Facing Your Flash Phobia

off-camera flash, Jinbie HB600, Expose for the background

Here is Nayoung being a temporary model so I can adjust the background exposure and the power of the flash.

If you have spent any amount of time on my blog, you know that I have a phobia about off-camera lighting. I love to use on-camera flash and play with dragging the shutter. But off-camera – that’s the kind of stuff that makes my palms sweat and my body break out in hives. I am not sure why it is so befuddling for me. Maybe it has to do with my many learning disabilities or the fact that I waited way too long to learn this trick and now I am an old dog. Whatever the reason, it has been a journey of two steps forward, one step back.

background exposure, test shot, Jinbie HD 600

This is photo is pretty much right out of the camera. This was pretty close to what I wanted for my background exposure.

My off-camera flash mentor is Piet Van den Eynde, my Miyagi of light. You may recall, Piet sold me his Jinbei HD600 strobe. It is a 600-watt monster that competes with the big boys like ProFoto’s B1, only at about a third or less of the cost. It is the Jinbei that I have been using to confront my fears. Why the Jinbei and not a speed light? Well, for one thing, it is entirely manual and believe it or not, shooting manually with a flash is proving easier for me and is giving me a great foundation. Once you learn the fundamentals, only then can one move on. Wax on, wax off. Another reason I chose the Jinbei is because it is so powerful; it can overpower the sun and allow me to use this flash anytime and anywhere.

Whenshooting in manual it really is just a mater of taking a shot and making the adjustments. Here the flash needed more power.

When shooting in manual it is just a matter of making an exposure then adjusting it. In this exposure, the flash needed a lot more power.

For the past few weeks, I have been getting to know a couple of new photographers in my town, Simon Bond, and Pete DeMarco (another Pete). Simon and Pete are both relatively new to the area; they arrived here while I was away in the U.S. over the past year. These guys shoot a very different style than I shoot.. They are more into creative techniques and photo magic such as  light painting.

Simon and Pete invited me to try out light painting.  Simon has a new toy he is still learning to use. They wanted to introduce me to light stick called a Pixelstick.  They suggested we go to the very southern tip of the island to a place called Vanilla Bay and shoot against the sunset. The only real issue is there has not been a significant sunset for many days. It has rained every day here since arriving back to Malaysia in September. But the weather changes here by the minute, so who know? We risked it and drove to Vanilla Bay.

We were a rather large group: Pete and his partner Nayoung, Simon and his wife Jayoung, Vijiakumar Shunmugam from a local Facebook photo group,and Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend Yaan Sin Lee. Qmin acted as our model.

Pete, Simon and their respective partners and I arrived early to scout the right location and set up the gear. Sometimes the best moments are serendipitous. As we arrived I noticed two boys flying red balloons from fishing poles. The boys were silhouetted against a late afternoon sky.his was too good to pass up.

I quickly asked Nayoung to stand in as my model while I frantically tried to get the exposure of the sky correct. What I have learned, (wax on) is to first expose your scene for the background. Get it as dark or as light as you want it. Of course, all this is done in manual mode. On my X-Pro2 I needed a flash sync of 1/250 sec. so I simply adjusted the aperture to get the desired exposure.

A side note here: the biggest enemy in my photography and I would wager in yours is panic. I was quickly trying to get the exposure before these boys left or their balloons popped. I kept telling myself, “Slow down!”


Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.

Eventually, it all comes together!


Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.



It's a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

It’s a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

Once I got the background exposed the way I wanted it I had to set up the flash unit and softbox. “It is still pretty bright out, do I use the grid or not?” Trial and error. I left it off for the time being.  I told myself, “Just set it up and take a few frames to balance the exposure on Nayong (wax off).” It was way too light. I needed to lower the power of this monster. Bam! I got it!

Above are the results of my effort. But it was only after a few frames, and the boys left. Of course not without a portrait of their own.


Chrysmic Qmin

Chrysmic Qmin


Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. An impromptu couple shot between setups.

Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. They asked for an impromptu couple shot between setups.


Later that night I became the VALS or Voice Activated Light Stand ;-).  In other words, I held the light all night. But it gave me a chance to observe Simon and his Pixelstick in action. I began watching how he maneuvered it. I had to try. I had an idea. Could I make angel wings? If I turned on the stick while standing behind her and moving the stick to form a wing then turning it off and repeating the same move on the other side it should make wings. In theory. The problem is, I can’t stand behind her when the flash is popped. So I have to run out and after the flash goes off start drawing my wings. Easier said than done on coral rock at night with a 5 foot Pixelstick  in your hand.


My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!

My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!


After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.

After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.


On my first try I just about broke my ankle (actually cut it on the coral) Oh well, the show must go on. The second try was better. Maybe the blood loss slowed me down. By this time of night, everyone was exhausted and frankly, it was time to go home.



