Category Archives: photography tips

Notes from Puerto Rico

It’s my last full day in Puerto Rico, ending the first dedicated-to-relaxation vacatiom I’ve ever taken. That definitely has to change, since now I feel ready to shoot a billion or so weddings back to back with energy, vigor, and a bit more of normal-human flesh tone.

Thanks again to my assistant Thomas for taking care of the shop even while I’m away. I know the first week of January is slow in the Northern US, but it’s important to me to have my clients be able to be connected to us at all times.

As those who follow my Twitter or Facebook know, the trip has not been without mishap. Like Odysseus, I clearly got on the wrong side of the god of the sea, and he sent a freakishly large wave to swamp all of my shorebound equipment with a destructive mix of water, salt, and mud, so my friends at Adorama can expect a visit when I get back!

On the plus side, I spent the day taking some of my favorite fashion images I’ve ever taken, including one that may be my favorite I’ve ever seen! That one to come as soon as I get real Internet service.

(Since I’m generally my harshest critic, you can probably guess it’s a little … off.)

For quick snaps, I’ve been loving the TrueHDR and ProHDR apps for the iPhone. HDR is so often gaudy in photography, but it’s perfect to counteract the limited dynamic range of a camera phone to take pictures more like what you actually see. ProHDR has more features, but I like the simple functionality of TrueHDR better for snapshots. Here’s one of where I’m sitting now.

This is why I’ve been getting increasingly angry texts from all my frozen New York friends. Well, I’ll be sharing your misery soon!


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The World is Your Light Modifier.

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(Candid from recent wedding, bounced off close ceiling to far left)

I loves me some Strobist. David Hobby has completely changed the popular conception of what your average photographer can do with flash light because of his dedication, creativity, and clear writing. But he said something once that made me gasp in horror, and I’ve been wrestling with it ever since — that the light you get when you bounce an on-camera flash off something all looks pretty much the same.

OK, I get what he’s saying. I love bounce flash because it’s convenient and allows me to provide decent light pretty much everywhere, but simple physics tells us that if your light source is large and far away (like, say, an entire illuminated patch of ceiling), then everything is going to be illuminated pretty much evenly. And, as Joe McNally keeps hammering home, if you want a scene to be as interesting as possible, don’t light all of it.

But the truth is that there are as many different flavors of bounced light as there are things to bounce off of. Want to control the light? Simple — get closer to your source (narrowing the spread). Kind of hard with ceilings, but pretty easy with walls. Want an instant tungsten gel on your light? Bounce your flash off of some wood. And, of course, there can be value in mixing a total, even fill of ceiling bounce with some more direct, Strobist-style light — evening out tones and lightening shadows. Heck, you can even get hard directional light if you’re near mirror-like surfaces.

It’s worth experimenting with. Try bouncing off of a really low ceiling and see what the challenges are — low-enough ceilings can give light almost as hard as direct flash. Then try bouncing off something really far away and see what settings work for you (try high ISO, low aperture, high shutter speed to start). See what the differences in light quality give you. Try walls, ceilings, even floors. Heck, I made do for an entire outdoor wedding by bouncing off of the trunks of palm trees. Go nuts.


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Well, that’s ONE way to fix a blown red channel

I’ve talked before about the creative possibilities of extreme white balance adjustments, and how the grey point controls on Nikon’s Capture NX2 provide the most extreme, high-quality control I’ve seen.

Well, I meant it.

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Particularly interesting is how all of that hard-to-retain red-channel on a red flower in hard sun came back and the textures are realistic even if the color is very much not.


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Untwisting your Lightroom RAW profiles

I loves me some Adobe Lightroom. When you take 200,000+ shots a year, you go for the program with the best ability to take on a massive workflow, and for me, Lightroom is it. But it has a giant problem. In order to get the best color from each camera, Adobe cobbled together color profiles matching what you would get out of the manufacturer’s own profiles, and the color was great. Finally, my reds were red again! But it came at the expense of a few oddities. Highlight clipping became the ugliest rendition I’ve ever seen, and if you wanted to fix that with your handy dandy “highlight recovery” slider? All of your colors would change, and people would go from skin tone to Muppet-land.

