Workshop/tutorial prep – location edition

This page outlines the preparation you’ll need to do if you’re joining a workshop or tutorial with me, on location, and some notes on key concepts to save time going over these on the day – in order to maximise your practical shooting time.

Who is this workshop for?

This workshop is designed for photographers who are proficient with their camera: that is they already know how to expose, focus and frame up a picture, and are familiar with all of the controls and settings, and the basics of focal length, shutter speed, aperture and Iso. If you are unsure about any of these things, then this is not the workshop for you. You may want to consider a 1:1 tutorial day where we can focus on what you need to learn next, as we won’t have time on a group workshop to diagnose camera issues, or work out how to do things with your camera and this is unfair to the other attendees.

This workshop is most useful to photographers who have some experience, and want to expand their knowledge around location shooting and lighting: assessing the location, and establishing shots, and both the lighting art behind some of the most dramatic and impactful moods, and the practical side of creating these lighting styles.

Aims of the workshop/tuition day

Shooting on location generally has a different set of goals to a studio shoot. In the studio, we start off with a blank, dark box and set out to produce a specific image. We control everything from the backdrop, light, costume, gesture, glance, effects etc. On location, we may still set out to achieve a pre-determined shot, however it’s likely that the predetermined ideas are elements of the shot rather than the whole thing: we may have a lighting style in mind, a setting or just a general theme. As well as bringing these ideas with us, we need to let the location inspire us as well. During this workshop we’ll cover:-

  • Evaluating the location – looking for potential settings, and matching them with themes you have in mind
  • Establishing the shot – where will your model be? Where will you shoot from? What will be in the scene?
  • Lighting the scene. Using the ambient light, and mixing in your own
  • Rigging the lights
  • Directing the shoot: what you need to be aware of; making use of the experience and knowledge from everyone else on-set
  • Improving the shot
  • solving problems

Equipment you’ll need to bring

Camera: your camera will need to offer full manual control of exposure, and have a hot shoe with a standard centre pin. Note: these Canon cameras are not suitable for these workshops as their hot-shoes lack the standard centre firing pin: 200Dmkii, 1500D, 2000D, 3000D, and 4000D

Lenses: you’ll need a lens or lenses that cover around 24mm to 150mm on a 35mm (or so called “full frame”) camera, or the equivalent field of view for other camera sizes. A zoom lens is best for this type of work as it will allow you to crop in for 3/4 shots, head shots etc from the same lighting setup very quickly. Also, sometimes your model will surprise you with very expressive and wide hand or leg gestures and you’ll suddenly need an increased field of view 🙂 For indoor locations, we’ll be shooting at modest aperture values around f/4 or f/2.8 in low light, up to f/8 in brighter conditions. Occasionally, we may use the natural light, and a low depth of field from an f/1.8 or wider lens. These shots will, of course work with smaller apertures – you’ll just need to adjust the shutter speed and Iso to suit. They won’t achieve the exact look if it depends on a soft background though.

Tripod: A tripod can help when using dimmer light sources such as practical lights in an indoor setting, or dim natural daylight Normally though, we’ll shoot hand-held, to maximise the variety of shots we can get from a set.

Cards and batteries: make sure you have enough of both!


This may seem an odd one, but I find, inevitably, I will end up rolling on the floor at some point to get a shot! Or at least sitting, or kneeling. Looser clothing will make your life easier during the shoot! Outdoor/hiking clothes are good for this. I am usually styled by Craghoppers for most shoots 😛

Auto-Focus setup

Working with a skilled and experienced model, it is important to establish and maintain a flow of poses. Most experienced models will shift to a new pose, or just tweak the pose after every shot. If we can keep steady pace of shooting around once per second, we’ll get more shots, and the model will be able to settle into a familiar rhythm.

Hard light

Almost all cameras, out of the box, will attempt to auto-focus when you press the shutter release button. We want to focus on the leading eye. If the camera tries to auto-focus every time we take a picture, this means you will need to aim it at the model’s eye, press the shutter release part-way, recompose the shot, and then take the picture. For every shot. This will result in a very stilted, and uneasy shoot with the model having to hold their pose for much longer while you focus the lens, every time.

Most cameras have either a dedicated button to trigger the auto-focus (for Nikon this is labelled “AF-ON”), or a way of programming a button to do this. The “half press to focus” thing, is a throwback to point-and-shoot film cameras that didn’t have a dedicated focus button. For shooting in the studio with a model, I highly recommend disabling autofocus on the shutter release, so that all it does when you press that, is take a picture. On-set, you will focus once using the dedicated AF button, compose the shot, and then shoot several frames.

Mirrorless cameras with eye-detect auto-focus: this will work for almost all shots on location, however if the model is facing away from you there will be no eye to focus on, and the camera may pick up a head, or person or just do something weird depending on which camera you have. I recommend reading up on how to configure your mirrorless camera to use a traditional focus cursor as a back up just in case your Eye-AF doesn’t behave as expected.

Please read the manual for your camera, and if your camera can support this, disable AF on the shutter release before attending the workshop.

Setting your camera up

Apart from disabling AF on the shutter release, you’ll also need to set the AF to a single point. You can use single-shot or continuous AF as this no longer matters if the AF is not triggered when you take a picture. I leave my camera in continuous AF (if I want it to stop auto-focusing, I stop pressing the AF button :-/ )

Ensure you know how to:-

  • Put the camera in manual mode
  • Adjust the aperture
  • Adjust the shutter speed – inc. how to access “bulb” mode for the shutter
  • Adjust the Iso
  • Adjust the white-balance (the white balance setting won’t change what the camera captures, but it will allow you to preview what the image will look like when you develop it later, and set the white balance)

Your camera should be set to record a raw file for each image. Developing the images yourself from the raw sensor data will give a much better result. Make sure you have set your camera up to do this before the session: i.e. either “Raw”, or “Raw+JPEG” if you also want a developed image using the values set in the camera.

