In this clip we’ll look at how to create a simple DIY home photo studio, using a single flash, a diffuser (in this case an umbrella), a wall as background, and a reflector.



It’s about as basic as you can get but with this setup it you can create really nice studio portraits for little expense.

What you’ll need

So here’s an overview of the equipment you’ll need.


A light stand, a bracket flash holder, an umbrella, wireless flash triggers, a flash, a camera, a lens hood and a reflector.


Note that most of these items come in cheap and expensive versions. I would suggest for basic items such as light stands, umbrellas and reflectors, you can get away with the cheap versions. You might want to buy a couple of each in case they fall apart. But for anything electronic, it’s worth investing in quality. Saving a few hundred dollars on a flash is no saving at all if the flash stops working after a week or two. And the kind of flash triggers that you can buy for a few bucks on ebay are terrible – avoid them at all costs!


Putting it together


So let’s set up the studio.


First we’ll put up the light stand, tightening the screws firmly. Then we’ll take the flash bracket. A flash bracket allows you to attach a hotshoe flash and an umbrella diffuser and then adjust the angle. This type of bracket is not much more than $10 but it’s nice and solid.


Next wireless flash triggers. These carry the all-important signal from the camera to the flash. Flash triggers are an alternative to a lead which is cumbersome – easy to tangle or trip over – and it’s also unreliable. In my experience these Phottix triggers are pretty good, not much more than $100 for a set and above all reliable.


Triggers come as transmitters – that attach to the camera – and receivers, that go on to the flash.


In terms of flash I’m using my trusty Canon Speedlite 580. I’ve had it for years and it’s never let me down. It wasn’t cheap but unlike cheap imitations, it was worth every penny.


So let’s attach the flash trigger receiver to the flash, locking it on to the hotshoe so it doesn’t fall off.


Next we’ll attached the flash trigger to the bracket, taking care to tighten it both on the bracket and the trigger so it doesn’t drop.


Let’s take the umbrella and slot it through the bracket. Tighten it and then expand out the umbrella. You’ll notice we’re going to shoot through the umbrella rather than use it to bounce light off.


Now for the camera. First let’s put the lens hood on. The hood is important as we’ll be shooting next to and behind the flash and we don’t want direct light entering and the lens and clouding it.


Now we’re ready to put the transmitter trigger on the camera hotshoe. Once it’s on we need to synch the triggers, making sure each is set to the same channels.


Let’s set the flash. We’ll put it on manual mode. As we want to shoot in the lowest ISO possible – 100 – we want a fairly strong blast, but we can adjust this once we start shooting.


Next, we’ll set the camera. We’ll go for shutter speed 1/160, aperture f5.6.


Positioning the subject


Finally we’re ready to bring in our subject. We’ll position her close to the wall and then move the light stand so the flash and umbrella are pointing down at her face, creating a kind of Rembrandt light.


Generally I position the stand so the umbrella is close to the subject, about a metre or metre and a half. That way shadows are soft and there is a nice fall-off of light.


We’re also positioning the reflector on the shadow side of the subject to reflect some light back and fill those shadows.


So there it is – a simple studio set-up that works indoors and outdoors (weather permitting). It creates lovely images and it won’t break the bank.


You might also like to see my youtube video on ‘Flash photography: 5 essential tips’.


Welcome to this video on flash photography – 5 must-know tips. This clip is mainly aimed at photographers who have a hotshoe flash, like a Canon speedlight. But if you only have an on-camera flash, hopefully you’ll find something useful too. Also, this clip covers flash for low-light conditions – not fill flash. I’ll try and make a clip about that soon.



1. Use a diffuser

When I shoot with on-camera flash I usually use this baseball-mitt type diffuser. It was very cheap, it’s easy to put on, take off and pack away and it does exactly what I want it to – make the flash bigger. By this, I mean it diffuses or spreads the light, effectively making a larger light source. It’s the same principle – on a smaller scale – to an umbrella or softbox in the studio. The larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer – and generally more attractive — the light.

Using a diffuser has another advantage: reducing shadows. In this image – shot without a diffuser — we can see the shadow of the subject’s head on the wall. Add the diffuser and the shadow all but disappears.

2. Get close

Getting close to your subject is a good tip for photography in general, but it is even more appropriate when using flash. Why?

