The “Rebuild!”

Welcome back to our blog! We are rebuilding from scratch after a nasty hack-job on our old site, so please bear with us as we put it back together. We will feature free lessons and thoughts here from time to time. Some lessons will be from the archives while some will be fresh. Here is our first “catch-up post:”

Happy New Year everyone! 2015 was a great year for us at Hawaii School of Photography. One of the highlights for us was the publication of our Essential Photography Workbook. We are starting 2016 with a new feature: Hawaii School of Photography, in conjunction with Stephen Dantzig Productions, present “Lessons From the Archives!” I will use the “Throwback Thursday” format to revisit some of the shoots, images and projects that were influential in my development as a photographer and educator. I hope that you enjoy these weekly tidbits. As always, please email me with any questions or challenges you are facing and those questions might become the basis for a newsletter piece and/or new article. Mahalo!


I have to give credit to my good friend Harry Lang for igniting my love for complicated lighting schemes. We were working together a lifetime ago in Los Angeles. I was shooting very “safe” commercial images and Harry was growing restless. He kept asking “What if?” as in “I know we are shooting transparency film, but what if we overexpose it by two stops!??” I think I learned more from Harry than he learned from me!

Teresa black red lingerie close right eye covered

Fast forward about five years and I am a self-proclaimed light geek! I LOVE the interplay of different lights. This was one of my more complex lighting schemes (taken from my Softbox Lighting Techniques book). Seven lights were used to create these images of Teresa Bringas. There was considerable overlap among the lights, so each light was metered individually and in conjunction with other lights illuminating the same part of the scene. Great care was taken to keep each combination of lights within one-stop of the working aperture to stay within the exposure latitude of digital capture. Baby oil was applied to Teresa’s skin to accentuate the “glamour” feel of the image. However, it also made her skin more reflective, adding to the difficulties involved in controlling the highlights.

A Photoflex large Litedome was paired with a spotlight with a 40-degree gridspot as the basis for a hard-soft main light. The softbox was metered at f 5.6 and 4/10 while the spotlight was exposed at f 5.6 and 6/10. The combination of these two lights was f 8 and 4/10, but the spotlight takes on the look of a main light because it was so much smaller than the softbox co-main light [it was also slightly stronger than the softbox, adding to the increased impact on the final look].

Medium Stripdomes were used as side lights. Each light was metered at f 8 and 8/10 or f 8 and 9/10. Some of the light from the Stripdomes also lit Teresa’s cheeks—which were illuminated by the co-main lights. The camera was set at f 10 [f 8 and 2/3] to compensate for the extra light on her cheeks and also to slightly overexpose the rim light created by the Stripdomes.

A harder edge separation and hair light effect was created by adding spotlights behind Teresa. A 20-degree gridspot was placed on her right while a 30-degree gridspot lit her hair from her left. The gridspots were metered at f 8 and 8/10 and f 8 and 7/10 respectively. There were parts of her body and hair that were illuminated by the Stripdomes and spotlights. The light from each of these lights was practically the same, so the additive nature of light would dictate that the overlap would be one stop more light than each individual light. However, the angles involved were such that there wasn’t a direct overlap. Therefore, these lights sources were then metered together. The combination on her right was metered at f 11 4/10 while the exposure on Teresa’s left was f 11 and 6/10.

Finally, a backlight with a 40-degree gridspot illuminated the backdrop. The brownish muslin was slightly underexposed at f 8 and 2/10.

Teresa black red lingerie thighs cropped on left


I wrote a book on outdoor lighting several years ago that has received generally positive reviews…and at least one searing review. The main complaint about the book in that review was that I only talked about using professional studio strobes to demonstrate how I use flash outdoors. Well, that is because I only use powerful strobes outdoors! I have never been a big fan of smaller “speedlights,” especially when used on camera. The issue lies in the “quality of light” produce by small light sources: small lights=high contrast images that scream “FLASH!!!” My goal when using a flash outdoors is to NOT produce a “flashy” image. Larger, more powerful strobes allow me to use light modifiers to blend my strobe with the natural light to produce images that look…natural.

Look back to the images of Monica Ivey from last week (created with a large studio strobe). We talked about controlling the background density by changing the shutter speed. Notice though, that the ratio of flash to ambient light on Monica’s face changed as well: The image with the lighter background does not “look” flash-lit.

