3 ways to get better expressions out of your subject

There comes a time in a photographer’s career that working with pretty people isn’t enough.

You can light better, have better costumes and getting a better make-up artist but at a certain point, the rawest form of people and what typically attracts attention is: emotions or expressions.

In this blog, I will present to you 3 ways to help your subject have better expressions or emotions for your photo project.

1) The first item : Build a mood board

You might wonder what is a mood board? A mood board is sort of like an inspiration wall (like Oprah) or elements you want present in the image you are creating. It can be many things. Clippings or images, a song, a movie sequence, a movie frame even. Everything that the senses touches can be part of the mood board. For our needs, we will select clippings, saved images of moods, poses we found cool on Instagram etc. With all of this in hand, send them to your subject and your team so they can physically and mentally prepare for their session. Planning those things really helps everyone reach what is on your mind. 

Send also a song that matches the mood. Send a movie clip of that mood in action. With that in the mind of everyone participating in that shoot, getting better shots should be easier.

Pro tip: Build or get a Mood board template

Build a Photoshop template of a mood board and pre-populate the elements that are important to you. Here are a few good resources:

Lindsay Adler 

Adobe Moodboard Maker

2) The second item: You should communicate often

Include your subject into your decision making. Describe your intent. Listen to their opinion. Be open to receive ideas. When you arrive on set,  spend time pointing out things that you love on what you just created. For example: You will hear me say “Yes, more of that!”, “That’s a great pose” or “This looks really good”! I may sound like an 1980’s fashion photographer but the overwhelming majority of people reacts extremely well to those comments.

Remember, you are the director of this set. You own the set. You own the images. You have to help your subject’s performance. He/She relies on you to know how she’s doing and you rely on he/her to provide good poses. Work it.

3) The third item: Play within your subject’s strength

Most of us are good at a few things. And we have a typical range of emotions. To some of us, smiling comes easy to. To some (like me), we have a pretty stoic faces. To others, they are a special kind and can cry on demand (special = totally weird). 

Always play within your subjects strengths. If your concept requires bright sunlit nature canvas and vibrant colors, avoid the stoic type. If your idea is dark and moody, a big smile would be weird.

Typecasting isn’t such a negative thing. An example, The Rock would be quite out of place in a dramatic love movie. Daniel Day-Lewis would be misused in a testosterone packed action movie.

Pro-tip: look before you book

Before booking your subject or when you are getting booked for a gig, try to take a look at the subjects Instagram or Facebook profile. What is posted is a good indicator of the strength of your subject. 

I hope these were helpful tips to get better expressions out of your subject. For more resources, I taped this video (if you prefer to watch my pretty face :) ) plus share a behind the scenes video going through this article. Give it a listen and share your advice on the video! 

Thanks for reading and happy shooting,


Gear used on this shoot

Sony a7RIII  

Sony 85mm 1.8FE

Nikon d810

Nikkor 24-85mm

Slik Tripod

You don’t need HSS to freeze motion

Once, I received a message from another photographer explaining that he had to use high speed sync in order to freeze motion. In this blog entry, I want to explain that high speed sync or HSS is not the most efficient way to freeze motion with flash.

While HSS is a viable option, it’s not necessary to  achieve crisp photography results. You don’t need HSS to freeze motion.

How do we really freeze movement in photography?

Before looking at HSS or your shutter speed, we have to look at the one thing that is crucial to freezing motion and it is light duration or flash duration.

What is flash duration? It is basically a measurement of the amount of time your light reaches a certain percentage of it’s peak power.

Manufacturers such as Godox, Profoto or Paul C Buff uses the T.1 or T.5 to measure how long the light duration is. 

T.1 = Flash Intensity when it exceeds 10% of it’s max brightness

T.5 = Flash Intensity when it exceeds 50% of it’s max brightness

A few tips: 

1) T.5 is typically slower than T.1 - this is because of the measurement being used. ‘Back in the days’, lighting equipment manufacturers used the two above standards (T.1 & T.5) in order to measure light duration. This was confusing to consumers so the ISO committee stepped in and made the T.1 the official measurement.  However, some manufacturer’s like Profoto still show t.5 for their light duration.

2) Let’s remember basic math where 1/15000 is faster than 1/10000. The higher the divider, the shorter your light duration is, the better it will be at freezing motion.

