Watch background and lighting ratios in your photos

Nikon D750, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM, ISO 50, ƒ/7.1, 1/160

When I am shooting something in the studio as simple as this setup is here I test a few things to be sure all the lights are as I want them to be for the final image.

Here is the setup for the photo above:

Watch your backgrounds

One of the things all photographers need to pay attention to is their backgrounds. Now not just compositionally, but just as important is the light ratio as compared to the subject. For the most part you don’t want it too bright.

Here your eye goes to the background and not the subject that I want your eye to go to first. Pay attention to this when you are shooting in natural light.

How do you fix this? You can move the subject or move your feet and circle the subject until you find a darker background. You can also add more light to the subject. You can do that with a reflector or a flash for example.

Now another thing I think can help your photos is a backlight shining on the subject to create a rim light.

Here there is a light just slightly behind the subject pointed down. Now here it is a little too bright. But sometimes it can work.

Nikon D4, Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.8G, ISO 50, ƒ/2.8, 1/60

Here are a few more examples of backlighting:

Nikon D3S, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/2.8, 1/400
Nikon D3, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/1.4, 1/4000

Now notice in the photos how the background is slightly darker than the subject. With photography you can take control of this with your camera. In all three of the portraits here I use an auxiliary flash off the camera to brighten the subject just enough so that the sunlit areas in the background were not blown out.

Three tips to remember:


  • Watch your background
  • Use Backlight
  • Watch the ratio of light on subject versus the background

What photojournalism has taught me

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 400, ƒ/11, 1/250 

Photojournalism is a particular form of journalism (the collecting, editing, and presenting of news material for publication or broadcast) that employs images in order to tell a news story. It is now usually understood to refer only to still images, but in some cases the term also refers to video used in broadcast journalism. Photojournalism is distinguished from other close branches of photography (e.g., documentary photography, social documentary photography, street photography or celebrity photography) by complying with a rigid ethical framework which demands that the work is both honest and impartial whilst telling the story in strictly journalistic terms. Photojournalists create pictures that contribute to the news media. ––Wikipedia

In photojournalism you are capturing moments rather than creating them. This is a great way to learn how to capture those moments that help convey the events of the day.

Since you cannot stage your coverage you learn how to go about capturing life. You are trained that you need to get those elements that you can later choose from to help construct a sequence of images that when accompanied with words will tell a story of the day.

The Establishing Shot

The photo above is a great example of an establishing shot. Well maybe not great as in call the pulitzer committee, but for covering the Fort Worth Stockyards it does help establish the place which your story takes place.

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 100, ƒ/4, 1/320 

Stand Alone

When shooting for news the photojournalist is mindful of space of the publication. They are looking for the one shot that helps convey most of the story elements. Here is example from the morning I was at the Fort Worth Stockyards that might work as a stand alone shot. You can see the herd of cattle being moved as they do each day by the cowboy.

Detail Shots

Nikon D3, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 2500, ƒ/1.4, 1/320

You may just go down the street to the world famous Billy Bobs and capture some boot scoot dancing for some detail shots.

Nikon D3, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 2500, ƒ/1.4, 1/320

You may just capture some portraits of the patrons for some of your detail shots for the story.

Nikon D3, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 6400, ƒ/1.4, 1/160

The challenge for the photojournalist is to capture those eye candy moments that are part of the story and not just graphically interesting.

Thinking larger package

Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 1000, ƒ/2.8, 1/125

My mentor Don Rutledge taught me there are times you really just don’t have an ending shot but rather just more examples of the flavor of the story. This here is the world famous Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant where you cannot make a reservation. Bridal parties will just come and wait to be seated on their wedding days.

Nikon D3, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 6400, ƒ/1.4, 1/160

Every time I am at the Fort Worth Stockyards I feel like I am in a travel story for some western magazine.

Nikon D3S, AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, ISO 200, ƒ/5.6, 1/320

What photojournalism taught me was that if you pay attention and are sensitive to the moment you can anticipate great moments that are more powerful for the most part over a well produced movie. I think this is true because of the authenticity of the moment always trumps something made up.

Seeing Rembrandt lighting and then creating it

Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 2200, ƒ/4, 1/500

This morning while eating breakfast at Ken’s House of Pancakes in Hilo, Hawaii I noticed what appeared to be a mother and daughter together. Now analyzing the photograph I know that the reason they caught my eye was the lighting on the mother’s face.

