Two Photographs by Sheila Morgan

Two Photographs by Sheila Morgan

Sheila Morgan is a photographer that I worked with in the Bay Area on a One-on-One consultation. Her lighting skills needed a bit of a clean up and we spent a day in the studio and a day on location working on various lighting challenges. I really enjoy the one one one experiences, and for those of you who receive the newsletter, you have read what Sheila thought of it as well.

In this shot, she used lighting and Photoshop together to make an image that would have required more gear than she had on this trip. In addition it would have necessitated a setup that would have been quite difficult to do with the wind gusts.

We used a very simple technique to blend the non-problem areas with the areas that had the light and bright fall off.

This is a video of how it was done.

Photograph by Sheila Morgan

Photograph by Sheila Morgan

The Photograph was taken a little bit north of Santa Cruz, CA on Highway 1. There is no Photoshop on this image other than what you see in the video. Sheila may introduce some other post-processing, but for this article it is SOOC.

Bri in color on the beach

Photograph by Sheila Morgan (click to enlarge)

This photo was taken a few miles north at a beach we found right after the trees shot above. It was cold… no, I mean it was really cold… but we ventured on anyway.

We knew the speedlight was going to be a problem because in this wind, the tripod mounted camera would still be moving. We set up the “big gun” Profoto 300′s with a beauty dish and headed on out to this wonderful little ‘fort’ built out of driftwood. This was quite spectacularly created and the wood was extremely heavy.

We had a wonderfully subtle, but active sky and Sheila wanted to show that off. She began making her exposures based on the Sunny 16 Rule and settled on f-18 at 1/100 of a second at ISO 100. This effectively lowered the ambient about 2/3 to a stop. The sun was coming through a thin layer of clouds which was bringing down the direct sun by about a third every now and then. Sheila wanted Briana and the colors to stand out.

She based the exposure on the ambient being darker than the flash. The beauty dish was brought in to the correct distance and power for f-18 (what, you think I don’t have a rope-meter for myself?) and Sheila began shooting.

Note how she placed the sun to camera left, and slightly behind Bri to cast shadows forward and show the texture of the driftwood. The slight underexposure resulted in the sand not being as ‘hot’ as it was and muting slightly the sky and clouds. As before, this shot is straight out of camera but for a small piece of wood that was coming out from behind Briana’s head. We knew we had to take it out when she shot it, ┬ábut it was impossible to move and keep Bri in this perfect composition.

The beauty dish is right out of frame to camera right and at the same angle as the sun from the opposing side. I kept the angle of the BD straight up and down as well, as I didn’t want the shadow Bri was casting to be opened up with that tell-tale flash look.

Briana was quite the trooper for this shot as we were all freezing and Sheila and I were wearing coats.

I think Sheila and Bri did a great job on these two shots, and a big shout out to Shiela for letting me use them in this article.

More coming on this image deconstruction thing here on Lighting Essentials.

See more of Sheila’s work at her website.

Questions? Comments?

Use the comment section below.


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Anatomy of a Shoot in the Middle of Nowhere…

Anatomy of a Shoot in the Middle of Nowhere…

“Well, ya’ll could ride with me if you want…”

He was walking toward us from his pickup truck in the cold, early morning light of Florence, Arizona. Wide brimmed cowboy hat and real cowboy boots. And he was all smiles.

Florence is a very small town southeast of Phoenix, and also the home of our state prison. We were standing in front of a little market that was preparing to open. “We” were myself, Jon Gabriel, art director and marketing guy for the Goldwater Institute, and Bob Dunn, Arizona rancher.

We were out to make a photograph of him and a fellow rancher that had just completed a 10 year study on land use and the Desert Tortoise. It had started with a problem and they had worked tirelessly to the end… a good end for them.

And the desert tortoises of Central Arizona.

“It isn’t that far from Florence, but it there is some dirt road,” Bob smiled as he shook my hand.

It was cold and cloudy, but I declined. I had a lot of gear in the car and if it did rain, it could be a problem in the back of his pickup truck.

We followed Bob out along a small paved road for about 20 miles before we turned south on a wide, paved, semi-washboarded road. Directly in front of us was a mountain range and directly over it were some very ominous clouds.

