Photographing my winter garden.   

I hadn’t photographed my garden yet this winter. So when my yard got a good dump of snow this past week I decided it was time to grab my camera and see what there was of interest in the five-inch deep snow.

I have three Nikon macro lenses. Yes, I know readers are immediately thinking, “Why the heck does anyone need three lenses that all do the same thing?”

Well, I have a 60mm macro that is short, light weight and easy to use on a sunny day. But when the snow is deep it means getting knees, elbows, and even my face wet trying to get close enough.

I have a 70-180mm. It is very versatile because unlike other zoom lenses, it’s a true macro at all focal lengths. Sometimes it’s the perfect lens to take on a short trip when I expect a variety of subjects.

However, my favourite is an old 200mm manual focus macro lens from the 1970s that I have been using for about 30 years. It’s great as a 200mm telephoto and also as a close-up focusing macro lens.

It’s always fun to set all three on the table and try each out as I decide which will be the one to use.

Actually the 60mm and the 70-180 lenses get used more for portraits than close-up photos. Both are very sharp and the 70-180mm is light to carry around for outdoor portraiture, while the 60mm is a great lens when in limited space.

I mounted the 200mm on my camera, attached my ring flash to the lens and headed out into the afternoon light.

It was cold enough that the snow still clung to the plants and the sunny sky had clouded over so I didn’t have to struggle with the contrast between reflective snow and deep shadows. My timing was perfect.

It was trying to snow. I hoped for more, but all I got was scattered flakes.

I never know what to photograph as I wander around and around intrigued by everything. I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention to the background. A busy background runs the simplicity I prefer when shooting close-up.

I want my subjects to be “graphic” and to stand out with nothing interfering. The ring light flash helps.

I under expose the ambient light a bit so the flash becomes the most important light on my subject. A ring light is on the same axis as my lens and very directional. Someone that has never used one might think it would be overpowering. But placing a light close to my lens and being aware of its output power at different distances is more flattering for close subjects than a TTL flash sitting on top of the camera.

I could have used a couple flashes mounted on stands for even more creativity, but the deep snow would have been a struggle to move the stands through so I decided on the versatility of the ring flash so I could easily change camera position. (Winter work coveralls are also helpful when lying in the snow)

I like the garden in the winter. It forces creativity. Even a dull, lifeless subject becomes interesting in the snow.

The first Flash-How-To workshop of 2019    

I had planned to write about photography in the snow. After all it’s January here in western Canada and it should be snowing.

There isn’t much snow in my neighbourhood and it isn’t that cold out. So instead I’ll write about what I did on my first weekend on the New Year.

I decided that a good way to begin another year of photography would be to host a Flash (speedlight) workshop to help those photographers that are planning to photograph people in 2019.

While I was preparing for the class I found an article by California based photographer Jason Shelton tilled, “5 Reasons to Use Flash”. He continued, “Flashes are more than just Fill….Reason 1: Flash is Awesome. Reason 2: Flash is Awesome. Reasons 3, 4 and 5: Flash is Awesome.” Although I absolutely agree with Mr. Shelton, I needed a bit more to tell the photographers in attendance than that.

So many of today’s modern photographers have become lazy with the amazing camera technology we have. Without a thought about controlling the light, it’s direction, or the light’s quality. They point their cameras and hope their cameras will make good pictures.

The one-day session I lead was about speed lights (hot shoe type flashes) and how to use them on and off-camera.

This class filled up so quickly that I almost forgot how hard it is to convince photographers that a flash isn’t only for darkened rooms. When I passed handouts about using flash to everyone I watched people begin to read and some even nodded as if agreeing with what they were reading.

I use handouts so participants don’t need to take notes.

For those that didn’t have their own flash I had several lying on the table. There were also flashes with wireless receivers mounted on light-stands topped with umbrellas ready and waiting around the large room.

I began with my thoughts on why I think everyone should have a dedicated TTL flash and how we can balance the light in a room without giving our subjects that “deer in the headlights” look.

I moved on to high-speed sync and after everyone set his or her cameras up we moved outside to give that exciting feature a try. When I tell people their cameras can sync at 1/8000th of a second I always get looks of knowing disbelief because camera and flash manuals usually show a sync speed of 1/250th or slower.

After that, lets call it “awakening”, I gave everyone triggers to place on their cameras and we moved to the light-stands and spent the rest of the day using off-camera flash.