It is what we call Rembrandt lighting, which is named after the famous painter known for using this lighting technique in many of his paintings.

Add caption

There is a little triangle of light on the dark side of the face when a light is 45º to the side of the subject as well as 45º above the subject.

Tomorrow the students in the class will learn how to create the triangle on a person’s cheek to create Rembrandt lighting. This is my first lesson in lighting, which I think is a great place to start.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, , ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/200–four Alienbees

To get this triangle the students will use a similar setup to this shot. For this shot I used four lights. the students will only use one.

They will use just the one light with a spot grid on it.

Here is there assignment they will get tomorrow. How about you try it yourself.

Rembrandt Lighting Assignment

I gave the class an assignment on making a Rembrandt light portrait using just one light with a 10º or 20º spot grid.

Most everyone in the class has never even turned on a studio strobe before.

Here is the assignment:

Rembrandt portrait using one grid light


Please get the best possible expression.  You need to see a triangle on their cheek.  Be sure the triangle includes lighting their eye.

Monobloc with 10 or 20 degree grid
You may use any power setting you choose.  Be sure skin tone is properly exposed and correct white balance.

Choose the lowest ISO setting for your camera.  Use a portrait lens 85mm – 100mm or if you don’t have full frame then 50mm will be OK.

You may use a black background as well.  No other lights to be used in this assignment.

Here one of the students shot from the past:

Photo by: Lauren R. Tercero

The Principles of photography versus the Techniques of Photography

Nikon D4, Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.8G, ISO 100, ƒ/1.8, 1/400

Have you ever noticed that when you use a technique that some famous photographer perfected and maybe even taught you that you don’t get the same results?

Maybe you have started to realize that you are implementing all these techniques correctly in your photos and you continue to not win any of the competitions you are entering.

There is a great moment in the movie Remember the Titans about how “… attitude reflects leadership.” Here listen to the clip:

Where is your heart?

It wasn’t so much what I did that made a difference–it was how I thought. I started to ask myself why certain techniques worked and others didn’t. I soon noticed that when a strategy was wildly successful, it had more to do with the fact that I honored a principle than the strategy itself. When a strategy was less successful, that too could be directly related to a principle I violated.

Principle is much deeper understanding of something than a strategy. By understanding the why and not so much the what or how you understand how to implement it better because you are able to be much more flexible. Your ability to be flexible is because you are more relaxed. You “GET IT” and because you do you are able to listen more and look more for ways to implement. This is when real creativity can take place.

The principle of the technique frees you up, whereas the technique alone will freeze you up.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 800, ƒ/1.4, 1/160

I remember this photo shoot I was doing to help a young actress with her headshots. I could see right in front of me what I wanted to capture, but it just wasn’t working. I was shooting with soft boxes using strobes and the depth of field was too big.

I wanted to shoot at ƒ/1.4. The technique of always using my strobes in the studio setting was a technique. I was letting that technique get in the way of the principle of soft lighting.

These lights are just too much and then I relaxed and realized the modeling lights might be just enough to make it work. So I turned off the radio remote and opened the 85mm lens to ƒ/1.4 and then cranked the ISO up to 800 and then started shooting.

That is only a small part of why I love this photo. You see there is another part of the creative process. I had been noticing her looks and mood they were creating. I talked to her about how certain looks of hers were reminding me of some famous actresses in Hollywood.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/200

I thought here that she looked like Evil Queen/Regina Mills (Played by Lana Parrilla) on Once Upon a Time. She loved that actress and was pleased I saw her in that way.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/1.4, 1/80

I told her how she reminded me of Anna May Bates (played by Joanne Froggatt) of Downton Abbey in this photo.  Well her mom was there and said I was mentioning all her favorites. We were connecting.

You see the principle of lighting and WHY was driving the creative process and not just put the light here and look here.

Nikon D4, Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.8G, ISO 50, ƒ/2.8, 1/60

For the photos of the beautiful blonde I was just trying to capture her personality. She is such a ham and just loves to have fun. Not too serious at all. After a while I was connecting with her like the humble kid next door.

