A couple of months ago, a friend forwarded me the UT Informal Classes catalog and asked if anything looked interesting. I’d been under the impression that these classes were getting cut due to budget cuts, but apparently not. (I don’t read the local news as often as I used to.)

I looked through the list of classes: classical guitar, piano, Russian, microwave cookery (OK maybe not, that might be a Simpsons reference) and landed upon a class in flash photography.

Suddenly I recalled all the difficulties I’d had using my flash unit. I have a Canon 580 EXII flash, top-of-the-line, that I bought in late 2009 (or thereabouts). It has really improved the quality of my pictures when compared to the on-camera flash of the 60D (or more accurately, the 450D I had at the time) but there are some tricks to using it.

For example, take a picture of your friends in a bar using flash. Notice that the background is very dark. This is because you are asking the camera to provide enough light for the subject, not the background. The camera uses the flash to light the subject and sets the shutter speed to something like 1/250th of a second, meaning the shutter isn’t open long enough to absorb ambient light, meaning the background is dark. (You can usually correct this issue by using rear-curtain sync with a slow shutter speed.)

Another difficulty is the deer-in-the-headlights (or “Casper the Ghost”) look of your friends in these pictures. It’s because the flash is aimed directly at their faces, blasting them with a short high-intensity burst of light. Lighting is more pleasing (softer; less harsh) when it is not aimed directly at the subject. External flash units (those purchased separately, e.g., not built into the camera) raise the light source up a little higher above the lens so the light falls more naturally on the subject, avoiding red-eye. Most of these flash units also allow you to twist the flash head in order to bounce light off a nearby surface. Bouncing the light off a wall or ceiling is desirable because the surface spreads the light out; the bigger the light source is, the softer the light will be, reducing harsh glare & shadows on the subject of the photo.

I had done a tiny bit of reading on how to best use my flash to get the most pleasing light out of it, but such reading is hard when it’s directionless. E.g. I can go look at tons of web sites, but that doesn’t help me if I don’t know what I should be looking for.

So I signed up for the two-day class (two Saturday mornings for three hours each) and awaited my fate!

The classes turned out to be really intense. The instructor is obviously very experienced in camera and flash techniques such that he can describe them meticulously, perhaps even in his sleep. I think he’s been shooting for over 40 years. The breadth of knowledge was a little intimidating. Luckily he gave us a slide deck with all 400 slides for later reference. I also took notes on what I felt were the most important concepts.

He covered the basics, like direction and intensity of light, how to control that without the flash, then how to control it with the flash. He showed us numerous pictures he’d taken, both with and without the flash, compared them, and discussed how he lit them. He also showed us a variety of settings: outdoors in the sun, outdoors in the shade, indoors, outdoors at night, etc. Because of the volume of info, he went through these at a very rapid clip, but I think I managed to grasp the concepts behind most of his shots. Maybe?

He also covered lighting gear such as umbrellas, softboxes, lightstands, remote flash triggers, etc. His comments on how easy an umbrella is and how many situations it can be used in inspired me to order an lightstand and umbrella myself. I also bought some white foamcore from Jerry’s to use as a reflector (instead of a second flash). The gear ended up being like $140 total.

I have started taking portrait-style pictures of my friends to see what I can do. I”ve emailed the instructor for some feedback, and what he’s said has been very helpful. I have a little portrait studio set up in my living room!

I’m going to email more friends to set up practice appointments, like a tattoo/piercing apprentice would do, only significantly less painful 😉 I’ve already had a few friends say they want new pictures for their LinkedIn profile or whatever.

After taking the class, I now have a basic substrate for learning more about flash photography, which is exactly what I wanted. I am making a commitment to start small, take tiny steps forward, and be patient.

I know my limits better this time around. I don’t want to over-commit to something I can’t do and then end up frustrated because I can’t do it. This is what I did with music producing; I bit off way more than I could chew and got frustrated at the lack of results. Instead of making sounds, I started off making whole entire songs, which required I learn about not only music production but also music theory, song composition and structure, and so on. Since the songs sounded nothing like what I expected, I got upset at my lack of progress and eventually quit.

I enjoy the challenge of composing and exposing photos properly. I like thinking of all the different variables that go into a picture and tweaking them to come out with the best possible picture. Photos are also great because I get immediate feedback on them, unlike music where I’d have only a few friends knowledgeable enough to tell me what to improve on. Also a 5-minute techno track is harder to digest in one sitting than a photo.

Now when I look at pictures I mentally try to see how the lighting might’ve been set up in the same way I used to mentally dissect techno tracks for individual drum hits, synth sounds, etc. Actually I still do this somewhat. By breaking the photo down into its constituent parts, I continue learning about what I like and don’t like and start thinking about how I could achieve similar (or dissimilar) results.

I look forward to advancing my knowledge of this fun hobby!

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