Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Center" Your Camera

It pains me to admit that I've formed a careless, some might say sloppy, habit of not returning my camera to all normal settings. As I wrote previously, in Combining flash with ambient exposure and Control flash for snappier images, modern digital cameras allow you a great deal of flexibility in how you choose to capture an image. You have lots of controls at your disposal, and you can get a perfect balance of ambient and flash lighting with simple twists of the dials.

I hope some of you put some of the techniques I talked about into your bag. But here's the rub—if you change your settings, using flash compensation or exposure compensation, you must remember to return all your settings back to your "normal" settings. If you don't, you may end up scratching your head next time out, wondering why your settings seem to be "off."

Here's a suggested checklist for the end of each of your photo shoots. They should be based on your own preferences, so take time to think through them.

  • Check AF/MF on your lens barrel

  • Likewise, check whether your Stabilization (VR) is on or off

  • Set your Mode Dial to your preferred setting (M, Av, Tv, etc.) Remember, this is your preferred starting point only.

  • Set ISO value to its lowest number

  • Set White Balance to AWB (auto). White balance in a digital RAW world is a whole other article. AWB will work fine until you have a reason to use a different setting.

  • Center both Exposure Compensation and Flash Compensation settings

  • Be sure to check any "Picture Style" (Canon) you've selected. Do likewise for toning or filter effects that might be currently applied.

  • Review your current settings for Custom Functions. For instance, it can be irritating to start your next shoot with Mirror Lockup enabled. It may take a minute to figure out why your shutter is not closing.
I offer this advice as one whose slovenly habits caused me to miss some really great shots I would have had recently. The opportunity had passed by the time I figured out I had left my flash exposure compensation set to +2.

Forewarned is forearmed, right? Happy shooting!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Combining flash with ambient exposure

I've always heard that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I've been concentrating on techniques related to balancing flash and ambient exposure lately. My recent (March 5) post, "Control flash for snappier images" made its way into a newsletter article for my photo society this month. I have two classes coming up in May, where I'll include this idea. Needless to say, I've been thinking about this concept more than usual.

My friends in the Grand Lake Camera Club in Grove, Oklahoma, asked me to come speak at their meeting last week. I talked about it there, as well. But, based on some of the feedback I received, I think I still have more to learn. To be honest, as with many things I do in photography, I've taken concepts I've heard or read about and sort of "intuited" how to accomplish them. Trying to teach others, however, forces me to think through them more carefully than is my habit.

One of my friends from the Grand Lake club asked some clarifying questions by email. For instance, what flash sync speed she should use? Based on what I thought I had presented, this shouldn't have been a consideration. So, I must have missed the mark, at least a little.

In my talk, I think I described both "fill flash" and "dragging the shutter." It appears that I placed all the techniques for balancing flash with ambient light under the umbrella term, dragging the shutter. In considering my reply to her, I think I arrived at a more useful summary of the lighting approaches you can employ, using only your camera and either on-camera or external flash for more interesting photographs.

In planning your exposure—you do plan, don't you?—you have all the exposure tools your camera offers to capture the existing light. You also have a pop-up flash on most cameras, or you can attach an external flash.

For any shot, unless you're using automatic settings, you will decide on your primary source of light and set exposure for that light source. In a studio, this would be termed your key light. To simplify the discussion, flash can be thought of as either on- or off-camera. So, you will plan an exposure using ambient light or flash. In some cases, either will do. However, if you're near the extremes of bright or dark, you won't have a choice in the type of light is primary in the exposure. But you can choose to add the other type of light, and this will usually produce a more complex and, I would argue, pleasing image.

So, your options for exposing an image with typical equipment are the following:

  1. Normal to bright ambient light:

    • Ambient light only, with no flash

    • Ambient light with some flash mixed in ("fill flash")

  2. Normal to dim light (or darkness)

    • Flash-only image

    • Flash with some ambient background exposure ("dragging the shutter")

The amount of light available will determine which strategies you can use. By combining ambient with flash light, you are reducing the amount of contrast between the brightest and darkest areas of your image.

