exposure metering for a backlit subject, using the histogram  (model – Olena)

When our subject is backlit, we have a number of options:

  • expose for the background, and then either:
    — go for a (semi) silhouette,
    — add light to your subject to balance their exposure with that of the background.
  • expose carefully for our subject, and let the background blow out. This is the “ambient-light-only” option.
  • anything somewhere inbetween those two choices, where *we* decide how we want to balance the exposure between our subject and background.

Exposing for our subject, very often gives us this kind of ethereal look as the strong light from the background causes internal lens flare.

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adapting your photographic style during a shoot

I had the pleasure of photographing Rebecca and Max’s elopement wedding in New York. They’re both from Denmark. (Actually, Max is from Spain originally.) They both planned to get married in New York while over on a trip here. I met up with them at City Hall on the day, where I was the witness to their wedding ceremony. That’s quite an honor too. Then, after the ceremony, we ventured out into Manhattan for an extended photo session.

And this is where there is a certain balance that I need to maintain. If I have a specific style in photographing on-location portraits, it is one of simplicity.

The straight-forward recipe is to make my subject(s) the center of the image by:
– careful composition,
– minimizing extraneous clutter,
– eliminating distracting backgrounds,
– compressing the perspective with a long lens,
– by using a wide aperture on a tele-zoom for shallow depth-of-field.

Great. This works well when the area that we’re photographing our subject in, is just something to have as an interesting, but non-specific background. The background might even be defocused so you can’t really tell where it was. Now, when the location is very much part of what is happening, then as a photographer we need to definitely include the location as part of a “character” in this story. I recently did it with the father and son portrait in Times Square.

And so it is with a wedding taking place in New York, where New York was very specifically chosen as an exotic destination. The photographs of Rebecca and Max had to show a wide range – from the more specifically portrait-like images, to photos which show the city they are in. But I also wanted to avoid a cookie-cutter touristy thing where we move from landmark to landmark and just have them pose in front of things and buildings.

I still wanted to show how they interact with each other. For me, wedding photography, and photography of couples, should be about how they interact with each other. It should reveal something very much *them* along the way.

So there’s the challenge – to take photographs of the couple in Manhattan, and have the range of photos – from elegantly simple portraits, all the way to showing them against the backdrop of the busy city. And yet, not have that same busy-ness intruding, and distracting attention away from them when their family and friends look at the photos.

Let’s run through some of the images and look at the thought-process behind them …

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deconstructing a portrait photograph

My friend, Chuck Arlund, visited New York with his son Lachlan, for a few days. At the end of the trip, I had a short opportunity to photograph them. Since this is Chuck, whom I greatly admire, and his son (who is so used to a camera by now), I wanted to come up with something outside of the usual guaranteed way of working with a longer lens, and a simpler background. I wanted something a little out of the ordinary.

What I envisioned was some place in New York that was very busy, and then go to a slow shutter speed, and let everyone that is moving around them, turn into ghostly figures. The idea I had in mind, was with the two of them central in the image, and figures flowing around them on either side. I wanted that symmetry.

But as usually happens, real life limitations and opportunities kick in, and you end up with something slightly different than originally envisioned.

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a simple lighting setup with speedlights, with white seamless backdrop

A question on the Tangents forum asked about setting up and using two SB-910 speedlights against white seamless. It’s a topic we’ve covered in a previous article – a simple lighting setup for studio photography – but it might be good to revisit this again.

The article on that simple lighting setup with two speedlights, explained our choice of camera and flash settings in detail, so we’ll only briefly cover it this time. Still, a different explanation from a different angle might trigger new ideas and questions.

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photo session – Modern Gypsies – floating bubbles

Another from the most recent publicity photo session with the Modern Gypsies, with two of the girls in French period costume … inside plastic bubbles. Seemingly an easy setup, it took a few quick adjustments to the off-camera lighting while they were enclosed in the plastic bubbles. Time is very limited!

