Simple headshot lighting

Part of my mantra, as I follow this path of becoming a better photographer, is to light simply.

In the past, I’ve been all to eager to start setting up lights when natural light, or slightly modified natural light, would suffice—or even be the better choice.

A perfect example of this is a headshot session from this past week.

I only had 10-minutes to make the portrait that would be used in an online “about” page.

The time it would take to light was not and an option, and frankly it wasn’t necessary.

I’ll let the diagram below tell the rest of the story.


Heashot-1-2.jpgAs you can see, it was a very simple setup that, in my opinion, offered great results.

The down side to this lighting is that it is not infinitely reproducible.

A change in weather or time of day would lead to dramatically different light.

For this shoot, however, it was the perfect mix of cloudy-day diffusion further modified by north and west facing windows. Essentially, it was just big soft light with a little kick from the reflector.

This is just a reminder to always look for light. Open shade, north facing windows, cloudy days, these all help create soft light like in this image but don’t require expensive gear.



Old Habits

In past posts I’ve written about my steps for building a photo shoot; things like choosing a location, making sure you have a clean or interesting background, and posing your subject. (You can read it here)

On my first shoot back from vacation all of that went out the window. Why? Because I got lazy and forgot the Seven Ps.

Success comes from planning and hard work, not from winging it and hoping everything comes together. Even though half the time that’s what we have to do as photographers.

To help hammer the process into my brain I’m going to print out my steps for building a photo shoot and put them on the wall above my desk at home and at work. No excuses.

Another old habits that I find myself falling prey to is shooting in mixed lighting. Often, the buildings I have to shoot in are a mixture of fluorescent and natural light. If you don’t know how that looks to a digital camera I’ll tell you. Crap. It looks like crap.

Mixed lighting is a problem for a lot of new photographers but it’s something that can be easily fixed by just remembering to look at where you are shooting.

Are there windows in the background when your subject is lit by shitty overhead fluorescents? Change your angle until you only have one of those light sources in the frame. Easy fix, right?

You could also try and fix it in post-production but I never find it looks as good.

There are many other options for dealing with mixed light that could involve lighting with flash, a generous use of colour-correction gels, or blackout curtains, but all of that is way too complicated and time intensive for a fast-paced shoot.

Make your life easy and change your angle or location until only one light source is dominant in the frame. Keep It Simple Stupid

Now I just need to remember this for my next shoot. Old habits die hard.

Your camera is a tool. Use it.

If you shoot on “program” mode you’re not a real photographer.

I’ve seen this message preached across the Internet from so-called influencers many times.

I’ll admit that I’ve bought into it; the name of this blog even holds the connotation that the much-maligned “P” mode is only for the weak-willed and ignorant masses.

You have to shoot on manual, using only prime lenses and off-camera flash if you want to be part of the pure and holy practice of photography.


A camera and any of the associated lenses, lights, modifiers and thingamajigs are tools. Anyone who doesn’t use a tool to its fullest extent is just plain stubborn.

Consider the framing hammer. It has two sides, (more actually, but this is an analogy) the face and the claw. The face is for hammering things in and the claw is for taking things out.

If you only ever use one side of the hammer then you’re not using the tool to its fullest extent, and your work will suffer.

Camera equipment is no different.

A modern camera has a lot of settings, most we will never use. But to limit ourselves to just “manual” mode is only limiting our work.

Whether it’s “program,” “aperture priority,” or “shutter priority,” or any of the other automatic settings on your camera, each can serve a purpose.

There are certain situations where “manual” mode is going to be best. There are also situations where the camera’s ability to calculate exposure is going to be faster than ours, so why not rely on it?

At times, a camera is going to get confused and exposure will be off, but that is usually because we are not using it properly.

Photography is about developing your eye and creative vision.

But part of brining your vision to life is knowing how to use your gear so well that it is second nature when you have a spilt second to capture that fleeting backlit portrait.

The moral here is that a camera—any camera—is a tool. Using features of that tool that best help you capture or create your vision doesn’t make you any more or less of a photographer than some holier-than-though manual, prime-lens shooter.

Use the gear and setting that enable you to work at your best.

Setting constraints to be more creative

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be soaring over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Japan.

I leave the world of multiple camera bodies, lighting equipment, and haphazardly written blog post behind.

This trip is about spending time with my fiancée, experiencing Japan, and of course taking a few of those good ol’ travel snaps. My plan is to simplify; I’m only bringing my Fujifilm X100s.