Well, a number of reasons. First, the size of a flash usually dictates how powerful it is. And power in flash terms means reach – literally how far it can throw the light. A little on-camera flash doesn’t have much grunt and even a hot shoe flash will struggle to continually blast out light at a distance.

Second, by getting closer you are – again – increasing the size of the light source relative to your subject, therefore creating that softer light.

But probably most important is the principle of light fall-off. Let’s imagine we are photographing two people. One is standing 1 meter from the flash, the other is standing 2 meters away. You might think that would mean that person 2 receives half the amount of light as he’s standing twice as far away. But no, actually he receives only a quarter. Without going in to the physics, this means the closer you are the bigger the drop off of light.

Let’s see what this means in practice. For this shot I was standing about 4 meters from the subject who was himself about a meter from the wall. It’s pretty flat – not much in the way of contrast or contours of light and shadow that make a portrait come alive. Instead, this shot was taken from just over a meter away. In terms of light, it’s a much more dynamic shot. We can see the light fall-off on his face and also on the wall, which creates a pleasant vignette effect.

3. Bounce flash

If I’m shooting an indoor event, the first thing I do on entering the venue is look up. If there’s a white ceiling, I’m happy. A white ceiling is, in effect, another very convenient diffuser, but one that’s huge and permanently just where I want it.

Bouncing the flash means angling the head up so it will hit the ceiling and bounce off – diffusing or spreading as it does so. It’s a nice even light – similar to the afternoon sun glowing through thin cloud. It’s also a good option if, for whatever reason, you can’t get close to your subject.

The trick is to make sure the angle is about right – aim for roughly 45 degrees.

Beware ceilings that are not white, however. Remember the colour of the ceiling will tint the light, so a wooden ceiling will give the image a strange brown cast. Not good.

4. Slow shutter speed

The light from a flash is very quick – about 1/1000th of a second. That means you can, in theory, shoot at any shutter speed up to 1/1000th of a second and the camera will capture the light from the flash.

So does that mean that shutter speed is irrelevant? Absolutely not!

Let’s take a look at the same shot using the same ISO, aperture and flash settings but different shutter speeds.

So we’re starting at 1/200th of a second and slowing it a third of a stop at a time. Notice that the brightness of the background increases. For me it’s really important to get plenty of ambient light in the background when shooting with flash. It gives the shot context – it lets the viewer know where we are.

Be aware though that at slow shutter speeds the subject is often also lit with the ambient light. So there are two light sources at work – the flash that will freeze the subject and the ambient light that may blur any movement. This combination can work beautifully… or not – it’s for you to experiment.

5. Off camera flash

Taking your flash off your camera and putting it on a light stand opens up a whole world of lighting possibilities. Whether it’s a portrait or an action shot, it’s one of the things that gives an image a really professional look – the ‘wow factor’ if you like.

Using off-camera flash is not difficult and these days it’s not expensive either. All you need is a hot shoe flash, a light stand, some flash triggers and ideally a diffuser or two.

For more on off-camera flash, see my youtube clip ‘Make a home photo studio’.

So I hope that was useful. Please check out some of my other videos and subscribe to the channel.

Thanks and happy shooting!

In this clip, we are looking at shooting portraits in manual or M mode.


If you’re a beginner and you’d like to know what the range of modes do, take a look my clip ‘What do camera modes mean?’



So what’s so special about manual mode?


Well, it’s the only mode that gives you full creative control over each of the holy trinity of ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Unlike in the other modes, you are not relying on the camera to decide anything – and that’s good.


A word of warning though. Shooting in manual mode isn’t for the beginner, so I would suggest you first get an understanding of:


  1. what most of the buttons and wheels on your camera do, and…
  2. the concepts of ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I have videos on each of these that should help.


So this is my approach to shooting portraits in manual mode:


Keep it RAW

Make sure you are shooting RAW files. RAW, compared with jpeg, have lots of depth. This means more latitude to make adjustments to exposure in post-production (making the image brighter or darker) without losing detail in the shadows and highlights. Remember, even the best photographers don’t get a perfect exposure every time.