3) Your lights will have a shorter light duration (meaning better) when you use less power. A good example is to look at the Godox ad600 (BM, Pro and all the variant models). At full power, the Godox emits a light at t.1 that measures 1/220. At it’s lower power, the ad600 produces a light duration of 1/10000 (it varies by +/- 100 in different models) which is a lot faster than at full power.

What shutter speed is great to freeze motion?

The problem with HSS comes from tip #1 . While you are using HSS, you typically have to use more power in order to match that shutter speed. It’s no surprise if ever you end up shooting at 1/1 or at ½ if you sync up to 1/8000.

As we now know, shooting at full power makes your light less efficient. While you may actually freeze the subject using the very high shutter speed, you are using your light as it’s most inefficient manner since you are using it at full power.

On top of it, you are also burning your light much faster. Shooting constantly at 1/1 or full power will burn your build and components faster. 

A shutter speed of 1/100 to 1/200 you should hit a sweet spot between a closed enough aperture and a light power that is manageable for it’s duration.

Another tip which would be too long to include in the first 3 here is to always before making a purchase visit your light manufacturer’s website and compare the lights at their full and lowest capabilities, it will tell you how will your light generally perform under the manufacturer’s claim. 

What I would suggest if light duration is critical to your work is to measure light yourself by either renting or borrowing a unit. Test it a different power settings and if the measurement fits your typical aperture and light distance, then you are good, if not you might want to either adapt your shooting style or find another pack/system for you.

Let’s pick 3 lights I’ve used or seen at worked on set with. 

First is the Paul C Buff Einstein 640 which is my main work horse in the studio. A quick visit on the manufacturer’s website will give you the following stats: 

Another one is the Profoto 7A power pack (the Profoto 7A pack discontinued but you can get a newer version here)

Note that the measurements are in t.5 

The last as we already discussed is the Godox ad600 :

I’ve included here a video of a behind the scenes where I put that theory to the test. To add to this, here are a few of the straight-out-of-camera images and finals.

So I hope this was useful in demystifying that HSS is not really the best of option to freeze motion and that light duration is the most important metric to look into light if you want to freeze subjects. Here are the raw images, crop and the gallery to the end results.

Final images right here:

Happy light duration :)


Disclosure : The links included in this blog entry are affiliate links to Amazon.com and Amazon.ca and other websites. Which means that if you click on them and buy an item, I get a small commission for the referral. Prices do not increase whether you click the links above or found them yourselves. Purchasing through those links allows me to publish more content for you!

[image-grid: fingerprint-]

Why do flash photography gets no love.

Why do flash photography gets no love?

If you strut around the internet for photography ideas long enough, you will see all types of images. Landscapes, architecture, babies, still life and a very wide spectrum of other subjects.

If you are someone like me, you will head down in the portrait section of those websites - a great way to waste time. From there, you can narrow down what you see in the beauty, senior portraits, head shots and many many other genres of photography.

While landscape photography can hardly be augmented by added flash or artificial light (you are kind of crazy if you do so) most subjects required a source of light to create portrait art. Some use natural light to get there. Others may for their animal portraits, passing through still life and moving to product photography use flash or artificial lighting to help their results. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be a counter movement to both artificial lighting and natural light. One side calls it ‘unnatural looking’ by a portion of the photography community and the other side calls it simply ‘lazy’.

Why is this the case? Why is there so much divide between both natural light photographers and flash / artificial light photographers? Can we unite both parties?

Before we ‘Jump into it’, I have to disclose that I use flash or artificial lighting in 95% of my projects. In my eyes, it makes everything better and helps me with consistency - which is of utmost importance for me. If I look at most of the work I find absolutely amazing, I see flash being used in almost all cases.

With this disclosure, let’s discuss some reasons why flash is so hated by some people (I am bracing myself because the following text is going to piss-off some folks…on both sides).

*Takes a deep breath*

It all boils down into one reason for me: flash photography is difficult.

The old days of film are almost long gone (and strangely simultaneously making a small come back) and the advent of digital photography is almost complete. The barriers surrounding photography have then quite reduced. No more labs, no more dark rooms, no more in between. You can take your shot, edit it and send it to the world without leaving your office. Even DSLR or mirrorless cameras are not a necessity to some people’s mind. Anybody with an iPhone calls themselves a ‘photographer’ now - thanks Steve Jobs.

