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Product Photography

Using Gels to Change Background

Do you have an Speed-lite or off camera flash?
Can you trigger it using a remote or the pop-up flash on the camera?
Do you only have a single background colour?

If the answer is yes then this may be the post for you.

Did you know you can change the colour of your background without having to invest in expensive back drops or repainting your wall.

By using colour gels in front of your flash you can transform the dull grey, black or white background into a radiant blue or red and if you have multiple flashes you could have multi-coloured backgrounds.

What are Gels?

Gels or filters are transparent coloured sheets that are placed in front of the flash to change the light that is emitted. There are also Colour Correction Gels which have specific colour temperature ratings. The main colour correction gels are CTB (colour temperature blue) and CTO (colour temperature orange). A CTB gel converts tungsten light to ‘daylight’ colour. A CTO gel does the opposite.

How do we change the background

First of all you will need a stand to put your flash on, or use the small foot stand that came with the flash and something to stand it on. I will assume you may not have a light meter or a great deal of space.

You will need a way of triggering the flash, so a remote, the pop up flash on your camera or a long trigger cable.

Lets start by putting the flash to manual, and if it has a zoom, setting this to its widest setting (all flashes are different so please read the manual that came with it). Set the flash to half power and place about 3 – 4 feet away from the background. Depending on the type of image you are doing, if a head shot then place flash height to about the center of the model’s head, if the top half then center of the back as a general rule.

Flash with gray background
Flash using red gel with gray background

Above Grey background and Grey background with flash firing with red gel.

Now this bit depends on how you shoot your images and assuming that you have more than one flash, one to light the background and another for the subject.

Setting up to light the model

First is to eliminate all the ambient light, ( not shooting with the lights off ). What I mean by this, is to set the shutter speed to the maximum sync speed of the flash and then adjust the aperture, ( F5.6 – F8.0 usually works for me ), so that without the flash the image is black or underexposed and then turn the flash on and then adjust the flash output to light the model using a light meter if you have one, or just adjust the flash output manually and take test shots.

Once this is done turn off the flash lighting the model, and turn on the flash that is lighting the background with the Gel. Take a test shot to get the intensity of the colour you want. Turn both flashes on and shoot away. The background will always be the colour you want and the model should be perfectly lit.

The above is one with standard grey background and three coloured Gels.

What if you only have one flash?

If you only have one flash then use natural light, like a window for lighting the model and try and stop too much light hitting your background. Then expose for the model and then adjust the flash lighting to the background accordingly. You may need a higher ISO to keep the camera settings the same and the output on the flash may need to be stronger, so make sure you have some spare batteries.

More than one flash

If you have two or more flashes then try gelling two with different colours and put them out to the side and point them into the center to create multi-colour backgrounds.

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May you take a photo of me and my horse..

While I was thinking what to write for the next blog and scrolling through the channels on the SKY box (other boxes are available) I found myself watching the Horse & Country channel and the Jumping World Cup. This brought back memories of my wife and daughter, spending endless hours preparing and practicing for shows among other horse related activities.

Not photographing horses was never going to be an option for me as most parents with a child or children that love their horses will know. Especially those that are learning or doing some type of competition with their beloved companion.

Most of my weekends whether it was sunny, raining or snowing were spent in a field watching horses running around, jumping fences or refusing to get back into their trailers after the day was done.

Then on the days that a competition was on, it was usually down to me and most of us have been there, to make sure that I had lots of photos of not just the daughter jumping but sometimes her friends.

Nowadays, our horse is too old to go competing and spends its life like we all will be doing one day; standing in a field, eating grass and waiting to be led in for our dinner.

Although not a horse person myself my wife has always been and my daughter is now a BHS Instructor. So here it is, my blog for you on tips for taking better photos of horse and rider.

Now I know nearly all of us take videos of the event but how long is it before these videos are forgotten or deleted to make space for even more videos?

Wouldn’t it be nice to take an image that is good enough to frame or put on the wall and is not an impulse buy on the day and then relegate to a drawer, or a small low quality image that is taken from a hard working photographers’ website with a watermark running through the center? (There is a whole other post which could be written on why you should not do this.)

Having done a few of these events I do understand that not everyone can afford the additional expense of paying for a print at the show with all the other expenses that go with having a horse and rider. However, wouldn’t it be nice if you could show them an image you have taken yourself on the back of your camera. Then, take it home, print it, go to the shops, choose a frame and see it every day. As time and events go by you can watch your collection grow, knowing that you took these photos and, every time you gaze upon them you will have the memory of that moment you pressed the button on the camera and not the one that someone else gave you.

For those who own a digital or DSLR camera here are my few tips on taking better images that you would be proud to post and print.

The Camera

Your camera needs to have a Manual mode setting.
This will give you the greatest control of the end result and the best images.

The lens

Nearly every event photographer will say you need a good telephoto lens and that is true but let’s be honest not everyone has the sort of money required to buy one, unless you’re a professional or hobbyist. So, let’s stick to what you may have and that will usually be the lens the camera came with.