For flash driven setups, a good place to start for exposure settings is:-:

Iso 100*, 1/160th shutter speed, at f/8 with the white-balance set to “flash”.

(* or your camera’s “native” base Iso – eg, on a Nikon D850, this is Iso 64).

This will remove most ambient light, apart from light bulbs directly visible in the frame. We then control the exposure of the shot, by turning the lights up and down. If we are shooting a pure-flash setup, once we have this set, there’s really no need to change anything at camera. If we are mixing in ambient light such as daylight, table lamps and so on, we can use the shutter to control the brightness of these sources, and to control any flash sources, we adjust the power of those flash lights. You may have heard the phrase “shutter controls ambient, aperture controls flash”. This is clearly nonsense as the aperture size affects all of the light – flash and ambient. Adjusting the aperture to control exposure is just lazy – as it has side effects on the depth of focus.

Some insights into the techniques we’ll cover, and some myths busted:-

Selective light

The light “source” for photographic purposes, is the last surface it reflects off or refracts through before it hits the subject. Eg, the light source on a softbox is the front diffusion panel, not the flash tube in the back of it.

Whether a light source is “hard” or “soft” depends entirely on one thing: the apparent size of the light source, relative to the size of the subject, from the subjects position. Eg, the sun is a hard light source as it appears small to us as we are 93 million miles away from it. A sky full of cloud on the other hand, is a very big light source and generates soft light. Diffusion does not make a light soft, unless it also changes the apparent size. Adding diffusion to a small light, say over the front of a Speedlight, or LED panel, that is the same size as the light, will not make it softer. It will smooth out the highlights a bit, but the shadow quality will be exactly the same.

Long lenses do not “compress the scene”. Shooting from further away does this. Conversely, wide angle lenses do not distort faces (or things in general). Shooting too close does this. The focal length is just a field of view – i.e. the crop (and you cannot “zoom with your feet” as prime-lens gear snobs are fond of saying: if you move your position, the whole composition, relative sizes of objects in the scene and arrangement will change).

Gels are filters. They do not create colour – they take it away. The colour you want has to be present in the light before it passes through the gel. A red gel, for example, works by blocking blue and green. If there is no red in the light before it hits the red gel, the result will be no light at all (in practice, there is no such thing as a 100% effective gel, and so some light always comes through). For the same reason (i.e. that gels are filters) you cannot make the colour more intense by doubling up the same gel on the light. This will just reduce the overall light output, and you can achieve this more easily by turning the light down.

You cannot “feather” a softbox. Another myth I see often is that “the light is softest at the edge” and therefore, turning the softbox away from the subject makes it even softer. The softness of any light is governed by the size of the light source, and if you turn a softbox away from the subject, it will become slimmer in one dimension – and so, produce harder light in that dimension. The “power” of the light will be pointing elsewhere however and so it will be reduced on the subject and in turn, contrast with the shadows will be reduced. Many people mistake this for softer light. This is also very likely the reason people think adding diffusion to the front of a light makes it softer: it reduces the light output and hence, the contrast with the unlit areas is reduced. This is not softer light, just weaker. You can achieve the same result by turning the light output down.

You cannot add a black card inches from a model to produce “negative fill”. Unless, there was a white wall or other reflective surface really close to the model, putting a black card close to the model in the hope it will reduce the amount of bounced light is a failure to understand how quickly light falls off over distance. Light falls off exponentially as distance increases. If your studio has walls 2m away from the model, any stray light will have travelled 4m by the time it makes it back to your model from the wall. If the light was 1m away from the model, that’s a 4-fold increase and so a light intensity drop of 4 stops. I.e. almost nothing. A black card 0.5 m away, on the other hand, is likely to reflect back *more* light, not less.

Dressing a set (with curtains) and transposing a common light setup for a reclined pose

Things we’ll talk about during the session:-

  • Evaluating the scene – establishing the shot
  • Working out which techniques to apply to the scene
  • Communicating with your model while shooting
  • Optimising your time – getting the most out of each set
  • Hard light and how to make it
  • Fill light
  • Creating a triangle between our camera, our model and the light
  • Varying our shooting position to get different light, and visual arrangement
  • Soft light and how to make it. How softboxes really work.
  • Positioning a softbox
  • Edge lights, side lights and background lights
  • Colour: picking some gel colours that work
  • Ways of attaching gels to lights
  • Fog, how to make it, light it and (to a certain extent!) control it
  • Blowing hair when using fog

Post Production techniques

I have a YouTube channel, more or less just to house recordings of me processing images, so you can see the rest of the journey my images take after I leave the studio. You can find it here:

The tone curve is all you’ve got in a B&W image – spend some time to get it right

Techniques you can see me using on these videos include:-

  • Colour and tone curve work in Lightroom
  • Clean up – removing junk from the image
  • Tidying lines and curves using Liquefy
  • Skin blemish removal
  • Skin tone smoothing whilst retaining texture
  • Applying shine
  • Lips, eyes, teeth retouching
  • Maximising form in fog
  • Sharpening
  • Applying a vintage glow
Creating drama with light, gesture and styling