. Then use the flash to increase the exposure of the foreground, to avoid darkening it as a result of step 1 (becasue this would otherwise happen).

Step 1 also

  • Increases the colour saturation.
  • Allows you to make your subject stand out against the background.

Step 2 also allows you:

  • To accent parts of your shot,
  • To “model” shapes,
  • To throw light where you want it.

At yesterday’s all day Country Creative Lighting Workshop in Mono, Joseph Marranca and I used technique to do exactly that. So you turn a simple snap into this, instead:

A female runner

Female runner on a country road

For this, we used technique. Technique that included (apart from a talented model):

  • The use of two speedlites, set to manual, fired by Pocketwizards
  • A Honl Photo Traveller 8 portable softbox on one
  • Manual camera exposure settings

Two simple off-camera speedlites can create a shot like that? Yes they can. 430 EX speedlites can overpower the sun? Yes they can. Try it!

Pic of the day

And how would you like to take pics like this, shot about an hour or two ago on my way back home from day one of the excellent Henry’s Digital Imaging Show:

Oakville.com party in Oakville

Oakville.com party in Oakville

How did I shoot this:

  • A Canon 1D Mark IV camera with a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens
  • The lens set to 16m (equals a “real” 22mm)
  • A flash on the camera set to -1 stop flash compensation
  • The camera set to -2 stops on the meter in manual (1/30th sec at f/4 if I recall correctly)
  • A Honl Photo half CTO gel on the flash
  • White balance set to “flash”

That’s how it’s done. Come to my courses and I’ll explain more!

Flash Modifiers, when to use: 1 – The Fong Thing

Some photographers love the Gary Fong lightsphere because it throws light everywhere and makes it simple to shoot. Others hate it because it throws non-directional light, meaning “no art”.

They are both right. Every modifier has a range of situations where you use it, and a range where you do not use it. The key is not just to learn how to use a modifier, but it is to learn when to use it in the first place, and when not to.

So the Fong Lightsphere is a modifier that:

    1. You put on your flash
    2. Aim upward
    3. Use without the dome if you have a white ceiling; else use with the dome (the round side down).
    4. And which then throws the light everywhere.

      And I mean everywhere. Left, right, up, down, front, behind: photons bathe the room. And reflect off anything that can reflect. Which is the Lightsphere’s benefit.

      It is therefore good to use in situations where:

      1. It is dark.
      2. It is impossible to find a good bounce wall/ceiling behind you. A good wall/ceiling is almost always preferable if you can find it.
      3. You are looking for anything to get light into the room: you are not interested in artistically shaping light.

      Like in this unedited image of the Wendel Clark restaurant I shot yesterday:

      Using a Gary Fong Lightsphere

      Using a Gary Fong Lightsphere to light a restaurant

      Note that I was using my Gary Fong Lightsphere on a separate flash in my left hand, aimed at the ceiling. I was using TTL to fire that flash from the one on my 1Ds camera. Yes, you develop strong hands as a photographer – that, and arthritis.

      That off-camera use is a key technique for me: I often like to use the Fong off-camera to give me at least a little bit of shaping.

      Here’s another picture from that shoot:

      Wendel Clark Restaurant lit with an off-camera Lightsphere

      Using a Lightsphere

      So while as you all know I normally much prefer the Honl lightshapers – they allow me artistic control over where the light goes – “trendy venues” is a prime case where I use the Fong Lightsphere.Because Trendy Venues have no simple walls or ceilings, and those that there are tend to be black. So you need to bounce those photons off anything that wiull reflect them, anywhere in the room. Enter the Fong Thing.

      What does the Fong Thing look like: Here’s me with one on the camera.