I was thinking we would turn in at each ranch we came to, but we kept on chugging up that road… farther and farther into the desert.

No bars. Yep, we were without cell phones and the storm clouds had mustered up quite a rain for us. It poured like crazy and we slowed to about 30 mph as we bounced over washboards and flew through running creek beds.

We didn’t have to suffer the rain long though.

It quickly turned to snow.

Yes… snow in the Arizona Desert. I mentioned that it was pretty cold, right?

The “bit of dirt road” turned into about 50 miles of dirt road. Hard, dirt road. I was beginning to think it would have been wise to check the gas tank before heading out this far into nowhere, but I figured they would have some gas at the ranch if I needed it.

I don’t know why I thought that, it just felt good to think about as we were without cell phones on a now tiny dirt road way far into the desert in a snow storm.

Finally we headed up a hill and around the bend into a wonderfully grand house in the middle of a rustic, working cattle ranch. We were greeted with an astonished… “You drove THAT all the way up here?”

I guess PT Cruisers were not the choice of ranches where the roads were less than hospitable. Who knew?

(As to why I am driving a PT Cruiser… it is a long and painful story.)

We were invited in for lunch and to wait out the misting snow and rain, and we met some of the nicest, and smartest, folks around. There were a lot of PHD’s in that room of ranchers. More than one each. Land Management, Sustainable Ranching, Land Use and Water Rights…

As I said, some really smart guys.

As fast as it came in, the rain dissipated and we headed outside for the shoot.

We had chewed up about an hour waiting for the rain to subside and both of the guys wanted to get back to work.

I grabbed my two bags, one camera bag and my Standbagger Grab-n-Go with two speedlights, two stands, a mini boom, two umbrellas and a set of triggers. In the car was my Profoto kit with an extra battery, four stands, a larger boom, some modifiers and two additional sets of triggers.

Camera wise, it is the same kit I carry for nearly every shoot. Canons, an assortment of lenses from 20MM – 200MM and my Minolta Meter.

I set the gear up on the porch and moved it to the very saturated grass as I built the lighting. I used a couple of speedlights on a boom, and radio triggers to fire them.

Radio triggers that didn’t seem to want to cooperate in the still misting air.

A quick trip to the car for my backup kit, and we were up and ready for that first test shot.

“Thanks” they said and started to walk off.

We said we were coming up to do a picture of them and I just did one.

Ranchers near Superior, Arizona, 2012

This was from the first set of images we did on the little bluff. Behind them and out of sight was the stables area, and I loved the clearing storm clouds for the backdrop.

We explained that I will probably do several more shots and I got the sneaking suspicion that they then figured I must be new if I have to take more than one.

Sometimes I feel the same way.

I did a shot of Bob and Walt (Meyer) on a little spit of land overlooking his stables and then I realized that this big ol’ tree was just the thing I needed to give the image a bit more context.

Still using the speedlights, we got them under the tree and relaxed, talking about the land and the great weather we were having. Right on cue, the dog joined us. We also included Walt’s daughter, Katie Cline in this shot as she was a big part of the study.

I got six shots, and the shoot was over.

“Got lots to do…”

I was shooting to a square format, as the original designs were to be square. A change in design meant a change in the imagery, but that was not a problem. I shot with some room around the subjects to give the art director some wiggle room with the images.

Here is the image as was used in the 2011 Goldwater Institute Annual Report.

Goldwater Institute Annual Report Photograph by Don Giannatti

And here is the original image as shot.
Goldwater Institute Annual Report Photograph by Don Giannatti - no crop

Sometimes you get all the time you need to shoot, and other times you better be prepared for not having much time at all. This was unique as after driving for nearly two and a half hours, I would have expected to have a bit more time. But that was not the case. The storm had eaten into my shoot time, and now it was down to a matter of a few minutes.

In the end we got nearly 30 shots total – including the test shots. There were so many places and ideas that I had wanted to do that it was a bit disappointing that I couldn’t keep shooting.