But…you have serious gear and vision, you are just not snapping away.

Even with this digital revolution, there are remaining filters that holds some people back from becoming experts. Photoshop is one, subject matter expertise, technology is another and lighting photos are to me, the main technical problems photographers will face.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the lighting portion since this is the subject of interest here.

Reason 1 - Most photographers using flash are terrible at it

Subject’s exposure is overblown. The subject looks like a deer in headlights. The lighting position doesn’t make sense. These are a few in a whole host of issues - hell, I’ve committed all these crimes.

When you start using artificial lighting, the overwhelming majority of your early shots WILL be terrible. But some people think that using flash is a badge of honor versus using flash is an art that needs to be studied…deeply. And then they share their terrible work online. By-standing photographers then hop on top of their high horse to harshly criticize the person who shared the unfortunate ‘terrible’ work. This reinforces the idea that flash mostly produces bad results.

Do not get me wrong, learning flash is tempting - and worth it. You can create some beautiful results from flash but you should really (emphasis on really) practice before sharing any work and be eager to get some good feedback. Every image that is released using bad lighting hurts every other flash photographer, by a little or a lot. Educate yourself, test a lot and seek to improve constantly. These are the only tools to make sure you will be less terrible.

So that brings us to natural light. It’s difficult to be ‘bad’ at natural light. Unless the person holding the camera is really really can’t read a scene or don’t understand the basics of the exposure triangle - i.e. the person is a bad photographer. With functions like Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or the infamous ‘Professional Mode’ or P Mode, the camera can do most of the leg work with a bit of technical know how.

With all of the above mentioned issues from flash, natural light also has it’s own problems.

The issue is with natural light is lighting creativity. Yes, there are ways to make natural light interesting but….

- Natural light cannot be gelled

- Natural light photographers cannot do drag shutter techniques or any of those creative setups

- You cannot always control in camera the relationship between the foreground exposure versus the subjects exposure. 

- You can fight hard light but you’ll be geared up as if you were using strobes anyway so that defeats the purpose.

But mainly…

You need the sun to work.

This doesn’t closely apply to available light photographers using neon lights or street lamps etc. The weather conditions really forces you if you can work or not. Flash photographers on the other hand can introduce lights to mimic different conditions.

This is a little extreme but you get my point. Photo from Wikipedia.

Reason 2 - Flash photography is expensive

Reason 2.1) A war on your wallet

Lighting is awesome but it’ll cost you. Prices did decrease over the last 10 years, thanks to market shakers like Paul C Buff, Youngnuo or the ever present Godox. But it’s still expensive.

A great strobe like the Godox AD600 will cost you in the US $550 and $730 in Canada. They are amazing and flexible lights but that is a steep price to pay if you book a session that only gets you $200 in revenue. You can use the smaller and inexpensive speedlights of course but…POWER! Some companies *cough Profoto* are trying to sell you $1000 speedlights although they won’t call it that. Lighting is expensive.

If you are well-versed enough into flash, you’ll know that these are only lights, modifiers to shape your light come in afterwards to add more pressure on your dwindling budget. They range from the price of a small car to less than $10 (it’s mind boggling)

$7,189.00 USD. Yes. You read that right.

Do they produce the same results…?

You think we’re done? Hahaha, no! 

Now that you have all of this, how are you going to measure it? You need a light meter! Did you get your color calibration tool? How are you going to make those lights flash out of your camera? You need a trigger! Are your lights floating by some kind of magic? You need light stands!

The needs in flash photography are almost endless.

So a big +1 to natural light for this - a camera and a reflector and you are on the way to the stars! But wait - there’s something worth mentioning. We all know that time is the biggest factor a photographer has to work with. Time spent marketing, time spent planning, time spent shooting. Time is of the essence when you are a working pro. The money flash photographers spends during the shoot to nail the almost perfect shot in camera, natural light shooters have to spend it in post-processing. Fixing the issues of exposure, noise, sharpness in post is time consuming and are issues that are fixed quite quickly with a single strobe. If your time is a limited resource, a strobe is definitely a time saver.

Reason 2.2) “I have to carry all this?”

But that’s not all! Hauling all this material and expecting to place it yourself requires extra arms and legs, so you have to get an assistant. But that assistant HAS to have a basic knowledge of photography and lighting. That’s more money spent per session.

