July 29, 2010

photography questions & answers

Continuing with the monthly theme where I look at search engine queries,
and answer a selection of 10 questions more directly…

01)  flash outdoors without looking like flash

This is a tough one to give one definitive answer for.  It really depends on what the light is like, and how you position your subjects in relation to the light.

The simplest scenario is where you position your subject so that their faces are in open shade, and then you just add a touch of fill-flash.  The easiest way of doing this is to use TTL flash, and dial your flash exposure compensation down to around -3EV.

Where you have more uneven light, then using off-camera flash with a large diffuser (eg, softbox or umbrella), will give you the best looking results.  The light from your flash will look really good, but I can’t say that it will be imperceptible as flash.  Meaning, if you look at the image, then a logical conclusion about the light is that additional light like flash must’ve been used.  But, it does look good!

Next question …

02)  what lenses to use at a wedding

I do feel strongly that f2.8 zooms or fast primes are essential with wedding photography … especially if you want to deliver images that have a natural look to them.  You need fast lenses to allow the ambient light in, and retain the sense of place and the feel of the time.

I use two full-frame digital SLRs – currently, the Nikon D3 is my choice.  I mainly use two zooms.  The 24-70mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f2.8 … with these two lenses, I cover an incredible range of focal lengths.  I can happily cover an entire wedding using only these two lenses.  The 70-200mm especially, is a focal range that makes most sense on a full-frame body when you shoot portraits and weddings.

I do bring along a 105mm f2.8 macro lens. Very useful for detail shots.  I also bring the 14-24mm f2.8 along, since this super-wide lens allows for beautiful scene-setting photos.  The 85mm f1.4 is also useful for available light portraits with wafer-thin depth of field.

For Canon, my choice of lens range would be very similar … coupled with two full-frame bodies.

When I previously use Canon though, I had the 1D mk III.  This is a 1.3x crop camera, and it shifted the effective range of my lenses so that I was compelled to rely on three lenses to cover a great focal range.  I used the 16-35mm f2.8 and the 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 and similar prime lenses as I use now.  A 100mm f2.8 macro and the 85mm f1.2

Your choice of lenses in photographing a wedding is of course a highly individual choice, depending on our specific style and approach.  Do make sure though that your choice of equipment is a specific decision, and not mere rationalizing about the equipment you do have.  (eg:  “I could shoot an entire wedding just with my 50mm lens.”)

For more info about the equipment I use and recommend, follow this link.

03) 70-200mm upgrade worth it?

should I upgrade to the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS ii

To both those questions, yes, I do think the upgrade is worth it.  I actually did a quick comparison between the new Canon and the new Nikon, thinking the Nikon will again smoke the Canon lens … and I was surprised at just how sharp the new Canon was wide open.  Canon has really pulled out all stops to make this one.  It is superb, and in my opinion, an obvious upgrade.

04)  how to blur the background

Perhaps this might be a topic for a more comprehensive article, but the simple steps you take to blur the background:
- position your subject as far as possible from the background,
- use a fast / wide aperture,
- use a longer focal length.

This last one is more contentious though, since it can be shown that DoF remains the same for the same aperture, regardless of the focal length.  The practical matter though, is that the background is perceived as being more blurred when you use a longer lens.

05)  the best mode for flash photography

I wouldn’t say that there is one specific mode that is best.
- Manual Flash for consistency and accuracy,
- TTL flash for working fast and getting results fast,
- Auto mode for automatic flash that is quite often more consistent than TTL.

In the end, I easily alternate between using TTL and Manual flash, depending on the situation.


how to intentionally under-expose with fill-flash.

is flash compensation the same as lowering your flash power?

Two questions with the same answer:
By adjusting your flash exposure compensation down, you are telling your camera and flash to tell you that you need less flash than the camera figured you do.

However, if you are using Manual Flash, then Flash Exposure Compensation doesn’t come into the picture.  You need to manually lower your flash power, by dialing it down.

For example to change from 1/4 power to 1/8 power, you go through third of a step settings:
1/4 of full power,
1/4 of full power (minus) 1/3rd stop  = 1/8 of full power (plus) 2/3rd stop,
1/4 of full power (minus) 2/3rd stop  = 1/8 of full power (plus) 1/3rd stop,
1/8 of full power.

