Case Study in Using the Sun as Your Rim Light

When you’re on location scrambling to get your shot, remember to try shooting more or less directly into the sun. I know that a lot of you are going to scoff at this, but consider this photograph.


Notice how putting the subjects in between me and the sun, I am creating a nice rim light on the side of the boys face. This will help separate your subject from the background and helps give the photograph that 3D “pop”.

Of course when you do this, you’ll need to supply a healthy dose of fill light as your subject will likely be in total shadow, so bring along a couple speedlights and an umbrella.

The Napa Photographer

Posted in Uncategorized

Napa Lighting Workshop 5/1/2013

Starting this blog thing again, sorry for the long absence!

As many of you know, I perform a free, bi-monthly photography and lighting workshop in the Napa area. For more information, go to

Last week, we went to one of my favorite locations, a little park underneath the Carquinez bridge in Crockett California. I love this place because nobody bothers you, you can have a reasonably large group and nobody complains about you being in the way, there is plenty of parking, but most of all, there are some really compelling architectural elements that make for unique portrait photography.

Here are some examples:

napa lighting workshop

Napa Lighting Workshop #1

Napa Lighting Workshop #2

Napa Lighting Workshop #2

Napa Photography Workshop

Napa Lighting Workshop #3


I like to get low and shoot wide to capture all the leading lines, it does cause some distortion issues though as you can see in the third image. We’ll be meeting this Wed the 15th in downtown Napa for our next lighting workshop.  Contact me for more details.

The Napa Photographer


Posted in Uncategorized

Canon vs. Nikon

The Canon vs. Nikon argument settled?

Posted in cool photography, gear

Shoot on Cloudy Days to Add a Little Drama to Ordinary Portraits

There are a lot of photographers that put their cameras away when the clouds roll in, but for others, that’s when the fun’s just getting started.

In today’s post I will provide some tips and tricks that will help you make the most of shooting on cloudy days.

Shoot in RAW

Using clouds as your background can cause exposure headaches, especially when you have the sun behind them. You’re likely going to have very bright sections along with very dark ones. Shooting in RAW Mode will allow you recover a lot more detail. I use Photoshop’s “Shadow/Highlights” tool along with some masking to give me a better range of contrast.

This is important because you don’t want blown-out areas in your clouds, they’ll look a lot richer if they have detail.

napa wedding photographer

Use Flash

When you place your subject against a bright background, either their face will be underexposed or the sky will be overexposed. Using off-camera flash is a great way to brighten them up and really make your photo pop, but it also introduces a new variable. Not only do you have to get the correct exposure in your skies, you’re also going to need to figure out the flash exposure on your model.

The easiest way to do this is to expose for your sky before you do anything else. Start off at with an aperture of f/8.0, ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/200.  Put your model where you think you want them and take your shot, (make sure to get a lot of the sky in your shot, this may require you to shoot from below in some cases).

Next, take a look at the back of your camera, if you’re over exposed, try stopping down your aperture to f/11 or f/16. Keep stopping down until you’re where you want to be.

Then bring in your lights. If you’re using small flashes, you most likely won’t be able to use any light modifiers, you’re going to need all the power you can get. You may be forced to use a bare flash at a very close distance. I wrote a blog post a few months ago that offered a suggestion on how to get around this limitation.

Hint, in very bright conditions where the sun is present in your scene (or just behind the clouds), you may have trouble darkening your skies enough. Try placing your model so that they’re between your camera and the sun. This usually eliminates the problem plus it gives your  subject a really cool glow.

napa wedding photographer

Go Wide

I like to shoot wide when I have a lot of good detail in the sky so that I can fit more of it in my image. I think it looks more dramatic that way. A word of warning though, when you shoot wide and you’re down low, you’re probably going to have to do some perspective correction in Photoshop to compensate for the distortion. I use the Transform Skew tool for the job.If you’re lucky enough to own a perspective tilt (or shift tilt) lens, this would be a good time to consider using it.

napa wedding photographerWatch Your White Balance

Be sure to take white balance into consideration. On cloudy days, your shadows can take on a blue hue.  In some cases, you may have to warm up your flash a little with a 1/2 cut CTO gel.

napa wedding photographer

Plan Your Shoot Soon 

Certain times of year seem to produce more dramatic skies that others, usually you see the most interesting clouds in the late winter or early spring.

That’s it for today, thanks for visiting.

