Photographers – Don’t just add light, modify the light.

For some time I’ve been advising photographers to use a flash when they take pictures of people, whether indoors or out. Yes, I understand that those with a few extra dollars in their pocket can purchase expensive cameras that can capture images in low light using a higher ISO, but using additional light is much more flattering.

While sitting by the window in a coffee shop last week a friend casually snapped a picture of me using an ISO of 9000. I was impressed at the clarity and colour. Hmm… maybe a bit too clear and colourful for my old face.  Nevertheless, my comment was, “Nice picture, too bad you didn’t have a reflector”, which brings me to my topic this week – light modifiers.

Readers know what harsh sunlight looks like on our subject’s face in a photo, or winced at the loss of detail caused by the direct light of a camera-mounted flash.  A flattering photograph isn’t just capturing or adding light, but modifying its path to the subject. That might be as simple as bouncing the flash off the ceiling, or a wall. The pop-up flash might work at parties, but mounting a flash on the camera gives more power, control and pleasing results.

When outdoors without a flash a popular and easy to use light modifier is a reflector. Place the subject out of the direct sun and direct the sun in a controlled way back to the subject using a reflector. Reflectors come in all sizes, shapes, colours and surfaces. Silver is a cool, gold has a warm cast, and white is neutral. I prefer the compact folding reflectors that fit in my camera bag. Reflectors are great outdoors, and are perfect with a bounce flash for that multi-use basement studio.

More and more photographers are using wireless flash. A small hotshoe flash mounted on a stand can be aimed at the ceiling, a wall, or a reflector, for much nicer light than if pointed directly at the subject.  But the wall, ceiling, and reflector only give a broad indirect light. Yes, it is better than a bare flash, but not very controllable.

Enter umbrellas, softboxes, beauty dishes, and all sorts of contraptions that modify and control the light.  I like bouncing and reflecting light in some conditions, and these give photographers more control as they reshape, restyle, alter, modify, direct, and soften the light from our little flashes.

Umbrellas come in several types. Choose a shoot through or reflective, large or small. The reflective umbrellas are available with different surfaces – silver, gold, white – each has its own way of changing the light. For example, I like the soft broad light reflective umbrellas give when photographing several people or families.

Many portraitists seem to prefer softboxes. Whereas umbrellas give more control than a flat reflector, a softbox directs and controls light much better than an umbrella. Softboxes also come in many sizes and shapes depending on use – rectangle, square, octagon, etc.  When viewers see that soft shadowed “Rembrandt style” lighting in a portrait, they can safely assume the photographer used a softbox.

For photographers that want more luminosity than umbrellas and softboxes there is the beauty dish. A beauty dish provides a glowing kind of light, very directional, easy to control, and when used with diffuser it has an attractive smooth light.  There are, of course, many modifications to each of those I have mentioned. Again, it depends on how a photographer wants to apply light to a subject.

My set up isn’t always the same. For example, the flash above and behind me might be either in a softbox or a reflector umbrella, the sidelight could be a small shoot-through umbrella or bounced off a reflector, and backlight directed at the background with only a small dome diffuser covering it.  That’s one quick, effortless setup that I can easily carry in two small bags – one bag for light stands and light modifiers and one for the flash units and my camera. The point is that the light I use is more controllable and attractive than a pop up flash, the sun, or relying on a high ISO.

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Reflections on the Medium of Photography


This morning as I sat on our front deck I could feel a warm summer like breeze. I drank my coffee, I was reading, and I mused on how much fun spring photography is.  I like to take scenic pictures anytime, whether winter, spring, summer or fall and I feel that with each season’s change comes excitement.

The night before I had been moving some books around in my overflowing photographic library, and I came across an older stack of little booklets distributed by the Hasselblad camera company, and thought I’d review one in particular entitled “Black and White Photography” by Ansel Adams.  I enjoy looking at his photography and especially reading his essays and thoughts on photography.

So as I sat enjoying my coffee it was from that booklet that I chose to read about what Ansel Adams had to say about photography, and I began to reflect on the exciting medium of photography so many of us are passionately involved in.

I don’t know about my regular readers, but I am continually composing pictures of everything, whether I have my camera or not. I see light and shadow and put subjects together mentally in a photograph thinking about what would work in my composition and what wouldn’t.  I also enjoy looking at other photographers’ work, and I thumb through books and choose websites that have photographers’ galleries. Of course that is a great way to learn, but I like looking at photographs and reading what other photographers have to say about photography.

Here is a quote I borrowed from Hasselblad’s “ Black and White Photography” booklet printed in 1980.  While discussing the Art of Photography, Adams explains, “Photography is an analytic medium. Painting is a synthetic medium (in the best sense of the term). Photography is primarily an act of discovery and recognition (based on intention, experience, function, and ego). The photographer cannot escape the world around him. The image of the lens is a dominant factor. His viewpoint, his visualization of the final image and the particular technical procedures necessary to make this visualization valid and effective – these are the essential elements of photography.”

