Problems and solutions in event shooting

In 2010, I wrote this:

I shot an event yesterday that prompts me to give you some TTL management strategies. This is a long post – one that you may want to bookmark or even print and carry in your bag.

TTL Management Strategies? Huh?

Yup. TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering is great, but it can have its challenges. Unpredictability, or perhaps better variability, being the main one.

So why use TTL at all? Well, for all its issues, it is the way to do it since you are shooting in different light for every shot, and you have no time for metering. Metering and setting things manually (or keeping distances identical) in an “event”-environment, especially when bouncing flash, is usually impossible. So TTL (automatic flash metering by the camera and flash, using a quick pre-flash) it is.

Cheers! (a Michael Willems signature shot)

Yesterday’s event was in a restaurant that had been closed to the public for the night. Challenges for me were:

  1. Light. It was dark. Very dark, meaning achieving focus was tough and settings needed to be wide open and slow.
  2. Consistency. The venue was unevenly lit: parts were light, parts even more dark. Meaning that achieving “one setting” is difficult.
  3. Space. Space was limited: hardly enough space in a small venue to walk around, let alone to compose shots.
  4. Bounceability. Walls were all sorts of colour, mainly dark brown, making bouncing a challenge.
  5. Colour. This also created coloured shots. Orange wall = orange shot.
  6. Predictability. Long lens? Very wide? Fast lens? Every shot seems to need another lens – which is impractical.
  7. Reflections. There is a good change reflections of glass or jewellery will upset your shots, causing them to become underexposed.
  8. Motion. People kept moving (uh yes, especially when the chair dances started).
  9. Technology. Batteries run out. Flashes stop working. Cards get corrupted. Nightmare scenarios we all know.
  10. Time. People were not there for me – it was of course the other way around. So my ability to ask people to pose and to move was limited. They are there for a party, not for the photographer.

So then you shoot and you notice that shots are too dark. or too bright. Or faces are too bright while backgrounds are too dark. But this is all in a day’s work for The Speedlighter… that is what I do for a living!

Mazel Tov!

I am sure everyone who has ever shot events is familiar with these issues. To solve them and come up with solutions, I have developed a number of strategies. So let me share some of them with you here.

(Click to continue and read the solutions…)

First, and this is not what this post is about:

Know your camera intimately and use the standard settings. Like a safe start setting of:

  • “Manual, 400 ISO, f/4.0 at 1/30th second”.
  • Aim the flash 45 degree up behind you.

Your objective with this is to get soft flash light onto your subject and warm ambient light into the background. Try to get the meter to “minus two stops indicated” when you aim at an average part of the room.

To learn all about this, read this blog and take one of my courses, a one-on-one, or a Mono course, or do the Flash course with me at Henry’s School of Imaging.

This post, however, is about the next step, which I also teach in my upcoming “Event Photography” course, namely: how to reduce the variability and get consistently great results.

My strategies to achieve this include (and you’d better sit down for this one: there are 20):