Apparently, Adobe has done this on purpose, because it’s easy to fix. Thomas Lester showed me that Adobe was deliberately “twisting” hues as you moved exposure sliders, and that there was a way to untwist them. That way, however, involved a lot of UNIX commands. Now I’m a geek, but I’m what you’d call a middle-range geek. I know some UNIX commands, but it’s not what I consider a good way to spend an evening. So I asked, pretty please, if he could compile “Untwisted” profiles for the D3 and D700 cameras I use.

And what did he do? He compiled them for every camera out there! So if you use Lightroom, and especially if you’re puzzled by color shifts when you use the highlight recovery slider, check out his blog for more information and to download the profiles!

No remember not to throw away your old profiles — Adobe probably has reasons to do the things you do, and you may not be used to the new colors. What I’ve done is start out with everything on the untwisted profiles but keep a normal camera profile option as a quick pre-set, so just one click means I can have both options.


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Love in the Time of Composites

Ryan Brenizer Photography

I suppose my style is to hold as light a touch as possible on post-processing … but if I do, do it like I mean it, which is to set up shots with the post-processing already in mind. The “Brenizer Method,” of course, relies on Photoshop. I actually am coming up with ideas now to use specific compositions and techniques to breathe some new life into a Photoshop technique that photographers tend to revile, but more on that later. In this case, I shot this as a composite of four frames, using just one little speedlight to light the couple.

I like to travel light, especially on engagement shoots. In New York, there are plenty of places where if you set up a light stand and a tripod, you will be swarmed by police, park officials, and in one case a National Guardsman with a machine gun. Yikes. But I love the light-canceling effects of big lights. The way to get there with a small light is to get in really close. The way to do that with freedom while not getting in the frame? Composite.

Of course, composites require tripods, and you remembered what I said about the guys with machine guns, right? In this case, I stood the camera on my rolling camera bag and propped up the lens with a lens hood. Wedding photographers are McGuyver at heart.

FYI: Not HDR. All of the frames were at the same exposure settings.


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Battle of the Sexes

Ryan Brenizer Photography

Sometimes, I try to turn challenges into opportunities. One of the toughest times to shoot is peak mid-day. This is counter-intuitive to the layman: “Photographs need light! Let’s shoot when there’s as much as possible!” but the sun is a very harsh, extremely strong light source, and there are few less attractive places to put a hard light than directly over someone’s head. (Coming directly from below is worse, but for obvious reasons that doesn’t happen very much with the sun).

So we try to work against it or overpower it. But there’s the second problem — overpowering the sun is about as hard as it sounds. Wee little flashes only do well if they’re close, which limits the sorts of compositions you can do. That’s why I’ve taken to doing multi-frame composites recently, so I can get the flash close to my subject in a big frame and then quickly digitally erase it later.

But there are other ways — who says the light source can’t be in the frame? Who says you can’t have some fun with it? The rooftop garden at the Met is absolutely one of the brightest places I’ve been in New York, other than the waterfront. I used every trick to get “normal” frames well-exposed, and then dipped into the abnormal.


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Just an Expression

Ryan Brenizer Photography

A big part of the work I do on wedding days is the collecting of expressions. I love people’s faces, and I never get tired of finding telling, emotional-but-not-embarrassing expressions that capture the essence of a person in that moment.

By and large, these aren’t shots to base a portfolio around. If you submitted them to a contest, the judges would toss it away. If you submitted them to a high-end magazine, they would furrow their brows: “I don’t get it! This is just a picture of a person. Weddings aren’t about people, they’re about centerpieces!”

Magazines do a great job at what their supposed to do, but their clients, the readers, are generally people ABOUT to get married, looking for ideas. I work for people actually getting married that day, who have chosen to surround themselves with loved ones. If I can get photos that not only look cool, but bring out the quirks and way of being that these people carry with them, I’ve done my job. I call these my “That’s SO…” photos. I want to take shots that make people say “That’s SO my dad!” or, “That’s SO my crazy college roommate Bill.” I think these present a tremendous value to the couple, their friends and families, above and beyond just it being a good photo.

When I left my job as a photographer for Columbia University Teachers College, my (very cool) boss said something that puzzled me at first. “You take photos that actually look like your subject.”

