The Power of Curves adjustments

Just about anything you want to do to edit color and luminosity in your images, can be done with the curves adjustments. It’s a super powerful tool, but like all tools, takes a bit of practice to get the hang of. Within Adobe Photoshop, there are a few extra little features built into curves that let you easily color match elements within a composite.

This is an in-depth video demonstration of working with the Curves tools in Photoshop.

Take a look and let me know what you think – have you used curves in your work before?

Three Keys to Composite Images

I’m sure if you’ve spent much time at all in photography and Photoshop groups online you’ve seen both good and bad examples of composite photos…but what are the KEY elements that help push your work into that good or great category?

Fantasy Steampunk-Steve vs Blue_V3_Sources

I’ve spent a good deal of time doing these and reviewing them with other Photoshop wizards, and ultimately the three things that almost always MUST be done effectively in order to create a convincing composite image are:

1.       Lighting

2.       Perspective

3.       Clean cut-out of elements.

If any one of these elements is off, the viewer may not know exactly what is wrong but they will just have a feeling that something isn’t right with the image. Even without extensive knowledge of Photoshop and photography, people are just used to seeing the world in a way that conforms to natural laws…how light works, how distance is perceived and how objects fit into a scene.

With photos, and 2-dimensional art forms, you are representing a 3-dimensional world in a flat plane. That creates some challenges in perception for creators and viewers alike, but with movies and TV all being a regular part of our lives, we are accustomed to seeing things this way. How you fit elements into an image in Photoshop should come as close as possible to matching up with this standard, if your aim is to represent your art in a realistic way.

For example – one of my pet peeves is moon composites. Tell me, how many times have you looked up at the moon and seen it floating IN FRONT of the clouds??

Think about that. IT IS PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Yet I constantly see composite images, many times played off as real in-camera captures, where the moon is right there, front and center…and the clouds are floating by behind it.

OK, so let’s dig into these elements a bit further. What do you need to know to make them work for you, rather than against you?


There are a few components of this that come into play with composite imagery. The color, saturation, direction and “softness” of the light in your image should all be consistent. When you are combining images from multiple sources it is nearly guaranteed that there will be variations in the color temperature of the source files. Photoshop can adjust that easily, with hue and saturation or photo filter adjustment layers. Making effective use of these can bring the separate elements together as a cohesive image.

Shadows and shading around your objects needs to match the scene. If you have your main light source coming in from the right of the frame, the shadows should fall off to the left, and highlights on the subject should be toward the light. Sometimes simply flipping an element horizontally is all that is needed to make this work…other time careful hand-shading is needed to get it perfected.


If you haven’t had any background in art classes, perspective in a 2-dimensional image may be a new concept to you, but our brains are really good at telling us when something is out of perspective. Think about the view down a path. The lines of the edges all converge to a point, the line between the ground and the sky is called the horizon line, and these converging “vanishing lines” meet at that point.

People and other objects placed into the scene need to adhere to that overall perspective, both in their physical lines, and overall size and position relative to the horizon.

Clean Cut-outs:

Nothing shouts composite louder than blurry discolored edges around the outside of a subject. Especially with wispy flowing hair…if it is noticeably cut short or has a halo effect to it, your viewer is going to pick up on that and know something isn’t right.

So taking the time to master extractions is critical to crafting a believable composite photo. Luckily, Photoshop has a slew of tools dedicated to this task, and techniques like shooting on a green screen can greatly speed up the process of cutting out your subjects and other elements.


 If you’d like to learn more join our Facebook group:


Lastly – we offer hands-on classes that take you through the entire process, from shoot to finished edit.

Click here for more information

Behind the scenes of our last compositing class

Madi Sources


My new favorite light

So, I recently picked up the Godox AD600BM strobe and I have just three words….this thing ROCKS.

I just had an opportunity to take it out with a good photographer friend of mine, Brad Campbell and a fantastic local model, Rachel Atchison. We did a little photo-walk session along the canal in downtown Indianapolis and really put the light through it’s paces. Mainly – I wanted to see if all the hype about its High Speed Sync (HSS) capabilities were real.

OMG I was NOT disappointed. Check this out…


Un-edited RAW image from downtown Indianapolis.

Folks – seriously – read that caption twice. This is NOT edited. It is straight out of the camera, converted jpg from RAW and I just cannot believe it. The Godox light just kept up with us without a hitch, even as I blasted my shutter speed to mind-numbing 1/8000, the light was smooth and flawless. No hint of missing parts of the frame, and only one or two misfires from me shooting faster than it would recycle (which was quite fast, considering how hard we were pushing things.)