While the point of this trip isn’t about taking photos I’m giving myself a few assignments to help work on creativity and composition while I stumble through the streets full of sake and sushi.

Some of these ideas came from a composition and design class I took and were reinforced by a two-part vlog I recently watched from David Duchemin of Craft & Vision.

You can find them here

Vision Is Better, Ep.23. The One About Seeing More Creatively.

Vision Is Better, Ep.24. The One About Seeing More Creatively, Part 2

Each day of my trip I’m setting a goal of shooting a specific subject. I’ll shoot other things, of course, but I want to work on seeing more creatively when I’m shooting street and travel images.

As Duchemin puts it, I’m setting “constraints” for myself. By limiting what I shoot and look for, hopefully it will teach me to be more creative.

So here is my list of constraints in no particular order, I’ll focus on one each day.

1. Shoot only in black & White
2. Frame with in a frame
3. Shadows
4. Reflections
5. Light lines (as a nod to Ray K. Metzker)
6. Faces
7. Silhouettes
8. Details
9. Motion
10. Shoot 1:1 ratio
11. Repetition/pattern
12. Colour

I think creating exercises for ourselves like these are one of the best ways to improve our work. If anyone has any suggestions for their own creative exercises please share in the comments below.

See you in two weeks!

Should I switch camera systems? Hell no.

This is a brief rant in response to a lot of the articles I’ve seen in the last 48 hours. 

A lot is being made of Sony’s new a9 mirrorless camera. It’s already being called a DSLR killer and I admit I’m intrigued.

I’m also a big fan of Fujifilm cameras. I own an X100s and I love the little guy. If I had the money I would buy an X-Pro2 in a heartbeat, a literal freakin’ heartbeat. I think Fujifilm has done an amazing job of listening to consumers and continually innovating to overcome some weaknesses of DSLRs. I’m drooling just thinking about it.     

If I was starting out I might have chosen Fujifilm or another brand over Nikon but I am heavily invested in Nikon gear and switching everything, from lenses to lighting, just sounds like a headache and a waste of money. I’d rather be shooting than worrying about that nonsense.

And the brutally-honest fact is that switching cameras is not going to make me a better photographer in any way. Period.

Whenever I start thinking about dropping the cash to make a switch I remind myself of a few things.

  1. Its expensive and I could spend that money on a trip or a workshop
  2. My camera doesn’t actually limit me in any way
  3. Most of the great photographs we revere were taken with beat-up film cameras.

So at the end of the day, should I or anyone else switch camera systems? Not if your camera is doing everything you need it too.

What does Canon actually do any differently than Nikon? If I were to point any camera body from any manufacturer with an equivalent lens at the same subject at exactly the same time I would get the same result, save for some slight contrast/colour adjustments in post. (Yes there are differences in resolution but for 99 per cent of the population there is no bloody difference between 24 megapixels and 32 megapixels)

Sure there might be some specialty features that one manufacturer has that another doesn’t, like Fujifilm’s silent shutter and focus point selection. But overall they are all just cameras and they all just record what we tell them to.

So will I switch camera systems? Hell no. Not until I exceed my Nikon’s capabilities, and that’s a long way off.

Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t

I just wrapped up the twelfth week at my new job as a full-time marketing photographer and I realize that I’ve been approaching it all wrong. The photo above is from my last shoot of the week profiling a freestyle football player.

Before this job I was a career freelancer mainly focusing on photojournalism and reporting, with the occasional editorial shoot. I could use my own gear and I was in control of most aspects of  a shoot.

That’s not the case in my new role, especially when it comes to equipment.

Here’s what I was given when I started the job:

Nikon D7100
Nikkor 50mm f1.8 (becomes an 85mm on the DX sensor)
Shitty 18-135 kit lens
1 – SB700 Speedlight
5-in-1 reflector

Now, you can do a lot with that but I’ve gotten used to working with my own equipment that includes more powerful lights, modifiers, radio triggers and a host of fast prime lenses. I’ve always believed that you need the right tool for the job if you want to do it well.

So when I started this job I immediately began thinking about everything that I can’t do. I can’t really control the light without any modifiers. I can’t shoot with a wider lens and get a shallow depth of field. I can’t even get the flash off camera. I can’t shoot the way I want.

And this is where I’ve been failing as a photographer; again, this blog is about being brutally honest with myself.

