Friday, February 13, 2015

How to Create a Memorable Photo Book

Guest Post by Liam Edwards from

There are many reasons to create a photo book. They encourage you to showcase the best moments that you’ve captured, they take up less space than printing and organizing photos, and they make great gifts. As an added bonus, many companies will keep your book on file, so if a book gets damaged or you decide to send a copy to grandma, it’s simple to reorder.

Photo books are not difficult to make. You’ll have an endless selection of designs and templates to help you create a unique work of art. Here are a few tips for ending up with a book you’ll treasure.

Choosing a photo book vendor

Many companies can create photo books that look great. Some are less expensive, some offer more design options, and some are known for their intuitive interface.

If you have access to InDesign or QuarkXPress, you can create your own custom layout, but if not don’t worry. Book printing companies offer more or less customization, its just a matter of what you feel comfortable with and how much time you want to spend.
Photo book
Image of a My-Books photo book courtesy of by My-Books

This selection is by no means comprehensive, but here are a few companies that produce a high quality product with a good variety of choices:

My-Books is a New Zealand owned photo book publisher. Their custom software allows for an easy to use interface for building your photo book. They have both an online version and a desktop version of the software (recommended). With My books, they have a range of "premium" products, which include both higher quality soft cover photo books and hard cover photo books.

Blurb’s Bookify software can gather photos from your Flickr or Instagram stream, from iPhoto, and even from your photo blog if you have one. Choose from four classic book styles in five sizes. Blurb claims you can complete a book in less than two hours, and they offer a series of video “Book Camp” tutorials to help you get started. They’ll even help you sell your finished book on Amazon if you like.

Shutterfly and MyPublisher
Shutterfly is the most popular photo book company and offers more than 200 themes for infinite customization possibilities. Once you create your masterpiece, you’ll get a free digital version of your book that you can share with your Facebook friends.

MyPublisher is owned by Shutterfly and is aimed at users who are willing to sacrifice some ease of use for more control. The software has a bit of a learning curve, but you’ll be able to tweak and customize layouts, fonts, and photo quality to your heart’s content. Fans claim that MyPublisher books have the crispest photos.

Mixbook lets you choose from 20 different book themes and promises a super fast four-day turnaround. You can edit photos using Mixbook’s software or upload photos using their smartphone Mosaic app. With Mosaic you choose your 20 photos and can create a book in just a few minutes.

If you already use iPhoto to organize your libraries, this is a simple solution for creating a photo book. iPhoto offers 18 themes and lets you build a book of up to 100 pages. The interface is very intuitive, and you have the option to edit photos within the book layout.

Photo book design tips

Photo book templates can give you a head start on making an attractive layout. But you’ll still have to make design choices and choose the photos that work best together to make a great book.

Photo Book Example

The first step is to decide on the story you want to tell. Whether it’s a family trip, a child’s first year, or a selection of your best art prints, carefully choosing and grouping photos will add visual impact and make for a more compelling finished product. Depending on the subject of your book, you might choose a chronological approach or group related photos into different themes.

For a 100-page book, select about 300 of your best photos, though you probably won’t use them all. If you are working with the popular 8x8 square format, plan for around 6 to 8 photos per page.

Mix up the size and layouts of your photos. You may choose to highlight a few great shots by giving them an entire page, while other pages offer a mix of horizontal and vertical shots arranged for visual interest. Or you might create a two-page spread with one large photo and a few smaller related ones. The book layout software should make it easy to resize and rearrange until you find a look you’re happy with.

Finally, remember that less is always more. Your book will look more attractive if you value white space and don’t try to crowd too many photos into your layout. For a little extra money you can add pages if you need to so that things don’t feel cramped.

Making photo books is a fun process and you’ll enjoy the end result for years. Choose some photos, pick a template, and start creating your masterpiece.

Have any other ideas / tips? Please send your comments to

Sunday, April 13, 2014

When Lighting Strikes: An Essential Guide for One-Light Portraits

Starting Out

I was going through my photos that I’ve taken over the last ten years and noticed that I have a large number of portraits of different people in many countries around the world. Although each photo is unique, I realized that generally follow a number of principles, especially when it comes to using my light either on my camera or off-camera.

