Left: Windowlight. Right: Windowlight + fill flash from a 60: white umbrella. Click the photo to see a high-res version.

Rocky Mountain School of Photography is hosting me this week as the instructor of their summer Flash Photography workshop (info here). We’ve been shooting for the past two days in Missoula’s old Macy’s department store. The space is a photographer’s dream come true: two floors, high ceilings, huge windows, and walls covered with a wide array of colors and textures collected through the decades.

As beautiful as windowlight is, windowlight by itself is not always beauty light. Compare the two photos above. The shot on the left is windowlight alone. The shot on the right is windowlight plus fill flash from a 60″ white umbrella. Can you see how the addition of the fill flash conceals facial shadows and smooths the skin?

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I just finished my first year as the full-time art+photography teacher at Mission Prep here in San Luis Obispo. Many would think, after nine months of wrangling teens, that it’s time for me to take a break. To the contrary, I’m busier now than I’ve been in a long while. Put another way, when it comes to summer jobs, I have many.

First up is the complete revision of my Speedliter’s Handbook–the second edition of which will be published next fall by Peachpit Press. In addition to the inclusion of the new radio-enabled 600EX-RT Speedlite system, I am updating all of my workflows and my gear recommendations based on the insights I’ve gained since the original Handbook was published four years ago. You can bet that I’ll be beta-testing a lot of the new content as posts here on PixSylated. Grab a free email subscription if you want to keep up with with these posts.

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Fig. 1–Shot during the Peter Read Miller Sports Photography Workshop in Denver. A pair of Speedlites working in high-speed sync provide essential fill flash for these fast-action cycling shots. Canon 5D Mk III, 17-40mm F/4L at 17mm, 1/500″, f/8, ISO 100. Two 600EX-RT Speedlites triggered by ST-E3-RT Transmitter.

High-speed action in broad daylight requires high-speed fill flash.  High-speed in this case means two things: the fast shutter speeds enabled by Speedlites in high-speed sync AND speeding up the flash recycling time by using an external power pack to recharge the Speedlites.

I’ve covered high-speed sync (HSS) many times on PixSylated. [For an introduction to HSS, check out this Simple Truths article.] The short version is that HSS changes the way the Speedlite fires. HSS enables the use of shutter speeds faster than the camera’s sync speed—1/250″ on most DSLRs.

The downside to HSS is that turning the Speedlite into a near-continuous light source (even for a fraction of a second) consumes a bunch of power. My tests have shown that HSS consumes 2.5 stops of light—which is the equivalent of turning a Speedlite’s maximum output from full-power down to 1/6 power. For fill flash, this power loss is not a big issue. It’s only when you are shooting day-for-night that you need to overcome the HSS hit by using an arsenal of Speedlites (like I did here).

Continue reading », my question and answer blog officially launched over the holiday weekend. You can check out the list of inaugural topics below. If you see a resemblance between the HeySyl logo and the PixSylated logo, it is no coincidence. I created as a repository of answers to reader questions. will continue to present original content and resources that I find valuable.

If you would like to get the new HeySyl Q&A posts delivered by email, grab a free subscription here. If you already subscribe to PixSylated and you want the new Q&A delivered as well, you will need update your subscription preferences.

Click here to submit a question to HeySyl.

HeySyl’s First Questions—A Baker’s Dozen

1. New Edition of Speedliter’s Handbook & 600EX-RT System

2. Preventing Light Spill From A Beauty Dish

3. High-Speed Sync With 7D

4. PocketWizard FlexTT5 Still A Viable Option?

5. Better Ways To Learn Speedliting

6. Lighting Mixed Skin Tones

7. Event Photography & ETTL Flash

8. Beauty Dish For Speedlites

9. New Speedliter’s Handbook & Nikonians

10. 600EX-RT Speedlite Not Communicating With ST-E3-RT Transmitter

11. Speedlite Fires Intermittently on PocketWizard Cord

12. Yongnuo Flash Quality

13. Speedliting a Crawling Grandchild

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I just launched a new feature on PixSylated. “Hey Syl” is a convenient way to send in questions about lighting and imagemaking.

The most interesting questions will be posted along with my answers on the Hey Syl page. When the Q&A builds up enough content, it will be sorted and arranged as a FAQ.

Why am I seeking questions? Three reasons:

  1. I receive question daily anyway. This new system makes it easier for readers to ask. It also means that the questions will no longer get lost in the flood of other emails that come in daily.
  2. In the past when a good question comes in and I provide a detailed answer, I often think that a whole lot of people probably want that answer too, especially if it pertains to a specific camera or Speedlite. So, now the answers will be posted online and eventually the Q&A will be searchable.
  3. I recently started work on the second edition of the Speedliter’s Handbook–which will be published next autumn. So, this is a great way for me to learn what Speedliters want to know about lighting and how to work their gear.