Then as we changed locations I started to see how certain locations would bring out different parts of her personality. They would compliment her and create a mood. The last photo here is what I think of when I think of the famous Dove Girl ads.

You see we have been talking about the principles of portraits and not so much technique.

If you just love photography because of playing with all the gear, then just be ready to accept mediocrity. However if what motivates you is inspiring imagery then learn to get in touch with your heart and what moves you and then you too will create great images.

Forming a Photographic Style

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/1.4, 1/80

My friends and I were teaching a class and we had one student that we all were trying to figure out why they were taking the class. He found each of us and wanted to tell us all he knew about photography.

One of us mentioned how it takes 10,000 hours to master something. Malcom Gladwell talks about this in his book and I have written about it as well on the blog. Here is that link.

The student then went on to say then I am a master then. One is a master when others acknowledge it about you and not the other way around.

My mentor Don Rutledge was trying to form a style and talks about how one guy told him about his style.

Listen to Don talk about it here:

Your browser does not support the audio element.
Now if you want to hear the entire talk by Don then here it is for you.

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Why is it so hard to establish one’s style? I think the hardest thing for most pros is the lack of feedback.

Once you were a hobbyist your friends would compliment your work and tell you how good you are and you should be a photographer. Once however you become a pro, they no longer give you that feedback. Why? You see now you are expected to make great photos.

I think professional photographers need to seek out and pay for feedback.

The other day my friend Will Flora did an experiment with some workers. He is a training director for  a company. He got some front line workers to come to a bowling alley where he paid them to bowl for the day.

There was a catch. He had covered all the monitors and put up a curtain so they could not see how many pins they took down or see their scores. After a while the workers wanted to quit and go home.
They were being paid to bowl for the day and they wanted to quit.

As they were taking off their shoes, Will removed the curtain and uncovered the monitors. A guy asked if they could still bowl without the stuff in the way. He said of course. They then started to bowl and have fun. You see people enjoy work when they understand their part–especially when they can make a game of it.

Nikon Coolpix P7000, ISO 100, ƒ/7.1, 1/1000

While it is important that you get paid as a professional photographer and paid a good wage for your creative talents we still need and want feedback. How are we doing?

Here is a to do list for you:

  1. Find Mentor/Coach to help you discover your style
  2. Be sure the style you are pursuing is the core of who you are and want to become
  3. If you like a photo and you know the photographer take time and tell them that you like it and why. You gotta be willing to give feedback if you want to receive it.
Fuji X-E2, FUJINON XF 55-200mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/8, 1/400
Don’t be the photographer that is a legend in their own mind.

Same model but different looks

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/160

I am not going to comment too much on today’s blog of photos.

These are all of the same young lady and all shot in a couple of hours. We changed the outfits, makeup, and lighting.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/160

Notice how much of a different personality comes through by changing backgrounds and lighting.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/160

Bangs vs. No Bangs changes her face.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/160

I think without the bangs makes her face look narrower than with the bangs. I think changing the colors she is wearing helps change the mood.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/1.4, 1/80

All I did here to change the setup was not use the strobes inside the softbox, but used the modeling lights. I custom white balanced using the ExpoDisc. I also opened up the ƒ-stop to ƒ/1.4 to give that really shallow depth-of-field which created a silky smooth transition from front to back in the photo.

When she put her hair in a ponytail she became yet another personality.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 400, ƒ/1.4, 1/125

Shooting slightly down at her and then shooting more eye level also changes the mood she creates for the viewer.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 400, ƒ/1.4, 1/125

Backing up with the Nikon 85mm and showing her shoulders and more of her hair let a little more body language into the portrait.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 400, ƒ/1.4, 1/125

Really taking her sultry look further was to play it up with outfit and lighting.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/200

Using a grid light on her face rather than the softbox created a harsher look and then adding red to the background helped me accentuate the red lipstick. I also brought the aperture back up to make her razor sharp from front to back.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 800, ƒ/1.4, 1/125

Same outfit, lipstick and by changing the background and using the softboxes without flash I was able to soften up the exact same person and outfit.

Nikon D4, AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D, ISO 800, ƒ/1.4, 1/125

Lesson from all these photos is that you can do a lot if you have different outfits and mix up your lighting and even lens choice.

Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.4D my go to portrait lens

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 800, ƒ/1.4, 1/160

Today I had a lot of fun helping a young actress build her portfolio. Her mother wrote to me saying “We are need of getting some Headshots done for my daughter’s acting webpage.  She is an actress and has an agent here in Atlanta.”

You can see the young actress Kalyn Wood on her Facebook page here.

They were needing four different looks. So we shot for about 4 hours and had some fun. All the images were shot with the Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.4D.

Sometimes I would white balance for the modeling lights and not use the flash like in the photo above. I did this so I could shoot at ƒ/1.4. She is thinking about using this as the big photo you first see landing on her page. Makes sense because of the horizontal format will work great on the webpage.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 400, ƒ/1.4, 1/100

I think she did a great job of bringing some great variations of expressions to create those different looks and then I tried to light the photos to match the mood we were looking to produce.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 400, ƒ/1.4, 1/125

By just changing some clothes and hair we could get a completely different look.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 200, ƒ/1.4, 1/80

For this photo here I talked to her about the character Anna Bates in Downton Abbey.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/200

For this photo with the red background we talked about The Evil Queen/Regina Mills in the ABC series Once Upon a Time.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/160

In this photo I can easily see her as one of the cast in Pretty Little Liars.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/160

What is important to know is that it is much easier to have something in mind together that you are creating than to just pick up a camera and start shooting. Together we were able to get some great images, but we both had to be on the same page.

She had to bring expressions and clothing for each of the shots. I had to light and compose the photos to help create that mood.

You know anyone wanting to build a model or acting portfolio, then send them my way and we can have some fun creating something together.

Nikkor 28-300mm ƒ/3.5 – 5.6 can replace the Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.4

Nikon D4, 28-300mm (300), ISO 100, ƒ/5.6, 1/25 – Off camera fill-flash using the Nikon SB-900.  The Flash is on the Pocketwizard TT5 and being triggered by the Mini TT1 on the Camera with the AC3 to control the output of the flash. Flash is -2 EV and the camera is -1 EV.


Bokeh originated in the Japanese word [boke], which means blur. Today many photographers are going out and buying the ƒ/1.4 lenses to get that silky smooth background for when you shoot the lens wide open.

If the reason I am reaching for a lens based on getting a silky smooth out of focus background I might be wasting my time. You see so much of what I shoot is with the AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR and to take the lens off to put on my AF NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF I could be just creating an unnecessary step.  

If you compare the lenses at the same aperture and focal length then it would make more sense to grab the 85mm ƒ/1.4. As you can see in the photo below shot on the 85mm @ ƒ/5.6 the background isn’t all that silky Bokeh.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 100, ƒ/5.6, 1/50 – Off camera fill-flash using the Nikon SB-900.  The Flash is on the Pocketwizard TT5 and being triggered by the Mini TT1 on the Camera with the AC3 to control the output of the flash. Flash is -2 EV and the camera is -1 EV.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 100, ƒ/2, 1/50 – Off camera fill-flash using the Nikon SB-900.  The Flash is on the Pocketwizard TT5 and being triggered by the Mini TT1 on the Camera with the AC3 to control the output of the flash. Flash is -2 EV and the camera is -1 EV.

Shooting however at ƒ/2 you are seeing a major difference on the 85mm as compared to itself. But now compare it to the first photo on this blog shot with the 28-300mm when the lens is zoomed in to 300mm and shot wide open at ƒ/5.6.  I am having a really hard time seeing any difference in the Bokeh.

Nikon D4, 85mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 100, ƒ/1.4, 1/50 – Off camera fill-flash using the Nikon SB-900.  The Flash is on the Pocketwizard TT5 and being triggered by the Mini TT1 on the Camera with the AC3 to control the output of the flash. Flash is -2 EV and the camera is -1 EV.

When shooting at ƒ/1.4 with the 85mm the depth-of-field is tad bit more shallow than the 300mm @ ƒ/5.6.

This is where you might just be scratching your head as I was after doing this little test.

The trick to getting that really silky smooth background has as much to do with how close you are to the subject as the ƒ-stop.

I would argue that if you are wanting that shallow depth of field with a creamy Bokeh you can do it with the 28-300mm ƒ/5.6 and not have to buy another lens to carry around.

There are other reasons you might want an 85mm ƒ/1.4 in your bag–stay tuned in for that post later.