The final shot looked pretty good, and the client liked it a lot. So I count this as a successful shoot. This was one of six portraits we shot for the annual report, and all of them were unique in their own way. I may share some of those stories as well.

I really enjoyed this shoot, and working with Jon was a blast. We made it out of the mountains and to a gas station with no problem and by the time we were back in Phoenix there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.


I was recently on creativeLIVE and have┬áreceived┬ásome rave reviews of the workshop. If you are interested in taking a look at the workshop, you can find it on creativeLIVE’s web site here. I think it is a tremendous value and if you are unable to attend any of my workshops, this may give you a ton of information you will want to have to push your photography to the next level.

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Shooting Fast: Keeping the ‘Mojo’ Going

Well this was a fun gig. Once per year my friend Troy asks me to photograph his choir kids for a year of marketing for them. We spend about 4 hours and shoot a gazillion images. Neat part… he lets me do what I want. I can be as ‘creative’ as I want – as long as we get it done in 4-5 hours.

This time Troy wanted to do a poster of the kids to introduce the choir program to the school. He wanted to make it fun and exciting – not the normal ‘choir robes’ type of static shot. In this, as in many other inner-city schools, getting kids interested in choir takes a commitment to marketing. We started by sketching up a grid poster idea, then looked in the room for a place to shoot it. In Troy’s classroom, there are very few blank walls… it is a haven for music lovers. Posters, charts and more on every square foot.

We found a spot, took down a few posters and set it for our shoot space. This would be a place I would return to every moment I wasn’t shooting the choirs and the seniors. (I told you we shoot about a gazillion images, didn’t I?) To do that, I had to keep my ‘MOJO’ in play. That little thing inside us that keeps us centered or crazy (depending on need) for extended time. Mojo is an old, out of date term… I’m old and out of date… seems apropos. More after the jump below.

Before we take that jump, let’s take a quick look at some very cool posts from the web. has an article about the single portraits I did of the seniors. Check it out.
Hamburger Eyes from Chase Jarvis. You just gotta watch it.
Kirk Tuck stirs thing up with this post on the Flickr-ization of Photography. Leave a comment!
Bruce DeBoer has an interesting interview with Dominek Rella, Creative Director, at Permission to Suck.
Workin’ hard to get those Social Media numbers up? Seth Godin has some insight.
Good advice from Gary Vaynerchuk… as always.

And some popular posts here as well.
8 Essential Sites for Photographers.
Branding Your Photography Business: A Practical Approach.
10 Nifty, Excellent Excuses for Failing at Photography

If you are looking for a workshop, take a look at Learn to Light for our schedule and sign-up pages.

Jan 16, 17 : Phoenix (first one of the year… woohoo!)
Jan 30, 31 : Seattle (This workshop rocks… great studio and incredible talent)
Feb 6, 7 : San Diego (Last years San Diego workshop was amazing.)
Feb 27, 28 : Houston (Three-peat for Houston. Great town for us)
March 13, 14 : Santa Cruz (First time in Santa Cruz. Excited about that.)
March 27, 28 : New Orleans (Never even been to NO… very cool!)
April 17, 18 : Philadelphia (Philly is one of my favorite towns.)
April 24, 25 : Omaha (We had a ball in Omaha last time… probably have one again this time!)

Look for an announcement about Austin coming soon. we hope. Heh.

We have had some pretty interesting discussions at the LE FLickr Forum lately. Marketing, introducing your work to potential clients, lighting information and more. Join us, it’s free and fun.

And if you are looking for gear… MPEX has a little icon on the upper right of this page. Clicking on that will take you to the Lighting Essentials page (stuff I like) and you can save 10% on your first order. As long as you enter through this link, you can then go anywhere on the site and the 10% will be in effect. Save $180-$200 on Dynalite and Profoto Lighting kits… That’s cool. Thanks MPEX.

You can also save 50% ($100) on Selina Maitreya’s incredible audio program “The View From Here”… Just use the code FOSLE at checkout. I bought a little iPod shuffle and loaded this on it. Walking, flying, relaxing in the yard… that little iPod is clipped to my shirt.

Now let’s take a look at how to keep the shoot moving, under pressure, without losing the enthusiasm of the subjects.


