Slow flash – a misnomer

Nikon calls it “slow flash” when you use a slow shutter speed while using flash. You engage this in semi-automatic and automatic camera modes (P and A) by pressing the flash button an turning the wheel until you see the word “slow” on the top LCD display in the flash area.

This is a misnomer. The flash is fast – in the order of 1/1000th second. It is the shutter that is allowed to be slow in this “mode” (really just a technique). That is why another, more correct, term for this technique is “dragging the shutter”.

And you want to do that why? As readers here now, you want that in order to allow enough ambient light in, to avoid those dark backgrounds.

But can you use a slow shutter speed when using flash? Surely a shot at, say, 1/30th second will be all blurry?

Not necessarily. While there may be a little ghosting, if your subject is mainly lit by the flash, it will be as though it was shot at 1/1000th second.

That is why “slow flash” is such an unfortunate misnomer: it is”fast flash in a slow shutter image”. Which is why the Willems 444 Rule for indoors flash (400 ISO, 1/40th sec, f/4) usually results in crisp images.  Have you tried it yet?


A quick flash tip

One of the things you may wish to do this festive season is use off-camera TTL flash.

I.e. holding the camera in your right hand and the flash elsewhere – for instance in your left hand (or your other fight hand if you have two – well spotted, Mike).

In any case: away from the camera – this is key to good pictures.

All brands of camera allow this, and if you have a Nikon, or a Canon 7D or 60D, you do not even need additional hardware: just your flash and your camera, with its popup.

The popup (or on other camera, the on-camera flash) now sends commands to the other flash. So you can light a subject – like the student in Thursday’s Flash class – from one side, in this case with a flash in an umbrella on our right side, with a reflector on our left:

Off-camera flash using TTL

Much better than straight flash!

You can even use several flashes, divided into groups. In the next shot, we have an additional flash on our left, rather than a reflector. That flash has a red gel (one of the Honl Photo gels) on it, to see clearly which light is doing what work:

Off-camera flashes, using TTL

But what you must remember is this:

Disable the on-camera flash.

That is, the pop-up or 580EX/SB900 on your camera still sends its commands to the other flashes, but when the actual photo is beingtaken, it does not flash.

If you forget to disable it, it will fire. And then you get this unfortunate effect:

On-and Off-camera flashes, using TTL

Deer in the headlights. Harshness. Shadows. Brrr: baaad.

So your tip: use off-camera flash, and disable the main flash from firing actual flashes. The camera menu (or the flash on your camera) has functions for this.

If you want to learn this and many other techniques before the holiday, take the advanced flash course in Mono (see next week. Else, take a course with me or at Henry’s early in the year. It is worth learning flash!

What camera should I buy?

I hear this question a lot.

And of course there is no real answer. Like asking “what car should I buy”. Up to you!

But there are part answers that may help you make your own decision. Last time, I talked about “Canon or Nikon versus Olympus, Sony, Pentax, etc”. This time let me talk about “Canon or Nikon”.

Both are great. They are the industry leaders. Most photographers and photojournalsits have eitehr Canon or Nikon (by far). But the most important question is “how recent is your camera”, not “what brand is it”.

Some people say the two brands have different DNA. That is an overstatement – you can use and like either and they do the very same job. That said:

