Tag Archives: photo tip

The Pop-Up Flash is Evil! Or is it…

The Pop-up Flash is Evil – or is it?

The professional photographer in me despises the pop-up flash as Amateur and Evil. “What a horrible thing to do to a budding photographer, give them a light that is almost guaranteed to wreck their pictures!” However, if I am totally honest, I have to admit that it has a place, and can actually be a really useful tool. I cannot afford to ignore any tool available to me, even one as small as the pop-up flash.

First the disclaimer… the pop-up flash on your camera has some inherent issues: it’s weak, directional, front-lit and causes red-eye. If you’re OK with pushing through all that… keep reading!

Example Number 1

I was hundreds of feet underground in a salt mine, somewhere near the border of Austria and Germany. As you might expect, there is no sunlight hundreds of feet underground. This makes things rather dark. Rather than give up shooting, I just pushed myself to make it work. I adjusted my camera to ISO 1600, f/2.8, and 1/30sec to maximize the light I was able to capture from the tunnel lights. Next, I activated the pop-up flash. Finally, to take this shot, I timed it so that we were just passing a light when I took the photo. This combo of settings did 2 things for me, 1 – at 1/30 of a second I got some nice movement on the walls of the tunnel and 2 – the flash has a motion stopping effect on the faces of my friends so that they are less blurry than you might otherwise expect. This shot wasn’t possible without my pop-up flash.

Example Number 2

Good selfies are an important part of everyone’s life. Here I used a pop-up flash to make this one just a bit better. I wanted to see the background behind me and Jocelyn, but knew that it was quite a bit brighter than our faces would be in the shadow. Add the pop-up flash and I was good to go. Of course, this photo also illustrates another problem too: flash fall off, but I’m not going to deal with that today!

Example number 3

For this fun group shot I set up the camera in manual exposure mode, turned the pop-up flash on and handed it to an agreeable stranger on top of Grossmunster church in Zurich. You will probably look at this and say, “I don’t see the flash.” Yes!! That’s exactly what I want you to say when I use a flash. If you see the flash you are no longer seeing the subject! So, what’s the flash doing? On an overcast day like this one, all the light is coming from above. This means that there are often nasty shadows over the eyes, under the nose and under chins. In this photo, they’re pretty much gone. The flash has blended perfectly with the natural light to fill in those shadows, leaving us with nicely exposed faces.

Right now you should be asking, “How do I do this?” Two quick methods:

Method 1 – Find the night exposure mode on your camera. It is often an icon that looks something like this little icon. This tells your camera that you want to use the exposure settings to properly illuminate the background and also use the flash. Think “friends in front of nighttime cityscape.” Of course, you can use this anytime you want to! Try it in the tunnel, the selfie or the tower. Be careful with this setting, because it can give you a slow shutter speed which can lead to blurring.

Method 2 – Using the creative modes on your camera (Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual) set the camera as you normally would so that the scene is properly exposed, then just hit the little button to activate your pop-up flash. The camera will use an advanced metering method (through the lens) to adjust the amount of light the flash is outputting so that it balances with the available light.

For me, recently, it’s been the pop-up flash. What oft-neglected little trick have you recently discovered or rediscovered in your photography? Let me know below!


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Under Expose for Backlighting

Under Expose for Backlighting

Backlighting is one of the most interesting, dynamic and challenging types of lighting that a photographer can work with. A few weeks ago I wrote a post on how I over expose for backlighting, but just one approach doesn’t do this light justice or satisfy my creativity. Today I’m going to share with you how I under expose backlit scenes for dramatic effect.

What is backlighting?

Under Expose for BacklightingFirst off, light coming from behind the subject is what we consider backlighting. It has nothing to do with the direction your subject is facing and everything to do with the relationships between your camera, subject and light source. Light shining right at the camera is very difficult for the camera to meter (measure), but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

How do I under expose?

Every camera is different but the big idea is to set your Exposure Compensation to a negative value. Start at -1 and see what happens. To make the scene darker, move to -2, to make it brighter, try -2/3 or -1/3. Most cameras mark the exposure compensation button with a symbol that looks like this [+/-]. If you are shooting in manual mode, don’t center the needle, rather move the needle to -1.

Under Expose for Backlighting
Here’s a shot of the sun going down over a Malaysian island. The sun is clearly behind the island, meaning that the strong direct light is not shining on the side of the island I can see. My goal is to create a dramatic sunset effect with my subject silhouetted, so I set the exposure compensation to -1, focus carefully on the island, and this is the result.

Under Expose for Backlighting
“Mother with her Dead Son” is a powerful war memorial by German artist Käthe Kollwitz. The scene is lit through an open oculus in the ceiling, allowing light to fall on the back wall, effectively backlighting the statue itself. To capture the mood of this scene accurately, I told my camera to under expose the scene by 1 stop.

Under Expose for Backlighting
The silhouette is the classic example of an underexposed backlit subject. Here I am photographing a group of photographers from one of our Colorado workshops as they photograph a dramatic sunset. By setting my camera to underexpose the scene by 1 stop, I have captured the people as silhouettes and the background as a beautiful sunset.

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How do I get a Blurry Background?

Today, for Photo Tip Monday, I’m going to show you how to get the background blurry in your photos. Blurry backgrounds are that awesome photo element that hides distractions, highlights your subject, and separates your images from all the pretenders.

 Craig and Elizabeth Caswell are Married!

