Photo Advice from thedude

A coworker recently asked for photo advice after seeing the pictures I shot at our company Christmas party. I took the time compose a lengthy response, and figure I might as well share it with my regular readers too!

Hi thedude,

I was looking at the pictures you took at the party. They are amazing. How in the world do you get pictures with the color, contrast, and clarity that you captured?

I’m using a D70, as opposed to the D2x, but figure there is more to it than that. Is it in the lens? Post processing?

I’m looking to upgrade soon, and was hoping you had a minute to offer some advice as to why my pictures have a slightly washed out / less life-like look – regardless of the level of flash.


Where to begin? Well, first – thanks for the very kind words.

There are many pieces to this. Briefly:

ALWAYS shoot RAW. This is not just for the added sharpness, but most importantly, so that you can make tweaks to the color temperature and exposure.

UNDEREXPOSE. In a situation like this where the majority of the image is almost black, the camera needs to know that this is what you want. I underexpose flash shots by .3 or even .7 stops. All of the Affy party images were underexposed by .7 stops. This prevents blown out highlights.

Use a MANUAL setting. Shoot some test shots with the camera. Find an ISO/shutter speed combination that will capture some of the room light. Choose the slowest shutter speed possible and stop down the lens a couple stops from it’s max. The idea is to get the best sharpness and depth of focus while capturing as much ambient light as possible. The Affy party images were shot at f4 at 1/25th of a second with a Nikkor 24-85mm f2.8 lens.

Use the most powerful flash you can find and attach the Gary Fong Lightsphere with an AmberDome. This will warm things up a bit so that the color of the light from the flash is close to the color of the ambient (incandescent) light.

Compose quickly, get in close, push the shutter release at exactly the right moment. 🙂


Open a few of the best-looking images in the PhotoShop RAW converter. Adjust the color temperature until they look just right. I like my images to be a bit on the warm side. For the Affy images, 3700 degrees produced the results I liked best. Apply the same color temp to all flash images.

Adjust exposure individually in the RAW converter. Underexposing has its drawbacks, but blown out highlights are really bad. Nothing worse than super-shiny reflections on faces. If highlights are blown out, there is no easy way to repair them.

Create a PhotoShop Action to reduce the image size in steps and apply a tiny bit of smart sharpening filter as you go. In this case the original ~4200 pixel wide images were reduced to ~1800 pixels. Done properly, this will greatly enhance sharpness.

Practice, practice…

Good luck!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Antonio Piccolboni says:

    And don’t chop foreheads! The combination of ambient and flash light is masterful. But if underexposing is always good, how come Nikon hasn’t figured it out yet?

  2. thedude says:

    Oh – I always chop foreheads. 🙂

    Actually, due to the linear response of digital sensors, underexposing is normally a bad thing. Most of the image data is concentrated at the brighter end of the scale.

    In this specific case though (flash fill in a darkened room), the overall brightness of the images is less than that of your 18% gray card. Thus the recommendation to underexpose.

  3. Antonio Piccolboni says:

    Oh, enlightening (sorry for the pun)! I am starting to work on a logarithmic sensor right away!

  4. grant says:

    It has nuthing to do with the camera. The D70 should be able to reproduce great photos.

  5. Psycho says:

    Ordered my Lightsphere-II Diffuser!!!!!!

  6. Hugh Caley says:

    So how come you didn’t recommend the Lightsphere to me when I asked you about making flashes work better a while ago?

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