Tuesday, May 31, 2016


In Part 1 I talked about why professionals must be in control of As Many photographic variables as possible.  Nothing has changed here in the digital age; when I did all my photography on film for 30 years or these last 15 year as a digital artist—I never used anything but the manual mode and those first 30 years were also using only manual focus lenses!

A Professional photographer often builds an image in layers; it’s called foreground, mid-ground (usually the subject) and background. This is how we create depth, interest, and three-dimensionality.

I tell my students that “I build my portraits from the background-forward.”  It’s our job, as an artist, to direct where the viewer looks in our images. The way we do that in photography is with what is sharp against what is un-sharp (or out of focus). We control that with our point-of-focus and depth-of-field. The most important tool that will effectively control these things is focal length; In my world more is best. I use the most focal length I can given the space I have—usually 200-300mm.

Continuing with my Civil War re-enactment coverage…

 f9.0 @ 1/500sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200mm
This image was fun to construct. In the mid-ground there is the small replica cannon on a table with the flags around it—the confederate flag in the foreground. In the deep background are two full size cannons that I placed just where I wanted by maneuvering my camera position.

I used 200mm to compress the composition, but in this case I did not want the cannons in the background to be blurry blobs, using my usual f4.5 aperture, so I stopped-down to f9.0 to make them recognizable—I wanted to unite the cannon theme from mid-ground to background.

f5.0 @ 1/800 sec., Iso 400; Lens @ 200mm
The image above is a great example of why I prefer telephotos (200mm or more!) I tell my students and have written this often: “Many times we can reveal more about a subject by showing less.”

I loved this confederate soldier’s canteen and cup and when he leaned on his musket I was ready.I took one image then moved to my right a little to place the other soldier’s rifle in the background-changed from f4.5 to f5.0 to get a little more depth-of-field and got this image. It’s one of my favorites—especially after I converted it to black and white.

f4.5 @ 1/1000 sec., ISO 400; Lens @ 200mm
This is my favorite portrait set-up. I like my aperture at f4.5 (even though my lens is an f2.8) on portraits because no matter how my subject turns his head I can always get BOTH eyes in focus and I still get a nice out-of-focus background because my lens is at 200mm.

If you really want to learn what is possible and progress as an artist, put your camera on “M” and then THINK about each image before you click the shutter.  What is your goal? What are you trying to reveal? Have a point of view! And, use More telephoto!

As usual, should you have a comment or questions please don’t hesitate…’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer? These are some of the traits that define a professional:
  • As a Professional you should be the author of your images.
  • As an Artist you just be the master of your tools.
  • To be regarded as an Expert you must be able to tell how and why you created a given image.
  • As a professional you must be able to repeat any successful image techniques, at will, on different subjects, in the future.
The ONLY way you can achieve these is traits is to be in control of all the variables when you point your camera at your subject. In my world great images are NOT created by accident! It’s about planning (“pre-visualization” as Ansel Adams used to say) and control of your tools.

The problem with the camera’s Auto Modes (don’t even get me started on the “P” mode!) is that the camera does not know what it’s being pointed at; it does not know what the subject is. Therefore, it can’t know the best f-stop/shutter speed for that subject—just like it could not automatically pick a focal length for your zoom lens! 

Why would you want your camera, with its little rat-like brain, to make such important artistic decisions. Its worse when you realize it’s a blind rat! So when I’m covering an outside event, like the following images, from the Idaho Civil War volunteers I’m constantly changing my camera settings, along with focal length, as my subject(s) change.

 f5.6 @ 1/640 sec., ISO 400., Lens @ 155mm
Settings rationale:

ISO - my baseline outdoor ISO is usually 400. It gives me the most versatility and with my Canon 5D MKII my images are noiseless when properly exposed.

F-Stop - the aperture setting is my most important variable for creative control for static or slow moving subjects.

Shutter Speed - what ever I can handhold until the light goes away.

Lens - I use the MOST telephoto I can in most portrait situations.

I picked f5.6 for the civil war gun crew because there was a large group of people behind them and I wanted to limit my depth-of-field.

To get more depth-of-field on my gun crew and to compress their group I backed away and zoomed to 155mm.

Trivia:  Backing away 10 feet will double your Depth-of-Field—if you change nothing else.

Because I’ve done hundreds of family portrait sessions at these settings: f6.3 at about 30 feet away with my lens @ 150mm giving me a D.O.F. of 4.6 feet…I figured I’d get about 12 feet DOF if I doubled my usual portrait distance with the settings as this image was exposed.

