Keep Portrait Lighting Simple - And Save a Few Bucks on My Home Studio Speedlite Starter Kit

rick sammon .jpg

I like to keep portrait lighting simple. Very simple. For example, for this portrait, inspired by Vermeer's paining, Girl With a Pearl Earring, I used only one Canon Speedlite in a Westcott Apollo soft box.

I used that softbox because it has a recessed front panel that lets me (and you) direct the light and shape the light on the subject.

I used the black side of a Westcott light modifier to darken the shadow on the shadow side of the model's face.

Careful lighting made the subject stand out from the black background.

My friends at Adorama have put together a cool speedlite accessory kit at a cool price that you can use to make dramatic portraits in the comfort of your own home - and on location. It includes the softbox, light modifiers and light modifier stand that I used - plus a sturdy background stand and larger background (which is way better than the piece of black material that I pined to my bookshelf. Just add your speedlite.

Here are two quick portrait tips: One - If you want an interesting portrait, don't light the entire face. Two - Keep in mind that the camera looks both ways. When you are shooting, know that the mood, energy and feeling that you project will be reflected in your subject's face - and eyes.

Above: See, you don't need a pro studio to get professional looking portrait. I took my Girl with a Pearl Earring image in my home office.

Here's a quick tip on all lighting: Shadows are the soul of the photograph.

Explore the light,

Three Books That Will Make You a Better Photographer

Above: This image for available for purchase - print or digital download. Contact me for details.

Photography goes way beyond camera settings and slider adjustments in Photoshop and Lightroom. The most important element, actually, is the mood or feeling an image imparts – on you and on the viewer.

Many books have been written on photography. I have written 36 of them: my favorites are here. Creative Visualization for Photographers, by Focal Press, will be published next year.

Being a good photographer means going beyond the technical aspects of photography, which, of course, is very important. We need to gain an understanding of how color and light behave – and we need to gain an understanding of how we see . . .  and our how our brains magically interpret light and color – and patters and shapes, etc. Perception is also important.

I talk about all this in my seminars and on my workshops. Here's a quick example.

The opening image for this post looks more like a painting than a photograph. That was my goal with this image, taken in Llanrwst, Conwy Valley, North Wales.

The picture directly above is a boring snapshot. Here are the qualities that make the opening image more artistic.

Light – strong, early morning sidelight beautifully illuminates the underside of the bridge, which is perhaps how a painter might have painted the scene, because the beautiful bridge is the main subject in the image;
Color –  warmer colors are more inviting;
Contrast & Shadows – stronger contrast and shadows add a sense of depth to the image;
Crop – I cropped out boring areas of the scene;
HDR – I used HDR to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. (I recommend Photomatix for HDR. (You can get a discount here.)
Weather conditions – much better for achieving my goal.

Finally, I applied the BuzZim filter in Topaz Simplify to add a painterly quality to the image. (You can get a discount on Topaz on my Play & Save on Plug-ins page.)

Sure, I learned by doing, but I also learned by reading.

The three books featured in this post are my current top recommendations for creative photographers.

Vision and Art  by Margaret Livingstone was recommended by my friend and fellow Canon Explorer of light John Paul Caponigro.

I found Color and Light by James Gurney on my own.

While reading Color and Light (after reading Vision and Art), I noticed that James Gurney mentions the outstanding work of Margaret Livingstone. Small world.

Perception and Imaging is written by the late, great Dr. Richard Zakia. All I can say about Dick is that he is my hero. 

Check out the books:

Color and Light – A guide for the Realistic Painter by James Gurney.

From New York Times best-selling author of the Dinotopia series, James Gurney, comes a carefully crafted and researched study on color and light in paintings. This art instruction book will accompany the acclaimed Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist.