  1. Choose lenses for success. A 35mm fast prime (or 24 on a crop camera) is a good start, and this is what I used most of last night, but wider (like a 16-35, or  10-20 on a crop camera) is sometimes easier in tough light and is often necessary when space is tight. Sometimes you’ll want a long lens. I carry two cameras an no more than three lenses at any events.
  2. Give yourself time. Do not allow yourself to panic: I see beginning photographers do this. Instead, take your time, and shoot many test shots; find your happy spot. For me last night it was 800 ISO, f/3.2, 1/30th second. It took me a good while to arrive at this! Shoot, regularly check the shot, and when you see a pattern emerge of good shots at a particular setting, use that setting.
  3. Focus carefully. This is crucial: it is very tough and can be slow in low light. The trick: aim your single focus spot at brighter, contrasty areas (like faces, contrasty clothing), then focus, then hold that and recompose. And watch your distance: focus on something the same distance as your subject. Otherwise you get blurry pictures – also, TTL is sensitive to distance!
  4. Meter off mid grey. When you do this focusing, you are also metering (unless you have separated focus and metering, which in an event shoot is not an obvious choice). So be careful. If you focus and meter on a dark area, the flash will overexpose. On a bright area? Then it will underexpose. Most cameras meter with considerable bias towards your chosen focus point. So try to focus on something that is neither very bright nor very dark.
  5. Avoid hot spot reflections. TTL metering (especially on Canon cameras) is sensitive to this. Result: your entire shot in underexposed. On some cameras you can set your TTL metering to “centre weighted average” instead of “Evaluative” or “3D Color Matrix” metering: some photographers choose to do this. In any case, be aware of windows, mirrors, anything that can cause this issue.
  6. Use Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC). If you know you are metering off a bright white area, turn the flash up a stop. Conversely, if your subject is small with a big background (a person against the room), that subject may be overexposed. In that case, turn FEC down a stop. You will be using FEC a lot in many shoots. During the evening, you will see where you need plus, and where you need minus.
  7. Use your histogram. Avoid judging your shots solely by the preview on the LCD. Use the histogram by checking every now and then. It is OK to “expose to the right” (search for that on this blog, if you do not know what it means).
  8. Do not obsess about previews. Take a look often, but do not obsess. Images will be better on your computer than on the LCD, in all likelihood. You are there to shoot, not to edit.
  9. Find good bounce areas. For every shot, try to find a bounce area behind and above that is bright-ish, and that when reflecting flash, throws light onto the front of your subject’s faces.
  10. Go to a higher ISO. In a dark environment, where you bounce off walls and ceilings that “eat”most of your light, you will want to use a high ISO, like 800. Sometimes even higher: I shoot in clubs at 1600 ISO quite often.
  11. Use rechargeable NiMH batteries in your flash. These charge your flash more quickly. Essential in a fast-moving event situation, so do not use ordinary alkalines.
  12. Change those batteries often. You will be shooting at high power, and soon your batteries will get hot and will stop working. Happened to me last night – so I changed batteries a few times. Do not worry about “but they are not done yet”. Change them while the going is good. Batteries never fail at a convenient time. Take charge!
  13. Do safe shots. You will develop your style and this should include some safe shots. My signature safe shot is the “hold out your drink at arm’s length” shot I started this post with, above. Another safe shot is the food, shot at wide angle. Develop your own safe shots and always get some of those.
  14. Find good places. In an event location, there will be some shots (“in front of that great lit-up brick wall”) that work well for you. In that case, once you discover them, hang around those areas, even try to get people into those locations if you possibly can. The more of those you get, the more your ratio of great versus OK will go up.!
  15. Shoot ratios! This is a crucial point to understand. You are not in a studio environment. Not every shot will work. A failed shot or two is no issue. You are aiming for a good ratio between good and bad. I am delighted if 75% of my shots at an event are good enough to be shown. At a pinch, I will settle for half, if I must. This approach takes pressure off you. A bad shot does not mean you are a bad photographer.
  16. Shoot a lot. The ratio-approach I mention above means that event shooting is possible regardless of your expertise level: just shoot more. Tough light? Shoot even more. I do that too, and for for shots that I must get (mother with son, the happy couple, the main speech – that sort of thing), I always shoot two or three, even if I think the first one is good. So – shoot a lot.
  17. Do not delete bad shots in the camera. This takes time and wastes battery. You should be shooting, Also, you want to be able to tell your ratio of good vs bad – if you delete bad you will never know and you will never see the improvement.
  18. Shoot RAW-  and try to get within a stop. Crucially, you do not need to get every shot right. If you are within about a stop either way of perfect you are just fine and the rest can be done in post. Events need much more post-production than studio work. Many shots will need adjustments: exposure, white balance, crop. Vignette, sharpening, skin adjustments.
  19. Do not worry about white balance. Set it to “Flash” and adjust later.  That is why you shoot RAW.
  20. Catch the moment. Often, this is more important than the quality! Choose the decisive moment. “If it smiles, shoot it”. Look for moments and “damn the torpedoes” – shoot! The chair dance shot above is a good example: yes, more light and no “exit” sign and a tighter crop would have been even better,  but the moment beats all that.

