Flash Way, Way Off Camera – by Jack Kurtz

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People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt's funeral.
People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt’s funeral. This photo was made with available light.

I recently photographed the first day of funeral rites for Apiwan Wiriyachai, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Thai parliament. It’s always a good idea when you’re using a small flash to get the flash off the camera. Properly done off camera flash makes the light more interesting and more natural. That’s pretty much impossible with the small popup flashes that are on top of most cameras these days or when you’re working in a media pack.

Apiwan’s funeral was a big media event. There were probably 30 photographers gathered around the body photographing as people paid their respects. Most of them were using flash, almost all of them either the small popup flashes built into their cameras or large accessory flashes but all of them, every single one of them, had the flash on the camera.* Most had the flash pointed straight ahead but a few were “bouncing” their flashes off the ceiling. I was working exclusively with available light.

The room was lit by fluorescent tubes and combining fluorescent and flash creates all sorts of color balance issues. I’ve found it’s much easier to edit and do color correction if there’s only one light source in  the photo. The base exposure at ISO800 was around f1.8 at between 1/60th and 1/250th (depending on whether people were looking up or down) and Apiwan was covered in a shiny white shawl so I was comfortable working with available light.

A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer's camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.
A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer’s camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.

As I was working I could see that I was going to have a lot of unusable frames. Other photographers’ flashes were going off with machine gun like rapidity.

A couple of times the flash was just discrete enough that I could piggy back off of it.

The other photographer's flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn't completely overpower the photo.
The other photographer’s flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn’t completely overpower the photo. I burned down Apiwan’s white uniform a little in Lightroom.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.

It’s impossible to predict at the moment that you’re making pictures what effect other people’s flashes will have on your photos. There are a lot of variables.

With the exception of a couple of motion blur photos I made, I was working at f1.8 to f2.2, wide open, or close to it, all day. It doesn’t take as much flash to expose at f1.8 as it does f8. If the photographer whose flash I was piggy backing off was shooting at wider apertures (and putting out less flash) I ended up with an interesting picture. If he (they were all male) was working at f11 or blasting away with the flash, I ended up with a blown out frame.

Available light, I didn't capture any other flashes in this frame.
Available light, I didn’t capture any other flashes in this frame.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer's flash.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer’s flash. There is no detail in the white and any attempts to burn it down just turns it an ugly gray.

I could see the flashes going off around me and I knew from experience that I was going to have a difficult time editing. It’s impossible to predict when another photographer’s flash is going to help you and when it’s going to wreck your photo. I made a lot more frames than I normally would have because I was I trying to work around the photographers’ flashes.


* There’s a protocol when you’re working in a media scrum like this. Normally, a professional photographer would get the flash off the camera and either put it on a light stand or hold it out at arm’s length (or ask a nearby civilian to hold it for you). But you don’t have those options when you’re in a scrum. If I hold a flash in my hand and then stick my hand out to get the flash off camera I’m going to end up blocking another photographer’s view. The idea in a scrum is to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t block other photographers.

Seeing Red – by Jack Kurtz

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A Burmese woman wearing a red blouse was sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.
Subtle use of red. A Burmese woman wearing a red blouse was sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.

I’m a part of a group of photographers who meets regularly in Bangkok. We enjoy a good meal, talk about photography and make a group assignment – something we’re supposed to photograph in the coming month. This time around the assignment was “Red.”

Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. There was just one red one in the pile.
Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. There was just one red one on top of a stack of hats.

The challenge on an assignment like this is not to photograph something red, but to make an interesting photo of red.

Red doesn’t even have to be the dominant color – because it elicits such strong emotions, just a tiny bit of red in the frame can have a profound affect on your picture. Think of the little girl in red in Steven Spielberg’s otherwise black and white film “Schindler’s List.”

A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.
A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.

I didn’t go up to Sangkhla Buri to photograph red. I was working on a story about a bridge up there. I spent a morning wandering around in the Mon community and I was seeing red everywhere I turned. Not usually in a big way, but in lots of little ways, like the in the photo of the woman sweeping the bridge.

It certainly helped that red is such a powerful color. Even in the photo of the hats, where the dominant color sort of an earth tone bamboo, which has red in it, the red in the hat on the left really pops. Red is to color photography what garlic is to chicken – it always makes it better. But you have to be careful not to use too much or it completely overwhelms the photo.

Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red.
Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red.

In Praise of Shadows – by Sabrina Henry

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The name Junichiro Tanizaki may not be familiar to many photographers but his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows is a read I highly recommend. Today we have a number of tools at our disposal to bring forth details from the shadows in our pictures but Tanizaki’s essay makes a convincing argument to do otherwise.