James Gurney, New York Times best-selling author and artist of the Dinotopia series, follows Imaginative Realism with his second art-instruction book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. A researched study on two of art's most fundamental themes, Color and Light bridges the gap between abstract theory and practical knowledge. Beginning with a survey of underappreciated masters who perfected the use of color and light, the book examines how light reveals form, the properties of color and pigments, and the wide variety of atmospheric effects. Gurney cuts though the confusing and contradictory dogma about color, testing it in the light of science and observation. A glossary, pigment index, and bibliography complete what will ultimately become an indispensible tool for any artist.

This book is the second in a series based on his blog, His first in the series, Imaginative Realism, was widely acclaimed in the fantastical art world, and was ranked the #1 Bestseller on the Amazon list for art instruction.

"James Gurney's new book, Color and Light, cleverly bridges the gap between artistic observation and scientific explanation. Not only does he eloquently describe all the effects of color and light an artist might encounter, but he thrills us with his striking paintings in the process." --Armand Cabrera, Artist

Vision and Art – the biology of seeing by Margaret Livingstone.

Now in paperback, this groundbreaking study by Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone explores the inner workings of vision, demonstrating that how we see art depends ultimately on the cells in our eyes and our brains. In Vision and Art,Livingstone explains how great painters fool the brain: why Mona Lisa s smile seems so mysterious, Monet s Poppy Field appears to sway in the breeze, Mondrian s Broadway Boogie Woogie blinks like the lights of Times Square, and Warhol s Electric Chair pulses with current. Drawing on history and her own cutting- edge discoveries, Livingstone offers intriguing insights, from explanations of common optical illusions, to speculations on the correlation of learning disabilities with artistic skill. By skillfully bridging the space between science and art, Vision and Art will both arm artists and designers with new techniques that they can use in their own craft, and thrill any reader with an interest in the biology of human vision.

Want to find the best light on a workshop? Check out my latest app for your iPhone and iPad running iOS 6 or greater: Rick Sammon's Photo Sundial – the all-in-one app that gives you the sun, the stars, the moon - and much more. Never miss another sunrise or sunset again.

The app is great for on-site shooting, as well as for trip planning. Twenty-five photo tips, too!

Hey, if you find a better priced and more fully-featured sun-finder app, please let me know. 

Here's a movie I made on photographing sunrises and sunsets. 

Perception and Imaging: Photography – A Way of Seeing by Richard D. Zakia

When you look at an image, what do you see and feel? What do you want your audience to see and feel when they view your work? In today's digital age, it has become all too easy to randomly click away, without really focusing on what exactly it is that you are trying to capture in your shot. For over fifteen years, Professor Richard Zakia has been helping thousands of photographers hone in on their creative vision through the inspirational, informative text and images included in his classic book, Perception and Imaging. In this updated fourth edition, Professor Zakia continues to share his wisdom in what is so much more than a step-by-step, technical photography instruction manual. Instead, it explores the fundamental act of photography - in other words, seeing - through a combination of technique, history, visual perception, philosophy, and psychology. Photographers of all levels will benefit from the information in this book, because it will help you to think more clearly about what it is that you want to convey in your images, no matter what level you are at in terms of technical skill.

Develop your creative vision – and I hope to see you at one of my seminars or on one of my workshops.

Want to find the best light on a workshop? Check out my latest app for your iPhone and iPad running iOS 6 or greater: Rick Sammon's Photo Sundial – the all-in-one app that gives you the sun, the stars, the moon - and much more. Never miss another sunrise or sunset again.

The app is great for on-site shooting, as well as for trip planning. Twenty-five photo tips, too!

Hey, if you find a better priced and more fully-featured sun-finder app, please let me know.

10 Tips for Photographing Running Horses

Provence, France.

Provence, France.

This post originally ran before my first Provence workshop. Click here to see my Camarge horses images.

Photographing running horses is something we do on many of my workshops

As a prelude to my June 2015 Provence workshop (contact me for info) I thought I'd share some tips for photographing running horses. If you come to Provence, you'll have the opportunity to make pictures like the first two images in this post. Thank you Patrice for sharing.

Provence, France.

Provence, France.