This is something you dial down on the back of your flashgun though, or on the power-pack of your flash if you are using the larger studio lights.

07)  wedding photographs are noisy when photographing in dark church

Photos will especially appear noisy when you under-expose your photos.  The best way to reduce the appearance of noise in your photos, is by exposing correctly.

A high ISO will also make the noise appear more visible.  To counter this;
- use faster lenses;
- use slower shutter speeds … and this will mean stabilized / vibration reduction lenses.
- use more flash.  Sometimes you can’t effectively bounce your flash though, and you might have to use direct flash.  Unfortunately.  But I’d still prefer to go the ‘faster lens’ and ‘higher ISO’ route before using direct flash.

08)  rotating flash bracket for wedding photography

I wouldn’t dissuade someone from using a flash bracket.  They do make sense at times.  I just don’t use one much anymore, since I don’t feel the need for it.  A flash bracket will help with bouncing flash, by keeping the direction of your light the same, regardless of whether you are holding your camera horizontally or vertically.  (Without the need to continually rotate and swivel the flash head as you change camera orientation.)

09)  does shutter speed have to match the focal length to get correct exposure?

This question might seem particularly odd, but let’s help this poor guy - While shutter speed affects your available light exposure (along with aperture and ISO), your focal length has nothing to do with exposure.  So those are two entirely separate considerations – focal length, and exposure metering.

I do see the one fallacy here that I always kick against – the idea that:
the inverse of the focal length = handhold-able shutter speed.
It just doesn’t quite work that way.  There is no specific shutter speed at which the images will be crisp .. yet one click lower on the shutter speed, and you will end up with camera shake.  There just isn’t that clear a distinction.  It really is a gradual progression of higher shutter speeds = sharper photos.

the final one for today, is an oddity again:

“yes and no” camera exposure van

Yes, somehow Google points to my site on the first page if you search for that particular phrase.  I hope the person who queried that, feels enlightened now.  I guess camera exposure van said yes.  And no.  But probably just yes.

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Also join us on the Tangents forum for further discussions.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 stakx July 29, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Hi Neil,
I really enjoy these photo Q&As; I find them a great way to review previous posts, topics, and photos. Many thanks.


2 MrGreenBug July 30, 2010 at 2:32 am

Hi Neil!

Your Q&A portion is really entertaining and at the same time very informative. I really appreciate the short and straight answers.

You are the man! Thank you again for new information.

More power!


3 Phil July 30, 2010 at 3:58 am

Hi Neil
Great Q & A again.

Do you find if using fill flash in harsh sunlight (if that is what you would use) that the flash will also brighten the highlights further, would you use fill flash? or a reflector if you cannot find/use shade

Thanks Phil


4 johnlo July 30, 2010 at 7:59 am

Great Q&A Neil.

john lo


5 Gregory July 30, 2010 at 9:45 am

Neil, Thanks for answering my questions concerning the purchase of the Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS II. Now, I have to pick one up.

Thanks once again for letting your Light Shine, Gregory


6 David July 30, 2010 at 9:48 am

One thing to add at the risk of sounding arrogant: the people asking these questions should NOT be photographing weddings yet.


7 Neil vN July 30, 2010 at 3:42 pm

David, yup. If I may allow myself a mini-rant here.

As much as I love helping other photographers, I can’t muster any enthusiasm for the emails that start: “I’m photographing my first wedding this Saturday. How / what should I … ?”

Even better are the emails that go: “I’m photographing my first wedding this Saturday. Any tips you can give me?”

You know .. here’s a website with more than 400 pages of info … and you want tips? Do your freaking homework!

Neil vN


8 Corby Chapin July 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Whoa whoa whoa…. I had more faith in you, Neil. Camera exposure van was at the very lease “probably, but not necessarily”. It all depends on the ratio of ambient light to van. The other consideration is whether or not you’re talking about Van Halen or Van Morrison. And to think I treat this site like a bible.


9 Neil vN July 30, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Van Halen? Van Morrison? pah! I’m Neil van Tangents!

Yes, that is how some people find me on Google now: Neil van Tangents.