There is a whole genre of photography that seeks to reveal and embellish every possible pixel and I have never quite understood the appeal of it. For me, the mysterious exchange between light and shadow plays to my imagination and keeps me engaged with an image far more than when it is completely lit. I liken it to the silence between the notes where it has been said music really resides or the empty spaces carved out within a room where you feel your body can breathe.

toronto urban dog

Recently I was visiting friends in the American Midwest and we spent a few afternoons driving around, getting lost on county roads lined with fields of corn and beans and beans and corn. It was hot and the sun followed us everywhere. We stopped at a country church that had a cemetery with grave markers from the early 1800’s. I couldn’t find much of interest to photograph there even though all around there was so much history. The light was too intense and even in the shade of the trees, everything felt so exposed. I wandered around the church itself which served as the local Legion Hall and probably explained the lack of religious symbols that would distinguish it as a place of worship. I had to look very hard to find the sense of peace and tranquility many of us perceive in churches and temples but it was there. A small window with a weathered frame softened by a white lace curtain that hung gently inside. Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but enough shadows to illuminate the quiet mystery of the place.

indiana church

As photographers we are fortunate that our tools can help evoke this feeling even when it may not be naturally so present. There are two things I can consistently rely upon when working with light and shadow: exposure compensation and spot metering.

Exposure compensation is used when photographing in an auto exposure mode such as aperture or shutter priority or even program mode. It allows you to control the amount of light and shadow beyond what the camera believes is the correct exposure. On most cameras this exposure is shown on a sliding scale with a reading of 0 when the camera is left to calculate the exposure. By moving the scale either up or down, you are letting the camera know you want to change the exposure. That scale can go up and down to a maximum of  two or three stops and usually in 1/3 increments depending on your settings. I often dial in some exposure compensation when photographing especially when I make a few pictures and realize what I see on the back of my camera is not what I had envisioned in my head.

Spot metering is when the camera uses a very small area of the frame to decide the proper exposure, typically 1% or 2%. By focusing on a key detail within the picture, you can control how the entire image is rendered. For a majority of the time, you will select the matrix-metering mode. In this mode, the camera looks at several areas within the frame and measure the intensity of the light and calculates what it believes to be the proper exposure. Different cameras will measure in different ways (they will use more or less points or different calibrations) so if you use more than one camera to photograph a scene, you might notice the images do not look the same. I use spot metering quite often to the point where I have programmed one of my Function buttons to switch between matrix and spot metering.

steveston docks richmond

You can try to accomplish a similar look in post-production but remember that when you are out making pictures, you are essentially collecting information on the scene you are photographing. The dynamic range of light you gather at the time you are making your photograph is fixed and you cannot retrieve what is not there. It is always better to try to capture as much as you can in-camera rather than rely solely on Lightroom or Photoshop to do the job for you.

Essential Reading for Photographers

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Years ago I received a piece of advice from my mentor that at first, made me laugh but I can tell you today that it was a very good suggestion.

I was told to read my camera manual.

When we first acquire our cameras, the last thing we want to do is still down and read 120 pages of technical jargon especially if we have been photographing for a while and we think we are quite competent. There is however a very good reason for reading your manual.

In photography, time is measured in fractions of a second and once the moment has passed seldom do we get another chance to make the picture that flashed before our eyes. We need to understand our equipment to intuitively respond to the situation and adjust our camera settings without a second thought. There is no time to dig deep into the camera’s menu to change one item that could make the difference between a good picture and no picture at all. Here are a few things I learned to use after reading my camera manual.

Exposure Metering Modes
Cameras today are very good at assessing all the light within a scene and achieving a good exposure so people are comfortable with choosing the evaluative or matrix metering mode and never exploring the other options. From previous posts on visual design, we know light is one of the most important elements of visual design. When we know how to control the way the camera reads light, we gain new approaches to making better pictures. Below is an example where I used spot metering to add a three-dimensional feeling to this stall in the Thai fishing village of Mahachai.

mahachai fishing village thailand

Function (Fn) Buttons
If you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you probably have at least one or even two function buttons. The Fn button is a button the user customizes to allow faster access to a predetermined menu option. Think of it like a short cut on a computer keyboard. Since I often like to photograph at night and in low light environments, I always set one function button to spot metering. It allows me quickly change between matrix and spot metering and I can do it without even taking my eye away from the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have a separate ISO button, you can program the second function button to change your ISO. If you need more ideas of what to program, your manual will have other options.

Custom Settings
If you have attended our classes or private workshops, you know we love to pan with our cameras. In a chaotic city like Bangkok, panning allows us to isolate our subject matter and simplify the scene. Did you know you could program the settings needed to pan using the custom settings of your camera? The custom settings (C1, C2 on Canons or U1, U2 on Nikons) are like the Fn button but instead you can program a group of settings you frequently use instead of just one setting like exposure metering. You aren’t limited to just one option either as many cameras have two or three possible custom settings so you can program setting changes that would normally take too long to do otherwise.