1 - When photographing groups of horses, try to get as much separation as possible between the horses.

2 - Set you camera to the fastest frame rate to capture the action. A split second can make the difference between a good shot and a great shot. Set the goal of getting a shot of a horse with all the hooves off the ground. To do that, you'll need to take a lot of pictures.

3 - If the horse is running across the frame, leave some room in front of the horse into which the horse can run. If you frame too tight, the horse will get stuck in the frame.

4 - When the sun is in your frame at sunrise and sunset, check your histogram and highlight alert warming on your camera. Try not to overexpose the area around the sun.

Spearfish, South Dakota.

Spearfish, South Dakota.

Los Osos, California.

Los Osos, California.

5 - Use the focus-tracking AF system in your camera - AI servo in Canon cameras. Make sure the focus point stays on your subject.

6 - When framing your picture, leave some extra space around the subject so you don't cut off part of the tail, ear or hoof.



7 - Use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second to freeze the action, but try slow shutter speeds, too. I used a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second to blur the action the photograph below.

Los Osos, California.

Los Osos, California.

8 - Try panning, as illustrated below. You need to get lucky or take lots of shots to get a good pan. Try different shutter speeds, from 1/60th to 1/ 15th of a sec.

Costa Rica.

Costa Rica.

9 - Note the position of the horse's legs in your photograph. You want the legs in a position that says "action."

10 - Have fun. Don't get so focusing on getting great shots that you miss the fun of photographing the action.

Double JJ Ranch, Michigan.

Double JJ Ranch, Michigan.

My lens recos for photographing running horses:
Canon 24-105mm IS lens
Canon  70-200 f/4 IS lens
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS lens

Here's another tip: Join one of my workshops. I'll show you how to make great images, including action panos like the one below.

If you can't make a workshop, or if you want to learn about light and composition before the workshops, check out my Kelby Training classes on light and composition.

Spearfish, South Dakota.

Spearfish, South Dakota.

Explore the light,

Provence Workshop in the Planning Stage

I am planning a June 2015 Provence, France digital photography workshop. Shoot me an email to get on the info list.

See more of my Carmarge horse photographs in my Camargue Horse Gallery.

In addition to photographing the horses, we'll photograph the beautiful countryside. We will also have Lightroom and Photoshop sessions.

Here's an article I wrote after my previous Provence trip that you may like.

Hope to see you in Provence. If you come, here are some tips on photographing horses that you will find helpful.

Explore the light,

Analyze This


When I give a workshop, seminar or Godfatherly Advice session, I am often asked, "What makes a photograph a good photograph?" A good question for sure.

I suggest that a "good photograph" is subjective, just like a piece of music. For example, just because you may not like opera or rap, that does not mean those types of music are bad.

There are, however, certain factors that make, what most would consider, a good photograph, such as and interesting subject, composition and lighting – stuff I talk about on my on-line classes.

I also suggest that a photographer analyze a photograph to look for elements that make a so-called good photograph.

Here is one example.

I think this photograph, which I took in Llanrwst, Conwy Valley, North Wales, is a good photograph. Of course, you may not agree – as all art is subjective.

The colors below correspond to my reasoning.


White - Light on the underside of the bridge contrasts with the shadows on the bridge, adding a sense of depth and dimension to the image. That light is why I got up early to take the shot.

Red – Photographing the scene at an angle draws the viewer's attention to the beautiful small building (great restaurant) in the frame.

Yellow – Beautiful side-light adds shadows, which also add a sense of depth to the image.

Blue – Everything in the scene is in focus, so the scene looks as it would look to your eyes if you were standing there. The depth-of-field was achieved by using a wide-angle lens, setting a small aperture, and focusing 1/3 into the scene.

Green – "Breathing room" at the top of the frame gives an open feeling to the image.

Analyze your images. It will help you weed out your weak shots – and help you pick your "good photographs."

Interested in having me analyze your images? See my Godfatherly Advice page.