Archive for the ‘The Basics’ Category

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.

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!


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,


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.)

Fast and Furious Tabletop Photography

June 14, 2011

Two Light Setup

This is a little different take on my last post about Photographing Paintings.

Today I needed a quick tabletop shot of three sets of note cards I have for sale at my Etsy store, Source Light Images.

I wanted a single picture showing the card box and one of each note card.

This setup is about as simple as it gets.

1)    I arranged my cards and card box on a posing table covered with a black cloth, and dropped a roll of black seamless about three feet behind for a backdrop. Note: if you want a grayish background bring the seamless closer; to keep it black, move it back.

2)    Next I positioned my two lights, one each at 45-degrees to camera left and right. I am photographing reflective surfaces (glossy card stock and a plastic box cover) so the lights must be placed at a 30 to 45-degree angle to the camera. If you place the lights closer to the camera position you’ll create reflections.

3)    Once the lights were in position I held a gray card in front of my note cards. (Talk about putting your cards on the table…) I set the camera to manual at f/11 for aperture. I pointed the camera at the gray card and selected a shutter speed that zeroed the camera’s exposure level mark. This is the same mark you move for exposure compensation in any mode but manual. By positioning it at zero with the lens filled with gray card you are setting an accurate exposure.

Exposure Level Mark Zeroed

4)    Finally, I set a custom white balance using the gray card.

5)    All that was left to do was remove the gray card form the set and take the picture.

This is about as simple as tabletop photography can get, but hey, why make it any more complicated than you have to? Give it a try next time you need a quick product shot.

All the best,


WaterWorks Note Card Set

Custom White Balance For Accurate Color

May 24, 2011

An interior designer has hired you to photograph rooms full of custom furnishings and cabinetry. Accurate color is imperative. After all, the designer knows the exact color of every fabric and finish.

To complicate the task even further, interior shoots are almost always a mixture of light sources—this shoot is no exception.

When you mix tungsten lights with a stream of daylight plus add a splash of flash, it’s almost impossible for the Auto White Balance setting on your camera to capture accurate colors. (See “Auto White Balance” photo top left.)

And unless your camera has some magic setting missing in my Canon, there is no white balance setting for “Mixed Light Sources.”

Your camera, however, does offer a solution. It’s called Custom White Balance, and it is easy to use. (See “Custom White Balance” photo top right.)

For my Canon dSLR I simply need to give it a reference. To do this I photograph a white object or 18 % gray card in the same light illuminating the subject.

For this shoot I used a Photovision Calibration Target for my reference shot. I simply filled the frame with the target and took a correctly exposed picture. (See “Reference Photo” below.) From there it’s a few simple steps to complete the Custom White Balance setup. (See your camera manual for exact instructions.)

After setting the Custom White Balance I always take a test shot with the target in the photograph. If the target’s colors look accurate, I’m good to shoot away. Plus, should I see the need to fine-tune the color, the test shot is used to click white balance in post-production. (See “Target After CWB” photo below.)

In my experience if you want accurate color right out of the camera—Custom White Balance—is the quickest way to get there.



Exposure Trio Part Three: Shutter Speed

August 1, 2010

The Exposure Trio

A Three Part Series


Part Three: Shutter Speed

Welcome to the final part of our three-part series.

To review, in Part One we talked about ISO. As you will recall, similar to film speed, ISO is a measure of how sensitive our digital sensor is to light. The goal is to keep the camera set at as low an ISO as possible to limit digital noise.

In Part Two we discussed aperture. Aperture refers to an adjustable iris inside the camera lens that controls the size opening we allow light to pass through. This is adjusted by changing the aperture size as measured by f-stops. We also learned how to use aperture creatively by controlling depth of field.

In this, Part Three, we are going to talk about shutter speed.

Simply defined; Shutter speed is how long we expose the camera’s sensor to the light passing through the lens aperture opening. Think of it this way, each time you take a picture a curtain opens in front of your camera’s sensor. Shutter speed simply refers to how long we allow that curtain to remain open.

Today’s cameras can set shutter speeds ranging from fractions of a second, to in some cases, as long as thirty minutes. Many cameras also feature a “bulb” setting that allows the photographer to keep the shutter open as long as the release remains depressed.

Shutter speed settings are easier to comprehend than f-stops. For example, a 1/30th of a second shutter speed lets light strike the sensor for twice as long as a 1/60th setting, but only for half as long as a 1/15th of a second. And a 1 second shutter speed lets in twice the light as a half second, which in turn allows in twice the light as a 1/4 second setting.

As long as you can manage easy fractions, you can understand the mechanics of shutter speed.

I also think it’s important to review shutter speed in relationship to aperture.

Let’s for a moment pretend we are making a portrait in a room where the light remains constant. We will also assume the ISO setting on the camera will not change.

I set my camera to shutter priority mode (S for shutter, or Tv for time value) and select a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. When I depress the shutter release partially the camera meters the scene and tells me at 1/250th the aperture will be set at f/2.8.

I determine that f/2.8 will not allow enough depth of field to capture my entire portrait in sharp focus. Now what?