Back Button Focus
For the longest time, I used my shutter button to focus that was until I learned about back button focus. Normally we focus our cameras by pressing halfway down on the shutter button and then we press down fully when we take the picture. By using the back button to focus, we relieve the shutter button from focus duty and instead assign that task to another button. Not everyone likes to use the back button and it took me a while to get used to using it because memory muscle had firmly implanted the shutter button as my focus button. Why would you want to use the back button to focus? By separating the auto focus activation from the shutter release, you won’t need to refocus each time you release your shutter. You can be much more effective with your focus because if something moving enters your frame while you are making your picture, your focus remains locked.

Final Tips
These are just a few things I learned to do on my camera by reading my manual. No one really wants to read the entire camera manual and I certainly did not. What I did do is keep my manual handy and read short sections when I had a few spare minutes. I also downloaded my manual to my iPhone so that I could reference it whenever I needed it.

If metering modes, back button focus and panning have your head spinning, join us at our next Beginners Class starting in at the end of this month and we will explain it all to you and show you how to set up your camera. Oh and bring your camera manuals please!

Finding the Light: The Photographer’s Ephemeris

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Lake Whatcom
Sunrise over Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, WA.


A couple weeks ago I wrote about shooting during the twilight hours. If you want to capture the beautiful colors that are present at this time it might help to know exactly when the sun drops below the horizon and how long twilight will last. There are plenty of websites and apps out there that will give you this information, and one that I have used in the past is

Knowing when the sun will rise or set is helpful in planning an outdoor shoot, but a little extra information can help even more. When I took the picture above of the sunrise over Lake Whatcom in Bellingham, WA, I used a program called The Photographer’s Ephemeris to set up the shot. I knew when the sun would be coming up but in order to get the composition I wanted I needed to know exactly where the sun would be when it peaked over the mountains.  The Photographer’s Ephemeris gave me that information so I could position myself in just the right spot.

The Photographer's Ephemeris
Planning a shoot with the satellite view in The Photographer’s Ephemeris.


Anytime I plan to shoot at the ends of the day I turn to The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Not only does this program tell you when the sun will rise and set, it also gives you the direction of the sunrise and sunset overlaid on a nice looking map. There are various styles of maps to choose from including the Google standard map, a satellite map, a hybrid map and a terrain map; and just like Google maps, moveable pins allow you to obtain information for locations anywhere in the world. The program has a lot of other features including moonrise and moonset data, times of twilight, elevation information, and more.

Perhaps the greatest thing about this program is that their desktop versions for both Windows and Mac OS X are free. Additionally there are apps for iOS ($8.99) and Android ($4.99).

You can find the program at the website:


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Last month Jack wrote about shooting during the blue half hour before the sun, and most sane people, are up. Jack’s photo of the novice monks is a perfect example of the color that photographers often seek out at the ends of the day.

For those of you out there that can’t fathom waking up before dawn, try shooting during the evening twilight. The picture of the Seattle skyline above was taken 40 minutes after the sun went down. When I took this there just happened to be a couple other photographers in the same spot also shooting. Soon after the sun was down they packed up their gear and headed home. I’m sure they got some good sunset shots, but I was looking for the nice contrast of the deep blue twilight sky and the warm tones of the city lights. Standing around in the windy cold was well worth the wait.

Twilight is broken up into three different phases (civil, nautical and astronomical) which last for varying times depending on time of year and also distance from the equator. There are plenty of websites and apps out there to help you find the times of sunrise and sunset and also when the different phases of twilight begin and end; next week I’ll highlight my favorite.

The Elements of Visual Design – Texture

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So far in this series on visual design we have discussed four elements to use in composing photographs: tone, colour, line and shape. Light is the common ingredient that allows us to see each of these elements in a scene and as photographers we owe everything to it.  Not surprisingly it is also important in being able to recognize the next building block, texture.  Probably the least used of all the elements of visual design, texture can be described as either the coarseness or softness of a surface or something that resembles the feel of woven fabric.

Successful visual design in photography depends on seeing with new eyes and often that begins with removing the labels we normally use. This is true of shape, which we discussed last week, and also with texture. In the picture below, all sense of what the original subject matter is eliminated. This was a bed of yellow grass in a local park. It could have been photographed exactly the way it appeared however by using intentional camera movement and multiple exposures, the picture now gives the viewer a completely different feeling of texture.

texture in an image using multiple exposure and intentional camera movement

There are other techniques to create texture in your pictures. Let’s say you are at a beach where you see water and rocks. By using a longer exposure (more exposure to light), you can create a feeling of roughness and smoothness by including both the rocks and the water within the same frame. This kind of exposure will even out any distractions so that the eye can concentrate on two main forms that successfully create two different textures.

How you choose to light something can also create texture in a picture. The tonal contrast between areas of light and shade will give you a feeling of roughness and smoothness. You may have noticed that when you use the Lightroom sliders to change the contrast in a picture, you achieve a more textured feeling.

Texture is not as an intuitive a visual design element as line and colour because we have to work much more to see and use it in our photographs. It takes experimentation and practice but once you are more familiar with texture, you will find it easier to incorporate it as a compositional element to make stronger photographs.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Perspective