Currently, it is an exciting time period with continual leaps being made in camera technology and both Nikon and Canon have just released spectacular new models. However, I have concern that so many photographers spend so much time talking about equipment and the acquisition of it and that they often forget to think about the photograph.  A friend that I hadn’t seen in months stopped by the other day and all he could talk about was the latest cameras and hoped he had the money to get the newest Nikon.  When I asked him if he had been out doing any interesting photography all he said was “I haven’t really had the time,” and turned the discussion back to camera equipment. I was disappointed that he was more interested in the equipment than about photography.

The latest cameras and lenses are really fun to talk about, but one needs to leave some time to talk about personal photographs made with their cameras and also find more time to actually make those photographs.

In the Hasselblad booklet Adams also discussed black and white photography, but the information on black and white printmaking isn’t applicable to current digital technology. Personally, I really enjoy converting images to black and white, and so for those that are also interested in converting their images to black and white I recommend readers try the computer program Silver EFX pro by

For those who don’t know who Ansel Adams was they should go to and Those readers curious about Hasselblad cameras should go to

I enjoy almost anything about photography. Talking about it, reading about it, looking at other photographer’s work, and of course, pointing my own camera and releasing the shutter to make my own pictures. In closing here are the words of one of Adam’s contemporaries, Edward Weston. “Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.”

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Planning a Photography Excursion to the tulip festival.


Now that the February blahs are over, and March has come and gone bringing warmer days (regular readers know how I feel about March, “Ides of March. 15 March 2012”), I am thinking about planning a spring photography excursion.  I am hoping the weather will be cooperative as I don’t enjoy photography in the rain, and don’t want to get my camera equipment wet.  I think I should include some protective rain gear in the event of bad weather.

I would like to go on spring excursion heading west and south and that should give me the best opportunity for photography that will not include snow or cold temperatures.  I want to go somewhere along the coast I think, as spring comes earlier along the west coast and I should have my choice of flowers, landscapes, or any possible wildlife.  A friend phoned last night from Vancouver saying there was green grass, and flowers, and the temperature was 12 degrees, and expected to get warmer.

I just received an email reminding me of the spectacular blooming events along Washington State’s northern coast.  I could attend the 29th Annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival from the 1st to 30th of April.  I know I could link up with other photographers going there from BC, or I could just head to LaConner or some other town on the coast of Washington, find a place to sleep, and join the festivities.  I am not so much a flower person, but like so many other subjects I photograph, I think multicolored fields of tulips would be an interesting photographic challenge. Choices ranging from extreme close-ups to landscapes would be just plain fun.

I don’t tent or RV so I will start browsing the internet for reasonable lodging. I have found fun places to stay in the past by checking out lodging websites, however, I have also ended up by chance in neat places just by going where I want to be and looking around.

If this brings up the question, “Have you ever had bad luck finding a place without advance reservations?”  Oh, yes!  I remember pulling our tiny Suzuki Sidekick off the highway at a roadside rest stop late at night because every hotel and motel was full.  My wife, Linda, and I tried unsuccessfully to spend the night sleeping in that cramped car. Morning came early (4am) and because nothing in the nearby small town was open we drove off tired and hungry. We finally ended up gobbling donuts and coffee hours later at a Tim Horton’s, then later collapsed on a sandy beach beside a lake and slept much of the day away.  Oh well, we will never forget that excursion!

I like to plan and organize such events to include preparing the vehicle, so when the time comes I will ensure the car is tuned up, and the winter tires are changed.  I like lists because I always forget stuff, and so I’ll begin making several brightly colored checklists of the items I will bring, and then I will start looking forward to the photography excursion, and have fun just thinking about the pictures I want to take.

That brings up the best part of planning.  What camera equipment do I bring?  I could bring every lens and camera I have, but that’s just silly as I wouldn’t have any room for a change of clothes.  Too much of the time I over pack my camera gear and end up stashing equipment in the car because it isn’t being used, so I will make an effort to minimize this year.

I don’t like to venture very far with only one camera, so I always carry a backup camera.  Cameras can malfunction and I don’t want to take the chance of reaching my distant destination and not being able to do the photography I went there to do.

Next on the list are the lenses I think I’ll need.  If I attend the tulip festival I’ll need a macro lens for close-up photography and a wide-angle lens for those colourful, flowered landscapes. There will be other opportunities and I’ll bring my 70-200mm and for wide low light opportunities will include a 24-70mm f2.8.  And very important, I will pack lots of memory cards.  By now the camera pack is getting full. That’s three lenses, two camera bodies, and I haven’t yet included my infrared camera that I think I’ll also bring. Oops, there is also my wife’s camera gear. Add her camera, macro lens, and favorite zoom lens, a 70-300mm.

Of course we will take our tripods, that’s a given.  Ahh, the decisions we must make. I just think it is so much fun.  The planning and anticipation of any photographic excursion is as much fun as the actual trip.  Whether I make it to the Washington coast or have to pull back my plans and stay closer to home, I will soon be venturing out camera in hand.