We were using the sun as a backlight. Shooting nearly wide-open on the lens at f2.0, and getting BEAUTIFUL light. I can’t tell you how giddy I was to get this kind of look. Any regular light would have kept you at 1/200th of a second on sync speed and there’s no way you could shoot that at f2.0. The image would be a blown-out white mess!

Another thing to note, the portability of this light is fantastic. We hiked quite a long distance down the canal, and I was carrying this light with an attached 34″ folding beauty dish softbox over my shoulder. With the battery attached, it was really a pretty easy chore – SO much more manageable than my Einstein with a separate Vagabond Mini battery…and a lot less overall weight as well. I won’t lie, I did have to take a break for a minute and rub my shoulders out…but I am not certain I could have even made the whole hike with my old kit.

End result…yeah, the hype is real. I’m going to hang on to my Einstein’s for now, but as I use this Godox AD600 more I’ll be closer and closer to ditching them for good. I’m optimistic that it will continue to perform well long-term, as most reports indicate that it is just as durable as other lights.

Keep an eye out for more!

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A birthday photo

So…our little kidlet just turned 3 years old. She’s super proud of that fact…and has spent a good deal of time learning how to show you three fingers to indicate just how old she is.

Kerrigan 3-yr birthday - FB

So yeah…this is my favorite photo from her special day. And I’m just going to share a little bit about how it was taken.

Kids are one of the greatest challenges in life – and that’s no different when you’re trying to take pictures of them. I get it. Oh….yeah…I get it. Continue reading “A birthday photo”

Sizing images for upload to Facebook

Wedding rings-9677

The struggle is real…you spend hours editing and perfecting your images only to see them mangled into a blurry pixelated mess when you share them on Facebook. As frustrating as that is, I get it…Facebook has nearly 2 billion users, all uploading photos of their latest lunch, their puppies and kitties and that thing they just saw at Wal-Mart…the amount of space that takes up is astronomical. I don’t even want to think about it! So they HAVE to compress all the joy out of your carefully crafted photos.

There are ways to minimize the damage though, by preparing them yourself to stay within guidelines that keep the evil FB compression bots from squashing your files.

That link is to Facebook’s help page for uploading images. If you read it carefully there are a few key points to remember: Pixel size, File size and colorspace. For the best possible results I use the larger pixel dimensions. Here’s the export dialog in Lightroom as I set it up for Facebook images:

The key to Facebook joy

File settings in the Lightroom Export for uploading to Facebook.

You can see I’ve set the file type to JPEG (I know a lot of sites recommend using PNG, and I do that as well, but I’ve honestly never noticed much difference between the two…other settings are more important, in my opinion.)

Color Space – I always keep this set at sRGB. If you’ve ever noticed color shifts between your computer and your phone and someone else’s computer, this is due to both the calibration of those screens and the color space shifts that occur. the sRGB setting here helps to minimize those shifts.

File Size – Since Facebook recommends keeping the file size below 100K, this is the easiest way to make sure you stay within that boundary. Check the box next to “Limit file size to:” and enter 100 K. This is probably the single most important step to making sure those evil squash-bots leave your photo alone.

Image size – Here is where you have the option to set the pixel dimensions of your image. Typically, as mentioned above I like to have as much detail as possible, so use the highest recommended number from their list: 2048. Set the “resize to fit” options to Long Edge (so the longest side of your photo will be sized to 2048 pixels, and the short size will be adjusted proportionally).  Enter 2048 pixels and set the resolution to 72 pixels per inch.

Image Sharpening – this final step is just a little extra punch. I typically have already sharpened my images, sop for this I keep it set to a low setting for screen.

Aside from this, the rest of the settings on your export are up to you. Save the image somewhere appropriate, apply a watermark if desired and then feed that image up to the Mighty Facebook!!!

For reference – there are options within Lightroom for publishing directly to sites like Facebook. Setting up a publish service is a post for another day…

Enjoy, and let me know in comments if there are any questions, or if you notice the bots may have changed and are attacking your photos again…





Shooting Fireworks

Fireworks Photography

Fireworks display off the shore of Lake Monroe, Indiana

Ok, so it’s that time of year – the annual celebration of our Independence. Which means nearly everyone with an interest in photography will be setting up to take some shots of the local fireworks displays, or maybe even just their own little family show with the kiddos. If you’ve never done it, or never really gotten the results you want, Here a few helpful tips to get you there…


