Articles about lighting, natural and not so natural

Looking Special


Often when you decide to have your portrait done you want it to look special and you want it to stand out. So how do you achieve that special look?  Themes.


You can always choose to do the usual themes that are everywhere: a standard family or personal portrait, the ever popular pinup themes. Some choose to go with a western theme or even the Mafia type images complete with Fedora, cigar and Tommy Gun. There are also many photographers that specialize in things like western themes, barn not included.


This past weekend I had a chance to work with a young lady who by nature really enjoyed a retro look. When we met in December she was wearing something that looked straight out of 1938 Paris. Her natural look just screams mid-century fashion. When we setup the photoshoot we decided that a 1920s, 30s or 40s look is just what she wanted, and it was just a matter of her finding the clothes she wanted to wear for the shoot.

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Portrait Shmortrait


“Portrait shmortrait. All my portraits look the same, why do I want to have another one done?”


I have written on this blog before about how often it is recommended that people get their portraits done in the articles “Has Your Company Lost Its Face,” “Putting Your Best Face Forward,” and many others. But that seems almost like useless information if each time you get a new portrait it looks just like the last one. That can happen if you go to a place that is creating images en masse and all they focus on is bulk; lots of people with a simple formula that gives consistent results every time.

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Do I Need A Professional?

Many times I don’t hear the question “Do I need a professional?” but I do know that many clients and potential clients ask the question, at least of themselves. The answer is, to be honest, not always. But if you want the quality that either creates memories or helps you achieve your goals, yes you probably do. Making the decision to hire a pro is actually rather easy to answer. The real question is how do you find the ‘right’ photographer for your project.

The task can be daunting to say the least. With the popularity of digital cameras and their ease of use there are so many more photographers now than there ever has been. Some are good, some are great, some aren’t. So what makes one photographer better than another? Of course there is always the matter of style. This, like many other things, becomes a matter of taste. But certain skills are consistent in all good photographers whether they are an amateur or pro. The biggest is the understanding of light and composition. Even composition is a matter of taste to a point. So it comes down to light and the understanding of how it can work for, and against, you.


The study of light is critical in creating great images. The subtly of shadow and light can make or break an image in so many ways. An image needs to create a mood or emotion to be successful. The balance of positive and negative space is not just a matter of the balance of the image but more of a balance of the image and the message you are trying to send.


Each image can have its own message as well. The image included here tells a story but only enough of the story to make you want to know what happened: why is the woman in the image hiding, what caused her to feel so vulnerable? Technically this image could be criticized for too much negative space, being too dark, or any number of things, however the image does make the viewer wonder.


Being able to use light and dark, shadow and highlight; understanding how light and the lack of it can tell your story or send your message is what defines one photographer over any other. Being able to do that and understand your needs is what makes a professional.


What story can I tell for you today?

Light (Not Time) Is Money

A couple of weeks ago I posted an article called Recipe Of Light where I made an analogy comparing photography with cooking and great photographers with world class chefs.  The comments ranged widely from photographers, clients and mentors. Each had something to say about my points and views. I heard everything from “You should use the analogy of an automobile because people can relate to how cars require gasoline and maintenance,” to “Great quality is not a requirement for most people.” One photographer even pointed out all the ‘ingredients’ I didn’t mention.


Perhaps I did over simplify the idea a bit but of all the comments I received, One comment that I wanted to reply to was, “And all it takes to be a surgeon is a scalpel, so why is open-heart surgery so expensive?” half-jokingly I said “it’s the lights!”  For the physician it is obviously not about light but for photographers it is all about the light.


As a professional photographer I have studied the science of light, the subtleties, the colors, temperatures, angles, reflections and how light can make or break an image.  For photographers it is indeed all about the light, its quality and how it can bring out the emotion that we want it to. I know many a photographer that has studied the science of light, the art and the craft of photography for longer than some physicians have been in practice.


To be able to create an image takes many skills. Knowledge of light is only one of the elements of a great photograph. As a photographer I am a man of many hats; I need to be a counselor, composer, laborer, manager, director, producer, artist and today a computer tech too. All of these things are wrapped into any good professional photographer. After all I have to relax my subject, design the right image first in my mind then at the shoot. Sometimes I have to construct the ‘stage’ as it were, direct the actors, process the images and do it all in an artistic way that conveys the message my client needs.