Jump shot with a lighting bolt in the background

As someone who learned things from scratch, I can still remember the frustration one feels when looking for free, credible information and tutorials on strobist photography, not to mention the desperation when one finds overwhelming facts about the topic. My suggestion for serious beginners who want to learn the ropes of strobist photography, is to keep things as simple as possible.
Explaining the behavior and quality of light can be complex and technical. However, it can also be explained in a practical manner, which most people will understand. Over the years, I’ve landed on a few basics that I keep in mind when working with lights and people. In this simple guide, we’ll go through these basics and, without being technically annoying, and equip you with the essentials of lighting portraits with a single hot shoe flash. :-)


Using built-in flash

There is nothing wrong with the built-in flash in cameras, but it does have very limited capability when it comes to sculpting someone’s face with light to create texture and a three-dimensional effect.

External Flash unit attached to camera.

Most, if not all professional cameras don’t have built-in flashes and there is a reason for that. There are two situations, however, when a built-in flash can come in handy: for emergencies or for important images where quality of light is not as important as getting the image, and for fill-in light using controlled output of light for daytime shots where there are heavy shadows.

Using fill in flash allowed me to soften heavy shadows caused by strong sunlight

The main source of learning material I used was from Neil van Niekerk who has some great material for creating pleasant looking portraits with your flash on your camera. The basic technique relies on their being some surface to “bounce” your light off onto the subject - essentially creating the same look and feel as off-camera lighting. In fact now, I can’t walk into a room without looking at the walls and ceilings to see if they would be good to bounce light off of, even if I don’t have a camera with me!

After seeing the results from the on-camera lighting course from Neil van Niekerk, I eventually moved to off-camera lighting techniques, where the main light source is placed away from the camera and triggered by a cable or electronic trigger attached to the camera. In looking for education material for off-camera lighting I found a site called run by David Hobby. Although this is the main destination now for anyone wanting to learn off-camera photography, in 2006 it was a new site and the only one I could find what had both great material and was free!

Basics of Portrait Lighting

Over the years I’ve landed on a few basics that I keep in mind when working with lights and people. I like to keep things as simple as possible and no matter what I’m doing will always start off with what I can do with my flash on camera, then what I can do with one light off-camera using some kind of light modifier. Only once I have exhausted my possibilities will I look to using more than one light.

There are six “basics” that I think about when using strobes in portrait photography:
  • Light-to-subject distance
  • Relative size of light source
  • Quality of light
  • Direction of light
  • Balance of strobe light to ambient light
  • Light modifiers
I’ll cover some basics to get you started for each of the above areas, but I don’t intend to cover each of the above areas in detail, as there is really good reference material online, which I will reference in each section.

Light-to-subject distance

There is a lot of material out there on the Internet about what’s called the “inverse square law”. Whenever I see the words “inverse”, “Square” and “law” together my eyes glaze over and strait breaking out in a sweat, that was until I read David Hobby’s explanation which is real simple to understand "The closer you are to the light source, the more powerful the light. Get real close and it gets really powerful. Get far away, and it gets weaker”.

The reason this is important is because as you move your light closer to or further away from your subject you’ll need to know how to adjust the power of the light to make it stronger or weaker.

The other component that took me a while to understand (I am a very slow learner) is that light, similar to a lens, has a depth of focus. Unlike the depth of focus on a lens, which defines what is in focus in an image, the depth of focus of light relates to how much of the image will be lit, if the strobe was the only light source. The short description for depth of focus is the further the light source is away from the subject the more the surrounding objects are going to be in the lit in the picture.

Depth of focus, therefore allows you to control what you want to appear in the image. If you place the light closer to the subject it is more powerful, allows you to control more accurately what you include in the image and gives you more control of exposure. If you place the light further away the light is less powerful and allows you to light a broader area more evenly.