  1. Tripod – Typically, if you’re wanting to get the trails and full ‘explosion’ of a firework, you will be shooting with shutter speeds of a few seconds or more. A sturdy tripod is a must to keep the entire image from being blurry.
  2. Shutter Release – This really goes hand-in-hand with the tripod. IT’s not entirely necessary, as you can set a shutter timer release, but it does help ensure a steady shot.
  3. Camera with Manual settings – yup, you will need to be able to balance the shutter speed and aperture manually for best results. While some cell phones even have fireworks settings that can yield decent results, to make sure you get what you want, having the ability to control everything separately is a huge benefit.
  4. Wide angle lens – Depending on your preferences, a good wide-angle zoom lens really helps make sure you get the entire display and some of the scene in your photo.
  5. Charged batteries – you may or may not need to bring a spare, but at least make sure your main camera battery is charged before heading to the display. Nothing kills the fun quicker than setting everything up only to find out your camera is dad after a few shots.
  6. Memory card(s) – similarly, just make sure to pack a memory card or two 🙂
  7. Flashlight – it will be dark. Bring a flashlight to help you in setting up, adjusting and tearing down your equipment.

One of the most helpful tips I know of is this – Scout the location. Whether you do this earlier the same day or even a few days before, it is super helpful to know where the fireworks will be launched form, and what view you can get from any certain location. Check things out, and try to get there early on the day of the show to claim your spot. Keep in mind the possibility of another photographer or viewer deciding your spot is awesome too…

For settings – it really can vary a lot by location and environment. In a city the ambient city lights can have a big impact.

  1. ISO – many people initially think that since it will be dark out, a high ISO setting is necessary. The fireworks are BRIGHT though, so really you can get good results even at 200. I usually start there and then decide with the first few test shots if I need to bump it up.
  2. Aperture – I usually set this at f8 to f9 and go from there. unless you really want to get some creative Depth of Field, the lower apertures really just make it more difficult to get perfect focus
  3. Shutter Speed – again, as mentioned earlier a few seconds is best for capturing the whole trailing stream of a firework launching and then exploding.

For reference, the photo at the top of this article was shot with an ISO of 800, F11, at 4 seconds. I used a Canon 5d mkIII and the 24-105 f4L lens.



Start-up flash lighting guide

*** 2017 Update: Everything below is still fairly true, however I did want to make a note about the newer line of flashes, strobes and triggers from Godox. These are also available rebranded as Flashpoint from Adorama, but the Godox system is really a uniquely flexible system. Their Wireless X trigger system can control their studio strobes and speedlights in any combination, up to 4 groups and 32 channels. This is a big deal – and the new strobes like the AD600BM have a battery pack and the wireless receiver built into them…which means there’s a lot fewer pieces of gear you have to lug around on your shoot. They also have the AD200 speedlight with multiple heads, and it also has a battery pack and receiver built in. Check out for ordering and more information.

I have not yet tested any of these items myself, but have heard many great things from other active professional photographers. As soon as I get my hands on them I will update this with more information, reviews and images. And with that…here’s the original post:


There are just so many options when it comes to photography lighting that if you’re new to the world of photography or just venturing into the realm of flash photography it can be totally overwhelming to decide what to get. As with so many things, when it comes to lighting and lighting equipment, until you are experienced enough to know exactly what you need, it’s best to keep it simple…and understand that you do get what you pay for.

There are a myriad of cheap light kits available on auction and resale sites. While these may be fine to start learning the basics, you will likely quickly outgrow them, or end up destroying the modifiers or lights themselves because they are simply not built to withstand much abuse. Professional lighting equipment, although more expensive, will end up saving you money in the long run because you won’t need to replace it nearly as often. You’ll also have fewer frustrations because of lack of power output or off-color light.

That said there are some excellent options available that bridge the gap between beginner and professional gear, and don’t cost a year’s salary. Here’s my list of items I’d look for just starting out with lighting, as well as a few options for upgrading:

  1. Yongnuo YN560 IV Flash – This is a surprisingly solid little flash for the money. It has a built in transceiver that lets you control other remote flash units with a compatible receiver (see below). A flash of this type is also commonly called a speedlight.
  2. Yongnuo YN560 III – This is the receiver only compatible flash unit to pair with the one listed above, or the transmitter below.
  3. Yongnuo YN560-TX – As another option, this is the transmitter controller that mounts to the top of your camera in lieu of a flash unit like the YN560 IV. This is generally my preferred method because I honestly don’t care much for flash that is mounted on-camera. A number of reasons for this, but really I prefer the look that you get from an off-camera flash aimed strategically to highlight the contours of a subject’s face.
  4. Godox S-type flash bracket – You’ll need something to mount your flash onto a light stand and attach modifiers. This is a good choice because the S-type mount (also called Bowens) is one of a few widely available standards for attaching softboxes, beauty dishes and other light modifiers.
  5. Fotodiox EZ-Pro 32×48 Softbox – Softboxes are a great standard light modifier. They create a big, soft light source and control light spill relatively well (light spill in basically extra light bouncing around that doesn’t directly light up your subject.) The included grid with this one helps control spill even further. The main drawback to softboxes is assembly – it can be a real challenge to get the support rods inserted into the speedring mount and you’ll probably be afraid you’re breaking them the first time you try it.
  6. Neewer 37″ Octagon Softbox with Grid – This is an octagonal version of a softbox (also called an Octobox). Largely, the differences between an Octobox and rectangular softbox come down to personal preference. The Octo will wrap the light around your subject a little more evenly and produce more natural looking highlights in their eyes.
  7. PCB 13′ heavy duty light stand – I have destroyed more light stands than I care to mention. There are so many out there that are cheaply made and just can’t take the repeated set-up and tear down of a mobile photographer. These stands from Paul C. Buff are really well made and sturdy, and the extra height they offer can really be useful. That said, any stand will break if you over tighten the clamps one them. Also consider the air cushioned version. That prevents the extended tubes from slamming down accidentally which can not only damage your lights but possible injure your hands (yes, I’ve had that happen…) If you don’t want to spend quite as much they do have a few lighter duty options that would work well with speedlights.
  8. PCB Einstein – If you’re really wanting to go beyond the power of a speedlight, the Einstein units from Paul C. Buff are outstanding. Keep in mind – they use a different speedring mount for attaching modifiers so you’ll either need to look for versions with Alien Bees speedrings or get an adapter. These will also require a different trigger if you want to use them wireless. They can operate as slaves – which means that they will fire when they sense another flash firing. Keep in mind that studio strobes like this are usually daylight balanced, so they will have a warmer light than the speedlights above. If you mix them look for gels for the speedlights such as the Rosco Strobist collection. You use a 1/4 CTO gel to match a speedlight to daylight white balance (Also useful for using flash to fill in shadows when shooting outdoors).
  9. Phottix Odin II, Indra & Mitros – If you’re just wanting to go all in and get some top-notch gear that will be expandable and serve you in almost any photographic lighting need, consider going with something like the Phottix system. Their range of triggers, flashes and strobes is all integrated, and their strobes are capable of high-speed sync, which is an advanced flash system that allows shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second and still get good flash results (typically, most flash systems won’t work well beyond 1/200th second or so depending on your camera). They have also adapted the S-mount style speedring so the options for modifiers I listed above work with them without need for an adapter.

Those are just the basics. Again, if you’re just starting out, keep it simple and learn how to use what you can afford to get before going all out on more expensive gear. I’ll be posting more about how to set up and use different light modifiers and light arrangements in the coming weeks.

Note – I know many professionals will strongly recommend getting the name brand flashes  that match your camera gear. In general I do agree, but for about a third of the cost, these Yongnuo units are hard to beat. You can look for additional features such as TTL functionality but I prefer to stress learning to control the light output manually rather than relying on the electronics to adjust settings for you.  I personally have 3 Canon 430 EX II speedlights that have served me well for many years, but I also have two of the Yongnuo units and use them quite frequently. The Canon flashes are definitely well made, but the Yongnuo’s are definitely worth every penny.




Studio Lighting Challenge

This post will be a relatively brief discussion of a recent studio lighting situation. The set-up was deceptively simple…models were sitting on the floor and covered with a fine black netting which we were trying to use to create a dramatic conceptual image. Trouble was, most standard lighting arrangements gave a very flat and lifeless look to the image.

After a few tests and considering the available lights, I came up with a set that brought out the texture in the fabric and highlighted some edge detail, while allowing the shadows to create a deep and moody feel to the overall image. The lighting diagram here shows the overall layout of this image.

Lighting diagram

Lighting diagram

The main light was a 3 x 4 softbox set to fire across the front of the models, feathered so that the models were in the light coming from the side of the softbox, rather than straight on. This arrangement put the subjects in very soft lighting that faded from left to right, highlighting the texture in the fabric and creating a dramatic split-light effect on the models faces, while providing just enough light on the right to give some detail to the shadowed features. Finally, a rim light was set in the back to provide edge detail to some of their features. This light had a black panel used to block any light from spilling on the backdrop, keeping the background of the image dark.

The final image is one of my favorites from what was a fantastic studio collaboration.

Final edited image from the shoot

Final edited image from the shoot

Thoughts or questions? – leave a comment!! What would you have done to light this type of image?