Whew. A lot of strategies. Do not forget to have fun. Be a people person. Smile. Whatever you shoot, it will be OK, it will be better than if you do not shoot. get on with people, smile, laugh, eat and drink a bit if you are invited to. Enjoy!

Kiss kiss! The decisive moment.

To learn the strategies, I recommend that you now read this post again, print it, and then start implementing the ideas one by one.

Practice makes perfect, you know what “they” say… and New Years’ Eve will be a great time for you all to practice.

And all that still holds today, of course!



A photo like this needs careful balancing: the TV, the room, and the outside.

  1. First, as always, set the ambient exposure. Set your camera to match the outside.
  2. See how the TV works with that. If not good, find a good point in between, where the TV looks good, even if the outside is a little bright, like here.
  3. Keep your shutter speed below 1/250 sec or 1/200 sec, depending on your camera.
  4. Now add flash; add the right amount to match the ambient exposure. Bounce the flash from a point behind you that gives equal brightness through the room.

And that’s all. Not that difficult if you approach it right!


An October 2009 post that is still valid…:

A reminder to all flash photographers: you need your shutter speed to be below the camera’s flash synch speed.

What does this mean? Let me explain.

The flash fires for the briefest period, of course. Like 1/2000th of a second. That is why we call it a flash.

So when it fires, if the light is to reach the entire film or sensor, the shutter needs to be totally open at that point.

That much is obvious. But what is not obvious is that there is an engineering limitation in your shutter. Beyond a certain shutter speed, the camera’s synch speed, the shutter never totally opens. Instead, a small (increasingly narrow) slit travels across the shutter to give each pixel a brief exposure time.That’s cool – the shutter does not have to be super-fast and expensive and you get a fast shutter speed.

But this gets in the way when you are using flash. When you fire during those short exposure times (on most modern cameras, faster than about 1/200th second), the light does not reach the entire sensor. Look at this example I shot to illustrate this, at speeds from 1/200th to 1/1000th sec:


You can see that as I exceed the sync speed, the light only reaches part of the shutter.

You should also note that especially when using external flashes with Pocketwizards or similar, flash takes time to set up. My 1Ds MKIII has a synch speed f 1/25oth second but as you see, at that speed it is already beginning to cut off. Best stay a bit below your synch speed (I typically set my shutter, when I am using studio flash, to 1/125th second).

(There is a way to overcome that: fast flash, which some high end flash units offer. This continuously, all the time that the shutter travels, pulses the flash at a very rapid rate, so that the slit, as it travels across the sensor, has light coming in throughout its travel time. It works great – do use it when taking flash images outside – but it uses a lot of energy, and hence decreases the range of your flash.)

(Advanced tip: I know of at least one photographer who uses this effect to introduce an electronic version of a neutral density filter or a barn door: he sets his camera to 1/320th second while using flash, and turns the camera upside down. That makes the top part of the image dark, at least as far as the flash part of the light is concerned!)

Improvise? Yes, improvise.

You can improvise in so many ways.

Take this image:

Just now. It’s 30C (86F). And sunny. So I need a flash, otherwise that sky would not look blue; it would look white instead. because exposing highly enough to see the inside of the car would make the sky way too bright.

Instead, I expose for the sky (the usual outdoors flash recipe: 1/200s, 100 ISO, then f/4–f/22, start at f/8). Then I add flash. Three flashes in one umbrella, fired by one Pocketwizard:

Without flash, that would look like this:

A portrait would be nice, with this light. 100 ISO, 1/200 sec, f/16.

Anyway, I said “improvise”. How so?

The sandbag, that’s how so. That umbrella would be all over the place, breaking my equipment on its way down. You need a sandbag to stabilize it and to hold it down.

And what I often use, when I don’t happen to have a sandbag available, is a 15kg bag of kitty litter. Which is what I am using here, if you look carefully. That light stand isn’t going anywhere!


Come meet me tomorrow at CJ’s Café in Bronte, Oakville, for the official opening of my month long exhibit of wall art. And perhaps buy a piece: tomorrow only, I have lots of extra works (over 150), at once-only prices.