Although I talked a bit about posing, I was mostly interested in showing participants how to position the light.

It’s gratifying to have a group of photographers sit listening to one’s lecture on any subject, that’s great for the ego. But what makes me smile and reinforces my desire to continue is the excitement in the room.

In this case it was when 8 photographers, all competent at using their cameras, suddenly discovered how wonderful and creative using flash instead of natural light is, They may have bought a flash because the salesperson said they’d get a good deal if the purchased it with the camera. Or possibly they worried their camera’s ISO might not go high enough and needed a flash at a friend’s wedding reception.

As I was showing a quick, easy and flattering way to pose an uncomfortable subject I realized that the room was noisy with loud talk. I stepped back while a photograph was taken using an off-camera flash and I listened to the many excited discussions.

I realized I had a room full on converts.

Photography at that year’s end party.

 

I’ll be having some friends over to my house to bring in the New Year with me and I want to make sure I get some fun photographs that I can give them to remember the end of 2018.

With that in mind I decided to repost this article I wrote back in 2013 about photographing parties.

I can hardly believe how fast this year has gone by, wasn’t everyone just complaining about the unforgiving summer heat? Now, here we are bundled up in the -6c cold and snow with snow tires mounted on our cars. Gosh, there is even an advertisement on television about what wine to bring to upcoming New Years Eve parties.

Don’t get me wrong I like this time of year and everything that goes with it, but I am not ready for winter’s snow yet, and neither is all the stuff in my yard that will get covered if I don’t get off my-lazy-whatever and pick them up.

Even though it seems early, the year’s end is here and that means photographic opportunities as we join family, friends, and co-workers at all the festive events.

Photographer friends are going to dive in, digital cameras in hand, happily filling memory cards with candid photos.  Picture taking has become so easy and so much fun as photographers rush over to take a picture, look at the LCD, and quickly slide back to show others those tiny images.

Photography for many has become more about the process of picture taking than it is about creating art, or even documenting the party; it seems its more about standing in front of people, taking lots of quick snapshots, than it is about making memorable photographs.

Most images made in this fashion never become more than space-taking files stored on computers or phones that after quickly being looked at, laughed at, or just smiled at, are tucked away with good intentions to be used in some fashion in the future. But after that initial viewing they loose their value because there are too many, and very few are good enough to give to others anyway.

How should readers approach photography at the next party?  I do think we should continue to make candid photographs of people having fun, but, perhaps, one might also think about making pictures that tell a story, capture an exciting moment, and importantly, flatter the subjects.

Most people don’t mind seeing a picture of themselves being silly or having fun, but they don’t like pictures that make them look stupid or unattractive.

My approach is to take a moment to look at the room in which I intend to make photographs, make a couple of test shots with longer shutter speeds (my favourite is 1/60th of a second), to include some ambient light when making exposures using a flash mounted on-camera (bounce flash of course) so as not to end up with brightly lit faces surrounded by a black environment.

When taking group shots with two or three people, get them to position themselves so they are squeezed together with a tight composition, and include only a little background or foreground. Don’t shoot fast, steady the camera, and select a shutter speed that includes the ambient light.

Fortunately most modern DSLRs easily allow ISO sensitivity that is 1600, and some go a lot higher.

Shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second, or less, don’t always work for children playing in the snow during the day because moving subjects will be blurry, but, with limited indoor lighting moving subjects will only be exposed properly when the flash goes off.

Lighting everything with complicated studio equipment would be great. However, the occasion would become more about the photography than about the fun and festivities.  I use an on-camera flash and make adjustments as I go. I want to join in on the fun, not act like a photojournalist.

Family and friends don’t mind having their pictures taken as long as its enjoyable and I want pictures that show them having a good time. So, along with those quick candids I make posed portraits with smiling faces, and if I select some prints to give away later I want people to like the pictures and honestly thank me.

Photographing a November garden   

 

For years I have made sure to wander my garden with my camera in every season.

I know most photographers are only interested in the bloom of spring or glorious colours or fall, but to me it’s as much how the yearly changes shape the plants as it is the colourful presentation of spring and fall.

I like to walk around the garden that hides my home from the country road that borders my property. Spring, summer, fall or winter. I enjoy it.

It was on a late afternoon just after 4PM. I walked out on my porch to listen to the coyotes serenading the neighbourhood. Or maybe they were complaining loudly that the wet cold weather was making it hard to find food that normally scurries in the meadows.

