on learning the essentials of photography

I am super-thrilled to have Frank Doorhof as a guest writer on Tangents. Frank is a highly regarded Fashion photographer based in The Netherlands, whom I had the pleasure of meeting. We hung out the one afternoon, photographing a model in Coney Island. What I found particularly interesting, is how our approach to using flash and ambient light differ. Distinct styles and techniques. Quite an inspiring afternoon. (Please note: with this blog post, the images aren’t illustrative of any particular part of the writing, but are there to showcase some of Frank’s work.)

on learning the essentials of photography

a guest post by Frank Doorhof

I met Neil during my trip to New York where I was going to teach a 3 days workshop. Before the workshops I was having a lot of fun with Neil during an impromptu photo-shoot that was arranged by a mutual friend of ours – thank you Richard! – and found Neil to be a lot of fun although he did scare the living you know what out of me when he stopped his car in the middle of the road to remove a piece of paper from the windshield, however I though he was getting out of the car to get into a fight with a very obnoxious driver behind us…. Yeah Neil I still wake up at night screaming about that one!

When I was asked to write a guest post for Neil’s blog, I was thinking very hard about the subject. Neil already has some nice tips and articles on lighting online so adding to that would be just adding something that’s probably already there, so I decided to do it little bit differently …


 – The main problem

The main problem I see with a lot of students of mine, or as you will, photographers, is that somehow they rely 100% on the instant polaroid on the back of the camera – you know that LCD display thingy. Don’t get me wrong, I love the display on my cameras, and I use it all the time to see if I’m close to what I measured … And yeah there is that word … measured. I strongly believe that when you are shooting an image you should always make sure that what you have envisioned, is something you capture in camera. I don’t believe in the term “fix it in Photoshop”. I’m using the term “why fake it when you can create it” myself, and really, I love Photoshop – I could not live without it I guess – but I’m more a Photoshop user in the minimal way.

Well ok that’s not 100% true, I love to go overboard on some shots, and in Fashion/glamour and beauty I also most of the time do some ‘skin’ work, but in essence I’m a strong advocate to make sure you nail the shot in camera.

– Back to that LCD and the consequences.

Because the LCD is showing you a histogram and the image, a lot of photographers don’t look any further and they accept that as being enough. What they don’t realize is, first, the display is showing you a preview from the JPEG; meaning that if you shoot RAW there is much more dynamic range in the original file. Also when shooting models / people it is impossible to judge if the light is correct for the skin tone / brightness … because how do you know where a certain skin tone should be rendered in the histogram?

One could argue that we can fix that quite easily in Photoshop and although that is true to a certain extent, it is not the way one should be willing to work. The best way in my opinion is to measure the light so you will have a consistent value that stays stable in different situations and with different models/subjects. This means that if you shoot model A on Tuesday, she will look the same on Wednesday. But even more important, if you shoot model A and B on that same Tuesday and somehow you have to make a composite a few days or weeks later and only shooting model B she will fit in 100%.

When judging this by eye or from the display will simply not work for accurate results.

– So what should we do?

The best thing is to use a light meter for all your setups. I know it sounds weird with all those people shouting out that light meters are something of the past, but I truly believe that when you become familiar with a light meter, you will fall in love with it … and your results will grow very quickly.

Furthermore, it will help you set up complex lighting scenarios very quickly and accurately. Most importantly, you can use the same setups with exactly the same results in the future.

– What about small flash?

With small flashes, a lot of people are relying on TTL flash, and although I have to admit that I also love that, it is better to put the strobes in manual mode. Then you can measure and set the strobes in a consistent way. The main problem with TTL is that it is based on the reflective measurements from your camera. This means that it will try to balance everything to read approximately 18% gray. You can see where TTL flash metering goes wrong by shooting a portrait, and then zooming wider, and shooting a full-length portrait against either a white or black wall.

You can counteract this by zooming in and locking the exposure (the asterisk on Canon cameras), and after that zooming out to get the same exposure on both the portraits and full bodies. As you may have guessed, in the end it is more tedious to do it that way than just shoot manual with the strobes.

– So do I never use TTL ?

Well actually I do and I love it. It speeds up your workflow on location a lot and you can switch very quickly between ratios, you can play with FEC (flash exposure compensation) and the balance between the strobes and the ambient light making great options for pure creativity.