Tell me you are coming:

You know that transparent plastic thingie in your flash, that you can pull out to cover the flash surface? Many of you think this is a softening device. If you think this: wrong. It isn’t a softener. Don’t use it for that. Waste of energy—literally.

So what is it?

Question: What is the difference between the following two photos?

Hint: I used a 16mm lens (full frame camera. This is like a 10mm lens for a crop camera).


Can you see that the flash is concentrated in a small circle in photo 1?

Well… you know that when you zoom, or change lenses, the flash changes its zoom, right?  But the widest flash zoom setting is 24mm, and I shot at 16mm. That is the top picture. As you can see, the zoom circle is too small for the picture.

In the bottom picture, I pulled out that plastic “wide angle adapter”, the transparent plastic square you can pull out to cover the front (not the white sheet). As said, this is not a softener; it is merely the 14mm adapter”. The zoom device for wider than 24mm. It makes the beam wider, see picture 2.

That’s all: when you zoom wider than 24mm, pull out the wide angle adapter. It does not soften; it widens.

Indispensable tool!

My new product of the month, just received from Hong Kong, is going to be indispensable to me, I can see that now.

Here it is:

A “3-in-1 hotshoe mount flash bracket”, made by (link fixed). This bracket allows up to three flashes to point into one centre-mounted umbrella, as follows:

Better still, it allows ONE connection from your radio trigger (in my case, a pocketwizard) to all three flashes at once. You need just one simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable (i.e. the connector is the same as on the pocketwizard itself). And that saves both radio triggers and hotshoe cables. That, for me, is the killer feature. Up to today, I had to always connect three pocketwizards and three cables.

So here’s a few photos. The last one is a “pull back shot”, where you can see the lighting setup.

As for these photos: the day was like this (a snapshot):

That is fine, but I prefer my subject to stand out more, and I want the sky to be more saturated.

So here’s the recipe. For daytime outside flash pictures, you go to 1/250 second (or whatever fastest sync speed your shutter allows) at 100 ISO and then use f/4—f/16 depending on how bright it is. Start at f/8 and vary from there.

This is f/16:

A little dark and dramatic for this particular portrait, so f/11 is more like it:

But the point is that f/16 is even possible, with three speedlights (580EX and 600EX) into one umbrella. Normally, I would have to use a studio light for this.

This was with all three flashes at full power. Normally, I would shoot at a maximum of half power if at all possible. That way, the recharge time is shorter and the flashes do not overheat.

Ordering from user mkstudio-us, via ebay, was simple. I paid under $20 for each of the three brackets I ordered. Shipping from Hong Kong was free, but it did take several months (“slow boat from China”—literally). If you are in a hurry, order elsewhere, but if time does not matter, order from these guys in Hong Kong. Excellent value.

An excellent tool that will allow you to fire three flashes with one Pocketwizard, easily and conveniently. This will be in my flash bag forever, and my firm prediction is that I will make use of it all the time.


Postscript: a few people asked “:why not just use a strobe”. Well, a strobe is big and heavy, and its battery even heavier (lead-acid contains… yeah, lead). The fact that I can do it all with speedlights is amazing… and yes, you do need this much light pretty much every time in bright sunlight. The flash manual, and the tables in the checklist manual, explain and help. (See

Open up opportunities

I am often asked “do you always use flash?”.

The answer is “no, but I always consider using flash”. In other words, flash gives me so many more options that I feel it would be a mistake to ignore those options.

One of yesterday’s students in the sun, the way you would have to do it without flash:

But with flash, we have options. Like this:

Isn’t that 100 times better? Emphasis on subject, saturated colour, modeling with light. And the setup is not complicated:

You may notice that I have two flashes shooting into the umbrella. That way, I can get both of them set to half power, which is a lot better than one flash at full power: full power tends to overheat flashes, and the recycle time is slower.

Camera settings for the “proper” shot were: manual mode, 100 ISO, 1/250 sec, f/8.