One or Two Light Fashion Set

Hey everyone – this blog post is in response to an emergency request from a fellow photographer in the Firstlighters group. Shameless plug for them – hosted by Lightstalking, Firstlighters is a wonderful gathering of photographic intellect. If you’re not in…check ’em out!

Anyway, there was a request for some info on fashion lighting set-ups. Specifically how to get a nearly blown-out white background with the edgy, contrasty light you often see in fashion layouts. Honestly – that lighting is deceptively simple to get close, but refining it can take a long time to perfect…I don’t really think I’m there and I’ve been studying it for a few years now. The basics of this look can be had with just two lights and a few black panels.

Fashion Lighting Diagram

The lighting diagram here shows the overhead view of the set. Note that the main light source is a strobe with a beauty dish & diffuser. I used a basic 22-inch dish, but the pros swear by the 28″ Mola dish. The main thing to note with whatever you use – the center point of the light beam is NOT aimed directly at the subject. If you look carefully at the diagram you’ll notice that the model is in the “feathered edge” of the light. This prevents you from having an extremely harsh highlight right on their forehead and nose. The light was raised above head height – probably about 8-10ft. This is the part that takes a long time to really perfect…you’d be amazed at how much difference you get by shifting the placement and angle of a light just a few inches.

The background light is really pretty straightforward. Light up the background if you want it white (technically, you should try for about 1-2 stops exposure above your subject…). I’ve found it faster personally to just use the screen on the back of my camera to judge whether the light is too bright. Make sure to zoom in a check the edge detail of your subject – if you’re too strong on the background light you’ll start to lose edge detail. Of course, if that’s the look you’re going for, by all means break this rule. You’ll also notice in the sample images below that I have a grey background and one that is black. These were all set up in nearly the same fashion, but I just used the key light for the darker backgrounds. To make it go black you just have to make sure none of the light is falling on the background…distance and angle are the keys.

I use simple black foam core panels set at different heights on either side of the subject to deepen the shadows on the sides. This is one of those little ‘secrets’ that makes small but noticeable differences in the image…and again, you have to play with the placement until you find what you like. I usually have them about 3-4 feet away from the model.

So…that’s a brief introduction to the lighting set up. If you’re really limited in what you have available to shoot with as far as lights and modifiers – you can try a few tricks to get close to this arrangement assuming you have at least a nice clean white wall. Try to get your hands on a slave-triggered flash in addition to one that will mount on your camera. Cheap is sometimes just fine…I’ve used these as slave flashes with great results. The main requirement is that it has a slave mode that will fire when it senses the light from another flash. Use a white panel above you and off to one side or another to bounce your on-camera flash toward the model and act as the key light. Your slave flash should trigger and light up the background wall. You will really have to tinker with your settings to pull this off and get the lighting balanced out, but it should get close to the right look.

Another little tidbit – I always shoot fashion shoot in the monochrome (black & white) setting on my camera using RAW files. This let me balance out the highlights and shadows a lot easier and if I’m getting the contrast that I want in black and white, I know it will convert well into a color photo once I load it into Lightroom.

Lighting-4959 Lighting-4959-2 Lighting-5039 Lighting-5176



Seeing the light…

Watch out for crazy photographers with remote flashes

Watch out for crazy photographers with remote flashes

Full Disclosure: This was actually a little off-the-wall post I wrote up on Facebook a few years ago before this blog was active. I just came across it again and had to share. Enjoy!!

Well, I’ve spent a long day editing photos for the April edition of Fashion Wrap Up…It was certainly crunch time!!! The studio shots took a little more time than I was anticipating to get them all cleaned up, but I think everything turned out pretty darn fabulous after all. Anyway, this little post really came about because I was asked to dig back into my archives of images for one of the featured designers – the fabulous R. Lynda from the December issue. While sorting through the images I came across this pic. It’s really one of my favorites just because of the fact that it is totally NOT a fashion shot. One of our favorite male models, Casey, was helping me out as a photo assistant for the day (he also helped us scout out the location for this shoot). In between sets, I caught him goofing around with my flash and umbrella…and me being the jerk that I am…I took the shot. Obviously, this lit up the inside of poor Casey’s skull for an instant…the evil imp in me laughs. Believe me, I’ve fired these things into my own face more times than I care to admit…so I do know what it’s like.

So what’s my point? I dunno really. I just really enjoy seeing this picture because it reminds me of one very fun (and for Casey…painful) moment during one of the many fashion shoots I’ve done in the past year. I thought everyone might enjoy sharing a little.

And for those of you considering assisting a photographer with a shoot – just be sure to know where that photographer is before you go playing with any remotely-triggered flashes 😉