The importance of managing light.

Needless to say, light is of paramount importance in photography. The word photography is translated from the Greek as “writing with light.” Without light, photography would be most difficult indeed.

Light does a lot for us in our image making. It allows making the very basic exposure itself. It provides shape, form, texture and dimension. The management of light helps us to render our subject with the most emphasis where desired. We’ll look at these ideas in a moment.

To further understand light we need to remember that it has several vastly important characteristics:

  • Light has intensity, or the characteristic of brightness. That characteristic requires us to produce a proper exposure using our camera meter, setting shutter speed aperture and ISO.
  • Light has color, the inherent wave length or color temperature of the light as it illuminates the subject. This color requires us to manage White Balance.
  • Light has direction, the angle that it strikes the subject. Front light, side light and backlight all have important uses in rendering our subject with the best results, and finally,
  • Light has quality. This characteristic is perhaps one of the most important. Light may be very soft and pleasing or hard, high contrast and very unflattering. Of all the light characteristics, the management of this quality of light requires our utmost effort.

Of all the light characteristics, the camera can manage intensity and color, but we need to be careful to manage light’s quality and direction to achieve the optimum reproduction of our subject. Unfortunately, I see a lack of lighting management in these two areas quite frequently. Let’s look at some ideas.

First let’s understand that light in itself helps us produce a shape but shadow helps us create form and dimension. We really need to manage both in the creation of quality images. I know that shadows are often bad; they may block up detail and detract from the image. And, often we appreciate images that are virtually shadow-free. I have written a piece for a shadow-less light application for small close-up and macro subjects. You may read it here.

Lighting direction is important to use in making our images. Front light gives us shape and form. Light from over our camera or shoulder can reveal a lot about our subject. As light wraps around the subject features, the variations in intensity, or falloff, tells us a lot about the features of the subject. But this comes with a price. Front light is often flat, that is, lacking in contrast. This low contrast lighting fails to give adequate details of the subject surface.

Therefore, lighting direction is most important when attempting to bring out the most subject details. Three lighting techniques are important to learn: Axial (Front), Side and Back.

With axial lighting the light source is at the lens or close to it and illuminates the subject directly on the front surface. (See Diagram Below) The image of the Overcup oak acorns below is lit with an off-camera Speedlight flash in a small softbox right up against the lens. While it produces a nice image, it is somewhat flat and lacks the contrast to illustrate the detail at its best.

Axial Lighting


















Side light, corrects this failure of front light. In fact, to visually achieve maximum surface texture, extreme side light is the answer. Texture is that all-important tactile quality of what the subject feels like; as in does it feel smooth or rough.

The image below is lit with the same Speedlight and softbox to the far right of the subject. This image produces maximum detail and texture of the acorn and the surface of the caps.

Side Lighting Diagram


















Backlight, while sometimes difficult to work with because of little definition to front details, provide a maximum understanding of shape, a two-dimensional quality. Backlight can separate the subject from the background and produce a striking edge-light or “halo” around our subject for maximum definition. In the image below, the single Speedlight and softbox is placed behind the acorns. The image illustrates maximum shape and edge detail, but is lacking in front surface detail due to insufficient light from the single source.

Back Lighting Diagram


















Now, as it turns out, we may use more than only one style of lighting direction; a mixture is frequently best. Here the lighting is predominant back light with a front fill card. This image provides more information, better illustrating the acorns and the detail of the caps.









In addition to direction, lighting quality is vastly important as well. Small point light sources create hard, high contrast light. A point light source is very small in relation to the subject and directional. The light from our sun is actually small (you can cover the sun with your thumb at noon) and directional, creating lots of unflattering, dark shadows.

On the other hand, large and broad light sources are much softer, especially when close to the subject. An overcast sky is a perfect example of a large light source; the clouds themselves act as the large source of light. Let’s look at some specific examples.