There are two different photography terms that talk about that blurry background. The first is “bokeh,” which describes the quality of the blur, is it nice and smooth, etc. If you want to sound like a total nerd you could look at a photo and say, “Whoa, that’s sweet bokeh!” Try to use a surfer accent when you do. The second term is “depth of field,” which is a bit more useful. We all know that cameras need to be focused, and what whatever we focus on is sharp. Depth of field describes how much of that sharpness spreads to the background. If a photo has a large depth of field, the background will be sharp, a photo with a shallow depth of field will have a blurry background.

There are three things that affect your depth of field:

  • Distance
  • Lens
  • Aperture

Distance – the closer you are to your subject, the blurrier the background will be. The farther away your background is, the blurrier it will be. It doesn’t matter what camera (or phone!) you have, bring your subject closer to the camera and move farther away from the background for better … bokeh.

How to photography blurry backgrounds

It is very difficult to get the background blurry with an iPhone. You have to get very close to your subject and have your background far away.


Lens – Photography lenses are measured in numbers, typically something like 35mm or 85mm, etc… The secret here is that the bigger the number, the smaller the depth of field, and the blurrier the background. This means that you just need to zoom in. The more you zoom in, the blurrier that background is going to get.
How to photography blurry backgrounds

This image was created with a 200mm lens. This has the effect of blurring the background more than, say, a 50mm lens.


Aperture – Here’s the most nerdy of solutions. Inside your lens lives something called the diaphragm. Every time you take a photo it closes down to control the intensity of the light – much like the iris of your eye. The opening that the light flows through is called the aperture, and it is measured with numbers like f/2.8, f/5.6, f/22, etc. The secret here is that the smaller the number (e.g. f/2.8), the shallower the depth of field, and the blurrier the background. If you’re shooting with a camera that allows you to control the aperture, adjust that number until it’s as small as possible to get that background blurry.


How to photography blurry backgrounds

This image was photographed with an aperture of f/2.8. This has the effect of blurring the background more than an aperture of f/8 or f/22.


Now, let’s connect the dots. For maximum blurriness, set the aperture to the smallest number, zoom your lens in all the way, and get as close as you can while keeping your subject in focus.


It’s not magic, but it sure can feel that way!



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3 Tips for Better Lighting

Lighting is obviously the key to photography. The word itself, photography, literally means to write with light. So here are three lighting tips that work for anyone, anywhere, with any camera to create amazing photos.

1. Find Good Light

You can work really hard to try to take good photos in bad light, or you can move your feet to find good light. This is something that professionals do instinctively, and one of the reasons there photos are, well… so much better!

3 Tips for Better Lighting

Notre Dame cathedral in Paris isn’t very brightly lit. Instead of fighting against the light by photographing things in the dark, I look for things that are well lit, like this statue, and use them as my subjects.

2. Turn to the Light

I critique a lot of photos. A huge percentage of these photos could be made significantly stronger simply by turning the subject relative to the light. The way the light interacts with the subject is critical to creating a dynamic photograph. Turning your subject isn’t hard. Walking around to the other side of your subject to better utilize the light isn’t hard. But you have to actually step up, and make it happen.

3 Tips for Better Lighting

Here we have 2 photos from a portrait session my wife and I shot. The big difference in these images is having the little boy turn his face upward to catch the light from the overcast sky. The first shot is interesting, but the second is going to sell.

3. Move to the Light

When you have control, move your subject to the light. This doesn’t work well if you’re a photojournalist, but as a portrait photographer you should be positioning your subject in great light before you pick up your camera.

3 Tips for Better Lighting

This bride didn’t just happen to be standing in the one beam of window light—I put her there. She was just standing around, waiting for her turn to walk down the aisle, so I asked her to stand in a place where the light made her look good. She looks good, I look good, everyone is happy!

Need some practice?

Try creating some window-lit portraits. You’ve just found good light [the window]. Now move your model into the window light. Finally, turning the face toward or away from the light is going to make all the difference in this great lighting setup.

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Photo Tip | Alternate Horizons

If you’re like me, sometimes the straight up and down just doesn’t work for a photo. The problem is, rotating them can be awkward too…displays don’t turn them at specific angles, and I don’t really like throwing out people’s necks as they try to make things line up. Then there’s the issue of hanging it on the wall…I’m too OCD to just let it hang there crooked. Fortunately, there’s a nifty trick I call “Finding an Alternate Horizon” that helps out quite a bit.

Photo tips

As I lined this shot up, my goal was to fill the frame with railroad tracks as completely as I possibly could. Straight up and down just didn’t work. I didn’t want the tracks getting smaller in the distance, leaving the emptiness beside the tracks to grow out of control. My solution? Turn the photo so the narrow distant tracks fit neatly into the corner. My “alternate horizon?” The edge of the tracks. By lining up the edge of the tracks with the edge of the photo, I’ve kept something straight, and the image still feels properly framed, even though the true horizon is tilted to the extreme.

Rotating the image helps me fill the frame really well, and finding an alternate horizon helps the viewer feel like the whole world isn’t out of control. Another name for this technique might be, “Darn It, Make Something Straight!”

Photo tips

In this shot I have again rotated the image away from the norm. By arranging my view in this way I have been able to fill the frame more effectively with the portion of the Summer Palace that I want you to see, eliminating everything else. In order to keep the photo feeling deliberate and “normal,” I have used the bottom edge of the roof as a horizontal straight line.

Has this ever worked for you? Link me to a photo below!

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