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.

The Canadian Pacific Railroad Holiday train 

 

Every year the CPR holiday train chugs its colourful way across Canada from east to      west. The train makes stops at cities along the route where there are crowds of people waiting.

Those of us in rural Canada might miss assembly with all the festivities in the city, but we get to watch and, in my case, photograph that brightly lighted Christmas train as it winds its way through the wooded Canadian countryside.

As I drove from my home down to the river valley to again photograph the Holiday train I passed people waiting in their cars parked in the area between the little Pritchard store and the train tracks just off the highway.

I have tried that location in the past, but it’s so close to the train that the only shots are on an angle. And to make it worse this time, a long freight train was waiting in the perfect position to block the view of the train after only a couple minutes.

My favourite place to photograph the train is from across the river. I drove past my neighbours, crossed the bridge and stopped along the river and walked out on the wide beach to set my tripod up.

I like the long wide view across the Thompson River that even using my 70-200mm lens lets me photograph the whole train at 70mm or just a few cars at 200mm.

That beach location allows me to capture that locomotive and it’s bright boxcars in a scenic view.

The train usually passes through Pritchard when there still is enough light to see the train. I saw a few pictures that were taken after it stopped in Kamloops 30 minutes later, and they only showed neon lights with an empty black background.

I chose an ISO of 800 when I first got there and took a few test shots. I walked around to choose a nice flat place where I didn’t have to stand in the mud. Gosh, mid December and no ice.

I will say that, although I had a better location than those on the other side of the river, I envied the fact that those waiting at the Pritchard store had hills that blocked the unpleasant, cold wind that blew at me across the flat wide river.

I joined by my friends and their children out on the beach. Jo had her stocking hat pulled down over her face and was crouching with her camera trying to get out of the wind.

I covered my ears and set up my tripod as I watched her 3 and 4 year olds running around on the muddy beach, oblivious to the cold, as they excitedly waiting for the train.

They had been to town earlier in the day to meet Santa and now running on the beach and seeing the brightly lite Holiday train was like the icing on the cake.

By the time the train came I had to push my ISO up to 1600. I was using my tripod, but with the all movement I decided the higher ISO would let me keep my shutter at a safer speed.

I think this will be the last photos of Christmas lights for this year. As always, it’s been fun. There isn’t any snow yet, but the snow will come soon I am sure, and I’ll be out again with my camera to make some pictures of that white playground.

I can hardly wait for the snow. But for now I’ll wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday to all of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

“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.

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.