A shot from the course

At the Mono “Creative Light” workshop,  we do different portfolio shots every time.

So imagine our delighted on Sunday when a student turned up in a Hummer. This was immediately put to use by model Tara:

Tara Elizabeth and Hummer

Tara Elizabeth and Hummer

That was lit how?

This is how: with a softbox, to our left. And a small speedlight to our left aimed straight at the car – with a blue Honl gel. Both were fired using pocketwizards (the speedlite using a Flashzebra cable). Metered using a light meter, of course.

Here is an alternate take:

Angry Tara Elizabeth, with Hummer

Angry Tara, with Hummer

That was taken just a few minutes before. Can you see how every minute counts when shooting in beautiful late day light?

Okay, one more. Just to show that lens flare – which should normally be avoided – can sometimes be OK:

Angry with tire iron

Angry with tire iron

You avoid flare by:

  • Using a lens hood
  • Shielding the lens with your hand
  • Avoiding lens filters
  • Pointing slightly away from the light source

Have fun!

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!

GF1 self portrait

A self portrait I took a few minutes ago:

Michael Willems, photo by Michael Willems

Michael Willems, photo by Michael Willems

I shot this with the Panasonic GF1:

  • Camera on manual, f/4.0, 1/60th second, 200 ISO
  • Using multiple-point autofocus
  • Pocketwizard on the camera
  • Pocketwizard on a 430EX flash, connected with Flashzebra cable
  • Flash set to manual, 1/32nd power
  • Honl Photo Traveller 8 softbox on the (handheld) flash

To lower the noise (“increase the signal to noise ratio”, for engineers) I exposed to the right (i.e. I exposed high, but without actually overexposing anything) and then pulled back a stop in Lightroom.

The 20mm lens (yes you can use 40mm, for that is what it is, for portraits) gives me that wonderful sharpness. Click and view full size to see how sharp it is.

The Honl softbox gives it that nice soft look and the unique round catchlights.

And I have said it before: for creative photography, lighting a subject is as much about what you do not light than about what you do light.

Postscript: And here’s one more: son Jason just now (similarly lit, also shot with the GF1)

Jason Willems, photo Michael Willems

Jason, shot with GF1/430EX

That portable studio

So when I pack by bags to do a location shoot, like today’s executive headshots shoot, you saw in a recent post that I bring rather a lot.

And what do I use? How does it look when it’s all set up?

That setup process, which takes about 45-60 minutes including carrying it all from the car in stages, results in this:

This setup consists of:

  1. A grey backdrop. I like grey because you can make it any colour, from black to white.
  2. The main (“key”) light: a light stand with Bowens 400 Ws monolight in a softbox. This is fired by a Pocketwizard (just visible, top left)
  3. The fill light: a light stand with a Bowens 400 Ws monolight into an umbrella. This is fired by the slave cell.
  4. The background light: a mini  light stand with a 430EX Speedlite, with a  Honl speed strap and a Honl 1/2 CTB gel. This light is fired by a Pocketwizard, using a Flashzebra cable.
  5. The hair light: another a light stand with a 430EX Speedlite, with a  Honl speed strap and Honl snoot. This light is fired by a Pocketwizard, using a Flashzebra cable.
  6. A stool.
  7. The camera set to 1/100th sec, f/9, 100 ISO, and equipped with a PocketWizard to fire the other flashes.

It doesn’t look like all that much, but when you write it out, and then add the power cables, connection cables, bags, and so on, it’s quite a lot.

Tidyness is godliness.

Flashzebra offers many handy strobe accessories. Together with my Honl accessories (such as the speedstraps, gels, snoot, grids and bounce cards) I have an outfit that is at the same time more professional, more convenient, and more portable.

I talked about the speedlite cables recently. My latest addition is these: small holders for Pocketwizards that allow you to tie them onto a light stand.

This means that your outfit looks more professional, and the antenna points up, but it also means that I no longer need to hang the PWs by the cable. This has always been annoying to me. Problem solved!

Detail view:

Easy: they screw onto the PW at the back and you tie them onto the light stand with a durable elastic. Much recommended.

More reliable PW connection

In my post earlier today I noted that Pocketwizards aren’t always reliable when they have a wire plugged into them. That, and you need to keep them away from 430EX flashes, and point the antenna on the receiving side the same way as that on the sender, ideally.

The “a cable plugged in makes the receiver unreliable” phenomenon is presumably due to some of the RF going into that wire. So a possible solution should have been obvious to a radio amateur/electrical engineer like me:

Yes, that’s is: the little RF choke I put on the cable. And indeed, my testing shows that this type of choke seems to keep the receiver significantly more sensitive. Problem solved (or at least, problem alleviated: the other recommendations still stand).


Nah, I exaggerate. Pocketwizards (specifically, the non-TTL model, namely the Pocketwizard II Plus, of which I own five) are great. But I do want to draw attention to two issues to watch out for.

First: what am I doing. I am firing a Pocketwizard, as in my post a few days ago. Meaning I have this setup:

The camera contains a TTL flash, plus from the PC-contact (the X-contact) I am firing an additional flash, set to manual at low power.

I even have three brand-new Pocketwizard-to-hotshoe cables [link] from Flashzebra – recommended, both the equipment and the company. My order arrived promptly via US mail (as did the mounting brackets that you see under the PW – these allow neatly mounting the PWs onto lightstands). No UPS ripoff.

The Gel on the flash above is a Honl Photo blue gel, to add a splash of colour to a photo I was working on.

To my surprise, I have found this Pocketwizard setup to not always be reliable.

When I mount the PW onto the top of the camera hotshoe, no problem. But when I use the PC connector on the side of the camera, and a cable supplied with the Pocketwizard, no go sometimes. I can fire the camera or even press the local PW’s button, and I get intermittent remote flash firing.

I have so far narrowed the issue to the following three causes:

  1. Bad X-sync contact. I needed to use contact cleaner and squeeze the connector a bit to ensure good contact.
  2. Antennas need to be polarized equally (if the sender is vertical, ideally the receiver needs to be vertical as well).
  3. Maintaining the distance from the speedlite is a good idea: Speedlites can interfere.
  4. Radio signal: when I continuously press the sender’s test button, the receiver’s LED should stay on. Normally this happens. Even when I hold my hand by the sender’s antenna, the receiver normally stays solid. But when I attach a cable to the PW, even when it is dangling in mid air and not connected to the camera, it is much less reliable.

I mean this:

With that cable, whether connected to the camera or not, the sender seems to send out less power than without. This is not surprising: the wire probably affects radiated power and pattern. But it is good to be reminded this is a radio transmitter and radio is black magic (and I am a licensed radio ham, VA3MVW, so I have some appreciation of this).

The moral of this story: Watch out, the rock solid reliability of Pocketwizards, which I had always taken for granted, is not guaranteed. Especially when not using the hotshoe.

But by watching all factors above, I think I have it down to a reliable setup -and when I have issues at least I know what they are and how I can address them.

Update: see the post I wrote a few hours later about RF chokes