Above all of that I have to know how the light is going to interact with the subjects and how it will interact with all of the actors in my production.  Light is a very good actor but it is one that has its own motivation; it has to be coerced into performing the way I need it to. To understand it, to speak the language of light, takes practice and a talent.


When you see an image where all these factors come together to create a wonderful image that tells the story the photographer wants told the talent is often over simplified. Non photographers will say “wow they are a good photographer.” Even other photographers will simplify the gift and talent by saying; they have “the eye.” They have the ability to harness the acting ability of the best, and the worst, actor of all: light.


Creating images that capture moments is easy: take off the lens cap and click, a moment captured. Capture a story in a moment? That takes time.


What story can I tell for you?

Recipe Of Light


Recently I was working with a potential client and a number of issues came up that seem to come up time and time again.  The client said, “With digital, taking pictures is free or next to it. Why are photography prices so high?” They were truly under the impression that to take a photograph costs nothing other than the cost of the camera. Mostly they believed this because that is what the manufacturers of cameras want you to believe.


In fact just to take a digital photograph only takes the cost of a camera. The issue begins when you want to do something with the image you have captured. You need to upload the image somewhere and that takes a computer usually. Then what if you want to fix something in the image? Now you need software. If you want to print the image, well then you need a printer too, either yours or the local print shop.


Let’s just look at cameras for a moment.  Sure you can pick up a pocket, point and shoot camera and take a snapshot. The results you get are a lot better than they were with your last film camera too, but are they professional quality? Probably not. But you could get one of those cameras advertised on TV where the guy is running around snapping pictures everywhere of the model types at the party or the models on a runway. Again, a better image than your last entry level SLR film camera but pro quality? Maybe a few of your images are better than the pocket camera. At least as a professional I hope so!


All cameras are not created equal and I am not speaking about Canon vs. Nikon vs. Pentax vs. Leica vs. Kodak or any other brand. I mean point and shoot versus enthusiast level vs. professional level cameras.  If they are there are a whole lot of people, not just professionals that have been fooled and taken to the cleaners! In fact there are many differences and those differences justify the price differences.


I won’t go into all the differences such as sensor sizes and pixel ratios and, and, and. If you want those there are plenty of resources on the internet that can teach that to you, just Google it. For a now lets just say there are differences; now there is the question of what those differences can get you. Well I can get my $5,200 camera to take a picture that looks very much like your $300 camera, I just set it to Auto everything and the results will be pretty similar.


But the advantage of a professional DSLR is the control I have over it; over every aspect of exposure and light. Now I can begin to create, not just take snapshots. Creating an image doesn’t end there. Sure I would like to get the image perfect in camera every time. We live in an age where “Photoshopped” is a new word in the dictionary. That implies more can be done to an image than what the camera is capable of, and that is true.  It doesn’t stop there, there are other tools like Lightroom, Photomatix, and plugins like Portraiture, Nik Software Suite  (5 separate plugins) and thousands of others. Each combination can take a similar image and make it completely different like the different images of Hasign in this post. Both were taken on the same evening about an hour or two apart, both have similar ingredients but the results are completely different.  It’s a bit like food, thousands of options, billions of combinations.


Comparing photography to food, sure you can make a great meal at home. In fact you can do it cheaper than if you go to a restaurant. In fact you can even produce something that is as good as any 5 star chef, sometimes. The chef on the other hand can create that wonderful, mouthwatering meal every day, time and time again. As the chef gains experience he will experiment and create new dishes and perhaps even a new style of cuisine that you can almost taste just with a whiff of it being prepared.  Over years of training the chef has learned what ingredients go together and what compliments rather than covers.


Sure you can try to make the same dish at home but often you are just a little different in your results. I’m not saying the meal is less than fantastic, but it’s just not the same as when the chef made it. You have to try though because you want to know if you can. Besides, going out for 5 star meals can get quite expensive quite quickly and by trying it at home, your results may differ, but your budget is kept intact.


Photography is very similar in that professional photographers create a recipe if light and shadow, dark and bright, soft and hard light. We cook, we simmer, we blend the ingredients until we find the perfect recipe and then we capture it, add a few select side dishes of technique and post processing. We tantalize the visual palate as the chef tickles your taste buds.  And yes we have those secret ingredients that are ours and ours alone. After all those are the signatures of each professional.