Have a question? Click here.




We photographers add loads of tension to our lives. We work so hard to perfect our craft, but continue to think that we are not good enough yet. We stress over not having the right gear. We find all kinds of reasons to not shoot and to not share our photos.

Most of us, who are serious about creating great images, remember a time when making photographs was fun, spontaneous, and easy. Yet, we get all tangled up and photography becomes a stressor rather than a release.

I wrote years ago that I take mental photos all the time (LIDLIPS #36 here). I’d see something interesting and say “Snap.” Now, I reach for my iPhone and take that snap. I try to do this at least once a day–stop my life for a moment and make a photo for the joy of making the photo.

These pix don’t have to relate to anything. They are not part of a series. Many of them are not even “good.” That does not matter. What does matter is that when I’m inspired by or drawn to something I see, I stop and shoot. It’s so easy to decide not to shoot for a million reasons. It’s so easy to decide to shoot as well.

I’ve been posting these snaps on Instagram for the past six weeks. I avoided the Instagram craze for a long time. Now, I find it’s a convenient way to stay connected to the playfullness that brought me into photography way back when.

Syl Arena on Instagram.

Natural light photographers often advocate placing your subject in open shade. When compared to the harsh shadows of midday sun, the benefit of open shade is that the shadows are very soft because the light comes at your subject from a wide range of angles across the dome of the sky. The downside to open shade is that the low contrast of the light (the difference between the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows) creates an image that lacks texture and depth. Fortunately, a single Speedlite can add a lot of magic to the shot.

Fig. 1 -- Ambient light only.

Fig. 1 — Ambient light only (open shade on the north side of a cliff).


Fig. 2–Ambient + Flash, the same exact exposure with the addition of a Speedlite at camera right.

 Shadows reveal depth and texture. Compare the two shots above. Figure 1 was shot in the open shade on the north side of a cliff. Figure 2 is the same exposure with the addition of a Speedlite set very close to the rock wall and zoomed very tight.  The pop of flash is the only difference between the two shots. Note how the shadows of the rock in Figure 2 allow you to see the texture of the surface. (See this article for more insight on using Zoom as a creative tool.)

Shadows also create a sense of time. Note also how the angles of the shadows in Figure 2 suggest that the sun is low in the sky. We know instinctively that long, raking shadows mean the sun is close to the horizon. Since there are no well-defined shadows in the Ambient-only shot, there is no sense of time.

Color also plays a key role in perceiving the time of day. When the sun is near the horizon, our atmosphere warms the light. In contrast, open shade is very cool (bluish) because the rays of sunlight literally bounce off the dome of the sky on their way to the subject. You can see the cool cast of open shade in Figs. 3 and 4, below. Both images were made with my camera’s white balance set to Daylight.


Fig. 3–The original Flash+Ambient capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

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Fig. 4 — The original Ambient-only capture before warming the white balance in Lightroom.

To mimic the effect of late afternoon sun, I shifted the Color Temperature slider (Fig. 5) in Lightroom from the camera’s white balance setting of 5200K to 9500K. Compare Figure 3 to Figure 2  and Figure 4 to Figure 1 to see the effect of this color shift.

Flat Light Ambient Capture

Fig. 5 — The Basic settings panel in Ligthroom’s Develop module.

Are you wondering why I did not use a CTO (amber-colored) gel on my Speedlite to shift the color of the flash? If I had, then there would be an unnatural difference between the cool ambient light and my flash. Without the CTO gel, I was able to lift the ambient and flash together with a simple move of the Color Temperature slider.

So, how big of a difference can one Speedlite make? Figure 6 below is my best effort in Lightroom at optimizing the Ambient-only shot to match the overall luminance of the Ambient+Flash shot. I’ve dropped Figure 2, the Ambient+Flash shot, back in below so that you can make a close comparison. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the differences as a comment.

Fig. 5 -- Ambient light corrected to maximize luminance.

Fig. 6 — Ambient-only (Fig. 1) optimized in Lightroom so that luminance is similar to Ambient+Flash shot.


Fig. 2 (again) — Ambient + Flash, with white balance shifted in Lightroom.

 These shots were made as part of a demo that I did recently at Peter Read Miller’s sports photography workshop in Denver. For more information on Peter’s workshops, click here.


Learning to mix Speedlites and small strobes on location: “Crafting Dramatic Light With Small Strobes”—Santa Fe Workshops

Is a week-long summer photography workshop right for you? It depends upon whether you want to invest a week shooting and lighting or spend a week lounging around the pool. I love the workshop-way of teaching photography—collaborative, hands-on, and fun. If you are looking to take your understanding of lighting to a higher level, then I hope that you will join me for one of my week-long workshops this summer.