Large soft box about 1 foot away from the subject

Large soft box about 3 feet away from the subject

Large soft box about 5 feet away from the subject

Understanding the light-to-subject distance allows you to exploit the lighting depth of field to produce the images you want. This is the first piece of the puzzle related to something called the “Quality of Light”.

Relative size of light source

Understanding that the closer the light source is to the subject you’re photographing, the bigger the relative size of the light becomes, was counter intuitive to me. Not sure why, maybe I’m slow or something, but once I got it, it became clear.

As you bring the light source closer to the subject and the light gets bigger, the more the light is able to wrap around the subject. This is important, as it is the second piece of the “Quality of Light” puzzle.

The soft wrap around shadow gives the impression of a medium to large light box

But the light source is a small 8x10" light box placed very close to the subject
Using the same small softbox gives hard shadows similar to a small light source.

Of course some light sources will always be small compared to their subject, e.g. a normal flash compared to an elephant, but if you had a light source big enough to light an elephant, then moving it closer to the elephant would make it relatively larger and wrap around the elephant - was that too abstract?

Quality of Light

The quality of light is affected by the interplay of the above two elements or light-to-subject distance and the relative size of the light source. I found the easiest explanation of quality of light from David Hobby where he compares the head shot from the Department of Motor Vehicles to a professional portrait.

Bare bulb flash - very hard shadows with a quick transition from light to shadows

Large Octabox - very soft shadows with a gradual transition from light to shadows

Quality of light covers both hard and soft light, neither one is right or wrong only appropriate and inappropriate depending on the image.

Understanding how the quality of light affects images

Direction of light

The direction of light is easier to understand how it affects the image. Taking your strobe off-camera allows you to move the light to any angle in relation to the subject, which reveals form in a person, or any other three-dimensional object. The easiest way to see how light from your light angle will affect your subject is to move yourself to the position of the light and view the subject from that position.

It's important to understand how the direction of light affects the portrait

Just like there is no right or wrong quality of light, there is also not right or wrong angles of light, only appropriate and inappropriate depending on the image. For instance the low angle of the light source in the image below is great for a scary Halloween photo, but probably not appropriate for a portrait of a bride.

A low angle of light create a distinct type of portrait

Balance of strobe light to ambient light

Probably the most complicated part of using a strobe is understanding the relationship between the light source and the natural surrounding light, known as ambient light. When using ambient light, a camera’s exposure is affected by the aperture of the lens, the shutter speed and the sensor’s (or film’s) ISO setting, whereas a camera’s exposure when shooting only with a strobe is only affected by the aperture of the lens and the sensor’s (or film’s) ISO setting (as long as the shutter speed is below the max sync speed).

Changing the shutter speed affects the ambient light not the flash light

When using a strobe you are essentially created two exposures, one for the ambient light and one for the strobe. David Hobby’s article on balancing ambient and flash light clearly explains this concept in detail.

My most frequent use of balancing ambient light and flash is for night-time pictures like the common jump shot

Jump shots are a great example for balancing Ambient and Flash lighting

Jump shot with a lighting bolt in the background

My youngest daughter - ready for New Year's dinner

Balancing flash with early evening light

Another great use of balancing ambient and flash light is for using the sun as a back-light and the flash as a main light to light faces.
Balancing the sun as a back light and the flash as the main light

Light modifiers

Light modifiers do exactly what it sounds like - they modify the quality of light. Some light modifiers, like umbrellas or soft boxes, make the light softer and some, like snoots and grids, make the light harder. For now I’ll focus on portraits with softer light modifiers:

The softbox I use is a 24x24 Ezybox from Lastolite, which creates a nice soft light and has the ability to add a grid on the front to control spill.

Lastolite 24x24 Ezybox I

Softbox light is soft on the face with a little spill on the background

Softbox light creates a nice profile with little spill on the background

The Octabox I use is a 36" Octabox from Lastolite, which creates a nice big soft light for a great quality of light.  