What if you are new at this? Do you have anyone to show you around the great techniques of lighting? Then you need to educate yourself! You take a couple of courses and you spend time practicing with your lights. Yay more money spent!

Reason 2.3) The technology is complicated to implement in your flow

After completely draining your poor wallet, using flash correctly is complex. You have the light power, speed lights or strobes, light meters, sync speeds, power sources, color temperature of the flash, gels and the ambient, modifiers and a whole lot of other things to think about. All of these things plus the posing, composing, getting good looks from the subject and interactions - flash is yet another layer to add on top of your workflow.

It’s a huge learning curve. It’s painful to learn.

Reason 3) Mastering flash is difficult

You don’t like flat images, me neither. You don’t like overexposed shots, me neither. You don’t like images that the lighting doesn’t look like it belongs. Me neither.

Learning how to position lights and which modifiers to use for a specific intent is a life-long pursuit. Getting good at managing those different situations where nothing is favorable and you are pressed to yield results is stressful. You invested so much into this gear and it’s not yielding the results - what a mistake you think you made!

This might be the secret story of many ‘natural light’ photographers. Integrating these tools is difficult and might not be worth it for some type of photographers (I am think wedding photographer here). But for the rest of the photography community, integrating those tools might have been painful at some point - to the point it wasn’t worth pursuing further. This should be of consideration for ‘flash’ folks.

I’m hardcore, I use flash during wedding portraits :D

Natural light photography on the others, in my humble, opinion is mastered by very few. Most photographers who claim to use strict natural light aren’t that great at lighting. I can only name a few that do incredible work using available light such as Elena Shumilova  but she does extensive post-processing to get those results. Post processing isn’t bad in itself but there are ways to get similar results in camera and focus on more important details.

Flash photographers are judgmental

We’ve all seen that meme. It’s pretty funny I must admit. But placing yourself on the other side of that joke and you start seeing things differently. The aura of superiority that some flash photographers might put off some people that are on the fence with artificial light. I say this being a HEAVY user of artificial light. I firmly believe that flash produces better work and more crafted work. But, I can also appreciate an image without it and even did a video on the subject. And most flash users are doing it wrong.

Natural light photographers are judgmental

You know who they are. Snarky comments about how every single shot taken with the assistance of artificial light looks fake. How natural light compliments better every single subject. How cumbersome flash photography is. How flash photography bothers their clients and makes them look less professional because it takes away their focus on the client.

If you take the time to integrate the tools of flash, this becomes quickly a non-argument. And let’s also be real, you have a headshot booked for 7PM on a December evening - what do you do if you are a strict natural light shooter? You are in trouble it seems.

Natural light or not?

Sometimes, the situation calls for natural light, sometimes flash is REALLY needed. I believe the best way to approach is:

  • An understanding that both can do wonderful things standing on their own
  • Combining them can produce some incredible work
  • Remember that techniques are tools in a toolbelt to fix situations and enhance our vision. Don’t think like a hammer, not every situation is a nail. See what the situation calls for and go with the BEST approach.

“I believe that flash and natural light can coexist.”

In frame, Maude Miville!

So I hope this bridges the gap between both camps.

The challenges that comes with flash photography requires an enormous amount of time and practice before being called an ‘expert’ or a master. This olive branch should be within someone head when criticizing a ‘strobist’.

Being a pure ‘natural light’ photographer is also difficult as managing harsh sun, cloudy weather, dimly lit environments etc without the aid of flash.

The study of light being natural or artificial is a life-long pursuit which not everyone is inclined to learn both. We as ‘strobist’ are ought to be more forgiving. Whilst natural light photographers should try to understand that these are great tools.  

Although I veer to the artificial camp, I like to think that mastery of both natural and artificial light is an excellent way to stay on your feet. You never know what kind of situation your assignments will give you so you have to be ready for whatever is thrown at you!

*hoping no one starts a Twitter war because of this*

I truly hope this discussion was helpful to bring peace to both camps. I am personally very centrist when it comes to techniques - whatever works is the best technique. Whatever gets you booked again and again because of the quality of your work is the best technique. But know that both camps have their points.



Disclosure : The links included in this blog entry are affiliate links to Amazon.com and Amazon.ca. Which means that if you click on them and buy an item, I get a small commission for the referral. Prices do not increase whether you click the links above or found them yourselves. Purchasing through those links allows me to publish more content for you!