Neil vN


10 Pat Reynolds July 30, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Good ‘mini rant’ there Neil – love it!!


11 Lance September 1, 2010 at 8:53 am

I don’t agree with you about the 1/focal length rule of thumb for hand holding. Like most rules of thumb, it is not perfect, but it is pretty good, and a good place to start. Just like sunny 16, it is not always right for me, but it gets me very close.

Also, I always heard it as: 1/focal length*crop factor = MINIMUM acceptable shutter speed, not the ideal SS.

Serious photographers will explore this very closely and come up with good answers for themselves for each lens, but that doesn’t stop the helpfulness of a simple rule of thumb. 1/(focal length*crop factor)= Min SS gets you about 90% there, which is very good for something so simple.


12 Neil vN September 2, 2010 at 3:16 am

Lance, you know … I agree entirely with you. Especially in the regard that this guideline gives us a common-sense place to start.

I should’ve expanded more on what exactly I have a problem with – where this guideline of a MINIMUM handhold-able shutter speed (when you still need to be careful) … is reduced to something like the advice that I often see on the forums that you need to shoot at 1/60th to give you sharp images. Then the misunderstanding (or complete over-simplification of the guideline) will just lead newer photographers down a wrong path in understanding the basics.

Neil vN


13 Alvin October 25, 2010 at 4:39 am

I always refer your website to my friends who wants to learn about photography. Thanks again for all the tips you have taught us. I hope to find your book in the Philippines next time i go home.


14 Kenneth December 2, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Hi Neil,

I just read your “Photographing a model in Hoboken” article and am intrigued by the softbox’s versatility! Can you share some insights on which scenarios would you use a shoot-through umbrella vs. a portable softbox? I can see that there’s potentially more light spill with an umbrella, so when would it be preferable to a softbox? Thanks for any thoughts!


15 Neil vN December 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

Kenneth … here is the blog post with comparison images between a softbox and umbrellas.

Neil vN


16 stevo December 5, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Hi Neil,

Great site with lots of useful information!!! I see you mention alot about shooting with fast glass for wedding photography. I have also noticed some of your images of your subjects are shot at f2.8 while you are a good distance away for eg, The brilliant image you took of a bride & Groom from the gallery in the flash & Ambient light section of the website. Would you not need to shoot at f7 or f8 with more flash/Iso to keep the couple in focus?? When I shoot a couple of people at f2.8 they are never in focus unless im really close up. Sorry if this question seems amatuerish!! Keep up the good work !!


17 Neil vN December 6, 2010 at 4:45 am

Stevo .. your subjects need to be in the same plane of focus for f2.8 or similarly wide apertures to give you sharp focus on both.

There’s another factor working in my favor here … in resizing the image smaller for use in an album or on the web, the apparant depth of field is greater than viewing the photo at 100%

Neil vN


18 stevo December 6, 2010 at 8:49 am

Hi Neil,

Thanks alot for answering my question about depth of field and apperture.

I have One more question if you dont mind?

I shot my friends child’s christening a few months back and the church was pretty dark, so I increased my iso to 1600 and also increased my fEC. I didnt have the option of a tripod and for correct exposure I would have had to shoot at 1/40 which would have resulted in camera shake. So I decided to shoot at 1/60 and fix the exposure in post processing. The problem I had was not the exposure but that all my images had a real bad orange/redish colour to them. I changed the wb to tungsten and tried a few different settings but they just looked worse. This has happened to me on a couple of occasions in churches and I just cant figure it out!! One thing I have noticed is they don’t seem to be as orange when the flash dosen’t fire? I have heard of flash gels, should I use them? or should I Dial down the colour temperature in the camera? I would greatly appreciate any help or advice you can give, on this problem I have.
Thanks again Neil for taking the time and sharing your knowledge to so many and helping me become a better Photographer!!


19 Neil vN December 6, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Stevo … I see two immediate problems here. It would appear you are using Auto WB ? This is why the WB looks very warm when the flash fires – it defaults to Flash WB then.

Also, your concern over incorrect WB seems to indicate that you’re shooting in JPG. If so, you have immediately change to a RAW workflow.

You really should look into using gels when you shoot in areas where there is Incandescent lighting. You can’t accomplish what you want to by just dialing the WB in your camera when you have two light sources with disparate color balance.

Neil vN


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