The Napa Photographer

Posted in ambient light, exposure, off-camera-flash, photoshop, portrait photography

Influential Photographers – Part One – André Kertész

Not long ago, I started  writing an epic blog post that was intended to encapsulate the entirety of the hoard of photographers that have influenced me over the course of my career. As soon as I started pulling together the list, I knew I was in trouble; my first pass was ten, that list soon grew to almost twenty and I’m not even close to being done.

At some point, it dawned on me that I shouldn’t try to rewrite “War and Peace”, maybe it would be better to publish this as a series of posts, rather than a monolithic tome of which most of you would tire before I got to photographer number two.

Get Out of Your Rut and Start Shooting Again

As a new photographer, you’ll find yourself hitting plateaus on a maddeningly regular basis. The work you were so happy with a few months ago will start to look crass, mediocre, in some cases – downright embarrassing.  Your unfortunate spouse will have you listen to you continually lament that you’ve run out of new ideas, your work is getting stale and you’re in a rut.

Secretly, your significant-other will agree, “How many perfectly-centered, ‘bulls-eye” style partially-in-focus images of flowers will I have to look at before his/her photography becomes interesting?”.

If you’re like me, there were at least several months where your camera sat and collected dust because you were bored and frustrated with your lack of progress and you didn’t know how to move forward.

At this point you’re desperate, you’ll start thinking foolish thoughts like, “Maybe if I convert the image to be black and white, EXCEPT for the rose that she’s holding, I’ll make the rose brilliant RED!”

This is your warning sign, this is the clue that you’ve crossed over to the dark side.

It doesn’t need to be like this.

Writers run into this problem all the time! For many writers, the way they fall back in love with writing is to read the work of other authors. Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Writers read”. Same goes for photographers, the great photographers are also regular consumers of the work of others. It keeps you fresh, teaches new techniques and helps inspire you to continue working to improve your craft.

So today, instead of geeking-out on off-camera-lighting techniques, I will highlight an artist that influenced me when I first started out.

André Kertész

Kertész was one of my early favorites. I love the simplicity and the sense of humor he displays in his images. He toiled in obscurity for most of his career, gaining recognition only later in life. He taught me to stop trying to please others, that it was “OK” to make images that only *I* would appreciate. He was quoted as saying:

I do what I feel, that’s all, I am an ordinary photographer working for his own pleasure. That’s all I’ve ever done.

André Kertész - "The Fork"

André Kertész - "The Fork"


André Kertész "Chez Mondrian"

André Kertész

André Kertész "the Dancer"

I I love Kertész’s work in large part because it serves as a reminder, a great photograph can be found in almost any environment, it’s up to the photographer to find it and share their vision with the rest of us.

So tell me, who is the photographer that most influenced you? Don’t be stingy, give us your whole list and make sure you tell us the reason they had such an impact on you.

That’s it for today! Leave your choice in the comments section and I’ll be sure to highlight it in my next post.

The Napa Photographer


Posted in Uncategorized

A Discussion on Good Bokeh and Bad Computers

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, partly due to a mild case of writer’s block that was immediately followed up by a case of broken computer.

Active photographers tend to acquire redundant equipment, partly because we never grew out of our love of toys, but also because it’s important to have a back-up. If you go out on a major shoot with just one camera, that camera is a single point of failure. One little glitch and your shoot can be ruined. On important shoots, I bring three, two of my beloved 5D Classics and my nifty Canon G11. I’ve never had to resort to using the G11, I just feel better knowing it’s there in case of emergency. I also have enough lenses to survive the loss of one, so no problem there.

The one thing I don’t have is a backup computer. I was recently reminded of how important a computer is to a digital photographer by virtue of being denied one. Without my laptop, I was pretty much dead in the water as a photog, let alone as a blogger.

Now that my computer is out of the shop, I want to touch on a subject I once briefly mentioned, bokeh. In today’s post, I will define bokeh, show you some examples and give you some tips and tricks on how to achieve good bokeh.

What is bokeh?

If you ask Wikipedia, it’ll tell you that bokeh is:

“The blur, or the aesthetic quality of the blur, in out-of-focus areas of an image.”

I am not going to tell you that Wikipedia is wrong, this is actually, surprisingly, kind of a controversial subject.

I will say, however, that there are differing opinions on this topic; many people (including me) believe that bokeh can more accurately be described as:

“The aesthetic quality of how the lens renders out-of-focus HIGHLIGHTS in an image”

An example of bokeh:

Napa Wedding Photographer

ISO 500 | f/2.8 | 1/400 Copyright Robert Baker

The variously colored out-of-focus highlights around their heads are what I consider bokeh.

