Environmental Portrait enhanced with off camera flash

Teaching off camera flash and mixing with available light [NIKON Z 6, 24.0-105.0 mm f/4.0, ISO 100, ƒ/5.6, 1/100, Focal Length = 24]

One of the things I was teaching the School of Photography 1 students at the University of Nations campus in Kona, Hawaii was how to improve photos with adding a flash to the available light.

[NIKON Z 6, 24.0-105.0 mm f/4.0, ISO 280, ƒ/5.6, 1/250, Focal Length = 24]

I walked outside and immediately found this guy we had seen the day before.

Word by heart [X-E3, XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS, ISO 3200, ƒ/4, 1/100, Focal Length = 83]

We met him during our devotion time where he did a monologue on a scripture.

They had an assignment to do an environmental photo of a person and improve it using a flash.

I found him playing basketball. I knew I already had something about him taking a class on learning the scripture by heart and performing it as a monologue. I could see he liked playing basketball and so I asked to photograph him

He had to go shortly so in less than 5 minutes I took the first two photos. One without flash and then followed it up with the off camera flash of the Godox 860IIN with it being on a light stand and triggered by the Godox transmitter.

Go and try this yourself. Just find a place where the subject can use some help with light. Then just add your flash off the camera. Start with it at 45º to the left or right of the camera. Then put it 45º above the person’s eyes as a starting point.

Jedidiah [NIKON Z 6, 24.0-105.0 mm f/4.0, ISO 200, ƒ/5.6, 1/500, Focal Length = 32]

While the students would have to find their own model and location later, I had each of them shoot the same setup with their flash and camera.

After a while I noticed they really were not coming up with anything that exciting for compositions. I shot this as a way to challenge them to look for something different.

“Watch Me” or “Meet _______ “

In an article published in the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior, and although it didn’t prove the exact correlation between narcissism and social media, it certainly picked up on how social media enhances and possibly contributes to narcissism.

“Watch Me” is what we say when we are a small child to our parents. While later as teenagers or adults we are not trying to get mom and dad’s attention many of us are trying to get the rest of the world to pay attention.

If you are on Facebook and post something you often feel better that people are paying attention by the number of likes and the type of likes you get.

Even better than likes is positive feedback by comments.

There is another way you can use social media and one of the best examples I can give is Humans of NY.

Brandon Stanton is the founder of HONY. Initially he was just going to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers. It was mainly about his love of photography and wanting to share his photos of people.

Somewhere along the way he started interviewing people. At first he was just sharing little interesting quotes with the photos.

Today Stanton is interviewing most of the subjects and “peeling the onion” as we like to say when you interview someone and get their story.

In an article on Open Eye Creative they reported:

“He partnered with Tumblr to raise more than $300K for Hurricane Sandy victims. He helped raised more than $1 million for a Brooklyn school after one of the students appeared on his blog. He reportedly raised more than $5 million for philanthropic projects in 2015.”

Today HONY has around 20 million followers through its website, Instagram and Twitter.

“It’s a dialogue, not a monologue, and some people don’t understand that. Social media is more like a telephone than a television.”

Amy Jo Martin, author of Renegades Write The Rules

Make Social Media About Others

I think especially professional photographers would grow their following by sharing stories of the people they photograph. Be sure your post focuses on them and not you. Do all you can to remove yourself from the post.

I think Brandon Stanton’s three suggestions for better stories also is a great place to start. Sooner or later you will find your own style for telling stories of the people you meet.

Stanton’s Questions

  1. Get to the heart of it
  2. Ask one question at a time
  3. Seek out the unexpected

To learn more about those questions here is a good article that goes deeper.

Why does he have such a following?

I think this video is a great example of how he is connecting with the audience.

First Others & Then You!!!!

Here is another interesting thing that research is showing us. When you share great content on others then people want to know more. They want you to take them backstage. This is where you can share a little about your experience in meeting this person.

Here is the strange thing, if you were only to share about your experience the number of followers would be drastically smaller. However, if you always lead with others and then share about something behind the story and photo then your numbers will do just the opposite. They will soar.

Now just sharing about others, well that works, but it is the combination that works the best.

Julie Gavillet wanted a job change after 10+ years in a job. It bothered her so much that she prayed that God would help her out of it. Just a few days after that prayer Julie was laid off. Because of the number of years she had been at that job she got a great package that allowed her to chase her dream of being a photographer. She was able to buy her gear and go off to Hawaii to study photography. She took two courses which each took 3 months and in between did some other work. Today she is staffing those schools and helping others pursue their dreams of being a photographer as well. Soon she will return to Canada where she will start her own business of doing what she loves rather than just a job to pay the bills. If you want to study photography like Julie here is the school she went to for her dream to be fulfilled. https://www.uofnkona.edu/uofn_courses/school-of-photography/
[NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

This would be a great Instagram post. Today it would also be great to follow up with another photo and behind the scenes peak into the photo.