In normal to bright light, add in fill flash by forcing your flash to fire. If the ambient light is too bright for flash to have any additional impact, adjust to the lowest ISO, and you might even need to add neutral density filter(s) to lower your how much ambient light your camera sees. The flash added back in can then be balanced with the ambient light.

In normal to dim light, add in ambiently-lit background by adjusting the ISO upward till you can get the amount of exposure you want, using normal or near-normal camera exposure settings (shutter/aperture). The flash portion of the exposure will be determined by through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering. Adjust the amount of flash using flash exposure compensation, and adjust the background with aperture and shutter.

Even though the techniques seem very similar, bright or dim light will determine your starting point, when you select the primary source of light appropriate for the scene. The easy way to think of it is this:
  • In bright light, use camera exposure and add fill flash to fill in shadows.

  • In dim light, use flash exposure and drag the shutter (boost ambient exposure) to add some background.

These concepts may seem complicated at first. Once you start to employ them and see their effect in your images, you'll find that they're not so complicated, after all. They often increase the quality of the images where you use them.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Control flash for snappier images

Many people think the hallmark of “amateur” photography is on-camera flash, with blown out faces, dark backgrounds and red eye. In low light, most modern cameras will pop that little sucker up and give you that “special” quality your mother (or grandmother!) achieved with her Instamatic camera equipped with its flash bar or flash cube. It’s not uncommon for an aspiring photographer to set his camera so that the flash will not fire at all, in an attempt to achieve more “professional” results. What they often achieve is rather dull and flat. Just because it’s a dinky little pop-up feature doesn’t mean your camera’s flash can’t help you achieve some amazing results and add sparkle to those dull images.

On page 106, my camera’s owner’s manual describes “Flash Exposure Compensation.” If you learn this technique, I guarantee you will improve the quality of your candid photography. Here’s why. Any scene has a certain amount of light available in a range of what’s called exposure values (EV). This is a way of describing the range from the brightest to the dimmest illumination in the scene you’re photographing. In the picture below, on the left, part of my model’s face and the top of her hand has bright light from direct overhead sun. Her hand shades her face – especially her eyes. The difference between these two levels of light is somewhere between four and five stops of light.

Your camera can correctly expose for either extreme, whether very bright or very dim. But when you try to capture both in one image, you’ll either blow out your highlights trying to capture the shadows, or you’ll lose detail in the shadows trying to capture the bright areas.

On my camera, a Canon 30D, if I press the flash button near the pop-up flash, my flash will fire, no matter how much light there is in the scene. In other words, even in bright sunlight, when the automatic settings would not ordinarily cause the flash to fire, I can make it fire. This is called fill flash. But how much is too much, and how much is too little? Because this is a manual flash mode, there is no flash metering. The image exposure is actually metered off the ambient light, as if there were no flash. And the flash has a set amount of power, so it could be way too bright or not bright enough.

My owner’s manual shows me the button on the top of my camera that lets me control the level of light the flash applies. By default, it’s set in the middle of a range of plus or minus two stops. Using my Quick Control Dial (a wheel on the back of my camera), I can adjust the level of the flash in 1/3 steps through this two stop range. The dial will show me how much or how little I’ve changed the flash power. It will only take a couple of test shots at the most to adjust the amount of flash to balance out the lighting of the scene; that is, to fill in the shadows.
Unless you shoot with a Canon 30D, your camera’s controls will operate differently. But most modern DSLR cameras, for sure, and some point and shoot models, will provide this capability. Read the section of your owner’s manual that covers your built-in flash. It may be called, simply, fill flash. But the manual should tell you how to control the amount of light your flash puts out

Using flash compensation, the picture on the right shows my model’s face in the same setting with the same amount of sunlight and the same basic exposure—f/14 at 1/100 sec and ISO 100—but the fill flash provided light in the shadows and also put a “catch light” in her eyes. I encourage you to experiment with this technique. When you’re in a brightly lit place, like outdoors in bright sun, or if you’re indoors in a relatively dim room, you can set your camera’s regular exposure for the ambient light and then provide a balanced amount of light from your built-in (or external) flash that will make your images snap. Professional photographers have a number of tools in their toolbags. This is one of the most versatile. Using it will help you achieve professional-quality results.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where does the time go?