As opposed to what’s just out-of-focus background, as in this photograph of my girlfriend Elizabeth:

napa wedding photographer

ISO 125 | f/3.5 | 1/1250 Copyright Robert Baker

This photograph was taken in my backyard, the blur behind her is a combination of valley, hills and sky. If you look closely at the bit in the valley, you can see faint traces of bokeh from the highlights of the windows in the houses below. So in truth, this second photograph has both out-of-focus background and bokeh.

Those blobs of light are very important to some photographers, especially wedding photographers, it’s a cool effect that is simple to achieve if you have the right equipment and conditions.

How to Achieve Bokeh:

In order to create big, plump, juicy bokeh in your images, it helps to have a long-ish telephoto lens with a large aperture. For example, the lens I would pull out of my bag to create bokeh would probably be my Canon 70-200 f/2.8, I’d use it at its longest focal length, 200mm. This lens has the benefit of having a wide aperture and a reasonable zoom.

The reason you want a nice big aperture is because you can throw your backgrounds out of focus much easier. Likewise with the long zoom – a lens with a long zoom tends to create better OOF (out-of-focus) areas behind your subject than a wide-angle lens. It’s this ability to throw your backgrounds OOF that will aid you in creating nice bokeh.

The aperture mechanism is also a factor, Lens apertures are like the iris of your eye, they open up and close down (stop down) to let more or less light fall on your sensor, depending your your needs. Apertures on most mainstream cameras are comprised of “leaves”. In the photo below, you can see that there are five leaves that make up the aperture.

napa wedding photographer

A lens aperture with fives leaves

You can see that five leaves doesn’t make a very good circle, the more leaves you have, the closer to a circle you can get, as in this example:

napa wedding photographer

An aperture with thirteen leaves

This is important because the shape of your aperture will determine the shape of your bokeh. For example, in the five leaf aperture the bokeh will take on a pentagram shape, whereas with the thirteen leaf aperture, it will take on a circular shape. In general, the more leaves your aperture has, the better the quality of the bokeh. It won’t surprise you to learn that the more leaves your aperture has, the more money you will likely have to pay for the lens.

Another consideration for good bokeh is the distance between your subject and the light sources behind them. If your bokeh producing lights are right behind your subject, it’s much more likely that they will be in focus. In focus highlights make poor bokeh, so try to position your subject so that the lights behind them are a good distance away.

Remember that you have to have your aperture “wide open” or close to wide open in order to throw the highlights out-of-focus. The more OOF they are, the larger they will be.

Trick Bokeh

Some people get creative with their bokeh, for example:

napa wedding photographer

Photo Credit "CKG 88" on Flickr

What is bad bokeh?

Bad bokeh is in the eye of the beholder, but for me the best example of bad bokeh is with a Mirror Lens:

Mirror Lenses Create Crappy Bokeh - Image Credit: ...-Wink-... from Flickr

Again, good or bad bokeh is a personal taste thing, but I think these donut style OOF highlights are ugly.

That’s it for today, if you have examples or great (or crappy) bokeh you’d like to share, paste a link in the comments section, I’d love to see what you come up with.

Posted in Uncategorized

Increase your odds of getting the photograph you hoped for with these free tools.

Have you ever gone out to shoot expecting one lighting condition but getting another? Forgetting the boy scout motto is a sure fire way to come home empty handed, or with compromise photos that you know could have been better.

A couple of years ago I scheduled a bridal “Trash the Dress” shoot on the beach at Kirby Cove, just at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. My hope was to get some cool sunset shots, but because the sun set in a much more northerly position than I expected, I didn’t get the shots I wanted.

If I had done my homework, I would have instead shot a couple of miles north at Stinson Beach as it was facing in a much better direction for my purposes.

It turns out that you don’t have to leave this to chance, there are resources available that make it easy to anticipate not only the sun, but a variety of other conditions on location. 

As usual, it’s the Internet to the rescue. 

In today’s guest blog, sublime landscape photographer Rick Whitacre shares his secrets for taking some of the guess-work out of landscape and location photography. 


Outdoor location photography includes landscape photography as well as outdoor portrait photography. Both require an intimate understanding of the location its expected natural light conditions to be successful.

Whether photographing a sunset or taking wedding pictures outside, knowing when and where the sun will be is critical. If you want to use the sun to illuminate your subject or as an element in your scene, you need to know where it will be and how it will interact with your subject. It’s also important to know what weather to expect and, if close to the ocean, what tides to expect. There’s nothing worse than placing your tripod or models close to the seashore only to find the tide coming in!

Luckily, there are several tools available that can make your job easier and more deterministic; both in pre-planning and on-site. In this post, I’ll review some of the tools that I use in order to be at the right place at the right time. These tools are just what I personally use on my desktop and iPhone. In many cases, there are other, equally good applications, but these are what I use and will give you a good start. If you are an Android user, you might be able to find the same version for Android. If not, just search for others. There are plenty out there.

Lastly, I am primarily a landscape photographer so my pictures rarely include people. For examples of these images, I have borrowed some of Robert’s photographs.


There are several tools that I use to pre-plan a shoot. One of the most valuable is a program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE for short). This amazing program is available for both your Mac/PC and for your smart phone. I use the desktop version to do my pre-planning and to determine when the sun or moon will be in a particular spot.

TPE allows you to navigate to any place on the planet and see where the sun and moon will be on the day and time of interest. It allows you to determine where to stand to get the sun or moon right where you want it in your shot, whether to illuminate your subject or to be a part of the scene. If you plan to have a wedding couple posing on a beach with the setting sun providing rim-lighting around their heads, you can determine which parts of the beach face toward the setting sun and exactly when to be there. If you want the sunset colors in the clouds and the setting sun illuminating the people from the side, you would want a location that is facing 90 degrees away from the sun.

Napa Portrait Photographer
Using the Sun as a Rim Light – Photo Credit: Robert Baker
Napa Wedding Photographer
Using the Sky as a Backdrop – Photo Credit: Robert Baker

Full details on how to use the program are available on-line, so I won’t go into it here. Just be aware that there is a “Details” button that allows you to compare where you are as the observer to a location you may want in your shot and compare it to the angle of the sun or moon. Once you get used to using it, it is amazing what you can do!

If you like to have the full moon appear next to a famous landmark or incredible foreground, this is the program for you.

Napa Wedding Photographer
Moonset – Garrapata State Park. © Rick Whitacre 


Napa Wedding Photographer
Moonset San Francisco. © Rick Whitacre

Another part of pre-planning is weather. Needless to say, if it is cloudy and raining on the big day, you’re not going to get the outdoor shot you may have hoped for. If the date is fixed, then you need to plan to shoot indoors, or use the weather to your advantage. Either use the clouds as a giant white box, or use the rain as a background (or reflections on the pavement). If the date is flexible, then you can pick the day with the weather you are envisioning.

For weather, I use The Weather Channel and Clear Sky Chart, The Clear Sky Charts are especially useful for understanding the presence of clouds, humidity, and temperature. This is a great site if you are doing any night photography.

If you are going to be shooting near the ocean, knowing when high and low tides are is critical. I use the NOAA site for pre-planning.

On-site Tools:

Once on-site, you need to fine-tune your pre-planning efforts. By getting the lay of the land and knowing which way is north, south, etc, you can better plan where to put your tripod and/or your subjects.

To determine the directions on-site, I use Compass Go on my iPhone. There are other apps, but I find this one quite nice and easy to use. It’s fairly accurate, but I give it time to settle and point it around a bit to get an average reading to help with the accuracy.

To figure out where the sun will be rising or setting in relation to where I am standing, I use Sun Seeker. It has a 3D viewing option that allows me to hold it up in the direction I am facing and see the sun’s track overlaid onto the actual scene I am scouting. Moon Seeker does the same thing for the moon.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) also has a smart phone or pad version that can be used in the field. This can help to fine-tune a location once on site and looking around.

To know exactly when the sun or moon will rise or set at my location, I use the iPhone app called Darkness. It locates where I am standing and calculates the exact times for my location.

Tides is another program I use on my iPhone to see if the tide is coming in or going out if I forgot to check before leaving home. It really helps to know if the water’s edge is coming towards you or moving away while you plan your shoot!


Napa Wedding Photographer
Full Moon and Half Dome. © Rick Whitacre
Napa Portrait Photographer
Sunrise, Bode. © Rick Whitacre

When shooting outside, it is important to think about what Depth of Field (DOF) you want to achieve in your shot. Do you want the background landscape to be out of focus, or crisply in-focus? Most landscape work is done where both foreground and background are in sharp focus. To achieve this, you need to know what DOF you can obtain with your camera, lens and aperture combination. To help with this process, I use DOF Master on my iPhone. It allows for easy entry of my camera body, focal length, aperture, and subject distance to give me a nice table for which parts of the scene will be at an acceptable focus. It even tells me what the hyperfocal distance is for my selection. This allows me to get as much as possible in focus or make the best decisions to achieve it.


Napa Wedding Photographer
Racetrack – Death Valley National Park. © Rick Whitacre


Once you read about The Photographer’s Ephemeris and play with it a little bit, check out these future occurrences as examples of what is possible with a little pre-planning:

For the full moon in May, two interesting opportunities exist if you are in the San Francisco area. First, on the night of May 5th, you can position yourself on Conzelman Road to the north-west of the Golden Gate Bridge and wait for the full moon to rise near the north tower. It will be just after sunset, so there should still be enough light in the sky to get a decent balance between the exposure for the moon and the exposure for the bridge. If in doubt (or if I calculated wrong), bracket your images so you can combine them with HDR software later. Take a look at this screen shot of TPE for this date and see if you can recreate it on your desktop. Remember to use the Details button to get the time slider shown!

Napa Wedding Photographer

Moonrise over GGB

The very next morning, there is an opportunity to capture the full moon setting over the Transamerica Building in San Francisco from Treasure Island. For this one, the sun is still just barely up, so the exposure between the moon and the city skyline should be very well balanced. If there are clouds in the sky, they should be a nice yellow. The shot shown earlier in this post was on a morning where the sun had not yet risen while the moon was low over the city, so I really had to boost the shadows to get the buildings to show up. May 6th should be a better balance. Review this screen shot to see if you can see how I arrived at all of this:

Napa Wedding Photographer
Full Moonset over Transamerica Building

For the last one, Robert told me about a picture he had seen of Market Street in SF where the setting sun came straight down the street and lit it up in a nice glow. In looking at TPE, I found that the sun never truly sets at an angle that matches the direction of Market Street. So I picked the date where it is closest (winter solstace) and took a look at what time the sun would be visible straight down Market and at what angle it would be in the sky. Might be worth checking out…..

Napa Wedding Photographer
Market Street Sunset


While terrific shots can be had by pure luck, you can improve your chances by learning how to predict when and where the best lighting will occur for your shoot. With a little bit of pre-planning before your shoot followed by fine-tuning at the location you can achieve some stunning results and use the natural lighting and weather to your advantage.

Hopefully, this has given you some ideas for how to master the sun and the moon for your own shots. Happy shooting!

Rick Whitacre

About Rick

Rick is a landscape photographer constantly in search of the best light and unique opportunities to capture the sun, moon, and stars. I asked him to write this entry for my blog.

Rick’s work can be seen at his website and at Aegis Gallery of Fine Art in Saratoga, CA

Editors note: It turns out that not all of the tools I mentioned are free, sorry for the confusion. I should have said, “Free or inexpensive”. Sorry, my bad. Sun Seeker is $4.99, Moon Seeker is $1.99, and the DoF calculators are about $2

Posted in cool photography, Landscape Photography, online tools

Levitation Photography by Natsumi Hayashi

I spend a lot of time looking at the work of other photographers for inspiration. Every once in a while I’ll find one that makes me jealous, usually because they’ve come up with a concept or an idea that I wish I had thought of.

My first reaction is, “Oh wow, I should do that!” But I can’t, because that would be just mean I was a being a copycat and I try not to do that too much.

My next reaction is sorrow, because for me that great idea is off the table forever now, I can’t un-see it.

It happened most recently today when I found Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful Levitation Photography.

Napa Wedding Photographer

Photo by Natsumi Hayashi

She posts a new Levitation Photo daily on her website, she also provides information on her technique (mostly jumping) and the equipment used.

The Napa Photographer

Photo by Natsumi Hayashi

I love how she manages to avoid making it obvious that she’s jumping, her expression is serene and her hands and extremities gracefully posed. I haven’t tried this but I bet it’s way more difficult than it looks.

This guy had fun trying:

The levitation idea is a great hook, but Hayashi-san’s photography stands on its own without the gimmick. Great light, well thought out composition, sense of humor, what’s not to love?

Napa Portrait Photographer

Photo by Natsumi Hayashi

As I was getting ready to end this post I realized that maybe I had this idea first after all!

I had forgotten about a photo I took years ago:

Napa Portrait Photographer

And then, he just kinda floated away...

So what do you think, does this count? Should I be mad at Hayashi-san for stealing my idea?

The Napa Photographer


Posted in cool photography, portrait photography

How (and why) to use your Camera in Manual Mode.

Your camera thinks it’s smarter than you. As we speak at this very moment, it’s smirking in your bag, silently mocking you. It doesn’t have to be this way, it’s pretty easy to gain the upper hand and really take control, freeing your mind in the process.

In today’s post, I will explain the how’s and why’s of manual exposure and share a trade secret that will make shooting in manual so easy, you’ll wonder why they didn’t just explain it to you when they issued you your gear.

First, a word on automatic exposure. Modern SLR’s have several “Automatic” modes:

  • Program Mode
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Full Auto
  • etc.

There are already more than enough blog posts out there that explain in detail what each of these modes do, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. Suffice to say there are substantial differences between the various automatic settings. For the purposes of this post, however, the only thing we need to know is that they all have one thing in common. In each of these modes, your camera is making decisions about what *it* thinks the exposure should be.

There are times when that’s exactly what you need. For example, if you are shooting a fast moving event with lots of different lighting conditions, an outdoor wedding reception, for example, you probably want to stay in AV mode. Otherwise you’re likely to miss too many shots, no matter how fast you are.

But if you’re in control of your environment and shooting a fairly static scene, a portrait session, for example, manual mode is the way to go. Here’s why: in any of the auto modes, you are at the mercy of wherever your lens happens to be pointing. The camera makes its decisions based on the light it’s reading through the lens (TTL). Tiny movements to the left or the right, up or down can cause dramatic differences in how your camera exposes the scene, especially in high contrast situations.

Flash Photography

Another key reason to shoot in manual is flash photography. As I have mentioned in my High Speed Sync series, you need to kill your ambient light in order to get full effect of your off-camera lights. You can’t have your camera trying to override your ambient light decisions, you really have no choice but to shoot in manual.

Plus, in manual mode, you’ll get your shot much quicker because your exposure will be consistent and predictable. Luckily, learning to shoot in manual mode is pretty easy when you know the secret.

But before I get to the secret, here is some background on the settings involved.

The Three Variables

There are three, interlocking variables to consider here.

  • ISO
  • Aperture
  • Shutter


ISO is the number that represents how light sensitive your digital sensor will be. Most cameras start at ISO 100 (less light sensitive) and go up to 3200 or more (more light sensitive). You double the amount of light that is registered by your sensor by moving from ISO 100 to 200. You double it again by moving from 200 to 400. When you double the speed in this way, you have increased the exposure by “One Full Stop” of light. In photography, light is measured in “Stops”, each one letting in twice as much as the one before (or half as much, depending on which direction you’re moving).


The aperture is like a little iris that controls the amount light that passes through the lens. Apertures are measured in cryptic, counter-intuitive numbers that take some getting use to.

The smaller the number, the LARGER the aperture.  For example, an aperture of  2.0 lets in twice as much light as an aperture of 2.8. Just like with ISO, a move from 2.0  to 2.8 would be considered “One Full Stop” of light, in this case you would be reducing the light by half. If that sounds backwards to you, remember that the larger the aperture number, the smaller the hole it makes, allowing less light to pass through. For example, the max (largest) aperture on my 70-200 is 2.8. The next full stop down (smaller hole) is 4.0, smaller still is 5.6,  then 8, 16, 32 until you have a but a tiny hole through which all your light must pass.


Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second. A shutter speed of 1/60 lets in twice as much light as a shutter setting of 1/125. Just like with ISO and Aperture, shutter speeds are measured in “Stops”. As such, 1/60 is “One Full Stop” slower than 1/125, which means your shutter is open for twice as long, giving you twice the light.

The common thread here is that each of these three variables are measured in “Stops” and that each stop lets in twice as much light as the one before (or half as much, again, depending on which direction you’re going).

It’s important to understand that these values are all interlocking. Consider this scenario:

You’re shooting in manual with the following settings:

  • ISO 200
  • Apeture 5.6
  • Shutter 1/30

You check out your histogram and  you can see you have your scene all dialed in and exposed just the way you like it. But after taking a second look you realize that there is some camera shake, you need a faster shutter speed. No problem, you just increase the shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/60, a full stop, problem solved.

But because your shutter is now open for half as much time, your scene is going to be one full stop darker, and that’s not what you wanted. That stop of light needs to come from somewhere, you have two choices, you can increase your ISO a stop to 400, or open up your aperture a stop to 4.0.

One last thing before I reveal the key to making all of this easy, most digital SLR’s default to a 1/3 stop increment for ISO, aperture and shutter. That means that you have to dial three clicks to make one full stop of adjustment. So, using the example above, you can also do a combination of both ISO and aperture, doesn’t matter, so long as they add up to one full stop or three clicks.

The Secret

Actually, what I am about to tell you is not a secret, it’s common sense once you think about it. I’m guessing it took me longer than average to figure this out, so it’s very possible that your reaction to my big secret will be something like, “Well duh”.

Here it is:

With not a huge investment of effort and time, you can shoot in manual without even thinking about it – Think of it this way,  the ISO/Aperture/Shutter dials behave exactly the the same way the knobs on your kitchen sink do.  Just like a water faucet, when you turn your ISO/Aperture/Shutter dial counter-clock-wise, you’re “opening it up”, letting more water/light in.

Conversely, if you turn your ISO/Aperture/Shutter clock-wise, you’re “closing it down”, letting less water/light in.

Knowing that they all interlock, and that a click to the right on one dial equals a click to the left on one of the other two is really easy to remember. And then practicing, practicing, practicing until your fingers know exactly where they are, what direction to turn to darken,    which to lighten, increase depth of field, decrease depth of field, capture motion or create motion blur – you outsource all of that crap to your fingers the same way a top notch pianist would. You don’t have to think about numbers anymore, pretty soon you’ll get to the point where you can adjust the important settings on your camera by touch, without wasting brain cycles, without even having to look at it.

When I realized this, I spent two days practicing until four in the morning, walking around my kitchen taking photos with my Canon 5D (classic), exposing just by counting the numbers of clicks. I burned through so many batteries, filled up so many memory cards, shooting, shooting, with my eyes closed, like back when I was in basic and you had to put your rifle together blind folded.

In the end, my shutter fried, they make a nasty sound when they come apart. They know me pretty well at the repair counter at Looking Glass Photo in Berkeley, the best camera shop ever, catering to the serious photographer. Free advertising, we don’t have a relationship beyond the doctor/patient one.

It was two days and a about a three hundred dollar repair bill, but it was time and money well spent because that muscle memory is now etched deeply in my mind. I couldn’t forget it if I tried. It’s the reason why I will probably never move off of the 5D, too much invested in internalizing its controls and just the way it feels in my hands. I just hope they keep making parts for them.

Shooting manual in this way will free your mind to concentrate on more important things, like making your image match your vision.

The Napa Photographer


Posted in ambient light, exposure, off-camera-flash

High Speed Sync Part IV – The Reckoning

So far, we’ve discussed three of the five ways to control ambient light when using flash. Today I will complete the list and provide my Pro’s and Con’s analysis of each.

The list so far:

  1. Fast Shutter Speed + High Speed Sync
  2. “Slow” Shutter speed (for Canon 1/200) + Tight Apertures
  3. Use a Camera that has an Electronic Shutter

As I mentioned near the end of my previous post which highlighted the Canon G11, fast shutter speed isn’t the only trick I used to kill the ambient light in the example photograph. In addition to using 1/1000, I was using another of the amazing G11′s built-in, made-for-the-flash-photographer features.

#4 – Neutral Density Filters

When I said that the G11 was a flash photographers dream, I wasn’t kidding. In addition to eliminating the High Speed Sync limitation, the G11 has a pretty low minimum ISO setting (80) allowing you to dim the lights even more. But if that wasn’t enough, check this out – the G11 has a built in, three-stop, electronic, neutral density filter.

If you’re not using a camera that includes a built-in neutral density filter (most don’t) you can buy various styles of neutral density filters for most camera lenses. The idea is, if you want to darken the ambient light but you don’t want to shoot at tight apertures, you just put this light reducing filter over your lens and it kills the light for you. Pretty simple solution, but it does have drawbacks which I will get into later.

#5 – Do Nothing

If you have ever experienced the “Black Bands” or “Black Bars” phenomenon  associated with exceeding your Max Sync Speed, you notice that it is usually limited to the bottom half of your frame. I say usually because the more you exceed Max Sync Speed the more the black bars begin to manifest in different areas of your image.

