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 the lights of Christmas  

I like Christmas. I like the gaudy colours, the music, and especially the lights.

Regular readers might remember that last December I wrote that as a child my parents used to bundle my brothers and I into the family car and drive up along the high avenues around Salt Lake City so we could look down on all the decorative lights in the valley.

We even got hot chocolate from my dad’s beat up old thermos that my mother would pour for us when we finally stopped on a hill high over the city to view the lights. Although these days my drink of choice is usually wine or beer, when Christmas rolls around I have a yearning for hot chocolate, and I’ll shamelessly admit to being a Christmas light junky.

Last year I also wrote that for years I had business in Kelowna, British Columbia. And during December I always made sure I brought my camera so I could go out at night and then again at morning’s first light to photograph the Christmas lights along the city streets and waterfront.

I no longer have work to do in that lakeside city, but on the weekend of December 8th I packed my camera into my car and headed south to what I suppose will become my overnight Christmas light photography sojourn for years to come.

I left early enough, wait…that’s not right. “We left” is more the accurate.

Last week when visiting my friends Jo and Shaun I mentioned that I was planning on spending Saturday night and Sunday morning photographing Christmas lights.

I had barely returned home when I received a text from Jo telling me that she had talked her husband into letting her go and could I get her a hotel room because she would be joining me if I didn’t mind. So “We” left early enough to stop for some quick shopping, check in to our hotel and walk down the street to the eatery I had spent my evening at last year before going out to photograph the lights.

Last year I was disappointed that the weather was to warm and they wouldn’t be opening the outdoor skating rink until after I was gone. However, this time the days were colder and it was packed with people.

I don’t like choosing auto modes on my camera unless there is a good reason. Shutter Priority for a fast moving event like a rodeo, or Aperture Priority for subjects field like flowers that require controlling depth of field.

On dark nights with moving subjects I prefer the Manual mode. I can be in complete control of how I want my subject to look by changing the ISO, the Shutter and the aperture depending what I want. That way I can balance the light so the final image doesn’t look unnatural.

With the Skaters I wanted to see some movement. I knew there would be people stopping, moving slow, and of course passing very fast. All I had to do is work with those three controls to create the photograph I wanted.

We spent the night photographing the streets, decorated boats moored along the lake, the lakefront walkway, lighted trees, buildings and just about anything in front of our cameras.

We were up before dawn waiting on a highway overpass for there to be just enough daylight to give buildings some definition. We were there to photograph Kelowna’s 120 foot tall Tree of Hope.

For 20 years, the Tree of Hope made up of about 25,000 LED bulbs has been a symbol of inspiration, giving, and hope to the community.

I like to photograph that light bulb tree. Most photos I see of it either shows no background because it is photographed after dark or too much background because it is photographed after the sun has come up.

I want to barely see beginning blue of the sky. To see buildings with the tree reflecting in their windows and I want the light to vivid and colourful. So we stood in the dark and waited for the early morning sun. This time we lucked out with a cloudy sky.

All we had was about 30 minutes of shooting before the sun came up. Then it was back to our hotel to eat breakfast, warm up, pack our gear and head home.

Repeating my words from last December, “Night photography (well actually, early morning photography) gives a city such a nice mood that isn’t really manifest during the day. I like the mystery and, of course, this time of year the frosting on the cake is the wonderful Christmas lights.”

Santa Photos with dogs 

 

This past week my friend and photographer Jo McAvany phoned to tell me she had volunteered to do photographs for a local business called the “Brazilian Dog Guru”.

The owner, Fernando Silva, had a great idea to photograph people’s dogs with Santa Claus for donations to support a local dog rescue organization.

I wasn’t surprised when Jo said she jumped at the offer to be the photographer. As well as an avid photographer, Jo has opened her home to a lot of rescued dogs over the years.

I was delighted that she would be doing that, and wasn’t surprised when she first asked if she could borrow some of my lights and second, suggested that I come too.

I thought it would be an unusual and fun way to spend the day. After all, I like dogs and they usually like me, so there we were at 11am on the following Sunday setting up lights in a small room while saying hello to Santa.

Soon excited people and their best friends were lining up outside waiting for the elves to take them inside for their photographs.

During the Christmas shopping days I sometimes like to watch the Mall Santa photographers as they work. The technology has changed over the years. Its digital cameras tethered to computers so that parents can instantly see the pictures, make their choices, pay and walk off with a matted print.

For a few years I set up the photography for local malls. Although that was back in the 1990s, not much has really changed much. However, back then instead of the digital camera and computer, the photographer would take the rolls of film to the one-hour processing lab at the end of the day and parents would have to return to get their pictures.

Most of the dogs and owners that came for Jo to photograph with Santa were well behaved. Although like some of the children I saw at the mall’s Santa booth, they weren’t having anything to do with that stranger sitting on a bale of hay.

The owners would bring them in to meet Santa and their eyes would roll and they would almost pull their person over trying to get away. More than once that meant finding a human that wasn’t wearing a red costume. Sometimes the dogs ran back to their owners, but more than once Jo almost was knocked over when they chose her as a safe refuge from the scary man that was grabbing at them from high on a bale of hay that probably seemed dangerous when it moved under their feet.

After setting up the lights I had nothing to do but pet all the dogs and be entertained by the goings on in the room set aside for Santa and my friend Jo. (A tough job, but someone had to do it)

By the end of the day I am sure Jo not only had a sore back from bending over, (we decided a tripod might get in the way of dogs and dog leashes) and although she didn’t mention it, she probably had a bruise or two from the big dogs that thought she was there to jump on.

What a fun way to spend a day.

Dogs and photography, it doesn’t get much better than that, unless one includes that this event was for a very good cause; collecting donations for the “Pom and Pals Country Rescue” dog shelter.