I’ve said it many times here that photography is about problem solving. I shouldn’t have been so fixated on what I can’t do but rather shift my thinking to what I can do with what I’ve got. Zach Arias’ One Light 2.0 tutorial that I reviewed in my previous post helped me realize that.

When I used to coach mountain biking clinics I would tell my students not to go out and buy the top-of-the-line bike. Instead, I told them to buy a less expensive entry-level bike and learn to ride it really well. Then, when they have the money and skill to take full advantage of a high-end bike they’ll be able to ride it so much better. The point being that you have to build a strong foundation, and the same is true for photography.

Going forward I need to look at this job as a chance to go back and learn to light really well with limited equipment. I need to focus on problem solving, composition and using what I have—which is really what photography is all about.

My work did eventually find a little money in the budget to add some equipment—but I think they just did it so I would stop whining.

Here’s what they added:

2 – 9ft. light stands
A second speedlight
36-inch folding octabox
Radio triggers

Now let’s see what I can do with it.

Review: DEDPXL Bundle

I never intended to write reviews on my blog because, well, who the hell am I to tell you whether something is good or bad?

That said, along this journey into professional photography I’ve spent a lot of money and time trying to educate myself. Since I set out with this blog to be brutally honest about my journey I thought I would share some of my thoughts on resources, and maybe equipment, to save someone else a little of that precious time and money.

Anything I write as a review will be honest and fair.


I’m a big advocate for going to photography school and taking in-person workshops. You can read all the reasons why in a previous post.

But I’m also a believer in supplementing that learning with the wealth of information available online. Online tutorials are often (relatively) inexpensive and offer a chance to be on set with a professional photographer as they shoot a real job. This is an experience that is hard to come by in the real world; when’s the last time you saw Joe McNally advertising for an assistant?

I just finished Zack Arias’ DEDPXL Bundle which includes two video series and his Get to Work: DEDPXL Business Primer. The whole package is downloaded as zip files for $100 USD (around $137 CAD). I’ll speak to each one individually below.

Art of the Editorial: This video series is why I bought this package but I was actually a little disappointed with it. It comes as a three-part video series along with a file of sample images from the videos. Each video follows Arias on an editorial-style shoot; basically environmental/location portraits with a dash of food photography.

The videos are well done with lots of insight from Arias into his workflow. They offer a great behind-the-scenes glimpse into how he works.

My disappointment isn’t because the series was bad but rather because it didn’t show me anything I hadn’t seen before. As someone who is almost finished photography school and works full time as a photographer this series really just affirmed that I am on the right track, and there is something to be said for that.

I do think the series made me more mindful of a few of my weaknesses but I wish it had provided more insight into how Arias comes up with a concept for an image and why and how he chooses to shoot things the way he does.

One Light 2.0: This video series of almost seven hours of tutorials was a great surprise when I bought this package. Initially I thought I wouldn’t get much use out of this series but it was actually very entertaining and informative.

Over the seven hours and various photo shoots Arias does get a little long winded but it’s worth it, especially if you haven’t gone to photography school. Arias sums up a lot of the major theories and lessons that are at the heart of becoming a better photograph. Sometimes he does this better than my instructors.

At the core of the series Arias is teaching how to shoot with one light, hence the name, which is a philosophy I love and is great for beginners who can’t afford a lot of gear.

You can get a lot of the same information for free from a website like Strobist but I think his video series does a better job of showing the fundamentals of lighting in an engaging way.

Get to Work: DEDPXL Business Primer: This PDF download was another great surprise. It includes a 127-page guide to avoid all the mistakes we find ourselves in as burgeoning photographers. It also includes PDF samples of client estimates, terms and conditions, and monthly cost worksheets, to name a few.

Having taken specific photography business courses at school that were around $500 each, I can honestly say that this is well worth the money and then some.

You will still have to do a lot of research into your own market to understand pricing and legal business practices but this is a fantastic resource that includes nearly everything I learned in school.

Final Thoughts: If you’re an experienced photographer with all your business practices in place you probably won’t gain much from this tutorial series. But, while I’m a full-time photographer who is almost finished photography school, I still got a lot out of this series.

If you’re newer to photography and you don’t have the money or time to go to school then I would highly recommend you buy a copy of the DEDPXL Bundle. Make sure to buy the bundle rather than the individual tutorials!

You can find the bundle over at