Has it been a year since my last post? Time is a slippery thing as it runs through our hands. For me, the last year has been one of great intentions but not much fruition. I started a new job—not photography-related—about a year ago, and it's consumed a lot of my attention. I've gotten more serious about financial matters (even before the financial meltdown, if you can believe it). I seem to have taken fewer photographs than in the previous two years. Okay, enough. On to the new.

I enjoyed a day with a group of photographers from my area last Sunday. Thirteen of us traveled from NW Arkansas to Blanchard Springs Caverns in North Central Arkansas. We were treated to a tour by a USDA park ranger, Tony Guinn, that lasted four hours. The experience was one of those awwww wowww experiences that we were all fortunate enough to be able to capture with camera. I drove my own car and had the good fortune to have two fantastic photographers to talk with for the three and a half hour trip over and the three and a half hour trip back. My companions were Bob Shull and David Albritton. David has created a folder for his Blanchard Springs photos at, but surprisingly, hasn't posted any yet. Bob did post a few of his. I believe I'm one of the tiny figures silhouetted in one of his images at I posted a few images to our society gallery at right after I got home, but I ran short of time to post any to my own site this week. I'll rectify that by the weekend.

I look forward to more interaction with both David and Bob. We discussed some collaboration on a web site project, and I would hope we have more opportunities to go photograph together. They are very agreeable companions, and both are very talented photographers.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Still with me? I could tell you all about the past few months, but why waste time on that? There are too many important things to do. And that leads me into the current topic: Passion. We should approach most of the things we do—certainly the ones that matter to us the most—with passion. If not, we tend to become the "cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat" that Theodore Roosevelt warned us about during an address he gave at the Sorbonne, Paris, France in 1910, titled, Citizenship in a Republic. As an aside, if you're dissatisfied with the condition of the country you live in at the moment (for me, the USA), Roosevelt's address puts in stark relief what we could and should be. Teddy was nothing, if not passionate.

Back to the point at hand. As I've mentioned previously, I've been working for some time—a few years now—to become a photographer. For the past year or so, I've seen it as a desirable substitute for my humdrum, workaday job and that it would provide me with the satisfaction that's been missing from my life. As it turns out, I had the cart before the horse. The real cause of my malaise was a lack of passion. I won't go into detail about what has changed regarding my job or my life other than to say that I'm thinking in more positive ways now, and my job has become a true joy. It's amazing how attitude can create opportunities, practically, out of thin air.

As for my photography, I've discovered that making money is not the proper goal of my efforts. At least it shouldn't be my primary goal for now. I've been in competition with a number of my peers, each of us having regular jobs but supplementing our income from photography. We compete for recognition within our photo society, and we compete for time and clients in our shared studio. I've spoken before about the inevitable comparisons, and monetary success is one of the measures that's unavoidable. But, just as with a "regular" job, money only goes so far in providing satisfaction or indicating success.

I read some time back that I should develop a vision for my photography. That sounded very much like the advice I've ignored all my life about setting goals. If you know where you're going to be or what you'll be doing in five years, or even one year, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!." My problem, if you choose to think of it that way, is that there's very little that I don't enjoy photographing. Developing a vision, to me, sounded like narrowing my interests in some way. However, more reading and a couple of seminars helped me put vision and goal setting into better perspective. I don't HAVE to specialize. However, I can't do everything equally well. So, I began thinking that I should follow what I'm naturally drawn to and concentrate on it long enough to begin to develop that elusive "body of work" that just might outlast me. — Developing Your Vision

As most photographers sooner or later realize, what's important about any photograph is the light — It's About Light. So I began thinking in terms of dramatic light, and three areas of interest emerged.

