Zero Your Meter for Foolproof Manual Exposure

July 26, 2013

Here’s a quick, foolproof way to correctly set shutter speed and aperture values for manual exposures.

When your camera is in manual mode you’ve disabled its ability to set shutter speed and aperture values for you. However, the camera’s meter is still active, and as long as flash is not involved, you can still use this sophisticated metering system to help you choose the correct values.

I recently helped a coaching client set up a small studio to photograph still life compositions. To keep lighting setups simple, she will be using continuous light—not flash.

Photo 1 - Basic Set

Photo 1 – Basic Setup

Photo 1 shows the basic setup. We will be using a single compact fluorescent light fixture with a 42” white shoot-through umbrella at camera left as a key light, and a silver reflector at camera right for fill.

Once our subject is in place (in this case an orchid) and the key light and reflector are positioned the way we want, it’s time to select an aperture and shutter speed combination that  will give us a correct exposure.

The question you may be asking right now is, “Why use manual mode at all, why not use aperture or shutter priority?”

The answer is you could, but you will be relying on the camera to set the correct exposure in what is a typical situation where the camera’s reflective meter will likely be fooled. If you want to know why, take a look at my blog post, Metering 101.

In a still life composition, depth of field is much more important than shutter speed. We will begin by selecting an aperture of f/16, which should provide the desired depth of field.

Now let’s use the camera’s meter to select a shutter speed, but let’s make sure the meter gets it right. We’ll do this by metering off of a value known to the camera—a value that will not fool the meter—18% gray.

Photo 2- 18% Gray Card

Photo 2- 18% Gray Card

Photo 2 shows an 18% Gray Card standing in for our subject on the posing table. Now it’s time to “Zero” the camera’s meter.

  • First, make sure all the camera sees is the gray card. Either zoom in or move the camera closer so that all you see through the viewfinder is the gray card.
  • Next, depress your shutter release part way so that your meter is active.
  • Now check your camera’s exposure level indicator. This is the same plus/minus scale you use to set exposure compensation in Shutter and Aperture Priority Modes. Most cameras will display the indicator in two places; on the LCD info screen (see Photo 3), and in the viewfinder.
Photo 3- Minus 1

Photo 3- Minus 1

  • As displayed in Photo 3, note that at a shutter speed of 1-second at f/16 the indicator hash mark registers at Minus 1. The meter is telling us we are one stop underexposed.
  • Last, “Zero” the meter by changing the shutter speed setting until the index hash mark is registered dead center at the “Zero.”  (Note: if the indicator disappears, tap the shutter release button to activate the meter again.) As you can see in Photo 4 by changing the shutter speed to two seconds the hash mark now registers at zero, indicating a correct exposure.
Photo 4- Meter At Zero

Photo 4- Meter At Zero

Once you have done this a time or two you’ll see how easy it is to set a correct exposure using a gray card in manual mode.

From a studio still life composition, to a natural light portrait, I use this method whenever I am photographing a subject illuminated by a continuous light source.

Give it a try!

Until next time,


Sample Image With Light Setup

Sample Image With Light Setup


Showing Texture and Detail in Your Photographs

July 9, 2013


Question: Why am I lighting this photograph from the side?

Answer: To make sure the subject’s texture and detail (a painting in this case) show in the photograph!

The key to showing texture and detail in a photograph is directional lighting.

Flat Versus Directional Lighting

Let’s keep this simple; flat lighting is light that comes from the camera position, think camera mounted flash. Directional lighting is everything else.

  • Flat light coming from (or directly behind) the camera’s position eliminates shadows. No shadows mean no texture and lack of detail in the photograph.
  • Directional light is light originating from the left or right of the camera position. It shows texture and detail by creating highlights and shadows. This presence of highlight and shadow allows us to see depth and shape, and thus the texture and detail present in the subject of our photograph.

Take a look at the three sets of photographs below (click to enlarge). These pictures are close-ups of acrylic paintings done on canvas.




As you can see from the Side Lit images, the artist creates a lot of texture and detail in her paintings. However, that texture and detail all but disappear when the light source is moved to the Front Lit camera position.

Above, I have included a photograph of the lighting setup. I positioned the light source at 90-degrees to camera right to show maximum texture in the image. To show less texture I could move the light towards the camera to a 30-45 degree position. To eliminate texture completely I would place the light directly behind the camera creating a flat light similar to a hot shoe mounted flash.