A good night of inspiration and hard work using new tech. It was also a night of relearning old lessons: don’t panic, slow down, be purposeful.

Tomorrow I am off to some pretty fun places with my piece of tech, my Fujifilm X-T2. Be looking for new photos and some thoughts on this amazing little camera in the days to come.

A Lensless Picture

Does your technique get in the way of the story?

I want to speak to storytellers today. In particular, storytellers that tell someone else’s story. Whether you’re telling a story in one image or in several, the goal is always to effectively communicate what is happening in the story unfolding before you. The question then becomes, what is the best way to communicate this story visually. This is where things get confusing and sticky. I’m developing a theory in my shooting that boils down to this, when technique in the photograph draws attention to the technique itself, something has gone wrong. Continue reading

Depth of Field: Mitchell Kanashkevich

Mitchell Kanashkevich

My only problem with Mitchell Kanashkevich is his name – I can’t pronounce it! Mitch is an amazing photographer that at any given moment can be found documented the world with his camera. From the surfer miners of Java to shepherds in India passion lies in capturing disappearing ancient cultures and the human condition in unique, challenging situations. His has an uncanny knack of finding the most amazing light.

I have known Mitch for six or seven years. We first met online on the Travel Photography Network. He struck me then brash and bold. I now realize what I had mistaken for brash and bold was self confidants and an overabundance of talent.


You have to visit Mitch’s gallery HERE and visit his blog HERE. Mitch is represented by both Getty and Corbis. He is the author of six ebooks and you can find them HERE. Enjoy this interview with my friend Mitchell Kanashkevich.

You can listen to more Depth of Field podcasts HERE.


Going into depth

f/1.2, 1/320 sec, at 85mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II

I am what some people call an intuitive photographer. By that I mean, I take photographs often by what feels right. Many times people that are intuitive at any craft or talent make bad instructors. When asked why they do something they simply reply, “I don’t know, it just feels right.” As an instructor, I find this a challenging aspect of my teaching – to take those things that are intuitive for me and make them methodical. By methodical I mean, make it into a method or a system that others can use. I face the challenge to understand why I do something so that I can put it into words for others. Many times it is in talking with other people or reading articles about why people do things, is when the light comes on and I realize this is why I do something.

A light came on for me this past week. Over the last couple weeks I’ve had several people ask me what lenses I keep on my camera? The answer to this is pretty straightforward, on one camera body I keep my 16–35mm f/2.8, and on my other camera I keep either my 50mm f/1.2 or my 85mm f/1.2. When thinking about this, I realized that I am a creature of extremes. When I use my 16–35mm I almost always use it around the 16mm focal length. When I use my 50mm or my 85mm lens I’m almost always shooting at an f-stop of 1.2. But why?

It dawned on me recently while speaking with David DuChemin about dynamic balance and the rule/principal/suggestion of thirds that this really has almost everything to do with my use of extremes. Let me try to explain. I used the 16mm because I like a wide vista that allows me to frame my subject to one side of the image, yet still giving me plenty of room to play out the rest of the story in the frame. Not only does this add to the storytelling element, it is a compositional technique that gives a balance between your subject and often negative space. It allows the viewer to move there eye around the frame taking in information and returning to the main subject. Of course, this is based on the ever popular “Rule of Thirds”. This rule or principle states basically that by framing a subject on one of the four “power points” within the frame, the photographer creates a sense of tension or dynamic balance. It keeps your subject from being static and thus boring. Of course, you can do this with any lens, but a super wide-angle lens allows you to do this with ease and can include so much more information.

But why do I seem to fall back to  f/1.2? Certainly, I love the look. But why does this appeal to me? While talking with Jarod Foster on Skype the other day it dawned on me, it’s not that much different than why I use a 16mm lens. It has to do with composition –  only it’s more composition of depth. Most of us know a photograph should have a foreground, a mid-ground and a background. Often a photograph can be cluttered with detail that is extraneous to the image – or we can say, to the story. This information can actually distract a viewer’s eye away from the subject. By using an extremely shallow depth of field, your subject becomes isolated by the soft blurred background that often becomes negative space and can draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Humans naturally view the world with varying depth of fields. Even now as I look at my computer monitor, behind it, through my window I see a roll of condominiums that stretch along the beach. Yet when I focus my eyes on what I’m writing, in my peripheral vision those condominiums are blurred and this allows my brain to maintain focus on what I am writing. I’m pretty sure that this sense of depth that we see in the real world is transferred into a photograph when we use the shallow depth of field. I think intuitively, I was shooting a narrow depth of field to create a sense of that depth. In the past, I have only described using a shallow depth of field as a tool to isolate my subject. But now, as I think about it, it’s more than just isolating the subject,  it’s creating a sense of depth within the image.