1. Studio
As a rank neophyte in studio work, I began taking people in and working with lights. What struck me first was the ability to shape light in dramatic ways that you can rarely achieve with ambient light. My friend, Zakir, hired me for an outside shoot he needed, and I managed to drag him into the studio the same day. Lots of casual and light-hearted photographs developed, quite naturally matching his personality. Then I set him up for this shot. It portrays him in an uncharacteristically somber mood. He was very pleased with it, as was I (despite the unfortunate choice of background I used).

Then I began to think about a still life. I should probably scan an early attempt at still lifes I did back in the '70s. Suffice to say that direct sunlight doesn't flatter a still life any more than it flatters a person's face. This photo was one of the first where I previsualized the final image. It took a great deal of time to find and purchase everything I needed.

2. Architecture
A building went up about two years ago across the street from where I work — Bentonville Plaza. It's not an architectural marvel, but it has a good deal of glass and some very interesting textures in the brick and masonry. I first photographed it in 2006. Just for fun and in response to a similar shot a friend made of the same building, I walked up to the front door, tilted straight up and made a wide angle shot. You don't need to see that one.

Then I started noticing how various light conditions affected this building. It became more interesting to me, and I started looking for opportunities to catch it when more favorable light prevailed.

Following are two views in the Fall and two on the same Winter day with a setting sun.

3. Stage Lighting
Some of the most dramatic lighting anywhere can be found on stage. I mentioned in a previous post how I came to purchase a Canon 70-200 f2.8L lens. I had borrowed one to photograph some concerts and speakers, and I decided that I just had to have one of my own. Below are a number of shots of speakers who've come to my area recently. I'll let you be the judge of how well this lens performs. If you don't recognize someone in a picture, mouse over it to view his or her name.

My vision for photography is still evolving, and it will probably continue to evolve. But what I know at this point is that I will stop simply "snapping" pictures of things that I don't truly care about. I will seek to combine the most dramatic or suitable lighting that will bring out the character and, I hope, significance of my subjects in the most favorable way. In life, I will follow the advice I heard Zig Ziglar speak so many years ago: "If you help enough other people get what they want, you will eventually get what you want." For me, as I'm sure for you, that boils down to satisfaction in all my endeavors.

Old friends may have my original photography website bookmarked. I've made no modifications to that site for quite a long time. But I've been using my smugmug site extensively. I invite you to visit it at I update it frequently with new work. Speaking of my smugmug site, if you see any photos in this blog that you'd be interested in owning, just click on the image, and you'll be taken to my site, where you can make a purchase (not all photos are linked, due to lack of model releases). Photographers have a variety of similar sites available to them. I've only tried smugmug, but I highly recommend it for its ease of use, power and flexibility.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Myth of Talent

Recently I read an article written by Craig Tanner and posted on his site at called, The Myth of Talent. I highly recommend it to people in all walks of life, but it will have particular resonance for anyone whose dream is photography (or any creative endeavor).

The gist of his article, for me, is that we shouldn't buy into common notions about talent—that you either have it or you don't. Talent, in his words, is something that you develop through passion and a belief in your future.

These days, I sometimes feel impatient that I'm not consistent in producing top-quality photos. And, as I've been trained to do through experience, I wonder whether I have the necessary talent to reach my goals. Tanner made a clean break with his dead end job fifteen or more years ago and toured the western United States, taking 7000 or so photos along the way, to pursue his dream of becoming a nature photographer. He was shooting slide film at the time, and sent all his rolls off for processing. They were all waiting for him when he returned home at the end of the six months. As he described them, his slides were abysmal. Instead of quitting in shame or disgust, he adjusted his goals and began to practice closer to home. He finally built up his talent and his portfolio to where he is considered a "talented" photographer now. When he receives compliments, he has to resist the urge to tell people just how hard it was to achieve the level of success he enjoys now. When we see someone with obvious talent, we tend to think they just popped out of the box that way. Not so, according to Tanner.