Directional light is necessary whenever it is important to show your subject’s texture, detail, and shape in your photograph.

  • This is why landscape and architectural photographers won’t photograph with the sun behind them.
  • It’s why portrait photographers seldom employ a key light at the camera position.
  • And why product photographers light products with directional light sources.

Give directional light a try. Position your subject so the main light source is coming from the side, i.e., from 30-90 degrees camera right or left. Watch how the play of shadow and highlight allow your camera to capture the texture, detail, and shape of your subject.

Take the same photograph with the light source at or directly behind the camera position. Notice how the flat light evenly illuminates the subject. The resulting lack of shadows eliminates texture, detail, and shape in the photograph.

Additional Information:

Creating Shape and Depth with Directional Light

Off-camera Flash For Portraiture

Until next time…

All the best,



Metering 101

September 4, 2012

Let’s talk metering for proper exposure!


I’ll bet not. Any talk of metering and proper exposure sends most photographers into a state of uncertainty.

After all, why can’t we just point our sophisticated cameras at our subject and have all that whiz-bang computer stuff inside the camera give us a correct exposure?

The answer is, even though today’s cameras are extremely sophisticated, the reflected light meter is still a one trick pony when it comes to metering light.

The light meter in your camera measures the light values reflected from your subject, and then sets an aperture and shutter speed combination that will produce an 18% gray tone.

Why 18%, and why gray?

Let’s answer the gray part of the question first. A light meter does not actually measure color. It measures light reflectance.  We use a “Gray Scale” to measure light reflectance. This scale has ten steps from 0 to 10.

Zero on the scale measures 100% reflectance. If an object is absolutely white it will reflect 100% of all light. At the opposite end of the scale is a reflective value of 10. An object with a reflective value of 10 is absolutely black as it absorbs all light.

The tone halfway between pure white and pure black is mid-tone gray. While it would make sense that this tone would equal 50% light reflectance, scientifically it actually measures at 18% reflectance.

Therefore we call the mid tone in any photograph 18% gray. You may be asking how this applies to color photography. Remember, your camera meter is measuring light reflectance — not color — to calculate a correct exposure. This measurement applies the same to both black and white and color photography.

A camera’s reflective meter works on the assumption that every photograph you take will have a range of tones from light to dark. It assumes the amount of light reaching the metering diode is the equivalent of 18% gray. When that’s the case, your camera meter will calculate a perfect exposure.

Here’s the problem; the camera always assumes it is measuring an average scene of 18% reflectance. The camera does not know when you are photographing a field of white snow, or a pile of black coal. It will deliver an average meter reading for both. The results will be an underexposed field of “gray” snow, and an overexposed pile of “gray” coal.

Let’s look at two examples:

The first set of images shows photographs of a white sheet. In Photo #1 the camera set an exposure based on its assumption that the image averaged 18% reflectance. As you can see the 18% averaging by the meter underexposes the white sheet recording it as gray.

In Photo #2 the camera’s exposure values were set manually based on the readings from an incident light meter. An incident meter measures the amount of light falling on the subject instead of measuring reflective values. As you can see, using the incident meter settings will record white as white.

The second set of images shows the same scenario for a black sheet. Again, the camera’s reflective meter gives an 18% average reading that overexposes our black sheet recording it as gray. The incident meter is not fooled by the absence of an average tone in the photograph. Once again, setting the camera to the values measured by the incident meter records the black correctly.

The final two images are of a black/gray/white target that represents an image that averages 18% gray reflectance. As you can see each value is recorded correctly. Both the camera’s reflective meter and the hand-held incident meter delivered exposure values that recorded almost identical images.

This is proof that the camera’s meter is very accurate provided the scene being metered averages 18% gray. However, when presented with a scene that is primarily bright tones, or primarily dark tones, the camera’s reflective meter will likely be fooled.

Does this mean you should invest in an incident meter and quit relying on your camera’s reflective meter?

Absolutely not. What it does mean is you need to understand how your camera’s meter works. You need to evaluate the tonal values in the scene you are about to photograph.

