Archive for the ‘Flash Photography’ Category

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.


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

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,



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.




Studio Portrait Lighting… For Flowers!

June 2, 2011

The Calla Lily

People have enjoyed the calla lily for hundreds of years. Long, smooth, graceful… are all terms used to describe these beautiful plants.

My goal was to capture the elegance of these beautiful flowers in a unique image. I wanted to show the delicate shape of the buds with their fine linen-like texture.

I also set out to create a quiet, serene image to emphasize the plant’s stately quality.

I choose to bring two flowers into my studio and arrange them in a symmetrical presentation. The first challenge was to use lighting that would capture each bud’s delicate texture.

It can be difficult to capture detail in an all white flower bud. First, you must place your main light to the side of the subject to show its texture and form. Side lighting emphasizes texture and shows form; front lighting hides texture and flattens form.

Second, to capture fine detail in a light-colored subject you need soft, low contrast light. A large light source positioned close to your subject will produce the desired quality of light.

In this image I positioned a large 30 x 40 inch softbox to camera left just out of camera view. Notice how the light gently wraps around the flowers emphasizing the shape and texture of the buds. Also notice the long, smooth highlight down each stem.

This is classic portrait lighting; the same type of lighting setup I often use for people portraits. (If I had my druthers I would photograph only flowers. They never talk back, stay put, and don’t make a fuss. Unfortunately, they don’t pay nearly as well as people.)

The blue background adds a quiet, serene feel to the presentation—just what I was looking for. I started with a dark blue seamless paper lit with a second studio strobe fitted with a 20-degree grid.

The background light is another classic portrait technique. Lighting the background helps create a third dimension. A photograph is two-dimensional—length times width.  A background light creates a sense of depth by visually separating the subject form the background.

The 20-degree grid allowed me to direct light to a small area of the blue seamless paper. Without the grid the entire background would appear evenly lit with no falloff towards the edges.

In the final image shown here, I swapped the blue seamless paper for black. I then added a blue filter to the background light. This created a rich pool of blue light that frames the calla lilies and falls off to black on the edges. I love this effect and often use a colored filter on my background light against black seamless paper. (Red looks really cool!)

I think I have accomplished my goal. When displayed this image is certainly quiet and stately, and the shape and texture of these beautiful buds seems carved into the print.

And if sales are any measure of success, this image has done very well. Should you be interested, prints are available at Source Light Images.

Until next time,


A Simple Solution—Speedlite + CTO Filter

May 30, 2011

I photograph completed projects for builders, interior designers and fabricators. In my neck of the woods, especially in today’s economy, these folks are looking for good photography for their websites, but won’t pony-up the big bucks they were willing to spend just a few years back to get it.

It’s a reality; if I want this type of work—which I love to do—I need to figure out a workflow that allows me to remain profitable at fees these clients are willing to pay.

The solution—work fast, capture a good image in-camera to limit post processing, deliver it, bill it, and move on.

The work fast part means trying to limit supplemental lighting to a minimum for these interior shoots.

My job in this example was to photograph countertops and bathroom vanities for a cabinet and countertop fabricator.

Photographing bathrooms can be a real pain in the toilet seat. Think small rooms, limited access, highly reflective surfaces, and tungsten (orange color) lights.

The photo above left shows the bathroom lit by the existing tungsten light fixtures. I have my camera set to “Tungsten” white balance at an exposure that keeps the light fixtures from blowing out. Obviously the cabinetry—my subject—is too dark.

If I increase the exposure time the light fixtures will become distracting white blobs, and chances are the front of the cabinet will still look to dark.

The obvious solution is to add light. Here’s the challenge; I need to do it fast, and I only have a small doorway to work through.

My solution is a handheld speedlite attached to a wireless trigger. Handheld because it allows me to quickly and easily direct light exactly where I need it. (In this case the front of the vanity.)

Only one last problem to solve… Tungsten lights light the top of the vanity; my speedlite puts out daylight colored light. If I white balance my camera for tungsten the vanity top will look color correct, but everywhere the speedlite strikes will be blue.

The solution? By wrapping a CTO (color temperature orange) filter around my speedlite it is now tungsten balanced. I now have a tungsten light torch in my hand. I can direct color-corrected light exactly where it’s needed to light the cabinetry. It’s fast; it’s easy; my client is happy with the image and the price he paid for it. And most importantly, when I figure out what I am earning per hour I can still financially justify doing this type of work.

In practice the formula is simple: Expose and color balance for the existing room light. Then add filtered (color corrected) flash to supplement the existing light as needed.