So what can I cook up for you today?



It’s not always easy writing a blog. In fact this week was one of those weeks that I was desperately trying to think of a topic that is consistent with the messages I try to convey on these pages.  Out of frustration I decided to just get out of the office and away from the computer. I emailed my wife and told her to meet me at pub across the street from her office.


After a wonderful lunch I was still short a topic. As I was driving back to my office I drove past Eastern State Penitentiary and right in front there was a parking space. I thought why not, I have my camera with me (no surprise there) and I have always wanted to tour the place during the day (previously I had only been there for Terror Behind The Walls, near Halloween). For $12 I could go in and forget my deadline and ignore that “whoosh” noise it makes as it goes by.


This place is a one of the cheapest tourist traps in all of Philadelphia and probably one of the best too. No one tries to sell you anything and all the guides are friendly and helpful (they must be from out of town). On top of that it’s really cool!  Of course Al Capone’s cell is the most restored, but most of the place is falling down around you: debris, broken windows and concrete are everywhere.

It happened to be my lucky day too!  Not only did I get a great parking spot, they were giving tours of some of the places not usually open to the public. I was able to see the chaplain’s office and the special murals on the walls, and also “The Hole” where prisoners were put for solitary confinement.  I stand a hair under 6 feet tall (probably because I have no hair) and when I was standing in the ‘hallway’ in front of the solitary cells my head just touched the ceiling. Not a place I want to spend any time.


As I toured the rest of the prison I noticed all the cells, the conditions and how horrible it must have been in those days to have been stuck there for years. The idea that the only natural light many of the prisoners ever felt came from a tiny slit in the ceiling. The only other light came through the skylights but they were over the hallways and you would not feel the sun on your skin but you could see it just a few feet away outside your cell.


As I started to leave I began to feel a sense of gratitude wash over me; I was able to walk out when I wanted to. This got me to thinking (dangerous, I know) about how lucky I am.


When I was younger I was a borderline kid. I didn’t believe in school, authority, or anything most ‘good kids’ believe in. I had the choice to go down the wrong path and it would have been very easy for me to do. However for some reason I did the next right thing over and over until I got to where I am today, a man who owns his own business and has the chance to take a random Wednesday afternoon off to tour a decrepit old prison.


I am a lucky guy, I have freedom today and that is something that I often forget about. I think about bills, mortgages, payments and where the next job is coming from. Today I was able to take a few moments and understand what gratitude really is; I have to say that it is one of the best things I have in my life. Today I am free to worry about bills, mortgages, payments and where my next job is coming from.


All this gave me something to write about too. It gave me an Attitude of Gratitude.

Save Money With Photography

As a professional photographer I hear all the time “I have a digital camera; can take the pictures myself. Why should I pay you?”  In fact I was speaking to a potential client yesterday who said exactly that. He is a retired developer who started out as a painter doing very high end residential painting. He has been known to charge as much as $25,000 or more to paint a New York apartment. He understands the idea of a high end service, but more importantly he understands the need for high quality work.


As with painting high quality photography can save you a lot of money in the long run. In the short term, when done correctly and done at the right time, it can make you money too. As my client pointed out it may take him weeks to prepare a space to be painted and painted properly. Some say why bother?  The prep work isn’t seen “once you slap a coat of paint over it.” That is sometimes true, for a little while. Over time the lack of preparation can allow heat and moisture to affect the paint and how the paint binds to the surface eventually leading to discoloration, pealing and flaking. Then the prep work, or lack of it, does matter; the initial job may look OK, not fabulous, but OK and the overall quality begins to suffer. Before you know it you have to strip away the ‘old’ paint and start over.


My clients (not this one though) will ask why I need to survey a space before I shoot, or they ask why I can’t just go in a take a few shots and call it done?  Sure I can do that but in time, most likely a rather short time, the images will lose their appeal and become dated, dull, and boring. Yet if I prepare for a shoot properly and I work to capture a timeless image I can create an image that will still wow people 100 years from now. Unlike a painter though, my preparation can easily go unnoticed.