Lastolite 36" Octabox I

Octabox light is really soft on the face with a little spill on the background

Octabox light creates a nice profile with little spill on the background

Octabox with fill card
One of the easiest ways to get an additional light is to add a reflector.  In the images below you can see the model holding a white foam card to reflect light back up into the shadows under her chin.

Holding a reflector under the model can creates a second fill light

Final image with the Octabox on top and the fill card underneath

Strip Light
The strip light softbox I use is a 48x16 strip light from Lastolite, which creates a nice controlled soft light for a great quality of light.

Lastolite 48x16 Strip Light Softbox

Strip light is fairly soft on the face with a little spill on the background

Strip light creates a nice profile with almost no spill on the background

The great thing about umbrellas is that compared to other light modifiers they are cheap and create a fairly soft light.  Most of the time I prefer softboxes as I am able to control the spill of light, whereas when using umbrellas, the light tends to bounce everywhere.

Lastolite 20" Translucent Umbrella

Umbrella light is fairly soft but also has a quite a bit of spill onto the background

Umbrella light creates a soft side profile but also has a quite a bit of spill onto the background

Beauty Dish
The beauty dish shown below is a 24" dish with a diffuser sock over the end.  It creates a harder light than the softboxes but still has a nice quality to it.

24" Beauty Dish

Beauty dishes create a harder light and control the spill on the background

A beauty dish is also often used in conjunction with a fill card under the chin to create a nice clean look.

Beauty dish with fill card underneath

Beauty dish creates a nice profile with almost no spill on the background

Ring Flash
The ring flash creates a fairly strong image and is often seen in fashion magazines (hint: look for the ring of light in the catch light in the eyes.)  I use a ring flash from Orbis that fits over the front of the lens, which is what causes the almost ghost like shadow effect.  Although the light is fairly harsh, because it is a ring of light, it creates almost no shadows on the face.

The ring flash goes over the lens and the flash fits into the slot at the bottom

The ring light creates a very distinct look for fashion magazines

Sto-fen Diffuser
The Sto-fen diffuser pops onto the top of your flash to create a fairly soft light.  You do need to order the correct diffuser for your flash unit, so make sure you check that you are getting the right one.  These are great at diffusing light and I keep them on nearly all the time if I am doing journalistic events.

The Sto-fen filter sits on top of the flash and is tilted at about 60 degrees

You can also use Sto-fen diffusers in portrait mode.

Sto-fen diffusers create a large light and which creates spill on the background

Bounce - Ceiling
Bouncing light of the ceiling is a great way to create a large light source and soft light.  I shoot a lot of events and family shots using this technique.  The main problems are (1) you have little control over the light as it goes everywhere and (2) the light is affected by the color of the paint on the ceiling.

Ceiling bounce light creates a large light and large spills on the background

Bounce - Wall
Bouncing light of a wall is a great way to create a large light source and soft light, while keeping some of the 3D form with shadows.  I shoot a lot of events and family shots using this technique.  The main problem is that the light is affected by the color of the paint on the ceiling.

Wall bounce light creates a large light and large spills on the background

A special thanks to my daughter Abby Emmett, for modeling for these photos.  Abby hosts a YouTube video channel where she discusses various make up products and how to apply them effectively.  You can view her videos on her YouTube Channel.

I hope you have enjoyed this article about portrait lighting with a single strobe. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shooting Products with a Single Strobe - Cup Cakes

I've been spending time going back to basics, shooting products with one light using a variety of techniques and tools. This is a mini update to my previous article about shooting fig rolls using a variety of different products using different techniques and tools with a single strobe (flash).

After shooting the fig rolls with a single strobe, I decided that I would try and shoot other products using similar techniques.  I ended up using the same technique as I did with the fig rolls, bouncing the flash against the back wall to reflect back onto the product with white cards to light up the front,  like this:

These are the product ads that I came up with:

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Chocolate Cupcakes

Similar to the fig rolls, I ended up enjoying shooting the product and eating if during the shoot.  I would have shot more, but my kids took the rest away from me!

I hope you have enjoyed this small update. If you have any questions or comments you can email them to