  • I feel that in the low end (Nikon D3000, D5000, etc versus Canon Digital Rebel XS, T1i, T2i, etc) Canon beats Nikon. The inability to auto-focus using a 50mm lens on these Nikon cameras is, in my opinion, a showstopper. A lot of options are unavailable. The Canon cameras feel much “cleaner” here, and more professional.
  • In the mid-range, Nikon D90/D300 vs Canon 50D/60D, it’s a wash, especially if you compare modern with modern.
  • In the upper mid range, Canon wins my vote with the excellent 7D and 5D II.
  • In the high end (1D, 1Ds, 3D, etc) it’s a wash again.
  • Hold the cameras and see what feels and sounds better. This is like doing a car test drive. Essential part of your choice.
  • With video, Canon beats Nikon in all but the most recent cameras. But these are not video cameras, really.
  • If you like customizing, Nikon beats Canon. Canon seems to not like to give photographers customization options, especially in lower end cameras: these are used to drive people to the more expensive cameras.
  • On the other hand, Nikon’s menus are terrible: the user interface with the vertical tabs and scroll bars is hard for beginners to understand. Canon is much cleaner here.
  • Canon still has a better lens range than Nikon.
  • Controls on Nikon turn “the wrong way” – e.g. the exposure adjustment scale goes from plus to zero to minus, exactly the opposite to all other Cartesian coordinate systems we have been taught to use all our lives. And to unscrew a lens you turn clockwise. And so on. I find this extremely irritating, but you may love it.
  • Nikon’s TTL flash system is excellent. On the other hand, NIon’s high-end flashes overheat. So again, a wash.

I am a Canon shooter, with a 1D4, a 1Ds3, and a 7D. Buit I also shoot Nikon. A good photographer can handle any camera.

My recommendation:

  1. Make a list of what you will use the camera for
  2. Make a list of MUST HAVES and LIKE TO HAVES in your camera
  3. Take those lists to a good camera store, like Henry’s, where the staff know photography.
  4. Research the recommendations on and via Google.

And above all, buy now, before the festive season.

And above even that: come get some training. Call or email me, sign up at Henrys or at, or do whatever you can to learn. It is simple, but if you do not take a course you will never live up to your potential.

Is brand important?

A student asks me this via email:

Hi Michael, hope you are well. I wanted to send this email as I enjoyed the class you taught and enjoy reading your blogs!

As an amateur photographer the very first camera I started out with was a 35mm Minolta. Hence the reason I purchased my digital Sony, as my lenses were compatible.  I’ve have been building my equipment around “Sony” but have come to so many roadblocks.

I’m not sure if you remember me but I had to borrow your camera in class because I did not have a Nikon or Canon which was compatible to your remote flash. I would love to attend your workshops but I have no knowledge of Nikon or Canon. There has also been some part time job opportunities that I could not apply for because they preferred Nikon or Canon.

So therefore my question is…should I trade in all the Sony equipment and begin with Nikon or Canon? If so, which brand and model would you recommend?

Currently I have the Sony A700 model with 3 lenses (16-105, 50, 70-200macro).

Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!  (Can’t wait to attend one of workshops, need more help with lighting theory).

Great question, and one that occurs regularly.

And a tough question, too. And it is one to which the answer, as so often in life, is “it depends”.

Let’s go through the various aspects to this choice.

  1. Technology. The A700 is a great camera. In general, though, there is little difference in quality between brands. Sure, Canon and Nikon, as market leaders, have larger R&D budgets, but in the end, all cameras end up with the same features. Differences are minimal. Do not discount Sony, they want to be number two soon, and who knows. If Canon has benefits (very extensive lens selection) and Nikon has advantages (low ISO), Sony also has advantages (available Zeiss lenses). Where Canon has drawbacks, so does Nikon and so does Sony (ask me if I like the Sony proprietary flash socket, or if I like Sony’s menu navigation). All cameras have aperture, shutter and ISO settings, so in the end, technology is not the decisive factor – either way. More important than “what brand is this camera” is “how modern is this camera”. They all get better every year.
  2. Backward Compatibility. Clearly a big one: if you have many thousands of dollars in one equipment maker’s hardware (say, Minolta lenses, which work on Sony cameras, since Sony bought Minolta) that is a factor to be taken into account.
  3. Market. Now we come to a biggie. The market leaders, Canon and Nikon, have a huge advantage over others, since the pro photography pretty much is Nikon and Canon. You have seen it yourself: if you cannot operate Nikon or Canon, many people do not want to know you. This is unjustified – but “it is what it is”.
  4. Peripherals. From available third-party lenses to Pocketwizards, all peripherals are available for Canon and Nikon. So that too can be, for pro shooters, a benefit of switching.
  5. Knowledge, Support, Expertise. An offshoot of the previous point. Books. Courses. Technical support. “Hey guys, my flash just died: anyone have one I can use?”. “Guys, who knows how I turn on this custom feature on my camera?” – Availability of used gear on Craigslist. Reviews on the magazines and online (like my blog). All these are easy if you use Nikon or Canon.