JonLinda Jourdonnais took this photo of me while I was teaching the students how to do a 3:1 Lighting Ratio. Julie Gavillet was the model. If you want to learn about how to make a similar headshot using this lighting setup here is an earlier blog post where I teach you how to do it. https://picturestoryteller.com/2016/02/lighting-setup-2-assignment-for-my-class-31-lighting-ratio/

Now when I post these to my Instagram account most of the time the second photo might get more comments. What I hope you notice is all the time I am trying to help others get better with their photography. I am not saying look at how great I am and just like my photos.

I encourage you to make Social Media a way to create community and to encourage others. When you do this then is when you will be even more fulfilled than if you made it all about you.

“When I hear people debate the ROI of social media? It makes me remember why so many businesses fail. Most businesses are not playing the marathon. They’re playing the sprint. They’re not worried about lifetime value and retention. They’re worried about short-term goals.”

Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia
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Nikon D5 & 28-300mm perfect travel for sports

Little boy roping during the Dummy Roping Contest at the 27th Annual Pana’Ewa Stampede Rodeo put on by the Hawaii Horse Owners in Hilo, Hawaii on February 18, 2019. [NIKON D5, 28.0-300.0 mm f/3.5-5.6, ISO 720, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000, Focal Length = 150]

When traveling and doing mainly general photography I don’t pack a Nikon 200-500mm or a 600mm ƒ/4. I have found that the Nikon 28.0-300.0 mm f/3.5-5.6 is the perfect lens for about 99% of the situations I come upon.

Cowgirl Barrel Racing at the 27th Annual Pana’Ewa Stampede Rodeo in Hilo, Hawaii. [NIKON D5, 28.0-300.0 mm f/3.5-5.6, ISO 1600, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000, Focal Length = 300]

When I went to The Big Island of Hawaii I saw online that there is a rodeo going on when I am there in Hilo. I just decided to travel with my Nikon D5 because of its unsurpassed ability to follow focus and freeze action.

The lens did a great job. Could I have done better with a 200-500mm–YES. However, I would then have to pack that large piece of glass.

I cropped a little in on these photos knowing that the main place I will use them is on my website. A 20 megapixel image can easily be cropped for this end use.

Cowboys compete in the steer wrestling at the 27th Annual Pana’Ewa Stampede Rodeo put on by the Hawaii Horse Owners in Hilo, Hawaii on February 18, 2019. [NIKON D5, 28.0-300.0 mm f/3.5-5.6, ISO 1800, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000, Focal Length = 210]

Now here are the settings I use for sports with my Nikon D5.

Pana’Ewa Stampede Rodeo Hawaii Horse Owners 27th Annual Hilo, Hawaii [NIKON D5, 28.0-300.0 mm f/3.5-5.6, ISO 2000, ƒ/5.6, 1/4000, Focal Length = 300]

While I had the brand new Nikon Z6 it doesn’t perform as well as the Nikon D5. The Nikon D5 computer does a much better job with focus and buffer. You can shoot 200 RAW images before the buffer fills up. That is a lot at 12 fps you can pretty much nail the shot.

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If I had to start over today

I would recommend for most people to invest in a mirrorless camera system. I would not recommend starting with the Nikon FM2 that I first started my professional career shooting.

Nikon Z6 with Sigma 24-105mm ƒ/4

Depending on when you ask me in my career what I would recommend the market is very different. With that said there are core things that do not change.

Cut Expenses

Start with basic gear. You don’t need the top end model camera. Today’s most basic camera will do just about all you need. The only thing I would think a little about is if you are doing photography and video then you would want to go with a camera that also had headphone and microphone jacks.

Food, Shelter & Transportation are needs, but if you are not careful you can be living beyond your means. Remember you are starting out and so keep all these to the bare minimums. Drive a cheap car, get a roommate and eat at home as much as possible.

Know what everything costs. You need to know exactly what you need to meet your bills. I like to budget by the month. I know exactly what I need to pay my monthly expenses. This is your personal budget, but you also need to know your business budget. To get these numbers NPPA has a really good Cost of Doing Business Calculator. Here is that link: https://nppa.org/calculator There are little “i” in a circle on each item. Click on that to learn more about each item.