Reading Craig's article helped put things in perspective for me. I've changed jobs and even professions several times in my life, usually when I've become bored or saw no future in it. Perhaps a lack of vision at certain points? This time, there is no turning back. Even when I produce poor results, the process itself is still enjoyable. And when I produce great results, the elation is like nothing I've experienced before. The most important point I took from Tanner is that I shouldn't expect perfection every time I pick up my camera. Try for it? Yes. But expect it? No.

Last week, a friend of mine, and a fairly successful photographer, mentioned to a group of us that he needed a "second shooter" for a wedding he had booked for this past Saturday. Having shot three low-budget weddings on my own this season, I felt ready to take on this responsibility on a shoot that was as important as this one was. This was a high-budget wedding with high expectations from all concerned.

I went into the event with the goals of making as good photographs as I could for my friend and to learn as much as I could from him. But, when I took my DVD of RAW files over to his studio today, I had a feeling that I had let him down. Don't mistake me. There were some excellent photos on the disk. But there were some real clunkers, too.

The reason some of the images didn't turn out well is that I broke what I assume to be a cardinal rule in photography. For some time now, I've relied mostly on two lenses, both of which are image stabilized with a constant f/2.8 aperture over their zoom range. But their zoom ranges don't overlap each other. In fact there's a gap of about 45mm between the high end of one and the low end of the other. So, I pulled another IS lens out of my bag that filled the gap, but it ranges from f/4 to f/5.6, depending on focal length. We were shooting both indoors and out late in the afternoon, and I simply had not accustomed myself to this lens to get the best use from it. And I left it on till after the sun set (usually no problem with an f/2.8 lens). I should have used my 17-55mm f/2.8 IS that would cover me well in low light instead of trying to get some extra reach with a slower lens.

This will be the first advice offered in this blog, but it's based on a lesson I learned the hard way. Don't use new equipment for the first time on an important photo shoot. Take it out and test it first, so that you know it well enough to get what you expect from it when you're on the job.

Following Craig Tanner's advice, no matter how the feedback comes back to me on this most recent shoot, I'm going to continue moving forward without letting this foolish choice affect how I feel about my talent, because talent = desire + perseverance.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Catching Up

A month or so before my last post, I attended my photo society's symposium in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Put this on your watch list, by the way, for next May 17-18. It will be called the Mid-America Photography Symposium. We're reaching out to our sister organizations in two neighboring states, Oklahoma and Missouri, to make this a regional symposium for the first time. As we grow, the quality of instructors, speakers and activities will only improve.

Anyway, this time, instead of simply attending and enjoying, I taught two classes and was more involved because of my board membership. So, I didn't come away with as many images as I used to. But I did learn quite a bit, and I began to give more focus, as a result, to where I wanted to take my photography career.

Anyone familiar with my work to date knows that I simply love architecture—daytime, nighttime, in any kind of weather. Prior to this year's night model shoot, attendees were gathering in front of the hotel, and I stepped across the street to take this night shot of the Basin Park Hotel. I've shot it a number of times in daylight, but this was my first opportunity at night.

I started this blog with the best of intentions to post regularly, but a modicum of success seems to be getting in the way! Although I haven't hung out a shingle, as they say, I'm still getting lots of word of mouth advertising. As each new project comes along, I add to my backlog of images to be processed. It's given me a tremendous appreciation for working professionals who don't yet have anyone on staff to handle such things for them. With a full time job and dozens of photography assignments coming along, I simply fell behind. I owe myself a complete redesign of my web site, but I've had to push it back. It's kind of an interesting situation to be in. I need a polished web site to bring in more business, but I'm doing too much business at the moment to devote the needed time to the web site.

As I mentioned, I like architectural photography (which was one of the classes I taught this year at our symposium), and I have always tended to photograph nature or inanimate objects (like buildings). I think I always had a feeling that this sort of photography was simpler, people being as particular about how they look in a photograph as they sometimes are, especially when they're paying for the photographs. Buildings never complain if you show their flaws. But, it occurred to me that, short of breaking into the world of fine art or architectural photography, photographing people is what's most likely to pay the bills in the short term. So I determined to put people into my repertoire. To my surprise and delight, they are lots more fun to photograph than I had thought. And the creative possibilities with people are much greater than with found objects.