A couple more examples:

The green gelled flash was there to show it could be done. In a “real” photo I probably would have aimed that green gelled flash at the darker area in the background.

And even with one off camera flash you can have fun:

So now that the summer is here, bring your flash, take a lesson and learn to use it—and have fun creating images that you can be proud of; images where you are in charge of the light.


Light and dark

Ciaoscuro is all about the play between dark and light.

Take this student at Vistek, the other day. Lit from where the camera is, you get this:

Fine, I suppose… competently lit, just barely.. but is that creative? Not really.

Now, lit from the side, with a simple flash with a grid on it, no other modifier, we get this, instead:

I think you will agree that’s a lot better, and for several reasons. One is that there is less stuff. Only what’s important is lit: the rest is simply not lit at all. Second is that the face is now shaped (modeled) by the light. Third is that what is important is lit; what isn’t is simply not lit. Light direction as well as distribution and quantity are now totally under your control.

(Note that the grid is essential: without it, the flash light would spill onto the walls and ceiling and floor and from there to the rest of the room: no black room)

What I used? A 5Diii with a 600EX flash on the camera set to be master (but not to fire itself); and a 430EXii slave flash on our left. that’s all. “Studio setting” (1/125, 200 ISO, f/8) ensures that the ambient light is black.


Setup for outdoors flash pics.

A student just asked me:

When you were at the London Camera Club, you had your usual stand/flash holder/umbrella combo on display. Unfortunately, time didn’t permit me to ask about it. Would you mind mentioning what brands the components are – I would like to have a similar set up for my Speedlight.

I use the following setup:

So that is:

  1. A Light stand. Any brand is OK if it is sturdy enough.
  2. A mount that sits on top of the light stand and swivels. The flash sits on top of this mount. My mount is a Manfrotto,
  3. A pocketwizard receiver. I use the simple Pocketwizard PlusX: $180 for two of them.
  4. A cable between the Pocketwizard and the flash hotshoe. This cable sits on top of the mount, and the flash on top of it.
  5. An umbrella that goes through the mount (you can see the hole in the photo). This should be an umbrella with a removable cover, so you can shoot into the umbrella as well as through the umbrella.

Because this is non-TTL, the flash can be any flash. Any make, and type, as long as it has a manual power level setting and you can disable any timeouts (otherwise it turns off every minute or two).

To a large extent, these are commodity items. There are many brands. Nikon has a kit of mount plus stand plus umbrella for just over $100, for instance, but anything that looks sturdy enough will do fine.

As for radio triggers, I use Pocketwizards because they are the industry standard and rugged, and they use AA batteries; but any other non-TTL trigger will work just as well.

The setup above serves me well: it is what I use for up to 90% of my outside pictures.

Like this scene, the way it looks to my eyes:

And here comes rescue, a.k.a. me and my umbrella:

…which results in:

And the lovely Vanessa from Timmins has a sense of humour:

The good news: this type of dramatic lighting is simple, once you know how!


Want to learn how to do this? I have a couple of spots open on my “Mastering Flash” workshop in Oakville this Sat 23 May, 1pm—4:30pm. This is a very small workshop: 3-6 people maximum. If you are interested, email me: You can book on


Flash and what you want.

Your background is what you want, not what it is.


Take this example. My room looks like this, right now.

(0.5 sec, f/8, 200 ISO).

But when I set my camera to 1/250 sec, f/8, 200ISO, I get:

Dark. Even the TV is almost entirely dark.

Why? Because that is what I want. I do not care that the room is pretty well lit; I want it to be dark. So what do I do? High f-number, fast shutter, low ISO. And that gives me not what there is, but what I want.

And when I crop that, decrease saturation, and increase clarity, then I have a low-key portrait.

…which is of course what I wanted all along.

Note that I use two flashes to light me. They are set to manual at 1/4 power, my standard flash setting. I also have a grid mounted on each flash (a Honlphoto grid). These stop the light from spreading through the room. If it did, the room would be visible.

You can have serious fun with one or two flashes and a few radio triggers, and this is how. Make ambient go away , then use flash to light where you want the photo to be lit.