Be in the right place

I do not mean behind the jumps in the arena, what I mean is, if you are at a jumping competition and you want to take images of horses jumping over fences, then find a position that gets you the closest to a fence. Try not to be viewing the rear of the horse as it jumps. Position yourself so that you get a side or front view as these will show more of the rider and a more dramatic view of the horse. Once you have found the spot that you want to be in, you now need to work out a few other things.

If out-doors when positioning yourself, check where the sun is. Is it straight in front of you when you are going to be photographing? If yes you may need to find a different position.

If in-doors, how good is the light and will it get darker?

We already know that horses move quickly, so you will need a fast shutter speed, to get the horse and rider sharp and in focus. Remember, if the horse and rider are moving towards you then by the time it takes for you to focus and press the button they will have moved not only forward but up or down.

Practice before the event

Look at the camera manual if you are unsure what to do.

  • We will be adjusting three things:
  • Shutter speed, F-stop and ISO.
  • Set the shutter speed to 250th sec. – 500th sec. the higher the better.

Set the F-stop to f5.6 – f8.0 and remember if you have a zoom lens that does not have a fixed aperture then the F-stop will change as you zoom in or out. Pick a point and stick with it to stop this from happening.

  • Set the ISO to 100 or 200 depending on the camera; do not go lower than 100.
  • Set the focus point to spot, so that where the spot falls on the subject that is what is in focus.
  • TURN OFF the Pop-up flash if the camera has one.
  • Take a few shots, are they too dark or too bright?
  • If too bright then increase the shutter speed.If too dark there are two things you can do.
  • Increase the ISO, but remember the higher the number the more grainier (noise) your image will be, so see how high you can go before the image starts looking grainy.
  • Lower the F-stop but doing this will reduce how much is in focus.


Do this while your subjects are practicing at the yard or when they are having lessons (always ask the instructor first) before the event until you are happy with the above.

You are now ready

There are lots of other things we could do but let’s just stick with this for now. While the course is being set up or the rider is walking the course find yourself a safe spot to set up using the above steps and enjoy. Do not be despondent, if not all of the images are perfect because as always practice makes for a better photo.

Yes there are other camera settings

We know there are a range of other camera settings you could use, and our blog would be a small novel if we covered them all, so hopefully the above will get you thinking about where and how you take your images and have more fun in doing so.

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Off Camera Flash

What is off camera flash? and should I be using it?

Simple Start to Manual Mode

Why should we use manual mode?

This is the $1,000,000-dollar question, why should we use Manual Mode when all the other modes do exactly what we want and without the hassle of learning what everything does?

We get asked this a lot and our answer is always the same, it gives you control over the images you take.

While using the camera modes seems easier, you may not always get the image you are expecting.

Let’s see what we mean. There are only three things you can change;

Light – exposure:
How bright or dark do you want the image?

Depth of field: F-stop
How much of the image do you want in focus?

How blurry or sharp do you want the image?

Here is the issue, changing one will directly affect the others and there is no way around this in normal use, the only exception is the ISO setting and we will get to this later.

Auto Mode

We will use auto mode as an example, however, there are many different modes available depending on the camera you have. In this mode you point the camera at the subject and click the button. The camera will sort out the exposure, (how bright the image is), adjust the shutter speed and the depth of field (F-stop) and if it cannot get a correct exposure with these then the camera will change the ISO. All of this happens as the button goes click. There you have it! An image, with you only pointing the camera at a subject and pressing the button.

Our first steps to manual mode:


This is another way of saying how bright or dark the image will be when the photo is taken.
Looking through the view finder you may see a display at the bottom that looks similar to the image below.

Through the view finder fig.1.0

We are only interested in the middle section that has a reading from -3 to +3 and a pointer near the centre. This is measuring how exposed your image will be, or in another way how bright or dark the image will be. Each number on the scale is what is known as a stop of light. The right-hand side is increasing the light up three stops and the left-hand side decreasing the light down three stops. The best place to have the pointer is in the middle as this will produce a correctly exposed image.

The exposure meter is controlled by a dial on the camera so take a look at your manual to learn how to operate it.

Depth of field:

How much of the image is in focus

Also known as depth of focus this is related to the aperture or opening in the lens, whereby the lower the starting number the larger the aperture opening. Therefore, a lower F-stop number enables more light through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor. Lenses have either a variable or fixed F-stop number, which indicates the highest amount of light the lens can let through. Most kit lenses will start at an F- stop around 4.5 and if they have a zoom then this may change, the more you zoom in. Looking at your lens will tell you what the F-stop is.

Another way to see what the lens F-stop is, is to look at the display on the back of the camera, which will show you the starting F-stop for your lens. By the by, the lower F-stop lenses are always more expensive, as the quality of the glass used is higher, enabling more light through.