Back to the symposium this past May...

From the Basin Park Hotel, we moved on up the street to photograph models. We really appreciate the models who join in with us at our symposium. We contract with them through their agency on a Trade For Prints basis. They come away with hundreds of photos to add to their portfolios, and we get the chance to photograph people with modeling experience. The rules of the night shoot are: no flash, and anything else goes. This session is always fun and can be extremely challenging to folks who haven't done low light photography before. The moody image of the young model above had a lot of clutter and an overall red cast from the neon lighting from a store. With a little work in Corel PhotoPaint and using the vignette tool, I'm pleased with the effect.

I was determined to get better shots this year—without benefit of a tripod—so I bought a Canon EFS 17-55 f/2.8 IS lens just before the event. Wow! What a difference a lens can make! It did exactly what I expected it to do for me, and it's become my workhorse ever since. I was able to shoot hand held, at no more than ISO 800, using only street or store window lighting and get crisp, sharp results.

For instance, the picture of Jazmynn, above, was shot at f/2.8, 1/20 sec. at ISO 800 with an effective focal length of 60 mm (37 mm on my 30D). The rule of thumb for hand held photography is to have a shutter speed equal to or greater than the inverse of the focal length to avoid blurriness from camera shake. With a slower, non-IS (Image Stabilized) lens, I doubt I could have captured this image without some serious compromise in quality. To get 1/60 sec. in this same light with a non-IS, f/3.5 lens, I calculate I would have had to push to ISO 3200. I challenge you to take a sharper image with studio lighting at 1/250 sec.

Speaking of fast IS lenses, I borrowed a Canon EF 70-200 mm, f/2.8 IS L series lens from three different friends for several recent shoots. My guilt finally started to get the best of me, so I figured a way to buy my own. I'll talk about this lens at another time. It rocks!

If you were observant, you noticed I mentioned above editing images in Corel PhotoPaint. Although I own PhotoShop, and I've used it at my job for the past six years, I've never learned to do with it—as quickly or as efficiently—what I can do with Corel's product. It could be the seventeen years' experience I've had with PhotoPaint that skews me that way. But I really do intend to become proficient with PhotoShop. The same things that PhotoShop layers make easy are somewhat more difficult with PhotoPaint, although, for the sake of argument, not impossible. But, well, EVERYBODY uses PhotoShop, and the release of CS3 has finally nudged it ahead of PhotoPaint, in my book. If Adobe would just copy some of Corel's ease of use features, it would be a slam dunk to switch.

The next morning, we had sessions in the four studios we set up in the hotel. The image of Rock, above, and the next two images are from some of those sessions. Up till now, I've never had use of an actual studio, so I've had to use available light for all my photography. Our photo society recently decided to offer extended memberships to our members. For those of us who participate, we share time in a fully-equipped studio. Now I'll have the facilities to explore this area of photography more aggressively.

Above, Jazmynn posed again for a fun shoot in the studio. I keep reading about the huge upsurge in popularity of Senior Photography. I can't wait to get started.

The title of this post was "Catching Up." I think I had a lot of it to do—and much more yet to come.

In coming posts, I'll talk about some of the amazing opportunities I've had come my way over the past couple of months and share some more photos from them. There have been a number of concerts (you REALLY need to get a backstage pass—it makes everything so much easier), a couple of weddings, a family shoot, great Fourth of July fireworks photos, and charity events.

I hope to cover this last item in more detail later. I've read it any number of times, but doing charity events really gets your name out. And, when folks at these things see some pro gear hanging off your shoulders, they ask for your card. It goes the other way, too. I shot a wedding at a church in Fayetteville back in June. I did a back to school charity event there yesterday for underprivileged kids. A nice young lady who knew the bride from the June wedding, and who had seen her pictures, came up to me and asked for a card. Her wedding is in January.

Keep shooting...