So what would I advise you?

If you are considering a switch for technical reasons, I would say “wait”. I have shot with Olympus, Panasonic, Asahi Pentax: Nikon, Canon, and I teach all others: all cameras are great. The camera is not the important thing, the lens is – and the photographer.

But since you want to be a pro shooter who has already run into roadblocks, I would seriously consider the switch.

To what? Canon or Nikon is a personal choice. What feels better?

Then you choose the level: for you I would say

  • Starter level (Rebel, or 3000/5000) – avoid. These cameras need more pro features
  • Mid-level: 60D or D90, say: great options.
  • Basic pro: 5D, 7D, D300s, etc: great options.
  • Pro: 1D, 1Ds or D3 etc: overkill, I would say, at this point, and in general, overkill for most users (but that said: I use a 1D as well as a 1Ds).

My advice: Check out When you have a particular camera in mind, ask me about that one. Ask your friends and ask other photographers.

I hope that helps.

Dragging the shutter

A quick note for you today (and this is the kind of thing my students learn at length in my advanced courses, like the one tomorrow in Mono – there’s still some space).

Every had your camera react unpredictably when using flash? Yeah, I thought so. You flash and then the shutter stays open for a second and it’s all a blur. Or you flash and the background is dark black.


When you shoot indoors, say, and use your flash, your camera behaves differently in different modes – and this behaviour varies per camera.

Aperture mode (A/Av):

  • Canon: the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low).
  • Nikon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster (this can be set).  But… if you also engage “SLOW” mode, the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low).

Program mode (P):

  • Canon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster.
  • Nikon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster (this can be set).  But… if you also engage “SLOW” mode, the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low). .


  • Canon is simple: Av = long shutter speeds, P = 1/60th or faster.
  • On Nikon cameras, both modes are restricted to 1/60 or faster normally, but either mode can be freed from this by using the “SLOW” setting.

So what is the best mode when using flash indoors?

Ah, that would be Manual. That way the camera does exactly what you want. But we will get to this again another day.

TIP: if you want to try Manual indoors flash, start at 400 ISO, 1/30th second, f/4. And bounce your flash off the ceiling/wall behind you.

Engineers… sigh.

An old one:

  • Q: What does an engineer use for birth control?
  • A: His personality.

I am constantly amazed when I see how engineers fail to communicate. They assume that ordinary people know or understand things that the engineers take for granted. If I know it, so must others, right?

Wrong. Here are just a few of the constant stream of things that make photography difficult for mortals.

  • Nikon menu spaghetti: The vertical menu tabs in Nikon cameras. And the navigation: “left, up/down, right, up/down, select, up/down, Set”. And then if you forget the final “up, set, press OK”, you lose the setting you have just done.
  • Nikon menus: in addition, most users do not understand that the menus are longer than the screen. The scroll bar is small and unintuitive. So if the vertical menu displays 8 functions but contains 18, most users will never know about those additional 10.
  • Nikon hidden auto ISO. Hide the Nikon auto ISO setting in a custom function, and users wonder why their pictures get all grainy (and their studio pictures fail completely) when they have clearly set ISO to just 200 in the main ISO screen. D’oh!
  • Wakey wakey – that fact that you need to wake up your camera by briefly pressing the shutter before you can set anything. I cannot tell you the number of times I hear “my camera isn’t working: it’s on but when I turn that dial, nothing happens”.
  • 1/1. When I set my flash to full power manual, a Canon flash displays “1/1”. In a world where only one in ten Canadians can tell me that 1,000 times 1,000 equals one million (most think 10,ooo), why do you think that people know that one divided by one is one? And even if they do, that “one” means “full power”?
  • Lens terminology. “ZOOM LENS EF 70-200mm 1:2.8 L USM IS”: need I say more? Instead of “1:3.5-5.6”, why not say f/3.5 to f/5.6, so beginners understand it? Look at that string: one colon three dot five dash five dot six. Clear, not.
  • Auto-focus terminology – We have AF mode and AF point selection, but AF point selection is not called anything like “AF”. So when people look for the word “AF” to select where the camera focuses, they get how it focuses instead.
  • Colour: why call “white balance” after “white”, which is not a colour? If they called it “colour balance” it would be sooo much clearer! Yeah guys, I know. Don’t think science; just think customer!
  • Terminology. Why call it “3D Color Matrix Metering” or “Evaluative metering” when “Smart Metering” would work a whole lot better?
  • Alonzo the Clever Mexican. I have had several people ask me who Alonzo is. Al, that is. Namely Al Servo, the Mexican who invented continuous autofocus. I mean really, do you know how few people know that “AI” means “Artificial Intelligence” (I estimate fewer than one perfect of Canadians)? And that a Servo Motor is a closely controlled electrical motor with negative feedback loop?