Monitoring the ratio of flash to ambient light on your subject’s face will help you immensely when using speedlights, even on camera.

Joan standing on sand sarong out 10 72

This was a first “test” with a fully manual (no TTL exposure) speedlight on camera. It is not bad, but the light on Joan’s face is flat and there is a strong shadow behind her. Joan and I set out on another day to create images that looked great with on-camera flash.

Joan sitting on wall f 16 10 72

The distance between your flash and your model (again, using a manual flash—I like to be in complete control) matters. The exposure of this close image was f 16 at 1/200th of a second. The image looks flash-lit.

Joan reclyning on wall looking off 10 72

Joan simply backed up a few feet (the “inverse square law” in effect) and the exposure became f 11 at 1/200th of a second. The “added” ambient light blends much more naturally with the flash and the image looks better to me.

Joan standing 10 72

We created an even better image by dropping the shutter speed slightly to 1/160th of a second. So, lesson learned…speedlights, even on camera, can be effective if you pay attention to the ratio between the flash and the ambient light illuminating your model.


We’ve been talking about monitoring and controlling your background exposure when using flash outdoors when the background is brighter than the foreground. It is equally important to keep track of your background if it is darker than the foreground: the power of the flash can easily turn a beautiful background into a black wall. In these cases, it is critical to once again pre-visualize the background and meter for that first—THEN set the strobe/ambient light accordingly to achieve a pleasing balance. There will be times when you will “drag the shutter” to get the effect you want.

FL looking right 10 72

The image of Joan Dantzig shows an example of “dragging the shutter,” or shooting a slow shutter speed, to maintain detail I what would be a very dark background. The shutter speed was 1/13 of a second.

Sharon cap fl shoulder against wall 10 72

It was important to keep the detail in the graffiti wall behind Sharon Sanchez to complete the urban mood of the image. It was a fairly bright day so we could shoot at 1/125th of a second to show a slight and natural looking fall-off of light behind Sharon.

This series of images of Monica Ivey really shows how changing the shutter speed (and re-metering the combination of the ambient light and flash on Monica) impacts both the background exposure and the ratio (impact) of the flash on Monica’s face.

Lighter background

A slower shutter speed creates a brighter background and a more natural “non-flash” look to the image.

Medium background

The slightly faster shutter speed darkens the background and makes it less distracting, while still looking natural and not too “flashy.”

Darker background

The faster shutter speed makes the backdrop a bit too dark and the flash is now more apparent.


Shiela reclyning on rocks

I’ve been talking about using a strobe to balance the foreground light (with strobe) with a brighter background.  Here is a short video of my outdoor lighting process:


I’ve often been asked why I don’t use a reflector instead of a strobe to balance the lighting in the foreground with the background. Reflectors work great if the background exposure is about the same (“neutral”) as the foreground or darker.


The gold reflector adds a nice simulated sunset to this image of Naomye. The background is within a reasonable range to the foreground and looks balanced.

Rayna by bushes

This image of Rayna was “grabbed” during an outdoor lighting class. We used a scrim to cut down the shadows from the harsh sun and a white reflector to bounce some highlights and add dimension to the photograph.

Reflectors do not work when the background is much brighter than the foreground. You need to add a strobe to create a pleasing image.

Ruth reflector

The background is too bright for a gold reflector to help much in this image of Ruthchelle.

Ruth flash

A strobe in conjunction with the gold reflector creates a beautifully balanced swimsuit image of Ruthchelle.


I posted a series of photographs last week and mentioned that they were from a pivotal shoot in my career. Three of the images were downright lousy, one was acceptable, and one was spot on. I mentioned that that was the shoot where I figured out how to use strobes outdoors. One person commented that three of them were badly exposed and two were “lucky.” Well, in actuality, all of the exposures of Brooke’s skin tones were perfectly exposed. The problem had to do with the relationship, or ratio, of light values from the background compared to the light exposing Brooke in the shade. Here are three more examples, each using a different method of creating shade to soften the quality of light on our models’ faces. The problem is now the same as we saw last week and the choices are to expose for  our models’ faces—and blow out the background—or expose for the background and create silhouettes of our subjects.

model exposure

Background exposure

The third choice is to add a strobe to the equation.