However one should ALWAYS remember what’s going on behind the technique. When you understand and use this, there is really a very powerful tool in your toolbox with TTL flash. However, if you need constant exposures, I would always advise to keep it simple and put everything on manual. One should also choose to only use the main light on manual and keep the rest of the strobes on TTL, which also gives you very creative options.

– It all boils down to …

Creativity is a great gift, and many photographers have a lot of it – however in my workshops I quickly found out that in many cases, the creativity didn’t translate to the images because there is some knowledge missing about the way light behaves and how it can be manipulated.

So that’s a bit of what I try to do during the workshops and online. You can always use the instant preview on your camera, but it should only be used as a confirmation because you simply know you “probably” nailed the shot.

– My advice to every photographer is very simple:

Absorb the information you can find online – but don’t believe everything. Try to learn from the photographers that inspire you … even drop them an email. I think you will be surprised that some do respond and can help you with your own work. Also never stop experimenting. Read the manuals of your gear – especially the technical stuff. Lock yourself away for a few days with a connection to the internet and watch a lot of youtube instructional pieces – and filter what you need.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a mail or follow me on twitter, or via my own blog.

I would like to thank Neil for having me over on this blog, and I’m sure we will meet up once again!

Frank Doorhof

8 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1James Hazelwood says


    A fantastic post. I’m sending this link/post out to all the people I know who are starting out and even those who are experienced. This is such a good post.



  2. 2Chris F says

    Great post Frank and thanks for sharing. “why fake it when you can create it” love it!

  3. 3Richard says

    Great post Frank! You and Neil are two of the most talented photographers and educators working today. I am happy to call both of your friends and appreciate everything you’ve both taught me.

  4. 4George Bain says

    It all depends on your photography. If you are doing portraits/fashion then obviously you have time to setup your lights and it makes sense to go manual.

    If you are shooting a wedding on the fly (and usually on your own), using a light meter is a pointless distraction. You can spend 10mins setting up your lighting – or you can spend 2mins in Lightroom/Photoshop creating the same effect in most cases. The client isn’t going to know the difference.

    Work smart people.

  5. 5Frank Doorhof says

    Don’t hide behind having to work fast ;)
    Of course with weddings ettl flash rules. However as mentioned in the post understanding what’s going on makes your images stronger and teaches you how to choose the correct angles of light, were to place the bride and groom and how to compensate in camera ;)

    Also in fashion we don’t have plenty of times. With celebs we often have 5-10 minutes to pull of several different shots. Knowing how it works let’s you do that and use ettl with confidence.

    That’s what I meant with the post.
    Loads of people “hide” behind the excuse that manual doesn’t work for them while in reality with low light manual in combination with flash on ettl can save the day.

    Frank Doorhof

  6. 6 says

    Hi Frank!

    Nice to see you writing on Neil’s blog. Thanks for sharing your experience. I enjoyed your article. I also prefer using a light meter. It gives me more control then using TTL or doing a best guess on Manual.

    But like George says: If time is an important factor, like in weddings, I think sometimes it’s better/faster to do the Lightroom/Photoshop trick afterwards.

    Well… Off course there’s always an exception for everything. ;)

    Regards, Dennis

  7. 7 says

    Maybe it did not translate well but i never said that you should always measure, on the contrary.
    What I do advocate is understanding what’s going on technically.
    As mentioned before there are many times I shoot on av or manual with ettl.
    However in my head I do use the theory behind the light and know when to compensate and why.

    The only drawback indeed is more photoshop work, BUT often it does get the shot which would be harder if you had to rely on measuring everything. The idea behind the blogpost was to motivate people to look further than trusting the technique alone ;)
    It was in no way a post against shooting ettl or av, more so understanding whats going on and WHEN you DO have the time use a meter of course.

    Frank Doorhof

  8. 8 says

    I attended one of Frank’s 1-day “hands-on” sessions in Hertforshire, UK and what I learned will stay with me for a lifetime. I suggest a look at his website and I promise you 1000s of “ah’s” hundreds of “Oh my God”‘s and dozens of “how the heck did he do that?”.
    (a NeilvN and FrankD fan now living in Cyprus)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *