Making a shot: 2 Lights and a reflector


For the photographers new to studio lighting, this is a basic explanation of making a shot with a couple of lights and a reflector.


(2) Paul C. Buff 35″ Octaboxes
(2) Alien Bees studio strobes (320 watts and 640 watts)
(1) Simple gray background
(1) reflector (white)

Nikon D3 camera body
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 Lens
Phottix wireless triggers


ISO 200
Flash White Balance
Matrix Metering
Manual Mode

116mm focal length (I like the 70-200mm for the ability to really control the background with lens compression)


I wanted to really keep this image zoomed in tight. The strobe on camera right is on about 1/8 power and providing the main subject lighting. The strobe on camera left is basically aimed up and above the subjects at about 1/8 power as well. This allows the background to be lighted as well as feathering a little soft light on the subjects from above.

The problem that might occur in this situation (especially with light from above) is the creation of dark areas under the eyes. Placing the reflector against the stand on camera left took some of the light from the main strobe and bounced it back up at an angle to fill in the faces. So, it is “almost” like a 3 light set-up. In subsequent shots, that reflector also served as a fill light for the side of the chair.


Above is the final image with not much done in post, just a little white balance correction and some sharpening. This can be done without a reflector, but that little touch of light can make a big difference.


The Dyson DC07…one badass vacuum

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If you have ever seen the show “The Walking Dead” you will know what I mean. My wife thinks I am nuts, but I truly have some weird fascination with this vacuum. I figured I would take a break from photography for a night and talk about this kick ass filth sucking machine. Like a dust eating Walker, this thing looks like it has been through an apocalypse. 10 years, 2 homes, 2 kids, 3 cats, and a dog. Despite that torture, this beast keeps on rolling. With its fierce cyclone sucking action it kills dust bunnies without even remotely feeling bad. It has no remorse.

Look at this thing. This is the Charlton Heston of vacuums. See that? Yea, that’s duct tape. Despite its hot pink color, it serves to secure the entire handle assembly to the base. Why? Because that’s how this vacuum rolls. Like a weary-eyed sailor on shore leave looking for his next tattoo. It also serves as a reminder of the night this vacuum and I had a little scuffle. Somehow it got tossed across the kitchen and yet it continued to finish the job. We won’t talk about that.


It never cries. It never whines. It never feels pain. It has been 10 years. I tried to buy another vacuum a few years ago, but it embarrassed itself trying to keep up. It ended up in the trash within a year.

So I finally decided to wash the pre-filter for the first time this week. Dyson recommends you do this every few months, but I waited 10 years. Why? Cause that’s just how we roll.

This thing smells. It has sucked dust, water, puke, kitty litter, hair, food, gum, a few barbie accessories, and a bunch of other highly un-recommended objects. Why? Cause why not? The smell of burnt something mixed with litter has sort of gone away, and that is a shame because it makes me think it might be getting a little soft.

Oh, the tubing is also torn and its also held together with duct tape…not pink, but gray. If you extend the tubing too far it begins to rip even more. But, it still sucks. Every single piece of plastic has been clogged and beaten at some point, but it still sucks. It’s on its second plastic dust chamber because the first one broke off after a fall. It still sucks. Oh, and that chamber is supposed to be turquoise, but Dyson sent me the wrong color. Nothing really matches any more and there are more scratches on this thing than a cat’s post. It has deep gouges and irremovable hair wrapped around the belt drive thingy near the brushes…but it still sucks.

Look at this thing. It is a mess. It has been through hell. It is severely abused, but 10 years of dust warfare and it smiles as we enter its 2nd decade of service.


I gotta hand it to Dyson. They make a heck of a vacuum.

The Nikon D700…it’s back


I recently made a new purchase, but it was not really a “new” purchase. I sold my D700 a couple of years ago. The primary body I shoot with is a D3. I used a D700 as a backup camera in the past. I sold it and purchased a few other bodies over the years. But, I never forgot that D700. Each backup body I purchased just did not feel good. I purchased a D600 not long ago and it is a fantastic camera. 24 beautiful megapixels. I use it to shoot slow in the studio. I also use it for video of my family. However, it still does not feel as nice as the Nikon D700. There is just something about the D700 that Nikon got right. It feels like a tank. It really is a mini-D3, and shares the same sensor.

The D800 does not replace the D700. The D600 is not in the same class. So, this begs the question, does the D700 have a replacement? No. I don’t believe it does. This also makes me wonder what Nikon is doing. I’m not sure anyone really knows what Nikon is ever thinking. But, they seem to be losing touch with pros. I would love to see a Nikon D700s with 18mp, video, and 2 card slots. In my opinion, that would be the perfect camera for weddings.

I love the D700 because it essentially is a D3. When I am tired, the D700 is easier to lug around. When I want to go light, the D700 is there. When I just want to mount another lens, the D700 is perfect for the job. It really is the perfect “Photojournalism” camera body.

A lot of people replace camera bodies when a newer version is released. Sometimes it is for the better. With the D700, there really is no “better” camera body for what it does.

For now, I am very happy with the D3/D700 combo, with the D600 serving as a studio body. I really don’t see a reason to upgrade to a D4. I looked at all my wedding files and 90% of the time I am at ISO 1250 or less. I go to ISO 3200 at times and 6400 in a pinch. The D3/D700 are both very capable at that ISO. Any higher and I might think about adding some of my own light (flash).

Hey Nikon, are you listening? Please make a real replacement for the D700 so I don’t have to push my shutter up to 500,000+ clicks!

HDR, revisited


I was re-reading my post about HDR photography the other day and I have sort of changed my mind.  I was really into HDR post-processing methods around 2007, before it really took off.  It then became a fad and I sort of grew tired of it.

Today, there are two camps out there; those that love HDR and those that hate it.  I personally love it now, and that is where my opinion has changed from my last post.  The reason I love it is because I enjoy HDR for what it is.  It is another tool.  Another brush that allows me to create artistic images.

To those that don’t understand HDR, it is basically a post-processing technique that requires that you initially take 3 to 5 shots of the exact same scene at 3 to 5 different exposure levels.  You under-expose the scene and then over-expose it.  You then overlay all of the images on top of each other and use the best tones in order to create a photo that tries to replicate more dynamic range, closer to what the eye would see if the viewer was there.  The criticisms seem to stem from the fact that many photographers over do it and create almost video game-like images.

Here is the same scene taken as a snapshot…



I was reading an article by Scott Kelby and he said it best.  The dirty little secret is that non-photographers love these images.  I bet 99% of non-photographers will love the first image in this blog post and think the 2nd image is just ok.  I would agree.

HDR does not replace traditional means of photography.  I shoot weddings.  I love natural light.  I love sunsets.  That does not mean I cannot appreciate another artistic medium.  An artist may use pencil 90% of the time.  But, is it wrong to explore painting abstract with oils to add a unique feel to a landscape?  I don’t think so.

So, I am back to loving HDR again.  I may even try a few shots at my next wedding.


A fast and efficient approach to off-camera flash


I found this photo going through my hard drive and thought I would share how I generally do lighting for formal wedding portraits.

There are many ways to light a bride and groom at a wedding.  Some use large umbrellas.  Some still rely on speed lights mounted on the camera (NOT recommended in my opinion).  Many use studio strobes.  The Quantum has become a popular choice.  The way I choose to light the bride, groom, and family for the formal portion of the day is primarily a choice based on speed and simplicity.

The above photo shows my “Lightsaber.”  It consists of only a few things.  I generally use a Nikon SB-910 speed light mounted on a Manfrotto monopod.  This image shows a Pocket Wizard wireless transmitter/receiver.  However, I have since changed to the Phottix Stratos since they allow for easy mounting and also a TTL pass-thru.  It can then be held by an assistant and moved easily.  During a reception, if working alone, I can mount this on a tripod and work in a similar fashion.

This Lightsaber is so easy to use and makes lighting more simple and reliable.  More importantly, it is FAST.  I will usually try to find a nice place to put the subjects, ideally in the shade so I don’t have to worry about over-powering the sun.  I can then have the assistant hold this light about 10-15 feet away and angled towards the center (see above image).  I will start at about 1/2 to 1/1 power on the speed light.  My camera settings will “usually” begin in Manual Mode with a shutter near the native sync between 1/160-250 and an aperture at around f/5.6.  The ISO will be as low as I can go and with a D3, that would be ISO 100.  I will then take a test shot and make changes from there.  You have to start somewhere and these settings will usually get me in the ballpark.  I may tell the assistant to back up a few feet if the subjects are overexposed.  I may just bump up my ISO if they are underexposed.  It is as easy as that.  The image below shows how nice the results are.


The best part is that this approach provides consistent exposures every time.

As long as the distance between the flash and the subject remains the same, I don’t have to make any camera adjustments.

If people stand a few feet further back in the next grouping, I will have the assistant move a few feet forward to compensate and nothing changes in camera.  The initial exposure will be the same.  If my assistant does not keep the same distance from the people then I will lose or gain more light and have to speed up or slow down the shutter in response.  That is the only real variable.  But, it is a lot more simple than trying to use TTL on camera with distance changes and varying skin tones, clothing, etc.  TTL, or “Through The Lens” metering will often get confused.  This just leads to making more adjustments every shot and complicates an already complicated situation with people wandering around waiting for a photo.  Plus, off-camera lighting is far more natural than a speed light mounted to the hot shoe.

So, that’s it.  A fast and simple approach.  I hope it helps.


Using your speed light in High Speed Sync (HSS) mode.

This is something that new photographers seem to have a hard time understanding.  High Speed Sync (HSS).  To understand HSS, you must first understand how regular flash exposure works.  In the most basic explanation, your speed light will throw light on your subject when the shutter opens.  For most DLSRs, you cannot exceed a shutter of 1/250 (Native Sync Speed).  If you do, you will see big black nothing-ness as the shutter closes during the flash cycle.  Ok, so you are in bright sun.  What are your options?

In this first photo, I did what you “typically” will do for a more dramatic sky.  I underexposed the background first.  Look at the sun.  It is so bright.  At native sync speed on my D3, I was at 1/250, ISO 200, and f/20.  I then used my speed light manually to throw 1/1 (or full power) flash lighting on the subject.  The result is nice, but the depth of field is really big.  There is no dramatic bokeh or blur.  The trees are all in focus.  I don’t want that.


What if I wanted to shoot at f/2.8 in this situation?  No way.  Impossible.  Well, it’s not.  This is where High Speed Sync enters the game.  Nikon calls it “Auto FP.”  I want to create a more pleasing blur to the background. However, we have already established the fact that I need to be at f/20 for proper exposure.  Correct?  Yes and no.  Using HSS, you tell the speed light that you really want to shoot at f/2.8.

The speed light says, “Well, ok.  But here is the deal.  I will do it, but I will only give you a small amount of light spread out over time because you are making me work so hard!”

The speed light will continue to throw small bursts of light while the shutter is opening and closing.  The end result is that you can shoot at f/2.8 using a shutter speed way beyond f/250.  In the case below, I was at 1/8000 second at f/2.8 using my Nikon SB-900 speed light.




The trade-off is that you lose power.  So, if you are 20 feet away using a speed light you cannot really be so greedy and shoot into the sun with flash fill (or shoot at 12pm on a sunny summer day).  However, it is a really useful flash technique to create more pleasing images in the presence of harsh light.  I would use this for a bride and groom portrait at 10 feet away.  For large groups, I would find a shaded area or use a much more powerful studio strobe with at least 320 watt-seconds if I was forced to shoot in the sun.