Oh, and there are now over 50 dogs that have a picture of themselves with Santa. I think some people are going to get some great Christmas cards this year.

“It no longer matters if a person knows anything about photography, anyone can take a picture”      

I met a young creative photographer that is working hard to make sure his photographs stand out amongst the legions of picture-takers in this popular and expanding medium. He leaned on my counter and gestured into space as he made that seemingly painful statement to me. “It no longer matters if a person knows anything about photography, anyone can take a picture”

His goal is to produce images that are visual statements of how he feels about the subjects he photographs. He has studied and studied and wants his work to be seen as more than just documents of the world around him.

The medium of photography has become very accessible for everyone. The days when most serious photographers actually went to school to learn about photography and had to be an engineer and chemist are long gone.

With today’s supercharged and computerized cameras many photographers get away without any knowledge whatsoever of photography.

Historically, photographers had to understand the combinations of shutter and aperture for a properly exposed image, and worried about camera shake and film choice. Photographers would carry more than one camera because they wanted the resulting photographs to be in both color and black and white.

One must remember that a few short generations ago photography needed large glass plates, hazardous chemicals, bulky cameras and wagons to carry everything.

I am not sure that the photographers of the late 1800’s or early 1900’s were actually interested in photography as a creative medium as much as a way to document reality of their unknown world.

Whether trying to convince some person to sit as still as possible for long time periods or setting up unwieldy photographic equipment on a cold mountaintop to photograph the view, photography was once a challenge that most of today’s photographers would shy away from.

There are those that are intent on complaining that with the end of film comes the end of photography. Personally, I don’t think film is going away any time soon. (Film is just one way to make a photograph.) The big box outlets may not carry it much longer, but there are lots of specialty items artists use that are only available in specialty stores, and I think film is still available at some small shops. However, the chances of getting the correct advice from the person behind the counter doesn’t seem likely.

Yes, anyone can take a picture nowadays. That’s a good thing and not something to complain about. There are lots of good photographs being taken and although most of them fall into the category of documentary or snapshot photography. People want visual memories of their world and the many camera incarnations are perfect for that.

I look forward to seeing more photographs made by that young photographer and others like him. My advice to him would be to embrace all the exciting technological advancements he comes across as he strives to make his photographs stand out in. After all photography has always been about technology.

I am sure he will work at producing images that will be technically perfect visual statements about what he feels or wants to say.

There are many, myself included, who are interested in the viewing good photographs. It doesn’t matter how the image is produced as long as the final photograph has something to say and is visually exciting!

That critical comment “anyone can take a picture” shouldn’t make any of us worry as we look forward to the future of this exciting medium.

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.

The best lens (for the price) to photograph wildlife.    

In my experience, any image can be altered (sometimes dramatically) when one changes lenses.  A subject can be isolated and the perspective in front of, and behind, the subject flattened with a telephoto lens. And landscapes are changed using a wide-angle lens as the field of focus increases the view around the subject.

To add a bit more to my last article, “what is the best lens for scenic photography” I thought I’d continue with a discussion I had with a budding wildlife photographer.

I select my lenses depending on what I want my photograph to say about the subject. And to me, control over my image is important so I ask my self two questions.

What lens will show my subject best? And second, what final result do I want?

This past week I spent some time talking about lenses with a photographer after he read my last article and said, What about the best option for the price to photograph wildlife here in the interior of British Columbia.

I suggested starting with a zoom that can reach 300mm and then purchase a 150-600mm in the future. Each of those lenses has a narrow angle of view and plenty of magnification for wildlife photography.  I thought he might start with a lens that is inexpensive, lightweight, easy to pack around and hand holdable. The smaller multifocal length lenses are generally lightweight and excellent for vacations or just walking around.

He told me he is hesitant to dig into his savings for a super zoom at the present, so I thought moderately priced lenses like the might do for his introduction to long lens photography.

There are interesting lenses like the 300mm and more impressive lenses like a 400mm, 500mm and even the favourite of bird photographers, the 600mm. But for an introduction I thought a zoom might be more versatile until he was ready to make the financial commitment to a large prime or zoom.

When he gets serious and willing to spend a bit more there are big lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8. Those large high quality lenses give the user lots of light gathering capability and the ability to use higher shutter speeds for reducing camera shake, and help stop fast moving subjects.

To explain that, there is an optimum amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor for a correct exposure. When the aperture is closed down it lets in less light and one must slow the shutter speed.  With large aperture lenses the shutter opening can be increased and let in a lot more light, therefore one has the ability to increase the shutter speed for less camera shake and still get a proper exposure.

All this also affects “depth of field”.  Depth of field is best defined as “that area around the main subject, in front of and behind, that is acceptably sharp”.  Photographers like to blur non-essential elements in the background by reducing the depth of field, and do that by increasing the size of the lens aperture.  In addition, letting in more light makes shooting in low light conditions less difficult.

And to that photographer’s question:  What lens do I need?  There are lots of other choices that will better help him visually discuss his subject. I don’t think there is one lens that fits all.

Each year manufacturers introduce more lenses with different technology, which improves imaging capabilities, and naturally, increases the price.

One of the favourite sayings in photography is “it’s all about the glass”.

Photographers I know that spend their free time photographing birds tend to stay with long fixed-focal length, or prime lenses. However an opportunist like myself will prefer the versatility of a multifocal length (zoom) lens.

With regards to that soon to be wildlife photographer, I expect to see him with more than one lens choice as he pursues his hobby and selects different lenses that meet his photographer’s vision. I know he will be cautious with his purchases, but ultimately his choice of lens comes down to what he wants viewers to feel and see.