Friends have commented that it must be nice to live away from the noise of the hustling city. However, at that moment it wasn’t only the coyotes that were disturbing my supposedly quiet rural life. Three roosters, fourteen chickens and five ducks were all making sure I knew they were as important as the coyotes in their forest home.

As I lazily kicked some fir tree branches out of my path I thought about how the cold plants looked interesting and decided to get my camera.

I mounted my 200mm macro on my camera and attached the ring flash and walked along the little pond to take some pictures. After about five not-so-sharp captures I chastised myself for being lazy and returned to my house to grab a tripod.

A photographer I met that worked for a couple magazines once asked me, “What is the difference between using a tripod and not using a tripod?   “The shot with the tripod is the one the editor chooses for the cover.”   I am not sure if that’s always true, but I am sure using a tripod (and a flash) when photographing plants and gardens give me more keepers.

The ring-flash creates a smooth direct light that is very different from the flash mounted top of the camera. There is a sparkle to the subjects.

I always use a flash for plants.

I begin by metering the ambient light as if I were about to photograph the flower without a flash. Then I stop the aperture down to under expose the picture. In the low, bright November light I wanted to darken everything but my subject.

Sure one could open the aperture to reduce the depth-of-field and soften the background. But the closer the lens is to the subject when doing a macro or close-up photograph the less the field of focus in front of and behind the subject will be anyway.

I want as much sharpness as I can get around the flower. So instead of relying on the aperture to separate my subject from a busy background, I reduce the ambient light.

My ring-flash is set to manual so all I need to do is experiment with flash distance. I move forward and back to give the plant the light I want.

The ring-flash has a diffuser and I use a 200mm macro lens. The magnification is the same as with a 50mm or 105mm macro. I just get to be further away and that distance is more effective for the ring-flash.

There isn’t much more relaxing photography than garden photography because the subjects usually cooperate.

December has just overtaken me and I have no doubt that festive Canadian month will bring a totally different garden to photograph.

 

Home studio Lighting set-ups for Beginning Photographers      

 

I am always pleased when I know that someone has actually read my articles.

Twice this past week I was visited by different aspiring photographers, that had read my last article on using lights and stopped by to ask advice on setting up home portrait studios.

For them and others that missed my past article on setting up a home studio, here it is again:

In each instance the photographers were quite troubled by the kind of lighting equipment other photographers were advising them to purchase and how much it was going to cost to get large and expensive studio lights.

They complained that they would have to wait till they had the money before a home studio lighting situation could be set up. I believe they were paying attention to those that included expensive manufacturer’s names for their studio type lighting setups.

One might be able to locate used studio lights with a bit of searching online. However, there will be shipping costs, plus there is a chance that they will arrive not working.

There usually isn’t lot of quality studio lights locally, and to confuse new photographers more there will be lots of those cheap, inadequate, constant light kits that were purchased by other unsuspecting beginners for sale.

My opinion is they don’t really need to go to the bank just yet, and would be better starting out with the smaller speedlight type flashes.

With the money they save by not purchasing those big studio type lights they could buy a couple inexpensive light stands, umbrellas and maybe even a softbox and backdrop.

Most small home photography studios are in the basement with equipment stored to the side until the photographer quickly sets up for a portrait session.

And if the room is less than twelve feet high, thirty feet long and only used for children, small groups or single person portraits, those big powerful and expensive studio lights may be overkill, and a real hassle when one wants to soften the background by shooting a wide aperture because there is just too much light power for small spaces.

Photographers intent on setting up small home studios for portraits and small groups don’t need to go to the expense of the brawny, studio type lights. They can easily, and without much initial cost, set up a studio with what I personally use, and call my “portrait kit”.

My portrait kit is four older hotshoe type flashes, each with it’s own wireless receiver and two stands. I can choose a shoot-through umbrella, a reflector umbrella, or once in a while a softbox, and might include a reflector. It’s an inexpensive and easily stored “portrait kit” that I would recommend for most first-time, home studio photographers.

Wireless senders and receivers come in all sorts of inexpensive incarnations, and it’s the same with lightstands and flash to umbrella mounts.

All of this is much less expensive, and a lot easier to store and/or move around than the big studio-type flash units.

Even if there were a wad of cash burning a hole it your pocket, my advice would be to proceed slowly, and learn how use light to best photograph a person first.

I have been using multiple flashes off-camera since the 1970s. I prefer inexpensive used units that I can cheaply replace if they get knocked over or I wear them out.

