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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Attention To Detail

Now it's time to play with our newly discovered knowledge of moving the flash off the top of our cameras. There is a lot to learn about the ways light can affect the person or object in your image. 

shot at 27mm, ISO 200, 1/250sec, f/16, flash 1 foot @ 1/32 power zoomed out to 17mm, held by hand to camera left. Added very low power fill from on camera flash @ ~1/128 power

We have already covered the first aspect of off-camera lighting in our last post, which is the position of your strobe (remember...when off the camera, I refer to the flash as a strobe). The whole idea is to get your main lighting source off-axis from the camera's viewpoint. This kills the whole "snapshot" perception.

Notice I said main lighting source. More on that in a later post.

I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge one of my main resources that I refer to often when I want to learn more about lighting with strobes. The off-camera lighting guru of modern-day photography is David Hobby...and he has unselfishly made all kinds of knowledge available (at no charge) to anyone wanting to learn about this topic thru his blog. You can find it at In fact, over the next few posts, I will be relying on his assignments in what he calls "Lighting 102" as a foundation for my illustrations. 

Going thru "assignments" (why does that scare some folks into thinking they're in school again?) helps me to grow my knowledge base. That is why I like to give you examples of my work in each of my blog posts, tell you how I did it, and encourage you to try them in your own way. That's basically an assignment. There are many ways to learn, but I feel the best way is to actually get out there and start doing it. Trial and error...shoot, adjust, shoot again. 

Yes...angle or position of your strobe--in relation to your lens--is the first thing you will spend hours (or days) on when you discover the awesome world of off-camera lighting. Think of all the ways you can move your strobe around your's infinite really. Not only can you move it to the right and left, but it can be positioned over or even under the object. Or a combination of the two. One of my favorite positions of a single strobe is to camera left (at approx 45 degree angle) and hovering above my subject a bit. But I am also discovering that I like other lighting angles as well because of the drama it can portray in the image. And there is no right or wrong here...that's what makes this so neat. No one can say..."Hey bud, you're doing that all wrong!". If it looks good to you, then that's all that matters.

The second aspect of off-camera lighting: Distance. Meaning, distance from your lighting source (your flash/strobe) to your subject. The distance from your lighting source to the background comes into play as well. Want to "kill" the background in a picture? This is neat stuff.

Look at the photograph of our Gavin, above. He is concentrating heavily on putting together a 3D globe puzzle (very neat gift idea, by the way, if any of you are planning ahead for birthdays and such!). I just had to grab my camera when I saw how hard he was working at it...he was precious. 

What do you notice about the picture immediately? I see two things. First are his hands and face...they just jump out at you. The attention he is pouring into that puzzle is remarkable, and it shows. Now, what don't you see? The background. I took it away. Why did I do this? My reasons were two-fold. Primarily, I wanted Gavin--only--to command your attention. I wanted to "bring him out" of his environment. When I shot this picture I was sitting at our kitchen table. I noticed a lot of clutter behind him (my doing I'm sure...can't blame anyone else) that I didn't want in the frame. So then, the second reason I killed the background is so you wouldn't see my clutter directly behind him.

Now that you know why I did this, the question now is how did I accomplish it?

Very simple. I set my shutter speed at 1/250th of a second, which took away all the ambient light in the room. There was plenty of natural light coming in thru the window about 10 feet away, as it was the middle of the afternoon when I shot this. The next--and most important thing--is this. I held my strobe only about 1 foot away from Gavin's face. It is just outside the left side of the image (I'm surprised that the head of the strobe didn't get caught in the frame actually). With the light right up on him like that I had to crank my aperture down to f/16 to get the proper exposure. Bingo, a nice looking photo. 

A couple of things to learn here. 
  • Light is very powerful up close. And tight. Move it in tight on your subject to eliminate the background. Use it like I did to here to draw the viewer's eyes to the most important part of the photograph. 
  • Light gets weaker--a lot weaker--as the distance increases from your light source to your subject. Also you loose the "tightness". Not necessarily a bad thing if that's what you want. If I'd moved the same strobe back another 6 feet or so, I would have had to open up my aperture considerably (or increase the strobe's power). Now my background would have shown up.