Make sure you read up on Front Curtain Sync and Rear Curtain Sync to truly understand the concept of how the flash interacts with the camera’s shutter.



Leica X1


Photographers that have been shooting for any substantial amount of time will of course begin to drool at the mere mention of the word “Leica.”  After all, Leica has been around for a very long time.  The Germans know how to make finely tuned mechanical instruments.  Mercedes, BMW, VW, etc.  In the world of photography, Leica means superior quality.  Their optics are simply the best.  There is a 3D quality to the lenses Leica produces and they don’t produce duds.  That is probably the reason why you need a 2nd mortgage for some of their lenses, i.e. the Noctilux f/0.95.  Yes, you read that correctly, f/0.95.  This is only a $10,000 lens. (gulp)

So, you can imagine my joy this Christmas when my wife played a major role in funding my first Leica purchase.  The Leica X1 with Elmarit f/2.8 lens.   This little gem is Leica’s first attempt at a smaller camera.  Unlike the gimmicky Panasonic-Leicas, the X1 is 100% made in Germany.  It comes in the same presentation box as the M cameras and each X1 is tested by one person in Solms, Germany.  This person then signs a Leica certificate included in the box.

Why is the X1 so good?  Why is is so much more expensive than the Fuji X100?  Why do X1 owners love this quirky camera with slow AF and no video?  Simple.  It is a Leica.  That is not a “snob” statement.  I mean, I am mostly a Nikon guy.  However, there is a reason why I purchased this X1.  The glass.  There is something magical about quality Leica glass.  Read some reviews of the finest Nikon and Canon lenses and you will often see flaws.  The better the lens, the less flaws will be present.  My Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 is an amazing lens, one of Nikon’s finest.  But, it has flaws.  The big Japanese camera makers know what flaws will be acceptable and pros have learned to work within these parameters.  Leica does not do this.  Leica aims to make lenses that are sharp, contrasty, without distortions or CA, and with beautiful bokeh.  By succeeding at this, there is something beautiful and hard to describe about the images shot with this glass.  Many call it the “Leica effect.”  An almost 3D quality where the subject seems to be pasted on the blurry background.

Leica lenses have almost no optical imperfections.  They are meticulously designed and engineered with the highest precision from people working in a factory dedicated to producing the best photographic equipment on the planet.  This is why the X1 is “over-priced” according to some.  The way I see it, I paid for the lens.  The camera/sensor just has to be there to catch the beautiful images that make it through those elements and aspherical glass.

The tech specs of this camera read like my 4 year-old’s bedtime book…meaning there are very few features.  This camera just takes photos.  No video.  No “Museum” mode.  No flashy autofocus.  No 1,000,000 dot LCD.  No dual card slots.  This camera is as simple as my 1970s Nikon FE film camera.  It points, it meters, and you create.  No amount of gimmicky scene modes will take the place of this f/2.8 Elmarit lens.  You have to understand photography to get the best from this camera.  Otherwise, it will just frustrate you.

My assumption is that those that favor the Fuji X100 et. al. are looking for the camera to do all the work.  Personally, I don’t want the camera to do any work.  I just want the camera to get out of my way so I can magically pull the environment around me through that lens and onto the sensor.

The only problem with the X1 is that it makes you want an M9 or M240.  Unfortunately, the M240 is $7,000 and entry level Leica lenses begin at $1,800.  That is $8,800 + tax for a single camera/lens combo.  Oh, and that’s with no autofocus and just a prime lens.  Still, there are many that sell all their gear just to fund one Leica camera.  Some might say that is foolish.  But, so many people put too much emphasis on technology.  I think art/creativity can suffer if you allow too much automation to disrupt your workflow.  The X1 (any Leica) or an old film camera will make you a better photographer.  It will slow you down.  It will make you think.  It will force you to compose in your mind before pressing that button.

If you want to know more about the X1, Steve Huff has a big review with more detail than my little blog post.

For now, I am just enjoying this camera and look forward to capturing life’s moments without lugging around a big DSLR.