At first, this seemed like the most underwhelming complement ever. Imagine showing someone your favorite image of a flower and them saying “Yes, that’s definitely a flower!” But, after considering it, I was elated. As valuable as it is to take a photo of someone who looks like they’re having their photo taken, or who is in Pose #68 from the Posing Rulebook, if I can take a photo that makes you feel like you know that person at that point in time, that they have independent essence and personality, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

The trick to photographing expressions is to use your peripheral vision and be very, very fast. I use fast-focusing cameras, fast-focusing lenses, and take hundreds of thousands of photos a year, so I’ve gotten pretty used to making my stuff work immediately. If you have slower lenses, the trick is to keep the focusing area close to where you want it so it doesn’t have to hunt much. This is the secret to getting great moments with, for example, the glacial Canon 85mm f/1.2.

(But I like centerpieces, too.)


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Show Your Worst

100 percent out-of-camera (except for border and logo)

I’ve started a new thing this month — posting my day-of slideshows publically to my Facebook.

As a branding idea, photographers are told this is quite possibly the worst thing you can do. You’re supposed to show only your best work, carefully culled and processed to the best of your ability! The very last thing you should show your public are a bunch of pictures you picked out from the thumbnails and are straight out-of-camera, or with less than five seconds of editing. What are you, nuts?

Maybe. Oversharing IS a common photographer’s problem. I certainly remember seeing work of photographers I admire when I was just learning the basics and thinking “Oh my God, they’re human!” if they ever put forth something mediocre.

Everyone takes mediocre photos, of course. I think I took a photo of my foot yesterday, just because it was still there.

But I hope I’m on to something. Wedding photography is Different. It emphasizes consistency in a way no other demanding field does — Good Always will beat Brilliant Sometimes. It’s one of the few fields where it actually really matters how good the 100th best photo was you took that day. These things dovetail into day-of slideshows.

Of course, there are lots of benefits. Clients LOVE seeing photos the next day. You get out of the gate before someone else posts really bad photos to their Facebook and everyone assumes you took them. Everyone loves photos of themselves.

Better, though, doing a good day-of slideshow is HARD. Doing wedding photography right is already really, really hard, and day-of slideshows add a few more “reallys.” Hard is good. Do things that are hard, and you’ll never be shown up by the random guest with the professional gear.

Just this year, I’ve had wedding guests that were professional cinematographers, trained by Ansel Adams, photography teachers at major institutions, and all sorts of other intimidating things. If wedding photography really does flourish under a unique set of skills (I think it does), and if you’re a specialist, you should be aiming to do things they cannot. But those things will be the Hard Things.

I’ve been spending my entire life making things unnecessarily hard on myself. Now I think I’ve finally found a use for it.


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Some Raw programs are more equal than others

I’ve discussed before the possibilities of using extreme white balance shifts in your photography — it’s a common practice to hit an outdoor subject with amber light on a tungsten setting to make the sky deep blue, like so:

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But why stop there? It’s the digital era. If I’d hit them with a flash gelled deep pink, I could get crazy greens in the background. Or I could make that blue totally saturated.* It’s a way to get that crazy gelled-background look with just one light.

But some raw programs are much better at extreme shifts than others. Adobe Lightroom is great at making things super-warm, going to 50000K, but can only go as cold as to neutralize an old tungsten light bulb — anything lit by red is out of luck.

This isn’t just an issue for your own crazy lighting — if you shoot concerts or anything extremely theatrical, you often have to deal with lighting managers who are clearly on some sort of loosely-controlled substance. That’s where unlimited shifts come into play. RAW Developer is pretty good at this, with an auto setting that will use whatever crazy setting seems right, but is still limited compared to my favorite, Nikon Capture NX. With the “set gray point” option in the white balance, you can set it to essentially anything you want. For example, here’s some crazy lighting from a wedding singer, as it looked in real life:

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Here’s the best that Lightroom could do with it (cropped slightly differently):

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But here’s what a simple adjustment in Capture NX did.

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Look! She has skin tone! See how the open flame went to a crazy green? Non Nikon users may want to try their own maker’s software or RAW Developer.

UPDATE: By popular demand, here is what Apple’s Aperture can do. This actually taught me something I didn’t know — in Aperture, the white balance dropper can get you into extremes that the slider alone can’t do. While the settings for this read 2000K, -150, it was actually far more extremely shifted than if you had just manually moved the slider.

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*(Be careful lighting with greenish tones, it can highlight skin imperfections)


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