Until next time,


Flash Modifier

May 14, 2011

The Mustard Curator

The National Mustard Museum recently held “A Night Of Mustard Royalty” where the winners of the 2011 World-Wide Mustard Competition were crowned.

None other than the Mustard Curator himself asked me if I could document the gala event of mustard-making history.

The event was held at the world’s only Mustard Museum. Having visited the museum in the past I knew I was in for a photographic challenge.

First: lots of yellow walls, second: glass everywhere, third: a relatively dark environment lit primarily with tungsten display lights.

I knew I was going to use my trusty Metz speedlight mounted on a flash bracket. The height of the bracket would help hide any shadows created by the flash.

The final addition to this simple event photography setup was a new flash modifier. I used a Rogue Flash Bender attached to the speedlight.

The Flash Bender is 5″ wide and 9″ tall. A flexible rod built into the Bender allowed me to direct my flash output at any angle I needed.

This allowed me to put the light where I needed it — on my subjects, and directed away from glass display cases that would have bounced a reflection right back at my camera.

I set my camera on manual at f/4, 1/125th second, ISO 400 with the flash on ETTL.

The rest was easy — sample great food made with grand champion mustard, a little fine wine, and take some pictures.

You can see a gallery of the results by visiting here.

To Fill Or Not To Fill? Flash that is…

March 7, 2011

Fill flash, by definition, is not the main light source in an image. In this image of Rocky and Casper, the main light source is the window light coming from camera right.

When the main light is directional–not coming from the camera position–it creates a shadow on the side of the subject opposite the light source.

The question then becomes, “Is the shadow too dark?” Which translates into the question posed by this post, “To fill or not to fill?”

I determine if I am going to use fill flash based on two criteria.

1) How important is the detail in the shadow side of the image?

2) What is the intended mood of the image?

If shadow detail is important in the image, then fill flash is a must. The level of fill you use will determine how much detail you bring out in the shadows.

This brings me to the second criteria; the mood of the image.

Using this image as an example, the more fill I use, the more detail we will see in the fur on the shadow side of both cats. As the fill approaches the strength of the window light, the lighting will become non-directional, shadowless, flat light. Flat light will not convey the peaceful mood of two cats taking a nap in the afternoon sunlight. I need to choose a level of fill that shows the detail I want while maintaining the mood of the image.

As photographers our job is to control light. We exert this control to create an image that fills its intended purpose.

Maybe its a fun photo of two cats napping in the sunshine. Here I can add fill light to create exactly the look I want. (Provided I don’t wake the cats while I adjust my flash output.)

As another example, for a window lit portrait of a sleeping baby I would use enough fill light to open up the shadows to create a soft, peaceful mood. Contrast this to a window lit character study of great grandpa where minimal fill light leaves deep shadows creating an entirely different mood.

To fill or not to fill?, and how mush to fill? These are questions you must answer for every image you create when the main light source is directional.

By answering these questions you take control of light. By answering these questions you become more than a picture taker, you become a photographer–an image maker.

Flash As An Outdoor Key Light

September 27, 2010

In the last post we discussed on-camera flash as fill light for outdoor portraits.

Now we are going to move the flash off-camera to a light stand and use it outdoors as a key (main) light.

Here’s the difference…

When the sun is the main (key) light source for our portrait, and our flash unit only adds light to lighten shadows and control contrast, that’s fill-flash.

As a key light the flash unit now becomes the main light source. The sun becomes a secondary light source. Usually this means setting up our portrait so the sun is to the side or behind our subject. The sun is now a hair light, accent, or background light used to add dimension to our portraits.

Why move the flash off-camera?

As the key light, I want the flash to be directional—not originating from the camera position. My goal is to mimic studio lighting, outdoors.

To move my flash off-camera I need a few extra pieces of equipment.

My outdoor flash setup includes a light stand, an umbrella stand adapter, a large white shoot-through umbrella, one speedlight, and either a cord or wireless trigger to fire the speedlight. (See photo.)

Stand and Umbrella Adapter With Speedlight

How about you come along with me as my virtual assistant on an outdoor portrait session?

Today we are going to photograph a couple to celebrate their engagement. We have chosen a small park that has lots of trees to lean on, benches to sit on, and even a pond to use as a backdrop.

It’s five in the afternoon; the sun is still relatively high in the cloudless sky making for very high contrast, harsh lighting.

What to do…?