Is there a good range of tonal values from light to dark? If so, your meter should be spot-on. As a general rule of thumb, when your scene is primarily dark tones you will need to use exposure compensation to let less light in than the meter reading recommends. The opposite is true for high key (primarily light tones) in your scene. Here you will need to use exposure compensation to let in more light.

Stay tuned. In a future post I will discuss fine-tuning the tonal values your meter reads by using your camera’s various metering patterns.

Simple Fill Flash For Outdoor Headshots and Senior Portraits

August 28, 2012

Recently my wife and I flew to Florida to spend a long weekend with daughter one. Daughter two, who lives in Los Angeles, flew to Florida as well to join us for a short family vacation.

Daughter two, also known as Kayla, needed updated headshots for use in Los Angeles.

She wanted a series of outdoor portraits. Our time would be limited; as would the amount of gear I could pack into a carryon bag.

My normal gear for an outdoor headshot (senior portrait) would include a large reflector, a powerful battery-powered strobe with a light stand, remote trigger and either a shoot-through umbrella or soft box.

For this trip I had to limit my gear to two lenses, a speedlight, and a camera body. I also wanted to take a modifier along for the speedlight. I opted for a Rogue Larger Reflector fitted with their new Large Diffusion Panel.

The reflector and panel attach directly to your speedlight and fold flat for transportation. (See image)

Rogue Large and Small Flash Diffusion Panels

Here’s the simplest solution I have come up with to date for an outdoor portrait with a minimum of equipment.

Step One: Shoot in open shade with the sun positioned to one side or slightly behind your subject. The sun will provide beautiful highlights on your subject’s face and hair. The open shade will serve as a base exposure for your subject’s face.

Step Two: Put your camera in aperture priority mode at f/2.8 to f/4.0 depending on how defocused you want the background. Take a test exposure and note what your camera chooses for a shutter speed. The background and sun’s highlights should be properly exposed, but the lighting on the face will be flat and slightly dark.

Step Three: Now it’s time to add fill-flash to make the image pop. Turn on the flash. Switch your camera to manual mode and set the aperture to whatever you used in step two. Set the shutter speed to match your camera’s settings in step two. (An important note here: if the shutter speed exceeds your camera’s maximum flash sync speed you will need to have a flash capable of High Speed Sync flash. As an alternative you can lower your ISO and/or stop down your aperture to achieve a slower shutter speed.)

Step Four: You’re ready to take beautiful portraits. Monitor the exposures as you shoot. Adjust flash brightness using Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC+/-). I normally start with FEC set at minus one. You can also adjust the brightness of the background by changing shutter speed. A faster shutter speed will darken the background; a slower shutter speed will brighten it.

The two images above are from my session with Kayla. I have included my camera settings for your reference.

Macro Photography Reveals A World Unseen

March 13, 2012

Are you ready to try something new with your photography? If you have yet to venture into the world of macro photography maybe it’s time to give it a go.

Macro photography often reveals a world not perceived by the naked eye. In the case of the images shown here, it is a world of color, texture, and surreal design elements.

So exactly what is macro photography?

You can find the textbook definition here.

For me macro photography is a way to take the ordinary and mold it into the extraordinary. Take a glass bowl, that while interesting on its own, becomes something otherworldly when photographed with a macro lens.

For these images I used a Canon 50mm macro lens. Lighting included a gold reflector, and two studio strobes with colored gels.

Macro photography requires a way to magnify your subject beyond the capabilities of a normal camera lens.

A normal lens will not allow you to focus close enough to your subject to produce a true macro image. A macro lens captures subjects at a 1:1 ratio, also called life-size.

Macro lenses can be expensive. A low-cost alternative is a set of extension tubes.

Extension tubes are attached to a lens you already own. The tube (or tubes) attach between your camera body and lens. Extending the distance between the rear element of your lens and the image sensor (or film) turns your normal lens into a macro-focusing lens.

To capture macro images I use macro lenses, extension tubes, and even a perspective control (tilt-shift) lens.

If you would like to learn more about macro photography I highly recommend Jim Zuckerman’s e-book, “Secrets Behind Great Macro Photography.” I ordered my copy from his website.

Follow the links below to take a closer look at the macro images used in this post.

Sun Worshippers

Watching 01

Until next time, have fun with Macro!