Hotshoe type speedlights off-camera will be perfect for that educational process, and when they are no longer a good fit with one’s creative growth, the choices as to the next step in lighting equipment will be educated decisions.

Photographing behind the scenes for a movie.

This past week I was again asked by writer and director, Cjay Boisclair if I would be the “stills photographer” for another movie she was directing.

Ms. Boisclair was this year’s winner of the WIDC (Women in the Director’s chair) “short award”. That award allowed her to hire a cast and crew for her latest movie called, “Stood Up”.

When I wrote about my experience as a movie stills photographer last June I said that I drew on my background in Public Relations photography. PR photography is physically active, with never a chance to sit and where one must to constantly be looking for animated subjects to be successful.

So at 7:30AM I was lurking at the edge of the action voyeuristically capturing behind the scenes activity, and documenting the interaction and hard work of the people in that were making that movie happen.

I like tight shots that force the viewer to get involved with the subjects. I also like my subjects to be well lighted. I see no use in wide shots that have dimly lit people in the distance.

The beauty of my full-frame, large mega-pixel, camera is I can shoot wide and decide how the action and subjects are cropped in post-production with out any loss in detail or image noise in my final photograph.

I stay with a 24-70mm lens because I don’t get the edge and corner distortion of wider-angle lenses.

Modern TTL flashes offer the opportunity not only to bounce the light in any direction, and also allow one to increase or decrease flash power depending on the environment and proximity of the subjects.

When I give beginning wedding photographer’s advice on photographing receptions in large low lighting rooms, I always tell them to slow down their shutterspeed to increase the ambient light. Those “deer-in-the-headlight” type photos that are painfully common in beginner’s photos are so easy to correct by just moving the shutter dial to 1/125th or even slower.

Its that technique I used when photographing the behind scenes action. Indoors I would shoot wide with a slow shutter and outside I use the high-speed sync feature to increase the shutterspeed as needed to balance the flash in the daylight.

As with the last time I photographed for the movie’s director, I am after those classic images I have seen in the old newsreels of the Director in action. Pointing, talking to the actors, or working with the cameramen.

Photographing on a movie set is certainly entertaining experience. I have always thought that movie people were a special breed, and again this time, my first hand experience with the actors and the crew as they creatively worked, more than proved that to me.

Outdoors flash photographer’s workshop        

Last August I wrote about setting up an outdoors studio in the meadow on the south side of my home for my friend Joleen McAvany. Readers will remember that Jo wanted to do a “Disney Princess” session with some of her friends.

Jo posted her studio-like photographs from that day online. Her photos were so successful that I decided to offer another how-to workshop.

I limited participation to four interested photographers and Jo easily talked two of her friends into braving the cool October day to be our models.

I like flash and never pass by an opportunity to introduce photographers that normally would only use flash in dimly lighted rooms, to the advantage of employing flash in the daylight.

Jo and I set up both a white canvas backdrop and a painted blue/grey canvas backdrop. I had purchased the painted canvas, but the white canvas was formally a large painters ground cloth spattered with paint that I got for free.

I attached several older 1970 vintage flashes on light stands with umbrellas. All were connected to wireless receivers and I gave a trigger to each photographer.

My lecture was about balancing the light from the flash with the ambient light. The key light (main light) that modeled the features of our ever-patient subjects, Morgan and Cora came from the flashes, not the sun.

Jo gave a posing demo using a 60mm, then a 70-180mm and finally a 400mm lens as she positioned each model in turn. Then after showing everyone how effective the long lenses were, and how easily it is to control the flashes, I positioned each depending on the light.

I then let the attending photographers experiment and learn as I showed them how great their photos could be using flash in the daylight.

Most had seen some of Jo’s “Princess” photos and I reminded them that she had originally asked me, “can I do this out-of-doors and still create flattering studio kind of light portraits?”

Now I have introduced four more photographers to using flash as a creative tool instead of just something that brightens a dimly lighted room or gives a flat light on some subject’s face that is standing in the shade.

I am left wondering if they will start using flash. It is so easy to be lazy and leave the flash at home on a sunny day. However, the resulting photographs where one controls the light and is able to place it to flatter and model a subjects face should be enough to convince any serious photographer.

I would like to think I was successful in convincing those four photographers that adding the light from a flash will make their photographs stand out among photographers that depend on the inconsistent light from the sun.

Note: Photos by Joleen McAvany