We could hang out, tell jokes, and wait for that fabled golden light of sunset that we as photographers love. But that would mean knowing some jokes to tell, and then dealing with dime-sized mosquitoes that love to begin feasting on human flesh as the sun sets. Next idea…

We could position our couple with the sun light off to the side or behind them. That’s sounds like beautiful hair and accent light to me! Then I could have you, my trusty assistant, grab a big reflector and redirect some of that sunlight back into their faces. That will work, except, I usually work without an assistant (you’re virtual, remember?). So without a voice activated reflector holder, now what?

I’ve got it! I can still use the sun as my background-hair-accent light. But instead of a reflector-toting assistant, I’ll use my trusty light-stand-mounted flash unit to light my couple. This allows meet to shoot without an assistant, and I am not limited to posing my couple only in locations where I can redirect light with a reflector.

I like this idea; let’s set it up.

The first portrait has our couple peeking through the “V” of a tree trunk. The sun is behind them at camera left providing great hair light and accent light. Now to add my flash as a key light to light their faces…

I position my light stand at about 30 degrees camera right and raise the light stand so the flash is about 2-feet above the camera’s height.

I tilt the white shoot-through umbrella down aiming the center at my subjects’ faces. I have manually zoomed the flash to its widest angle to allow for maximum fill of the umbrella surface. I have also attached a wireless trigger to the flash with a transmitter mounted in my camera’s hot shoe. (You can trigger your flash with a PC cord as well.)

The flash is in manual mode. This allows me to keep my flash-to-ambient ratio consistent for each series of shots. With TTL flash a change in camera angle or zoom will alter the flash output. I don’t want my key light intensity to vary in a series of poses, and so manual flash is a must in my book.

So how do you determine the correct exposure?

Here’s one simple method to get a basic exposure. Put your camera in manual at a low ISO setting. Set the aperture at f/5.6, which should give us adequate depth of field for this shot. Take a few test shots varying your shutter speed until you get an exposure that records the sun’s highlights to your liking. (Be mindful of your camera’s maximum flash sync speed.)

Next, turn on your flash. Take a few more test shots varying the flash output until the key light looks right. (If you own a flash meter, use it to set your key light output.)

As you shoot you can adjust the brightness of the sun light with longer or shorter shutter speeds. You can adjust the look of your key light by changing the flash setting, or by moving your umbrella stand.

As you can see in Portrait One the sun is providing beautiful hair light, accent light, and background light. The key light is a single flash unit and shoot-through umbrella at camera right.

I used the same setup for  Portrait Three. For Portrait Two, I moved the key to camera left.

Flash As Key Light, Sun As Hair / Accent Light

Using flash outdoors as a key light allows for a lot of flexibility. To a great extent you can choose time and place for your portrait sessions, and light your images to your liking.

Give it a try!


Follow-Up: Outdoor Fill Flash

September 14, 2010

In the previous post, Speedlights: Not Just For Indoors Anymore,  I invited you to give outdoor fill flash a try. Here was the camera setup I suggested.

1) Attach your speed light to your camera’s hot shoe.

2) Set your flash to whatever version of TTL it uses.

3) If your flash has a High Speed Sync mode, use it.

4) Put your camera in Aperture Priority mode set to f/5.6.

5) Set your ISO at 100-200; not Auto ISO.

6) Take your camera and flash outside into the sunlight.

I took the following portraits about 30 minutes before sunset using this exact setup with two adjustments. I raised my ISO to 400 to get a shutter speed that would allow me to hand hold the camera, and I added a diffuser to the flash head. Here is what the unfortunate model had to look at.

Camera, Speedlight, Omni-Bounce Flash Diffuser

This first shot is lit by ambient light only. While it’s not bad, notice the deep shadows under the eyes, lack of shadow detail, and overall flat appearance. I think it’s time to turn on the flash.

Ambient Light Only

In the next image I turned the flash on in TTL mode. In this fully automatic mode I think the flash is a bit too strong.

As you will recall from the last post, if you want less flash, use minus Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC). I dialed in minus 1 FEC for the next exposure.

And for the last exposure let’s see what minus 2 FEC looks like.

Minus 2 FEC shows a subtle difference from minus 1 FEC, and it is my favorite exposure.

I like the lack of that obvious “flash” look that you see in the full automatic version. And I think adding fill flash makes for a much improved portrait as compared to the ambient light only version.

The true beauty here is the simplicity of it all. A simple camera setup combined with a single adjustment (FEC) gives you complete control of the final image.

Stay tuned. . . in a future post I will show you how to use your flash not as outdoor fill, but as a main light by taking the flash off-camera.