Teresa with strobe Jill with strobe Marissa with strobe

The point of last week’s lesson was to used your shutter speed to control the density of the background. I’ll make it even easier this week: meter for your background first. Then manipulate the output of your strobe (when combined with the ambient light in the shade you have created) to produce the same exposure at your subject’s face as the background! The results will be beautiful…and might turn into a magazine cover!

Marissa Steve 09

There is a very common, and I think unfortunate, saying photographing people under a cloud cover. The “Old Wives’ Tale” is that cloudy skies produce the best light to create portraits or other “people” photographs. This is partially true in my opinion. Cloudy skies DO eliminate the nasty shadows that direct sunlight produce, but the result is very often a flat, lifeless image…with no shadows or contrast. One way to add contrast and “modeling” (purposefully placed shadows according to whatever portrait style you want) is to add a flash to the set. I literally struggled for years trying to figure out how to effectively add strobes to my outdoor photography…until this shoot with Brooke on a beautiful beach on the Northeast corner of O’ahu, Hawai’i. Here is what I learned…I hope that you enjoy it and benefit from it!


The sun was in the “magic” position for these images of Brooke Tanaka. However, the sun was tucked behind some clouds, which would normally result in a usable—if flat—image. In this case the clouds were localized and cast a shadow on the foreground only. Brooke was photographed on beach in the Northeast corner of Oahu, Hawaii. As often happens in Hawaii, clouds formed over the Koolau Mountain range and blocked the late afternoon sun. However, the skies were bright and blue behind her. Therefore, the light behind Brooke was at least two stops brighter than the foreground creating a difficult lighting situation.  Flare results when more light enters the camera lens from behind your subject than that which illuminates your client. Any attempt to get a proper exposure on Brooke would have badly overexposed the background and still would have yielded a flat ugly main light effect. This is exactly what happened. It is NEVER a good idea to judge the main exposure from your LCD monitor on your digital camera, but the preview can give you a good idea of how the background is looking in relation to the overall effect. We kept trying faster shutter speeds until I got the effect I wanted. The final exposure was 1/250 of a second at f 8. 


The awful image of Brooke was fixed by introducing a strobe head fitted with a 30-degree gridspot to overpower the flat cloudy light and to bring the foreground level up to match the backdrop. The shutter speed was then adjusted to control the look of the backdrop. The strobe became the main light, so a faster shutter speed did not have much impact on the exposure of Brooke, but it did greatly affect the ambient light behind her. I kept changing the shutter speed and checking the preview window on my digital camera until I got the general look I wanted. I then re-metered the scene to make sure that exposure reading by Brooke’s cheek was accurate and went into “shoot” mode! I chose to use a spotlight for an “edgier” portrait, but a softbox would have worked as well—in fact, a softbox would have softened the light and diluted the shadow behind her. We will take a detailed look at using strobes outdoors later in this book.

The exposure for the lousy photograph of Brooke was f 5.6 1/3 at 1/30th of a second. The final image was shot at f 8 at 1/250th of a second—there is almost three stops difference between the two. I cannot honestly say that I “knew” to change the exposure by three stops, but here’s how we did it:

Still bad

The first thing we did was to add the spotlight which changed the aperture to f 8. We didn’t change the shutter speed, so the ambient light added a little to the exposure. There is more detail in the water but it is still a lousy image with an exposure of f 9 (f 8 and 3/10) at 1/30th of a second.

Getting there

We changed the shutter speed to 1/125th of a second because we knew that 1/60th wouldn’t make enough difference. It turns out that skipping 1/60th and going right to 1/125th of a second helped, but not enough. The ocean looks nice, but the sky is still a little washed out. Changing the shutter speed by two stops also had an effect on the exposure: the aperture was now f 7 (5.6 and 6/10th).


The best shutter speed for this series was 1/250th of a second. The aperture was still f 7. The ocean is a rich blue and the shy has some pretty shades of blue—and Brooke looks great! The difference between this image and the good shot that began this series was time. The image above was taken a little later so the ambient light dropped a little to increase the dramatic effect of the image. The image above was also slightly underexposed at f 8 rather than 7.1.

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