The list goes on, and on.

Don’t these companies do any UI testing? Head in the sand! The GTA Nikon rep recently looked at me baffled, and says “but no-one else ever told me this is confusing” – like it’s my fault.  Yeah buddy, that’s because I teach this to ordinary users, day in day out, and you just sell it.

Camera people always get defensive. “But everyone else understands it!”, they say. Um… look up “survivor bias” on Wikipedia, guys.

So if you find yourself confused: it’s not you. It’s the camera and the manual. It is time Apple designed an SLR. But do not despair: take some training and in spite of the camera companies’ engineers’ best efforts to avoid clear communication, you will learn this stuff.

And yeah, I am an engineer.

Not Neye-kon.

The following press release tells me several things:

September 9, 2009

Nikon Corporation (Michio Kariya, President) is pleased to announce that as of August 2009 total production of NIKKOR lenses, interchangeable lenses for Nikon SLR cameras, reached fifty million. Total production of NIKKOR lenses reached forty-five million in August 2008 with production of an additional five million over the past year.

Nikon (then Nippon Kogaku K.K.) released its first NIKKOR lens for Nikon SLR cameras, the NIKKOR-S Auto 5cm f/2, in 1959 along with its first SLR camera, the Nikon F. In the fifty years since then, NIKKOR lenses have been extremely well received by a great number of photo enthusiasts and professional photographers.

The current lineup of more than sixty NIKKOR lenses for Nikon SLR cameras offers a wide variety of lenses, including fisheye lenses, super wide-angle to super telephoto lenses and micro lenses.

The NIKKOR brand

As the brand name for Nikon lenses, NIKKOR has become synonymous with high-performance, high-quality SLR lenses. The NIKKOR name comes from adding “R”—a common practice in the naming of photographic lenses at that time—to “Nikko”, the Romanized abbreviation for Nippon Kogaku K.K. In 1933, the large-format lens for aerial photography was released with the name Aero-Nikkor, making last year the 75th anniversary of the NIKKOR brand.

First, a trivial one. Americans (and Canadians, who seem to follow Americans all too often) say “Neye-kon”. Elsewhere we say “Nikkon”, i.e. with the “i” pronounced as in “women”. And since the derivation is from Nippon (Japan), I can now finally see that that latter pronounciation is correct. (If you do not know Nippon, it is the official name for Japan, as my father learned during WW2 when he and his family were a guest of the emperor). So anyway: Nikon as in “Nikkon”, “i” as in women”.

Second, a more important one, 5 million lenses since Nikon was born in the same year I was born in, and 10% of them made in the last year. A recession year, to wit. That is huge, and shows how amazingly popular photography is becoming with digital technology.

Good times ahead for the makers, and good times for all the people who will have more pictures of their families than I have of mine. Take pictures while you can. Or one day it’ll be too late and you will wonder “why do I have so few pictures of my kids growing up, or of my parents or friends”.