If you know in advance that you are only going to be lighting one side of the frame, for example, a person’s face, you can orient your camera so that the unlit part coincides with the wherever the black bar falls. Problem solved.

Pro’s and Con’s of each ambient light killing method

#1 High Speed Sync

Pro’s – the great thing about using High Speed Sync is that you can shoot at very wide apertures. If you are doing portrait photography this might be pretty important, especially if you’re shooting someone with less than perfect skin. Too tight an aperture and you’re going to emphasize every wrinkle and blemish they have.

Along those same lines, with High Speed Sync you can have your backgrounds just as out of focus as you like. This is very important for certain shooters, for example, wedding photographers that want nice “bokeh” – a subject of a future post.

Con’s - The main disadvantage to High Speed Sync is loss of flash power. I read somewhere yesterday that at speeds of 1/4000, you’re max flash output is reduced to just 1/4 of it’s potential. This is because most of your light pulses are being blocked by the shutter as it whizzes by.

Another big con is expense. To do High Speed Sync, you need HSS Flashes and those run about $500 new. You can buy smaller, cheaper ones like the 430EX, but if you’re shooting HSS, you need to make up for all that lost flash output, so you’ll need to buy the big, outrageously expensive, HSS flashes like the 580EX. I use older 550EX’s, those are nice but also expensive, even used, plus they’re slower to recharge so you’ll need external battery packs.

To make matters worse, for HSS to work you’ll also need the expensive, top of the line, ETTL-capable, wireless triggers like the Pocketwizard FlexTT5. Those will add another $240 or so to each flash you buy, plus one for your camera. A three light setup using 580EX’s will run you over $2,500 just for the flashes and triggers. Meanwhile, three lights might not even be enough, depending on what you’re doing.

#2 “Slow” shutter + Tight Apertures

Pro’s – The main advantage to staying below your Max Shutter Speed is cost savings. With this approach, you can buy much, much cheaper flash/trigger combos because ETTL is not required. You can get into a high quality, dependable, three light setup for about 1/4 the cost.

Con’s – The problem with this technique is that you end up shooting at small apertures. In bright light you may have to stop your lens all the way down to darken your skies. This means that you’re going to have very sharp focus all the way through your scene, enhancing skin flaws and making bokeh impossible.

#3 Electronic Shutters like on the G11

Pro’s – Again, cost savings. It turns out that you can buy some pretty sweet electronic shutter cameras for not a lot of money. A friend of mine recently bought a G11 on ebay for something like $200. There is no need to buy a fancy flash/trigger combo either. You can buy a used G11 camera w/great built in lens + trigger/receiver + flash for under $400. If you want to get into off camera flash for just a little bit of money, it’s a great option.

Plus, your camera bag will be much lighter!

The G11 isn’t the only electronic shutter camera out there. I hear really good things about the Nikon D70s, which runs about $500 used.

Con’s – I can’t really think of any! I will say that the shutter lag on my G11 can be a pain, and the small controls are a challenge for my big hands, so you have to be kind of patient to use it. As such, you’re not going to shoot professional basketball games with this camera. But if you can get your subject to stay still, there is no reason you couldn’t do some amazing work with these beauties.

I suppose another drawback is that for the G11 you can’t use interchangeable lenses, but the Nikon D70s does not have that limitation.

#4 Neutral Density Filters

Pro’s – This is a pretty inexpensive solution as there is no need for ETTL triggers and flashes. Furthermore, it eliminates the problem of being stuck at tight apertures, making this a a very flexible and affordable solution.

Con’s – I find working with “over the lens” neutral density filters a pain because the scene through your viewfinder is darkened, sometimes to the point where you have to shine a flashlight on your subject’s face in order to focus. For this reason, I never use physical neutral density filters – I only use the built-in, electronic one on the G11 because it doesn’t darken the viewfinder.

#5 Do Nothing (or Partial Frame Sync as David Hobby calls it)

Pro’s  - It’s free!

Con’s – The only way I have been able to make this work is by not using a fill light. Having said that, I’ve maybe only ever used this method once or twice. If you’ve used this method and have some words of wisdom, leave a comment.

One last thing

There is one final method that I didn’t discuss, it’s along the same lines as the electronic shutter. Some cameras have what’s called a leaf shutter, mine doesn’t and I don’t know that much about them. I left it off the list because it’s so similar to #3 on our list.

The Napa Photographer








Posted in ambient light, exposure, gear, High Speed Sync, off-camera-flash, pocket wizard, portrait photography