Add A Little Color To A Black Background

March 6, 2012

In the course of teaching a studio lighting class and daily conversations with photographers, the topic of backgrounds inevitably comes up.

I thought I would use this post to show the versatility of the good old black paper background.

We all know black makes a terrific background color for portraiture—usually with a background light added for accent and separation.

What many photographers seem to forget is that the background light need not always need be the standard white we are all use to seeing.

How about adding some color to your black background?

It seldom fails. Whenever I suggest adding color to a black background I get a quizzical look… Add color to black? Can you do that?

And of course you can. By hanging a colored gel in front of a background flash source the black paper takes on a whole new look. (I use a studio strobe with a 20-30 degree grid. See photo below.)

Strobe with grid and colored gel.

You will get a deep shade of the gel’s color where the strobe is strongest, with the color gradually radiating back to black towards the edge of the background. I love this look.

The photographs shown here show how I used this effect in three of my flower images. I have also used this method to create some of my favorite portraits and product shots.

Give it a try next time you are looking to add a little variety to your studio session.

All the best,


The floral images pictured in this post are available as fine art prints by following the links below.

Calla Lily

Pink Mum

Orchid 01

Composition Basics

February 20, 2012

I teach a number of entry and intermediate digital camera courses. We spend the bulk of our class time on camera operation.

Inevitably, after we cover f-stops and apertures, the topic of composition comes up. Students want to know more than just how to take a technically correct image; they also want to capture photographs that are pleasing to look at. That’s where technical expertise ends and composition begins.

Composition is the art of creating images that tell the story the photographer intended. This first post on composition features examples of two composition basics: The Rule of Thirds, and The Leading Line.

Environmental portraits can often leave the viewer wondering if the image is about the environment, or the person(s) in the portrait. To emphasize my portrait subject in this image I employed the Rule of Thirds to focus the viewer’s attention on Andy, and not the surrounding woods.

The Rule of Thirds states that important information in the photograph should fall on the lines and intersections created by dividing the frame horizontally and vertically into thirds.

If you imagine two lines drawn vertically to split the frame into thirds you will see that my subject is standing a third of the way into the frame. If you then draw two horizontal lines to divide the image into thirds from top to bottom, you will see the subject’s head is located one-third from the top of the image at a point of intersection of our imaginary horizontal and vertical lines.

This placement serves as a visual anchor. In fact, the viewer will have a difficult time focusing on another part of the image. Test this for yourself. Close your eyes and then open them to see the portrait. Inevitably your attention will come to rest on Andy. I have further enhanced this effect by anchoring the left side of the image with the dark tree trunk. A bright open space between Andy and the left side of the frame would have competed for your attention.

This next image is an example of using a Leading Line to direct the viewer’s attention through the photograph. The leading line in this image is obvious, although there are a couple of notes I would like you to observe.

First, the railing enters the image from the left at a different angle from the rest of the path. Notice how this part of the railing is located based on the Rule of Thirds. Had I not included this part of the railing a viewer’s eye would be led through the image just the same. However, there would be no visible anchor to bring the eye back into the frame.

The left side of the image serves as an anchor to bring the viewer back to the starting point of the image over and over. For this same reason I visually closed the top portion of the image with the overhanging branches. This helps to keep your attention focused on my leading line.

I hope you find these composition tips helpful.

Until next time,


Cat Bender

October 25, 2011

Pictured at left is a Rogue Large Positionable Reflector, also known as a Flash Bender. It’s part of a line of flash modifiers available from the folks at ExpoImaging.

In a earlier post I showed how I used a smaller Rogue modifier to photograph an event with terrific results. (See Flash Modifier)

This time I decided to try the “Bender” part of these reflectors. As you can see in the picture the reflector can be shaped to form and position flash output. Once the reflector is shaped into a snoot you can form the end in any shape from a circle to an irregular rectangle to a mere slit. (ExpoImaging has just released a set of colored gels to add to the creative mix.)

I wanted to see how the output from my speedlight would look shaped as an irregular spot when mounted on-camera. Don’t ask me why… I just had an idea that an odd-shaped spotlight might look cool and make for an interesting addition to my bag of tricks.

The only thing lacking to complete my little experiment was a willing model. You should know this experiment took place on a Saturday night. There were only two humans present in the house. One goofy photographer armed with a camera; the other the photog’s wife who was ready to inflict bodily harm should a snooted flash be aimed her way.