Note: Checking in DOFMaster.com I later found that my DOF in this image was 15.6 feet.

It also helped that the wind blew much of the cannon’s smoke back to the gun crew further obscuring the audience in the background!

f4.5 @ 1/640 sec., ISO 400, Lens @ 200mm
For the portrait of the soldier I maneuvered myself to get that flag behind him, but because the flag is so powerful I went to f4.5 to really knock the flag out of focus—at f4.5 I focus on my subjects eyes. In addition I used 200mm, as I usually do on individuals, to further blur the background.

In Part #2 I’ll continue with examples of images from this event and talk about my choice of focal length—why longer is better!

As usual, your questions and comments are welcome…’Til next week.

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


In Part 1 I made the case for Why natural light is best for outdoor portraits. But, that’s not all there is to it. If you are a professional you should be exerting some control over natural light, just as we do in the studio, creating lighting patterns that give your subjects three dimensionality and depth.

I see too many “natural light photographers” just plunk their people down in the middle of an open field or conversely they march their subjects into a forrest of trees looking for maximum shade and they usually get too much of a good thing! In both of the above scenarios all they end up with is FLAT LIGHT; as professionals we should do better than that.

The challenge doing portraits by natural light, two hours or even one hour before sunset, is NOT that there is not enough light—it’s that there is TOO much! There’s light bouncing all over the place and from multiple directions.

So, the solution in controlling this light is NOT ADDING LIGHT—it’s SUBTRACTING LIGHT!

The subtractive lighting technique is simple, natural looking (dare I say organic?) and Way less expensive than using flash.  Most importantly it’s seamless (it’s invisible). This technique does not reveal itself the way flash always does. 

To subtract light I use a GOBO (from: go-between)—a term from my cinematography days. Anything that will block light enough to create a nice shadow side on my subject’s face will do as a GOBO. 

For groups (the most difficult subjects) I use Large Natural Gobos, like trees, rocks, or buildings.

f7.1 @ 1/125th sec., ISO 400
On the family portrait above I created directional, three dimensional lighting using several large trees (my Gobo) on camera LEFT and, by placing my group, NOT UNDER the tree’s canopy (critically important!), but at the outside edge of the canopy. Placing them inside the tree’s canopy is like walking deep into a forrest; you’ll just end up with flat light.  That way the entire group is lit by a big patch of blue sky, while the setting sun provides some nice back light.

The Natural Light Rule: As my first lighting mentor (the late, great, Leon Kennamer) taught me, “The Light is at the Edge of the Forrest”!

Natural Gobo Note: If the Gobo you’ve chosen does to create a shadow side on your subject’s face then it’s a reflector—move your subject elsewhere!

Artificial Gobos for Individual Portraits:

It’s really easy creating a nice shadow for individual portraits; even in the worst lighting conditions.  For individuals our Gobo in a flat lighting situation when there are no natural gobos (like trees) nearby is the hand held flag or black flat (aka your Gobo).

Here Kathi, my wife and partner, demonstrates the proper technique to block side and top light, using a 42” black flag, close to the subject, creating a nice dimensional shadow on the young man’s face.

Here’s the before and after images of the young man. We just sat him on a park picnic table out in the open. The image on the LEFT is just plain flat light—we have equal light on each side of his face.  In the Image on the RIGHT, the black flag completely changed the portrait giving the light direction and creating depth.  The only other thing we did was to turn him—so he’s not posed flat to the camera. This pose is generally more flattering to the subject and it puts more of the face in shadow creating “short lighting”—one of the best lighting patterns for portraits.

In this next example, we have our high school senior model, Jasmine, in a popular alley (called “Freak Alley”) in downtown Boise. The sun is setting on camera left and was striking her face, which is something I usually avoid. The sun was also reflecting off a tall, mirrored, building on camera right. So, I had Kathi block the direct sunlight, on the left, with the 42” black flag, creating a nice shadow side on Jasmine’s face.

 f5.0 @ 1/125th sec., ISO 400
Using true natural light, modified with the subtractive technique, will produce superior portraits that will ALWAYS look more natural than ANY flash technique. In addition, with the money you save not buying speed lights, soft boxes, stands, weights, and radio triggers, you can invest in a really nice portrait lens. How’s that for a WIN-WIN!

List of Suppliers for Gobos:

  • Larson still has the 42” square rig that I use and they call them Gobos.
  • F.J. Westcott has their Scrim Jims in Flat Black Block or their Illuminators in Blocking Black.
  • Chimera has nice Panel Frames (like the old Light-Forms in design except these are made of aluminum alloy)
  • Or…you can make your own Gobos using foam-core panels painted black.

