Looking back, looking forward - Technique / by Tom Henderix

Continuing the roundup of 2015, please read part one first if you haven't yet.


2015 has been a mixed year photography wise for me. As far as technique goes, I learned a lot in a year. Learning lighting has been the biggest boon to how I take pictures, especially those with only natural light too. But as my technique improved, my inspiration dried up early in the summer, with no idea where to improve next. After a few months of reflection on previous work, I decided that I'll focus more on simplifying my work again.

I took my first serious portrait in November 2014, photographing Jan and his sublime classic Toyoto Celica muscle car. I had taken occasional portraits on holiday before, and some occasional work featuring close friends, but never a serious concept, and especially not with lighting involved, other than ambient light.

Taking portraits is something I did not expect to enjoy so much. It's a strange balancing act, mixing technical aspects (lighting, camera, lens selection, settings,...), personal interaction with people you've often never even seen before, working with a make-up artist, maybe even a stylist, and at the same time still trying to focus on the creative aspect too.

Learning the purely technical aspect of lighting is not nearly as hard as I used to imagine. Strobist has a great 101 on it here. The book is totally free and downloadable as a PDF, so be sure to have a look.

Knowing where to place those lights however, now that's a whole different ballgame. Classic Rembrandt and butterfly lighting is not rocket science. But figuring out the dozens of tiny nuances between modifiers and placement makes it something that I only started to see after I had done at least seven or eight portrait shoots. The best way to learn lighting seems to me to skip most of the reading material, and just watch the brilliant OneLight 2.0 by Zack Arias, you can get it at DedPXL. It's on sale several times a year, you can pick it up cheap then. While you're over at the DedPXL blog, read some of the excellent articles too, they have some truly inspirational ones on the blog. These are two of my favourites that inspired me this year:
Confessions of a contest judge
The archer and the arrow

As I started taking portraits, I thought I should finally learn Photoshop. I've been photographing on and off since 2009, but I never could bring myself to learn Photoshop. I mostly found Lightroom to be all I needed, and for the occasional portrait it's powerful enough. Reading books on Photoshop is something I never liked. I tried... And gave up very quickly... And then tried again... And gave up even quicker.
Finally, I found Phlearn's Photoshop 101 + 201 to be the best way to build a really solid foundation in only a matter of weeks. Looking back however at my own attempts at editing portraits in Photoshop, I found that:
A: I still suck at Photoshop.
B: I went totally overboard on occasion, going way too far on retouching.
C: In the end, I always favoured the simpler portraits, focussing more on dramatic light and shadows.

So I re-edited most of my earlier portraits over the summer, focussing more on just some minor skin retouching and leaving the rest as close to original as possible. It's easy to think a good portrait needs lots of Photoshop and editing, and many people are really good at it too. Since I've lost most of my interest in the fashion/glamour look, I don't think I'll be needing heavy retouching that much anymore. I know enough now to do natural looking edits, and that'll do.

I think my cooperation with Jennifer showcases the direction I want to take in the future. See the results here.

The shoot with Jennifer is natural light only (I could have used a speedlight and softbox too, if it wasn't taken on location in Madrid), shot with only two focal lengths, 16mm (24mm equivalent) and 56mm (85mm equivalent). A combination that works fine for most portrait shoots, allowing storytelling wide angles all the way down to close up headshots. More than enough variety for a simple portrait shoot. A big tendency for me has been to use less gear this last year. Most shoots I only use one or two focal lengths anymore, sometimes even just the one. As far as editing goes, apart from some removing some tiny blemishes and adding my own colour profiles, these images are untouched.


I received a lot of gear related questions after the interview. Some of the more prominent ones were the following. I'll put my opinion on these below. I'm by no means an expert, I can just tell you what works for me. I understand why gear questions are important for beginners, but please try to realise that gear is only 5% of an image. Any modern full frame, aps-c or micro four thirds camera tends to fall into the "more than good enough" category these days.

"Should I upgrade to a full frame camera so I can take better pictures?"

First of all, no camera helps you take better pictures. You can open any old photography book, and the pictures you'll see will be taken with far inferior cameras than we have at our disposal today. By all means, if you think you need a "better" camera, get one. Just realise that what you think is "need", is actually more likely to be just "want". There is a difference. I'd rather pick up a few nice books, go visit a museum or go on a trip than spend my money on gear. Or pick up a cheap film body, like I did last year. Going to an inferior camera actually helped me a lot I feel. And film is not cheap, so you learn to be careful and think before you press buttons.

One digital body, one film body. A nice change up when travelling.

I learned photography in the digital age, and learning it on digital allows you to learn much faster than used to be the case in the film days... but it also tends to make you lazy. Being able to take dozens of shots does not necessarily mean you take good ones. There is a zen feeling when using a film body, slowing everything down, focussing on details before pressing the shutter, waiting for the images to come back from the lab. Even if you don't care about film, it's always a good exercise in patience. It also makes you realise just how amazing any modern digital camera really is, with it's near unlimited ISO performance, fast autofocus and fast burst rates.

"Why do you use Fujifilm cameras and not Sony, those have 42 megapixels?"

The question on why not Sony, or Canon, or Nikon, ... Well, personal preference. I like the rendering, size and look of the Fujifilm bodies. Also, Fujinon lenses are gorgeous, and usually feature fast apertures and nice flare characteristics. Yes, full frame has a minor bump in image quality and ISO performance, but frankly, I prefer the low weight and size of a smaller body any day. DSLR's are still the choice for professional customer support, fast action and extreme durability. For anything else and 90% of hobbyist use, I find it easier to go with a small mirrorless camera setup. No use getting a heavy camera if you always leave it at home in the end... The Fuji's have their quirks, but I love picking them up and shooting with them.

"I have X lenses already, but I'm going on a trip next month. Which lens should I get next?"

I used to rely heavily on zoom lenses when still using Canon, and when I switched to Olympus I focussed on zooms too. After the change to Fuji, I have all but abandoned zoom lenses. I tend to think of lenses more in terms of a certain look now. Japan Camera Hunter features a beautiful roundup on the matter here.
Consider what you want to shoot first, and then just use one or two lenses when travelling. Three at most. Reducing your options does not mean you can take less pictures, it helps you get creative with the focal lengths you have at disposal. For general use, a 35mm and 85mm equivalent kit (23mm and 56mm for Fuji users) makes for a very strong travel kit, while still staying light.

"I want to learn lighting, should I get X strobes or brand Y?"

Tough question again. I had some questions from Americans on Alien Bees, but since those aren't sold over here, I can't comment on those. Also, I only used speedlights so far. I have used an Elinchrom setup when assisting a pro earlier this year, but for hobby use, those are far too expensive and cumbersome. Speedlights are portable, and only one can do wonders already for your images.

I currently use Godox speedlights, but I would not recommend those anymore. The li-ion batteries are brand-specific and I've been having some issues with them lately. I feel the Cactus speedlight system is currently the best all-round choice for manual lighting on Fuji. They feature TTL support too for Canon or Nikon. I don't use TTL, so for me the lack of TTL is not an issue.

For better advice, I prefer to recommend you visit the Strobist blog section on lighting gear.