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Gear… OK, Let’s Discuss Gear. Photographic Tools That I Like

Discussing Gear I Like at Lighting Essentials, a Place for Photographers

I get a lot of questions about gear at the workshops and by email. I have lots to say about gear, but I am not a gear-head. I love gear that helps make my work easier, and couldn’t care less about cost or prestige. If something works well I like it. And if it isn’t worth a premium price, I wont spend a premium price. Period.

There are lots of camera manufacturers, lots of lighting manufacturers and lots of gear manufacturers to choose from. And this article is in no way stating that other peoples choices are wrong. These are the tools I use and like a lot. I do not do negative reviews, so if I talk about it, it is because I like it.

Before we get to the specific items, I want to let everyone know that the workshops are going to be offered again next year and we will have the schedule up soon at Learn to Light. They have been very successful for us, and we are kicking them up a notch with a lot of interesting learning tools for next year. Everything will go up but the price. We are holding at our current price and still keeping to our very small 10-12 participants. If you are thinking about a workshop for your photography, I hope that you take a look at our schedule and mark one you like.

I want to link back to a few other gear articles we have done before getting going here.

Simple Setups for Dramatic Lighting
Mini Workshop: Location Portraits and Glamour
Speedlights: Unleash Their Creative Power
ON LOCATION: with Jerry OConnor, Jim Vigileos and Christina
Enough Modifiers to Keep It Interesting
Shoot Thru Umbrella and Bounce Umbrella – A Comparison
Twenty+ Non-Photographic Essentials For Location Photography

And a few recent articles you should be aware of:
Still Life Shot for a Magazine Ad
Modifying Natural Light with Simple Tools
And this 10 post long series on Going Pro. We are adding more to the Going Pro real soon.

Some new blogs and sites that I love are also something I want to share.

Heather Morton is an Art Buyer in Canada. Her blog is so damn interesting I cannot recommend it more. Absolutely amazing look at the real world of advertising photography. Also there is the wonderful blog by Nick Onken. Nick is one of my favorite shooters and his blog is very insightful. Rodney Smith is also one of my all-time favorite shooters. He now has a blog and it is fascinating reading.

I hope to meet more of you next year, and we are sure loving the fact that so many of you are telling your friends about Lighting Essentials. Thanks so much for your support.

And we still have a few openings in Pittsburgh and Boise. One spot left in Boston and one in Detroit. Florida is full. We will be starting next year with San Diego and Houston. See Learn to Light for more information.

So let’s get going on the gear post.


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Strobe and Ambient: Finding the Mix for Portraiture

Finding your ambient exposure first can make shooting a flash portrait much easier.

I get asked a lot about how my methodology works. What am I thinking about when setting the light? How do I know what the settings should be.

For this post I have pulled some shots from last years workshop tour. I will explain the exposure planning as we go along. From mixing the ambient with the speedlights or overriding the ambient altogether, the knowledge of what the image should look like will help you decide.

And what should the image look like? Well, that is up to you. In photography there seems to be an endless amount of possibilities and you can pretty much do what you want. Stylistically and artistically, you can make the image you want by working with the light your way.

The neat thing is that the light works the same way, every time. So you can “learn” the light and its abilities and controls and be comfortable that the light will do what you expect it to.

I always carry a little book with me to sketch ideas in and also to document how I do something for later review. I decided to scan those extemporaneous drawings so you can see how simple it is to do the shots, and how important it can be to carry a small notebook for making notes. You don’t have to be an artist, but it sure helps to LEARN what you are doing by writing it down. I don’t do every shot, but sometimes I like to just sketch it quick and then see if there is anything else I could do.

Before we get going on this post, I want to remind you about the upcoming workshops: Akron, Omaha, Montana and Chicago. These workshops are intense and full of information that goes even beyond lighting. From professional working methods to using social media to gain exposure, we talk about photography all day long. For two full days. Visit the Learn to Light website for more information.

If you are currently looking for a new way to present your work, take a look at our Professional Photographer Websites built on the power of WordPress. Just click the Essentials link on the menu bar for more information.

Now lets look at five different portrait setups that use speedlights and ambient light.


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