There are thousands, maybe millions of professional photographers. But quality photographers are a bit more rare and they almost always are more expensive in the beginning. A quality photographer will spend time, years often, preparing for your photo shoot. Those years are spent learning composition, tone, looking at all the details of an image, the shadows, and most importantly, studying light.

Learning light is the hardest thing there is in photography. It is also probably the most important thing we can learn. I can go into a thousand words and not even scratch the surface of light but photography is the art of capturing light. To capture it you have to understand it and understand how it works; how light and the lack of light affect the subjects you are trying to capture. Learning light takes time and more importantly it takes the ability to see light differently than most people. That is the beginning of the preparation.


Preparation for capturing the image you want and/or need is a matter of taking those years of learning light and composition and incorporating that into generating the image that will be as timeless as possible.


So how does this save you money?  We, just like the quality painter whose work need not be done time and time again and will last for a good long time, so shall your images when done by a quality photographer. The images you will get from a quality photographer will do that as well: they will last a very long time. If the right image is created for you it can represent you and your company for years to come. This means that you will hire a photographer less often, though it may be a bit more money in the beginning, the timeless image will not need to be reproduced every six months, a year or more.



So what of the images that need to be created more regularly? How can quality save you money in that case? Simply put they represent your products, your services and ultimately you. Those images that need to be created regularly can be done at a more cost efficient rate when you chose one quality photographer. That person can streamline the process and produce the images you need regularly and reliably. If the quality of their services is consistent, so is your reputation.  And what costs more to recreate than your reputation?


Those that value quality, hire it.

New Year = New Opportunities

In this new year everything has changed and nothing has changed.  Many people say that the economy is getting better; many others say it’s staying the same or getting worse. Is the glass half full or half empty?  It’s a matter of choice.


So what are your choices this year?  Most choices you have this year haven’t even presented themselves yet; it is a whole year after all. Although the choices have not yet presented themselves, you can wait for them or you can go out and make the opportunities that create your ability to choose.

Many people have spent the last year or more sitting and waiting; waiting for this or that to get better, for the situation to improve. However a few people have gone out and decided to make their own opportunities and they have driven themselves and their businesses forward. Which were you?  Better question, which do you want to be?


The old saying ‘there is no time like the present’ has never been more true. There is, and never has been, a time like we have today. We have an opportunity to remain paralyzed in fear and do nothing. If we do nothing, then nothing will get better. Or we can invest in our future and begin to heal not just our economy but ourselves too.


Each person needs to decide to invest in themselves. When each of us take this little step and if we are honest and willing we will make things better. This will spill over into our businesses and into each aspect of our lives. When the attitudes change businesses will get busier and that will in turn spark a recovery that is based in empowerment and growth, and it is sustainable.


Not that many years ago there was a movie called” Pay It Forward”. In that movie a young man did exactly that; he paid debts forward by helping others. Even insurance companies have picked up on the idea. Perhaps you have seen the commercials where the guy stops a woman from walking into the street when a car is coming. She then helps someone with boxes, who helps someone with a door that lets out the guy who stops the first woman from walking into the street.


The idea is to do the next right thing no matter whether it is for you or for someone else. So what is the next right thing?  I believe that the next right thing is to grow, not just as individuals but as a neighbor, a city, a country and eventually a world.


So what does all this have to do with photography and the photography business? A better question is how will my comments above help you or me? By each person investing into their own future they also invest in yours and mine. They pay it forward.


So what future will you invest in today?

Portraits? Decisions, Decisions. A Pro Can Help


Remember when you played dress up as a kid? You would put on your parents clothes and pretend to be an adult.  Maybe you wore your mother’s apron or your father’s jacket and tie. The idea was to show you in a different way. Perhaps you were showing what you wanted to be when you grew up.


Now you’re all grown up and you need to get your portrait done. But you hate having your picture taken. Join the crowd. Most people do. Maybe you just don’t know how to get the image of yourself that you want, or you don’t even know what you want the image to say about you. After all, there are all kinds of different portraits. There are studio portraits, business portraits, casual portraits, family portraits, candid portraits, formal portraits, fine art portraits just to name a few! How do you know which type to get for yourself?


The first thing to do in order to get a good quality portrait is the hardest. Make the decision that you want to get a portrait done. Yep, that is the hardest part! The rest is easy, as long as you go to a good professional photographer. Photographers are supposed to know how to find which portrait is best for you. Finding that out starts with a conversation.