Next, think about light and ISO. Always choose the lowest ISO you can get away with. If it’s a bright sunny day, it’ll be 100; in the shade on a bright sunny day, probably 400. We can adjust ISO later if necessary, but it’s crucial to set it before you think about anything else.



Next set aperture. If we were shooting an action shot – and were interested in freezing or blurring the movement – we’d set shutter speed.


But a portrait subject is usually fairly static, so our priority is depth of field – how sharp or blurry we want the background to be. And this is controlled by aperture. So we widen the aperture (set to a lower number) for more blurry; and narrow it (set to a higher number) for a sharper background.


Here I’ve gone for f5.6 – a mid-range aperture that should give a little blur to the background.


Here I’ve gone for f4 – that should give some nice soft blur to the background.


Here I’ve gone for f3.2 – that should give some a soft blur to the background.


So, we’ve set ISO and aperture. But how to get the correct shutter speed for the right exposure? Here, there are a number of methods but we’ll look at two: trial and error and using a light meter.


Trial and error

First, trial and error. It’s not perfect but in the digital age it’s probably the most popular option.


Shutter speed for portraits is actually quite straight forward. Generally, you don’t want a speed that is so slow that small movements by your subject will create blur – so I’d say try to stay above 1/100th of a second. You also don’t want a speed that is less than the focal length of your lens – that means camera shake. So for example, I never shoot with my 135 lens at less than 1/160th.


But for creative purposes there’s nothing to be gained from a high shutter speed, say of 1/500th of a second. That speed would also mean shooting in blinding sunlight, which is horribly squinty for your portrait subject.


So I’m shooting with my 24 – 70mm lens at 1/125th. Let’s take a test shot. Remember to view the screen in the shade or where the light’s not too glaring. Forget the background – concentrate on the subject – are they too bright or too dark?


In this case, the image is too bright. So I could increase the shutter speed. That will help with exposure but it’s not going to do anything for the quality of the image. So what would? Well, I could always reduce the ISO – that would adjust exposure and also reduce the amount of noise in the shot, so it’s a win-win.


Keep taking test shots and adjusting until it looks right. Remember this method is not perfect. Depending on the light in which you are viewing the LCD screen, the quality of the screen and how it’s set, it can be at best a rough guide.


Instead, you could opt for …


A handheld light meter. For portraits especially, it gives you really reliable exposures. In brief, the meter in a camera measures reflective light, the light reflecting off things, whereas a handheld light meter measures ‘ambient’ light, so the amount of light hitting your subject. This is a more reliable measure.


To use your handheld light meter, follow the same procedure as on your camera in M mode: set ISO, decide on aperture, carefully position the meter in front of your portrait subject’s noise, pointing towards the camera and press the button. It will give you the right reading for shutter speed. If the shutter speed is unnecessarily high (ie. it’s not going to improve the quality of the image), reduce ISO and try again.


Then simply set your camera to the same numbers and away you go.


So I hope that was useful. Thanks and happy shooting!

Correct exposure – what is it? It’s a slightly tricky term but in this clip we’ll look at how it can help you understand light, tones and how your camera works – even if it’s not what you want to aim for in every image.



First of all, ‘correct exposure’ does not refer to what is creatively right for your image. As a photographer that’s the crucial question for each photo: does the degree of brightness or darkness of the image help tell the story you want to tell?


Of course that decision is entirely subjective – there’s no correct or incorrect – only what looks good and what doesn’t.


Correct exposure is a technical term. Here’s a good definition from the Canon website: “The act of having correct exposure means your combination of settings between apertureshutter speed and ISO speed have produced a perfectly exposed image. When nothing is blown out (highlights) or lost in shadow in an image, it has achieved correct exposure.”


Here it’s useful to consider the work of the towering genius of photography Ansel Adams. Not only are his images extraordinary but he was a major innovator in how we approach light and photography.


Much of Ansel Adams’ work was done in the days before colour photography and when considering exposure it is helpful to try to think in black and white tones – shades of grey if you like – rather than colour.


Ansel Adams developed the idea of a zone system, which divided the spectrum of tones – from 100% black to 100% white, into 10 tones or shades. A ‘correct exposure’ doesn’t have to cover all of those tones but the middle tone should be that middle grey – here number 5.


That grey, often referred to as ‘18 percent grey’, is the tone on the spectrum that the camera’s metering system is designed to ‘average’ out the image to. It’s aiming for correct exposure.