  • Camera
  • 2 lenses
  • 5 in 1 reflector
  • Hot Shoe flash, Light Stand and umbrella
  • Memory Cards, batteries
  • Computer and Lightroom

You don’t need a lot. I would probably recommend having a second camera. This is more for backup than anything else. The rule is always have 2 cameras for any job that cannot be rescheduled.

You need a basic website. I recommend WordPress. I have it hosted with Godaddy. Create a domain name. Use this with your email address as well.

Get a business card. I would have your name, phone number, email and website domain name on the card.

Find your niche. I would start with headshots and family photos. You need very little gear and your network already exists.

Too many go after niche that requires a lot of gear. Sports is a great example. To compete in this area you need expensive telephoto lenses. The downside is the going rates for sports is one of the lowest in the industry.

Don’t try and market yourself for everything, but if someone calls then of course take the job. Just don’t over reach. Start small and realize you need to spend most of your time cold calling.

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KISS for portraits

Alexia Shepherd [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

When you are changing lighting setups or camera settings you are not able to pay attention to expressions. Trying to give a lot of variety with lighting setups may not be the best approach.

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid

It takes a lot more skill to get great face expressions than it takes to change a lighting setup. You have to build trust with the person. You have to have a connection with them so that together you can capture the true essence of the subject.

Alexia Shepherd [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

I do super minor lighting changes so that I can spend more time on getting lots of expressions.

One thing I do with my setup is just change the background from a grey to a white background.

I can pause just for a moment and turn on or off the two lights behind my white muslin background. Off I get a nice neutral grey. The light from the beauty dish is what is lighting the background and my subject.

When I have my background lights on they are giving me one stop more light than I have set on the subject. This gives me a really clean white background.

Chance Wills [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

I love to shoot 50 to 100 images before I change the background.

Chance Wills[NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

I encourage people to bring a couple of outfits. It is amazing to me how much wardrobe change impacts the final photo.

Will Oliver [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

Changing from a low-key photo to a high-key photo also can help change the mood of the photo.

Will Oliver [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

My tip is to pick one outfit and shoot a lot. Go for 100 photos without changing lighting. background or clothing. Then just change the background and repeat. After you have done that, then change outfits and shoot again.

Make the emphasis of the portrait/headshot session about getting an expression. Go past the extremes of sadness and joy. Then try and shoot all the nuances of expressions.

Chance Wills [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85] 

Don’t forget to get verticals and horizontal photos.

Andrew Mozingo [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

Most of all remember the thing that makes a great headshot is EXPRESSION!!!

Andrew Mozingo [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

It is much easier to get a pleasant and real expression if you have pushed the limits of expressions first.

Andrew Mozingo [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]
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What you can learn from actors

I believe there is such a thing as over directing a person during a head shot/portrait session.

I love working with actors because they want to use their skills and rarely get to do that with photographers during a head shot.

Maggie Cook [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

Before I get a really intimate and what I would call transparent moment with a subject they have to be really relaxed and comfortable with me.

Maggie Cook [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

One of my techniques I use is to ask “actors” to give me as many face expressions as you can in 30 seconds. Those just starting out in acting often will struggle, but for those who love to perform and do a variety of characters this is like a psychogenic ‘trip’. They are Thrill-Seekers whose risk is being perceived as being weird or off.

So “pushing the envelope” or “pushing the limits” means to test the boundaries of what is safe or acceptable in a given situation, by exceeding those boundaries.

Macy Frazier [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

Once I have gone with them on this journey of letting them perform and risky expressions, they tend to let me in.

They are able to tap into their emotions and let me see them through their eyes and on their faces.

Timothy Villalovas [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

For me the hardest type of photos to get with people is one where their personality is being projected.

Katy Johnson [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4.5, 1/125, Focal Length = 85]

Even the smile photos are more genuine and inviting than had I not gone through asking them to give me all their expressions.

I just spend my time slowly adjusting the heads so that the light works best a that their expressions are captured in the most effective way. That might mean I lower an raise the camera angle to their eyes.

I work hard at getting rid of things like double chins.

Will Oliver [NIKON Z 6, 85.0 mm f/1.8, ISO 50, ƒ/4, 1/160, Focal Length = 85]

The way I like to think of getting a great expression is that you need to have the subject go past the acceptable moment to an extreme.

My role is to create a safe environment where it is OK to try any expression with the goal being that by pushing the limits we are able to be truly transparent. This is when great moments can happen.

How do you get to the next level?

  1. Educate Yourself. Have a goal in mind. …
  2. Move From Thinking to Doing. …
  3. Face Your Fear. …
  4. Embrace Your Challenge. …
  5. Avoid Procrastination. …
  6. Adapt a “No Failure” Attitude. …
  7. Create a positive environment.
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