Use your imagination!

As always, should you have questions don’t hesitate to ask…’Til next week…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Doing portraits outside? Then why not use the “Best Light Money Can’t Buy”! Use controlled natural light instead of blasting people with flash. Here are some of the reasons that PPA (Professional Photographers of America) Certified, Master, Craftsman, Jerry W. Venz uses ONLY natural light for portraits outside:
  1. Natural light is simply the best light for portraits—Period! It’s also the best light for nature/landscapes. So, when you place people in nature natural light marries people with the environment. 
  2. Additive lighting, with flash, outdoors very obviously divorces your subject from their background—it pulls them out or appears to bring them forward to the camera. A point light source (flash) just does not blend well with natural light.
  3. Get the image! When photographing difficult subjects, like groups, children and pets, you can’t wait for a battery powered flash to recycle—they’re just too darn slow! Often, the best expression is the one that happens 1/2 second after you click the shutter and NO battery powered flash can recycle that fast.                   
  4. On the practical side save yourself the cost of buying several speed lights (which aren’t good for anything except weddings) radio flash triggers, stands, sandbags, portable soft boxes and reflectors.
  5. Put all this money (that’s thousands of dollars!) Saved and buy real professional flash gear and put it where it belongs—in your studio!
  6. Travel lighter and without needing to use your precious waning light, setting-up those speed lights, you can actually do more photography.
  7. I don’t even use reflectors outside—they don’t work on groups anyway—and if you think you need a reflector it means you’ve placed your subject in the wrong spot.
  8. Think about your subjects as they wait for you to set-up your speed lights on stands and do your test flashes and place your reflectors. How is all this helping your subjects to relax and enjoy their portrait experience?
  9. Since I know all this equipment isn’t necessary what’s the point? Is this about showing off? Are you wowing your clients with your hardware and your technology? How about wowing them with great images!                 
  10. How do I “control natural light” you ask? Instead of using additive lighting I use the Subtractive Lighting Technique. It’s beautifully simple in practice and the results speak for themselves.
In Part 2 I’ll show and talk about how I use artificial and natural Gobos, negative fill, using subtractive lighting to create three dimensional lighting outside.

So, ’til next week…Oh…if you have any questions or comments please don’t hesitate…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


When doing high school senior portraits it’s our job to tell their story in a way that is appropriate for their world.  If you’ve read this blog before then you know that it’s mostly about using natural light in outside portrait environments.  However, when we dive into the world of high-tech where everything is unnatural our lighting must reflect that environment.

So, when I approached this session of our son Alex, I looked at projects in his computer room to see if I could use any of them as, what we call in the filmmaking world, lighting practicals. For those of you unfamiliar with the world of home built computers and the art of “modding” PC cases there’s a whole culture out there where super computer geeks are not content with the power and speed of the computers most of us just buy off the shelf. They buy state of the art processors that they then “overclock” to the extent that extra cooling fans are needed—hence the need for larger custom cases.  Then, with all this extra real estate they started adding interior case lighting—cold cathode florescent light sticks and cooling fans with LEDs embedded in their blades—all in a variety of colors.  So, everyone could enjoy these light shows they cut openings in the sides of their computing towers and added plexiglass windows creating an art form that has grown ever more elaborate since this session was done back in 2003.

Therefore, it was a natural to use Alex’s own custom built tower not only as a prop, but one of the light sources for his portrait!

f5.6 @ 1/4 sec., ISO 1600
This portrait was done entirely by the light from Alex’s various computers and monitors that I placed around him. I really liked that blue glow cast on his face from the cold cathode florescent lights in the tower, but I wanted a more natural, warm, light on the other side of his face. So, I placed his large iMac monitor at camera left.

How do you get his nice natural light look from your iMac monitor you ask? Easy you just go into system preferences—> display and in calibrator assistant hit continue to go to “Select a target white point” and select D65 (midday sunlight). This give you proper color now for that dramatic color difference on each side of his face. Here’s the setup…

The colors are great, but the overall light levels were pretty low as you can see by my settings; even at 1/4 sec., I had to use ISO 1600 to get f5.6 for an adequate depth of field.

I really like the cropped final version with Alex holding his optical mouse inverted pointing the LED at the camera. I also wanted something more so, we turned the iMac behind him on for that Apple screen saver image amid the faint green glow in the background.

Should you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask…’Til next week…

Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com