I spend time with my clients before the shoot. Many times its on the phone, but whenever possible I like to sit with my clients and get to know them a bit. The idea is that I want to know their needs.  I will ask questions and talk about the answers they give. Some of the things I ask are:


  • What do you want use the image for?
  • What message do you want to send?
  • Is this for business or fun?
  • If for business, what business are you going for?
  • Is this to show accomplishment or drive?


For example, if you are trying to show that you are trust worthy, that you have good business sense and that you have confidence in what you do, you will do a different style photo than if you are trying to say you are a great chef.  At the same time a professional sports coach wants to show that they can be a leader and team builder.


Another type of portrait is the environmental portrait. An example is when a pilot is photographed with a plan in the  background or a surgeon is shot in the operating room wearing their scrubs. These type of images are growing on popularity and in some ways are easy to conceive but at the same time difficult to actually execute. That is why I like to do them. I love a challenge.



Just taking my subject out of the normal studio setting always makes for a more dramatic image. This example of Melody was done on the deck of the upper floor of her home. By taking her out of the studio and using Center City Philadelphia I am able to tell a different story that one of just a smart business woman from the nowhere in particular.


At the same time some studio portraits can be rather dramatic themselves.  By using proper lighting, a well thought out pose and a few transformations in Photoshop, what starts as a standard portrait can be made into a dramatic Hollywood style image. In this image I can almost image Anne saying, “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille!”


 Even the office can be a dramatic place if the proper lighting is used. This image is a self portrait that I did back in January of this year. In this shot I had a flash to camera left that is focused on my face letting the light fall off dramatically below my chin and upper chest adds to the image. Another aspect is that I am not looking at the camera. By doing this I make the moment seem to have a bit of a voyeur aspect to it. Its as if I was caught thinking about something. Do the images on the monitors behind me play into what is on my mind?




There are so many options, so many things to do to create an image that gives you a look that you may not even know you have. The idea is to not just show you at your best, but to do it in a way that capture the image you want to portray. Then you get to play. Who doesn’t like to play?


Until next time…

Traditional, Not So Much…

Let me first apologize for being late with this post. Blame it on the dentist and the root canal. I am. Now that I am feeling a bit better and can actually eat food to keep up enough strength to type, I thought we could continue our discussion on light, long exposures and what you can do with it.

Below is an image of one of the most photographed sites in Philadelphia PA, USA. Located on the east bank of the Schuylkill (pronounced “SKOO-kull”) River, it has been a popular spot since at least the 1850s (most people who live here still can’t pronounce it though). According to Google, there are at least 72,000 images on the web of this beautiful location.


So how do you capture a location that is so popular and make it unique? Click on the link to see how I used a long exposure to show Boathouse Row in a new lig

When using long exposures to capture an images you can open a boat load (ouch) of opportunities. In the first shot I used my trusty Bogen tripod with Manfrotto 804RC2 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head (a great, inexpensive tripod head), camera set to ISO 200 with -1/3 EV, white balance is set to Cloudy (5500K) to give a good warm feel. The exposure was set to 5 seconds at f/5.6, and I used the 18-125mm Sigma lens set to 90mm. The image is nice, warm, inviting and, well, traditional. I however am not a traditionalist (most of the time).

In the second shot I used an old trick that makes the shot a bit less… average. First I swapped out the 18-125mm lens for the Sigma 70-200mm F/2.8. I set exposure to 10 seconds at F/8 and still set to a WB of Cloudy, I zoomed into 200mm and framed the shot nice and tight and opened up the shutter. I immediately started to zoom out slow and steady for about 7-8 seconds and then let it sit for the last 2-3 seconds. This is the result.


It’s still the same location; color and tones are basically the same, yet it definitely is not the traditional shot of Boathouse Row!

When you have good solid equipment of any kind, a little creativity and a little wiliness you can get great in camera effects. You just have to have that willingness part. Willingness to experiment will teach you more than a good instructor. By letting things go and letting out the inner shooter in you amazing things begin to happen. This shot is a very minor example. And its all done in camera! Neither of these shots is manipulated in Photoshop at all.

So while its warm out and the humidity is still low in the evening, get out there and play! Let’s see what you can do.

Until next time, Happy Shooting!