Not to worry. I had access to four willing models of the four-legged variety. My two cats were entertaining my daughter’s two cats for the weekend. (At least someone in our home has a social life.) I set out to chase Casper, Rocky, Simba and Mia about the house with my cool flash modifier.

You could say I was about to set out on a Cat Bender! (There may have been wine involved during this experiment… an adult beverage may be involved as I write this post. However, at no time were any cats actually bent.)

Here’s the setup. Flash set to E-TTL automatic. Camera set to Manual. A 50mm lens on a Canon 50D camera. Aperture varied between F/2.8 and  F/4. I wanted these images to show the shape of the flash, so minimizing the impact of existing light was a must. I kept the ISO at 100 and the shutter speed at 1/250th to minimize the existing room light from registering in the photograph.

Now for the results.

In the following gallery of kitty-cat captures notice how the Flash Bender isolated the subject from both the foreground and background. By bending and collapsing the end of the Bender I was able to pinpoint the flash intensity while creating some fun light shapes to accent my subjects. (Click on each image to enlarge.)

From portraiture to product photography, using a little imagination, I am sure you could find numerous applications for this flash modifier.

As the folks from ExpoImaging like to say, “For the best bender, make it Rogue.”

Okay, maybe they don’t say that, but they should. I would…

Until next time,



Expo Disc White Balance Tools

August 2, 2011

In advance of a seminar I am participating in, the good folks at Expo Imaging recently supplied me with a set of their Expo Disk white balance tools. I received both an Expo Disk Neutral, and an Expo Disk Portrait.

Expo Disk custom white balance tools have been around for a while, and I admittedly have been reluctant to try them. Don’t get me wrong; I am a big advocate of custom white balancing my digital camera. The less time I spend color-correcting files the better.

Here’s the deal though, I have always used a gray card to measure the color of the light falling on my subject. You know the drill—place a gray card at the subject position and follow your camera’s directions for setting a custom white balance. You are in effect measuring the light temperature reflecting off the gray card.

The Expo Disk goes at it from the opposite direction. Instead of measuring reflected light, an Expo Disk measures the light falling on your subject similar to the way an incident meter works. You cover your lens with the disk and point the camera at the light source instead of at your subject.

As an example, if I were taking a portrait outdoors I would normally have my subject hold a gray card in front of his or her nose so I could take a picture of it to set a custom white balance. I would have to repeat this procedure each time we changed locations.

With the Expo Disk I simply place the disk in front of my lens and photograph the light source (in this case the open sky) to set a custom white balance. I can do this quickly and easily without involving my subject or a gray card. (You can watch video demonstrations of the Expo Disk in use here.)

It doesn’t take long to figure out the Expo Disk is much more convenient to use. But how accurate is it compared to my trusty old gray card?

Take a look at the test images. In the first series I photographed a gray / white / black target outdoors in open shade. I set my Canon dSLR at 100 ISO in aperture priority at f/5.6. As you can see the camera’s Daylight white balanced recorded a blue color cast as would be expected. Auto White Balance did a better job, but still far from neutral.

My trusty gray card is close, but still a tad bit warm. The Expo Disk Neutral did exactly what it should and rendered the image without a color cast. I balanced the last image using the Expo Disk Portrait that slightly warms the color balance for better skin tones. Again, it performed as advertised.

For the second series of images I taped a gray card under a tungsten light fixture. As you can see the camera’s Auto and Tungsten white balance settings are not even close, while the Expo Disk balanced shot did a great job neutralizing the tungsten color cast.

My final verdict… I will be using the Expo Disks a lot from here on out. In practice they make taking white balance readings quick and easy. (Not to mention they look really cool hanging around your neck from the supplied strap.)

Glass Works Macro Photography

July 25, 2011

Glass Works 05

What do you get when you combine two strobes, each with a different colored gel, plus a glass vase, plus a reflector, and last but not least… water?

You get results like the Glass Works 05 image shown above. I created this image using a macro lens on my Canon dSLR without the aid of  Photoshop filters or any other digital techniques applied in post processing.

The set-up I used is pictured below. If you ever get the itch to create images that are otherworldly this technique offers limitless possibilities.

You can see more examples here.