Rocky Mountain Workshops

Flash Photography

Missoula, Montana • June 14–20, 2014


Rocky Mountain School of Photography runs a wide range of great photo courses in beautiful Missoula, Montana and at locations across the country. My Flash Photography workshop will replace fear about lighting with understanding and empowerment. We will start with the basics and build daily so that you can make informed decisions about how to shoot with flash in a wide-range of situations. The workshop includes location shoots both indoors and out. Workshop information.


Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

Crafting Dramatic Light With Small Strobes

Santa Fe, New Mexico • July 6–13, 2014


This will be my third summer teaching in Santa Fe. The workshop is open to shooters of all brands of gear. We learn to manage the ambient light with our camera settings and then to shape light and shadow with electronic flash. The emphasis is on crafting dramatic light—light the way you want it to be. We use hotshoe flash as well as lightweight, battery-pack strobes, plus an arsenal of modifiers, to shoot on a variety of locations around Santa Fe. Note: if you are a Nikonian, as a Nikon-sponsored school, SFPW has Nikon gear available for use by students. Workshop information.


Maine Media Workshops

Canon Speedlites Demystified

Rockport, Maine • August 24–30, 2014


If you are a Canonista who wants to learn to shoot flash, this is the workshop for you. Unlike my other workshops, which are non-denominational, Canon Speedlites Demystified focuses on crafting great light with Canon Speedlites. We will start with one Speedlite and build our way to using multiple Speedlites—including the new, radio-enabled 600EX-RT system. As a Canon-sponsored school, Maine Media has Canon gear available for student use. This will be my fourth summer returning to Maine’s beautiful central coast…maybe it’s the Friday-night lobster feed. Workshop page.


Questions? Feel free to submit them as a comment.



This Week In Photo #348 is now live. I re-join TWiP’s eternally effervescent host, Frederick Van Johnson, and welcome TWiP first-timer Shiv Verma for rousing conversations about the world of photography, including our thoughts on:

  • whether we’re grabbing URLs in the new .photography and .camera domains
  • why it’s crazy to hire a wedding photographer who posts a Craigslist ad soliciting photos to pad his portfolio
  • what happens to photographers who license work for a photo credit and then change their minds
  • licensing and business resources available to photographers on
  • why we should not trust social media sites as the repositories for our most-precious photos.

We also talk about our picks of the week.

You can watch the video of us recording the podcast (complete with the crazy electric moiré of my shirt) on YouTube.

Click here if you cannot see the video embedded above.

For the full audio program and show links, (which includes Frederick’s interview with YouTube star Bluntyclick here.


Syl Arena Havana Camera Obscura 8381 600px

Havana’s camera obscura sits three floors above the Plaza Vieja, the Old Plaza, and overlooks the entire city. Stepping inside its viewing room was one of my favorite moments during my trip to Cuba last spring. Even non-photographers marveled at the live-action view of the city that we witnessed.

Of the 70 or so giant camera obscura around the world, Havana’s is the only one in Latin America. Consider it a must-see if you visit the city.

Camera Obscura diagram

A room-sized camera obscura

Camera Obscura artist

Periscope-style camera obscura were used by artists in the field.

First mentioned some 2,300 years ago by Aristotle and Euclid, a camera obscura is essentially a box or a room with a relatively small hole that projects an inverted image onto the wall opposite. During the Renaissance, the camera obscura became a tool explored by artists as a means of projecting an image onto a canvas or paper. Later designs, as shown above, used a rotating periscope with an angled mirror to project the image down onto a flat surface.


Interior and exterior views of the periscope tower of Havana’s camera obscura.

Havana’s camera obscura uses a rotating turret atop the building to provide a 360-degree view of the city. The camera operator rotates the turret and changes the angle of the mirror with one hand while pointing out sights near and far with his other hand. His humorous narrative is bilingual–switching seamlessly between Spanish and English as you will hear in the video below. The magic of the camera obscura experience is that you think you are looking at a still photograph–until you notice the motion of flags waving in the breeze and people walking on the street.

Syl Arena Havana Camera Obscura 8402 600px

The dome of Havana’s neo-classical Capitolio

I look forward to visiting Havana’s camera obscura again in April. If you would like to experience it for yourself, a few spaces are still available for my April 15-23, 2014 trip to Havana and Viñales. Click here to get more info on the Santa Fe Photo Workshops site. The window to register will close in the next week or so. So don’t delay.

Spend a couple of minutes inside Havana’s camera obscura with this video on YouTube.