I know this sounds extremely elementary for many of you. In fact, at this point you may have even felt you have wasted another 10 minutes by reading this post.  But before you run off let me ask you a few simple questions. Are you able to articulate why you shoot the way you do?  Can you tell me why you use the lenses you use? Why do you choose the f-stop you do? Are the choices you make intentional?  If you can’t answer these simple questions, then maybe it’s time for you to sit down and think through the choices you make when you go to photograph a subject.  Once you get to the point that you can articulate these choices, you will have much more depth to your images.


Make it Yours

Click on an image to view full size.

This is a short post today. Just long enough to encourage you to explore and stretch. I just wrote that the geek needs to play by the rules to develop an instinct, where as the artist can break the rules anytime. Note: I didn’t say anything about the geek bending the rules, or pushing the boundaries. Still, maybe this post is more for the artist. I hope we don’t get so bound by an idea that we can not rework it and have fun with it. I’m not talking about someone else’s photograph. I’m talking about concepts in both design and technique.


Take for instance the design concept of a frame within a frame. Most people when they hear this and often when it’s taught, they take the idea of a frame and literally put it just inside the frame of the photo. A typical example would be the photo above of the boys fishing. Here you have a frame created by a tree and the ground for three fourths of the image. Quite literally a frame within a frame. Better still, look at the image at the top of the three young Muslim boys standing in the archway a.k.a. the frame. It works, it’s a nice picture. But look below what happens when you pull out keeping the boys within the frame of the arch but including more arches and more of the story. Now you can see that the boys are actually in a madrasa. It is still a frame within a frame but much looser. Don’t be so literally bound by a concept or a teaching that you don’t have the freedom to push the edge and explore.

By the way, all the photo edges used in this post are from onOne Software‘s PhotoFrame 4.6

What a drag.


figure 1


figure 2

Remember how I said, we all need to step out of our box and stretch ourselves? Well, Thaipusam was that for me. I am not referring to the strange trance state people were in, or the body piercing. I am talking about a creative stretch. I think most of you, if you follow my work, will agree this was a departure for me. And this is a good thing. I shot with my 17-40mm a lot and I use a flash, something I never do. I have always loved shooting wide. I love the strange distortions t can give a subject. But for a classic portrait it will really make someone look odd and freakish. So I tend to shy away from it and fall back to the safety of my 85mm f/ 1.2.

For Thaipusam, I knew it would be very crowded and so I would need my 17-40 mm to make the most of the close quarters I would be working in.  I also knew that I would be shooting early in the morning while it was still dark and the widest aperture I can get with the 17 – 40 mm is f/4, not a flood of light at f/4. I also knew, unfortunately, that I would not be using my 5D MK II, as it is in the shop, so grain at high ISOs would still be an issue. The only answer to all this knowledge was a flash. I have a confession; flash photography intimidates me to no end. But had no choice. If I was going to use a flash then I wanted to do it creatively, not hard straight light. So why not drag the shutter? Dragging the shutter is when you use a slower shutter speed and allow any ambient light to expose the image and allowing movement within the frame. It is used a lot in wedding photography these days. By dragging the shutter in this way, the flash fires, it freezes the subject and then the shutter stays open and records the motion blur. With this method you get motion appearing to move before the subject, it can look very odd and unnatural (see figure 1). To work around this, what I did was a little different than dragging the shutter, I did what is called a second curtain or rear curtain release. In a second curtain release the shutter is opened and light is exposing the image. Any movement is being recorded as a blur. But, just before the second shutter closes, the flash fires and freezes the subject. So what you end up with is a short motion blur with a sharp image frozen at the end (see figure 2).

There are several issues to watch out for in doing this technique.  By using the on camera flash you can use E-TTL (Evaluative-Through The Lens metering)  and get the correct exposure. But when the flash is set to E-TTL it fires a test shot when the shutter opens to get the correct exposure then the shutter drags and finally the flash fires for real at full strength. This can be distracting for your subject and I think it might give you the addition of a ghost image in the frame as well. The other issue is by using E-TTL you can shoot AV (aperture priority) or TV (shutter priority). I tend to shoot always in aperture priority mode, as I am very concerned about depth of field. But when I play around with my aperture it will adjust the shutter speed and thus vary the effect of the drag. So it might be better to actually shoot shutter priority. To be honest with you, since I was really seriously playing with this method for the first time I tried every combination and at this point I am not sure what was the best method. I shot most of my images (see the EXIF data below) at f/4 and at and ISO setting of 200 or below. This gave me a shutter speed of less than a second and gave me th edesired effect.