Let’s take an extreme example.


Here I’m shooting in the most basic mode – green mode – so the camera is deciding all the settings – ISO, aperture and shutter speed — in order to get that correct exposure.


I’m taking a photo of a well-lit white sheet of paper. To the naked eye, it looks very white. But when we view the image, it’s grey.


Let’s try this poorly lit black mouse pad. It looks pretty black, but – after a long exposure — the image itself is – again! – grey.


Looking at our two images, both are technically ‘correct exposures’. The camera has averaged out the tone of each to that middle 18% grey. But of course generally, we want our images to appear as we see the world through our eyes.


When all the elements in an image average out to around mid-grey, then the camera’s metering will probably get it about right. I find this often works outdoors on a sunny day.


But when the image is predominantly dark or light, it will get it wrong.


This explains why so many amateur shots taken with automatic exposure are either too dark (if say there is a bright background) or too bright (if there’s a very dark one). The camera is averaging out the whole image for a ‘correct’ exposure.


Consistently getting the right exposure in a creative sense is a long journey – it’s essentially what learning photography is all about. But understanding the concept of ‘correct exposure’ is a good start.


Finally I’ll leave you with a mention of an Australian photographer named Trent Parke, who’s exposures are anything but ‘correct’. Instead his early work takes an incredibly creative approach to extreme contrasts of light, with extraordinary – and sometimes spooky – effect.


Thanks and happy shooting!


Photoshop vs Lightroom: a look at which software is best for processing multiple files, dealing with RAW, image rating and selecting, image adjustments and creating graphics.



In this clip we’re comparing Photoshop and Lightroom – both Adobe products and the dominant photography processing software on the market.

First of all, they are both extremely powerful tools. I, like most professional photographers, use both, but for different purposes.


Batch processing

Lightroom is great for processing a whole batch of images. After a shoot you might have hundreds of shots. You’ll want to download them, store them in your photo library, back them up (very important) and then start going through the images one by one, discarding the poor shots and selecting the good ones.

This you could do on Photoshop but it would take forever. You’d have to open each file individually – very, very tedious. Also Photoshop is not designed for RAW images – and if you are serious about photography you’ll shoot RAW files.

Lightroom makes the selection process wonderfully easy. You can see dozens of images at a glance in the grid mode, or flick through them one by one. As you do so you can rate images by colour, stars or flags.

Personally I give shots I like a blue label, and those I don’t like a red one. Once I’ve gone through them all, I can select all the red labelled shots – and delete them. I can then view all the blue shots. I often make a further selection – the best of the good ones – with stars. I can then view just the starred blue pics.

So I’ve made a selection but so far, the images are unprocessed – they are just as they came out of the camera. Images can always be improved on in terms of adjustments: exposure, contrast, colour etc.

This is, of course, an area in which Photoshop excels – and more on that later – but the beauty of Lightroom is that you can apply adjustments to one image, and then duplicate those adjustments to a whole batch of images in just a couple of clicks.

The batch function is something that also applies to metadata. Applying metadata, using keywords, is really useful as you build up an image library and need to quickly search for particular images.

So we’ve made a selection and we’ve made image adjustments. But the files are still in RAW format and can’t practically be used in anything other than Lightroom. Time to export the selected images in a format that can be printed or used by a program like Photoshop. I always convert my images to jpeg.

So far I’ve talked mostly about Lightroom. That’s because Lightroom is great for the essential early stages of post-production: organising, applying metadata, image selection, image adjustments and conversion to jpeg.


Getting in deep

So what’s Photoshop good for? Well, let’s say I want to produce a large print for an exhibition. It’s worth spending the time getting that image looking as good as it possibly can. This means very precise and very detailed image adjustments. Here Photoshop comes into it’s own.

I’d suggest that Photoshop is used more by graphic designers than photographers. If you want to use a photo to produce a poster, a magazine cover or perhaps a banner ad for a website – anything using multiple images or pieces of text – then you’d use Photoshop.

Photoshop is immensely powerful and it’s wonderful for the later ‘product’ stages of post-production. But be warned: if you want to master it – there’s a lot to learn.

So, I hope that was helpful. Good luck – and happy shooting!