So cool...this is what you call lighting control. Go play.

Thanks for reading!


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Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Brand New Perspective, Part II

shot at 44mm, ISO 200, 1/100 sec, f/5, strobe to camera left
Want to add some dimension to your photos? Want to turn your "snapshot" into a photograph? There is an easy way to do this, and it's called off-camera lighting.

If I had to narrow down all the aspects I like most about this awesome hobby of mine, I would say the thing that I am most passionate about is off-camera lighting. It opens up so many possibilities that I cannot even begin to list them all. 

What is off-camera lighting? Well, it's just what it sounds like. You are quite literally lighting your subject (a person, pet, a piece of fruit, etc) with a light source other than the flash that is attached to your camera. 

Let's talk "gear" for a moment, in general terms. 

If you have a semi-professional camera already, you are all set. If not, don't freak out. This scares a lot of folks in terms of what it will cost them to acquire the equipment necessary to allow off-camera lighting . But really, you can search eBay and buy yourself a nice used camera for a $100--$200 that will blow your mind in terms of what you can do with it. It doesn't need to be super fancy. What you will need is a camera with a "hot-shoe" on the top of it, whereby you can add the flash of your choice. Then, of course, you will need to purchase a flash (a used one also found very inexpensively on eBay or elsewhere). Once you are professional, you can ask Santa for the expensive stuff (and yes...the sky is the limit in terms of what you can spend on camera gear). Let's stay basic right now though. Just so you know my taste... I like to use Nikon cameras and flashes, but there are also plenty of other good choices out there.
SC-28 off-camera flash cord (image from

The key to the whole setup is how to fire your strobe remotely (I call it a strobe when the flash is now off the camera). Easiest way? Go to and order an off-camera hot shoe cord...$30 bucks, max. Here is an example, shown at the right (this is not my image, can't take credit for this one). Simply attach one end to your camera's "hot shoe" and the other end to the base of your flash. Presto! Off-camera lighting accomplished. You can then mount the flash to a lightstand or hand-hold it, which I do frequently.

There are other--more complex--ways to do off-camera lighting, and I will explain my favorite ways at a later time. But for now, let's move on. I want you to get the basics down so you can start playing with your new found knowledge.

Having this extra gear will allow your creativity to explode. You will spend days just fooling around with this one idea of moving your flash off of your camera, so go's okay.

I love using strobes (a single flash...or more for added effect) to light my subject when the ambient light is just not enough. Off-camera lighting is a much more elegant way of illumination and it is simply more professional. It is much more realistic as well, and here's why: When we view an object with our eye, 99.9% of the time the light that is lighting that object is coming from an angle other than directly behind us. (In other words, we are not lighting that object with a miner's light on top of our head.) No, in reality, we see shadows when we observe an object or a person. 

Stop for a minute and look at your coffee cup as you are reading this. Look at the base of the cup. See a shadow? Now look at where the light is coming from. This is reality...this is what we see most often in real life. "Off-axis" lighting (lighting coming from a different angle than from your eye, or the camera's lens) is what we encounter all the time. When a flash is popped from a camera's built in flash, all shadows are eliminated from our perspective (like if we had the miner's light on our head). This is called "on-axis" lighting when the flash is aligned with the camera's lens. This is unnatural and it is why I never use it unless their is no other way to capture the image. It cries "snapshot". I don't dislike snapshots, but they have their at birthday parties and such. Sometimes there is not enough time to set up the lighting like you want, I get that.

Now, back to Penelope. Look at the picture at the top off the page for a moment. Remember the last post where I took a picture of her with the flash on my camera? Now she looks totally different. And while there are some minor differences in my shutter speed, ISO, and where she is actually sitting (as compared to the last post) that is not what makes this photograph appear different. This time I took my detachable flash off the top of my camera and moved it over to the side a bit (to approx a 45 degree angle as compared to my camera's viewpoint). She is looking right into the strobe as it fires. See the shadows on the right side of the frame? This gives her 3D dimension that our eye naturally sees if you where there in person.