Simple, I opt for a slower shutter speed, which in turn allows for a smaller lens opening and more depth of field.

For instance, if I slow my shutter speed to 1/125th of a second I am now doubling the time light strikes the sensor. Which in turn means I can stop the aperture down one stop to f/4 allowing in half the volume of light as f/2.8. I have doubled the time the shutter is open, and then halved the amount of light passing through the aperture opening, with the end result being the same amount of light reaching the sensor. And of course, f/4 gives me more depth of field than f/2.8, problem solved.

For any photograph there will be multiple combinations of shutter speed and aperture that result in a correct exposure. It’s our job as photographers to determine which combination we want to use.

We know from Part Two of this series that you prioritize aperture choice when you want to control depth of field.

So when do you prioritize shutter speed?

Shutter speed not only controls how long we allow light to strike the sensor, it also allows photographers to stop or blur subject motion.

A football player running down the field, the Ferris wheel at the county fair, a cascading waterfall, a child on a swing are all examples of moving subjects. Anytime you photograph a moving subject you must decide if you want to freeze that movement, or allow the camera to record a degree of motion blur.

A picture of a baseball player sliding into home would not be acceptable if too slow a shutter speed caused the entire image to be an unidentifiable blur. And a picture of a rotating Ferris wheel may be boring if a fast shutter speed froze its motion as if it were standing still.

To freeze the motion of a moving subject you will need to experiment with faster (shorter) shutter speeds until the shutter speed is fast enough to stop all motion blur in the photograph. If the picture would benefit from subject motion blur you must experiment with slower (longer) shutter speeds until the blur suits your creative tastes.

I have included a series of images taken of a simple ceiling fan to illustrate how shutter speed choice impacts motion blur. As you can see, as the shutter speed becomes slower, motion blur increases. Is any one of these pictures taken with the correct shutter speed?

The answer is they all are. As a photographer it is your creative choice to blur or not to blur.

In future blog posts I’ll talk in detail about the use of shutter speed and aperture for particular types of photography. For now I hope you have learned that aperture controls depth of field, and shutter speed controls motion. And lets not forget, ISO choice determines the range of shutter speed and aperture combinations we have available to us in any given situation. When you need a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture than the available light allows, then and only then, raise your ISO from your camera’s lowest ISO setting.

Until next time,


Exposure Trio Part Two: APERTURE

July 11, 2010

The Exposure Trio

A Three Part Series


Part Two: Aperture

As we learned in part one, a film or digital SLR camera lens has an iris style diaphragm inside. This diaphragm opens and closes in steps from largest opening (maximum aperture) to smallest opening (minimum aperture). The size of the aperture opening is measured in f-stops.

Aperture plays an important role in the exposure trio. By controlling the size of the lens opening that we allow light to pass through (f-stop), in combination with how long we allow the light to pass through (shutter speed), and how sensitive the sensor is to that light (ISO), correct exposure is determined.

But Aperture Does So Much More!

Aperture is also a key ingredient in determining depth of field, and depth of field plays a major role in how we compose an image.

My purpose here is not to go into a long textbook dissertation defining depth of field. Instead, what I want to cover is how aperture allows us to take control of the creative process by choosing how much of an image appears in focus.

My short definition of depth of field is this:

A camera lens focuses at an exact distance. Only objects at that—exact distance—are truly in focus. There will be an area in front of the focus point, and beyond the focus point, that appears sharp. This area of apparent sharp focus is called depth of field.

Your aperture selection will increase or decrease depth of field. Let’s take a look at two examples:

Image One

In Image One an aperture of f/2.8 creates a very shallow depth of field. The viewer’s attention is focused on the in-focus section of the railing. The soft focus makes it difficult to concentrate on the path beyond the railing.

By closing down the aperture to f/16 the depth of field is substantially increased. Now the viewer’s eye is led down the railing and into the now sharp path. Which is the correct version? That’s up to the photographer. Aperture choice puts the photographer in control.

(Note: A slight breeze softened the bushes in the f/16 version. This could have been eliminated with a faster shutter speed. To stay at f/16 and increase the shutter speed would have required a higher ISO. This is a good example of how the three parts of our Exposure Trio work together.)

Image Two

Image Two shows two versions of the exact same flower taken seconds apart. The f/16 image shows the flower as it appeared through the viewfinder. By changing the aperture to f/2.8 the background is rendered out of focus. The f/2.8 image isolates the flower bud; the f/16 image shows the plant as it appeared before the photographer. When you understand how aperture controls depth of field you have the power to choose how you want to present the image.

As a photographer you must ask yourself before releasing the shutter… Is depth of field important to this composition? If the answer is yes, then here are a few basic guidelines to follow:

To minimize depth of field…

  • Open your lens to its widest aperture.
  • Maximize subject to background distance.
  • Move closer to your subject and/or use a longer lens to zoom in on your subject.

To maximize depth of field…

  • Stop down your lens to a small aperture.
  • Minimize subject to background distance.
  • Increase camera to subject distance.
  • Use a wider angle lens.

Stay tuned for part three of our Exposure Trio: Shutter Speed