Let’s start off with the test shots, and see the progression from there …

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camera & flash settings: what do you want to achieve?  (model: Ulorin Vex)

In one of the multitude of photography groups on Facebook, I saw a newcomer to off-camera flash say that she bought an Alien-Bee set, but she has no idea what to set it to. My reply was that she needed a light-meter. My thinking is that then she’d know what the specific output of the flash or strobe would be, and then be able to set her camera to it. But then, thinking about it some more, I realized if there is hesitation there or confusion, it is about what specific camera settings (mostly aperture) should be in the first place.

I think this is the baffling part of using off-camera lighting or studio gear on location for the first time – where do you start? What should your camera and flash settings be?

Well, if you shoot on location, your settings are usually decided for you by your available light …

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using a neutral density (ND) filter to control depth of field when using flash

When working in bright sunlight with flash units that can’t go into high-speed flash sync, we have a ceiling in terms of our shutter speed / aperture combination. The shutter speed limitation then would be our maximum flash sync speed. The bright daylight would then imply a small aperture – most likely around f/11

Why f/11 ? The Sunny 16 Rule dictates that in bright sunlight, we’re most likely working at 1/100 @ f/16 @ 100 ISO. This translates into a handy short-cut of: 1/200 @ f/11 @ 100 ISO, where 1/200 is the maximum flash sync speed of many cameras. I use Nikons so my max flash sync speed is 1/250 hence that is where I normally operate when using flash in bright light.

In this bright light, to get to wider apertures for a shallower depth-of-field, we need to cut the amount of light. We can do this with a Neutral Density filter (vendor).

The first concern is usually that the ND filter cuts the flash, but this isn’t a particular problem, since the ND filter cuts flash and ambient light by equal amounts. So if we have 1/200 @ f/11 and then add a 3-stop ND filter, we end up with f/4 which is much wider than f/11 and gives us better control over our DoF. A 3-stop ND filter is usually denoted as an .9 ND filter, where 0.3 is a stop, and hence 0.1 is a third of a stop. A Neutral Density filter that is marked as 3.0 will therefore be a 10-stop ND filter.

As a side comment, please note that shallow depth-of-field is not the same as ‘bokeh‘. With the recent photo shoot with Ulorin Vex, I decided that it might be as good an opportunity as any to see how a Neutral Density filter affects the results.

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posing tip – check the wrists and hands

In posing, a good tip is to have the wrists and hands form a kind of S-curve instead of being straight. While this photograph works for me,  and I really like the composition and her direct gaze into the camera … I should’ve guided Anelisa to bend her left wrist (the hand closer to her cheek), a bit more. That would’ve made her gesture a touch more elegant in this photograph at the top.

Of course, in analyzing your photographs closely, there is (nearly) always something to pick up on how you could’ve improved the final image.

Here is another photograph in the sequence, where you’d be able to clearly see the difference a change in the pose would’ve made …

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bounce flash photography tip – bouncing flash towards a window

During the part of the on-location lighting workshop where we play with bounce flash, Anelisa was posing on a chair, and eventually ended up in this dramatic pose. Even though she had turned away from the wall areas where we could bounce flash off, I didn’t want to change her pose.

The area to camera-left, was the large window of the studio space, so this meant using that to bounce my flash off. Naturally, most of the light will be lost.  But as shown in these previous articles;
— using on-camera bounce flash outside  (model: Precious)
— mimicking window light with off-camera bounce flash  (model: Ulorin Vex)
— and as per one example in my book, on-camera flash,
it is entirely possible to get enough light to return from the window panes, when shooting at a certain angle, and with realistic camera settings.

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my favorite lighting setup to photograph kids indoors – bounce flash!

Meet Jack. He’s 1 year old. We kinda photographed him just over a year ago with the maternity photo session with his mom and dad. But this is him now, for real.

When Amy and Nick asked me to do a portrait session with him, we started off at their house. I wanted to grab a few candid photos of Jack happily playing before we set off to a nearby park. Since kids scoot around all over the place, for me, it made most sense to just use on-camera bounce flash. Minimal gear – just the speedlight on my camera. And of course, the black foamie thing.

Shooting in TTL mode, meant the flash exposure was pretty much spot on every time, regardless of where Jack zipped around.

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