Waal-la, a real life image. What a pretty kitty cat, right?

Now go have some fun.

Thanks for reading!


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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Brand New Perspective

Up to now we have used only ambient (or available) light when shooting in manual mode with your camera, but now we're going to look at adding some light with our flash...while still shooting in manual. This is not a green light to switch to Auto on your camera (did you think you didn't have to think anymore?). No, I am going to encourage you to keep the ball rolling--stay creative and learn what does what with those camera settings.

shot @ 55mm, ISO 800, 1/250 sec, f/4.8, on camera flash 1/32 pwr
First, here is a shot of Penelope (another one of our beloved pussy cats) using a standard on-camera flash. I had to use flash because the lighting inside the room was just too dark at the time (quite literally, no lights were on and it was night time).

I always keep my camera set at a high "Sync speed" which allows me to adjust my shutter speed anywhere I want up to that speed--in this case 1/250th of a second--while using flash. You really don't have to worry about what this means right now. Just know while shooting in manual, you cannot have your shutter speed above your camera's top sync speed, that's it. If you do, weird things will happen to your image. Find out what you can set yours at (by looking in your camera's owner's manual) and set it at the highest setting and forget it.

Now, I agree that when just getting started with shooting in manual mode, things can seem complicated enough without adding anther variable in the mix (in this case, lighting). But I encourage you not to get bogged down with this stuff. Most of it is trial and error. With digital photography nowadays, it doesn't cost you a penny to take as many pictures as you want, view them on your playback screen, then adjust your settings as necessary. Having said that, here's what I did to take the above picture of Penelope. 

Before waking the poor pussy cat from her slumber, I took a picture of the pillow next to her to kind of ballpark my settings. In this case (in almost total darkness) I pretty much knew already what I wanted my ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to be at. ISO sensitivity high (at 800) because I wanted to take some burden off of my flash. Same thing with my f-stop. I chose f/4.8, which allowed a lot of the flash's light to enter the lens when it fired. Then I wanted a fast shutter speed. Why? Because I was going to be waking Penelope up. As soon as I pulled her nice warm pillows back she might be a little upset and bolt (especially when I put a flash in her eyes), so I may have only one chance to get the shot I want. So I had to be prepared to "stop" a very fast moving cat in my photograph. I set my shutter to 1/250th of a second, which is plenty fast.

So now for the flash. More than likely your camera's flash is set at "TTL" by default, which means "Thru The Lens" (in other words, automatic). What this means is that while your flash is in this mode your camera will automatically sense how much light to "make it" produce. How? By sending lightening-fast little pulses of light out and reading them just before you click the shutter button all the way down. Pretty neat, I must admit. But we will be turning this feature off because I want you to learn how to use your brain to process this stuff. Shucks! But this is how you will eventually go from a person who just takes snapshots to an actual photographer. 

Go into your camera's flash menu and set your flash to Manual. Now you can set the flash's power setting to anything you want. What you will find is that it can be set to fire at full power (1/1), half power (1/2), one-quarter power (1/4), and so on all the way down to 1/128th power (depending on the camera). That's a lot of control. Once you figure out how to set it, just play with it for a bit. Pop a few shots of a piece of fruit on you kitchen counter and see how your images turn out, adjust as necessary til you get the correct exposure. 

For my picture above, I chose a modest 1/32 power setting for my flash. That means my on-camera flash is producing just over 3% of it's full potential. How can such a low flash setting get results like this? Because of 2 things. One, it didn't take much to light the scene with the high ISO and large aperture I was working with. And two, I was only 2 and a half feet away from Penelope. Distance from your subject is critical to how you set the power of your flash. 

The photo above turned out rather well I thought...all done with manual controls and manual lighting. Try this yourself. Start simple, like with the piece of fruit mentioned earlier (produce can't run away from you!). Just have fun and don't judge yourself too harshly.

I am going to let this sink in a bit before going into something I love to do with light photograhy...the fun is about to begin, so stay tuned.

Thanks for reading!


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