From this, you would think that having a low F-stop number is the way to go as this lets in more light, which in turn allows higher shutter speeds and consequently a sharper image. However, there is a downside to this as the lower the F-stop number the less of the image will be in focus. Think of it as taking a picture of the different parts of someone’s face. With a very low F-stop say F1.2 and the focus point set on the eyes, then their nose and ears may be out of focus. Yet, if the camera lens is set to say F5.6 and the focus point is on the eyes, then the nose and ears may now be in focus . Knowing this, we can take more control of the way the photo looks and get creative with the end results.

There is another downside, in that the higher the F-stop number, the slower the shutter speed has to be, the shutter has to stay open longer to let in the equivalent amount of light. This is because the aperture in the lens becomes smaller the higher the F-stop number. This can be an issue in low light or if the subject is moving, as the slower the shutter speed the higher the chance of having a blurred image. Steady hands or tripod required at this point!

Here is the issue I think most of us have with manual mode, We have to be constantly aware of our camera setting and our surroundings.

For instance, landscape images may require a high F-stop to get everything in focus which in turn requires a longer shutter speed to get the image correctly exposed. Meaning that to avoid camera shake we may require a tripod to get a sharp image. Taking fast moving objects requires a fast shutter speed so you would think having a lens with a very low F-stop would work, but you may not get everything in focus.

This shows that we must plan ahead, slow down and be patient when using Manual mode.

When there is not enough light:

ISO to the rescue

What happens when we cannot get enough light through the lens by adjusting the shutter speed or F-stop value plus you cannot use or do not have a flash or other source of lighting? In this situation you can change a setting named ISO. This increases or decreases the sensitivity of the sensor to the light coming through the lens. Changing the ISO will allow the camera to operate better in low light and may allow you to take the image at the required shutter speed or F-stop.

In days gone by when we used film, ISO was the rating of the film sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number the more light the film would be able to capture, but the trade-off was image quality as the higher the ISO the more noise/grainier the image became.

In fact, it is the same for digital cameras, the higher the ISO the noisier/grainier the image becomes.

Most DSLR cameras have an ISO setting starting from around a 100 and up to and over 32,000 so at the very high levels. You can try taking a photo in near total darkness at the settings we require, but the image quality may not be as good and we may have to use other means or additional equipment to get the image we require.

Using ISO to enable the camera to capture more light is great, especially if photographing indoors at events where other types of lighting is not allowed.

ISO International Organization for Standardization which combined two film standards named ASA and DIN which were combined to ISO standards in the 1970’s.

The impossible shot: low indoor lighting, fast moving subject and no external light source allowed.
ISO 4000, Shutter Speed 1/160 sec F-stop 5.0

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. The higher the fraction the faster the speed which means that 1/500th is a much faster shutter speed than 1/30th. In Auto mode the camera decides the correct shutter speed to use and adjusts all the other settings to enable the fastest shutter speed. Switching to manual mode requires that the photographer has to set the shutter speed and knowing what this is, will determine how sharp or blurry the image is or how dark or bright the image is.

What is the focal length of your lens?

For a shake free image the shutter speed has to be higher than the focal length of the lens being used. This means that if you are using a 50 mm lens then the shutter speed should be greater then 1/50th second. For a zoom lens check how far you are zoomed in and do the same. If the shutter speed is lower than you require, adjust the F-Stop or ISO to get the correct image for your exposure.

Decide which shutter speed is correct

Assuming we are looking for a correctly exposed stationary image and you have never ventured into manual mode before, then try this.

  • First, switch to manual mode
  • Next, set the ISO to no more than 200
  • Then set the F-stop to 5.6 and look through the view finder towards your subject
  • Finally, set the correct exposure by only changing the shutter speed
  • After, make a note of the settings.

Is the exposure needle still in the center?
If not, what do we need to change to get it there and keep the shutter speed above the focal length of the lens?

Look at the image (fig 1.0) above . This is looking through the view finder and you should be able to see all the information you require.
The first number on the left is the shutter speed, the second is the F-stop. (Check your camera’s manual for your own camera.)

To freeze or not to freeze:

To freeze a subject such as a bird in flight or a fast moving car, a higher shutter speed is required. This can be anywhere from 1/500th of a second to over 1/1000th of a second. To blur or to take low light images such as the stars at night, a slower shutter speed is required and this can be from 1/5th to 30 seconds.
New photographers can easily mistake camera shake for out of focus images, as they have the same appearance when the shake is subtle.

Slow shutter speed results in blurred water.

Remember, to eliminate camera shake when hand held, the shutter speed must be higher than the lens’s focal length.
Changing all three settings may still not be enough to get that perfect shot and other methods may need to be used.

Is manual mode best?

Well not always!

After all this, manual mode may not always be the best way to go. When you have mastered manual mode, you may not always use it, because not all situations will require or allow for it. There may not be the time, or the conditions may change greatly between shots.

E.g. let’s assume we are at an event with low changeable lighting and fast moving subjects, there may not be time to configure the camera so one of the other modes including auto may be your best choice.

To summarise, understanding how the settings work and how each one affects the image in differing ways will ultimately give you more control over how your resulting images look.

To learn more through piratical experience why not attend one of our Learning Center classes. We offer group or individual classes for all levels.

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