In the first two images below the light is a single off-camera Speedlight flash both at the same distance (2 ft.) from the subject. In the left image the flash is unmodified and the right uses an 18 inch diffuser in front of the Speedlight. The first has considerable more specular reflections and sharper (harder) shadows; the next with the larger light source is more diffused, both in the highlights and shadows. The larger the light source, the softer the light and less contrast.

















The quality of the light is also subject to the size of the light source relative to the subject as a function of its distance from the subject. In the four examples immediately below, the light source is the same exact fixture — an eight-inch softbox on a Speedlight. In the top examples the light source is six feet from the subject. In the lower images the light is only one foot away.

When the light source is at a distance it seems small as below, shadows are at their maximum and spectral highlights are small and hard. Look at the detail of the reflection from the light source. (Closeup second below).




















When the light source is large (closer) as below, shadows are at their minimum and spectral highlights are large and soft. (See the next closeup.)




















The images below are shot with a very soft lighting technique making use of a large light, close to the subject with reflectors and diffusers, resulting in less contrast, less shadows and more diffused highlights. This is a technique used frequently for shadow-less lighting with diffused specular highlights, like shiny metal or glass objects.











So after all that, let’s take a look at some examples where direction and quality play an important role in making or breaking an image. The images below are of the skull of a white-tailed deer. This animal was probably killed by being hit by a car resulting in the crushed skull as shown here.

The first image is taken with the light suggested for everything. Near axial, front lighting with a softbox on an off-camera Speedlight flash. The enlarged detail shows the image is well lit and exposed and illustrates the subject and the trauma.

















The image below however, used side light with the same Speedlight and softbox. This image illustrates more detail than the first as the sidelight creates more texture, giving more definition to the bone and its structures. This is clearly visible in the enlarged detail.















Copyright © 2015 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.

Why do macro lenses come in several different focal lengths?

Which one do I need?

TX Bluebonnet-3560-Sm

Texas Bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis. This flower was photographed  at half life size on the sensor (0.5X) with a Nikon macro lens. Which focal length was used?

True macro (or Micro) lenses allow subjects to be photographed much closer than normal minimum focusing distance, thus greatly magnifying the image size. Often, these are prime lenses of single focal length with various focal lengths available from each manufacturer. And macro lenses produce high quality images. Because these are complete lenses that focus to infinity, many other uses of high quality are possible.

Macro lenses are the more expensive of the alternatives to focusing close. Most retain all automatic features, but have limited magnification range, frequently up to 1:1, or life size. With accessories they can produce magnifications from 1.0 X to 40.0 X life size. Because no lens extension is required per se, little exposure compensation required.

Most manufacturers make more than one macro lens. Canon, Nikon, Olympus and others produce high quality macro lenses. True macro (or micro by Nikon) lenses are produced in various focal lengths, commonly from 40mm upwards to 200mm. And they may all focus very close; most focus to life-size or 1.0X. (Also called 1:1.) Essentially, they all do the same thing.


Three Nikon macro optics (clockwise, from near left) 60 mm F 2.8 AF Micro Nikkor, 200 mm F 4.0 AF Micro Nikkor, and 105 mm F 2.8 AF VR Micro Nikkor.

So if that is true, why would there be a variety if they all do the same thing? The answer is simple: working distance. Working distance is the actual distance between the subject and the camera’s sensor when the lens is focused. As the focal length of the lens increases, the working distance also increases at the same image magnification.

Let’s look at the working distances provided by three popular focal lengths above: the 60mm, 105mm and 200mm macro lenses. All these lenses below are accurately focused at life size or 1.0X and the reproductions are at the same scale. Canon has lenses in similar focal lengths; the 60mm F2.8, 100mm F2.8 and the 180mm F 3.5 lens trio. All are magnificent optics to be sure.

Nikon Macro Lens

This lens is the 60mm F2.8 Micro Nikkor focused on a small portion of the flower at life-size. It focuses to 1:1 at 8.6 inches.

Nikon Macro Lens

The second is the 105mm F2.8 Micro Nikkor. It focused to 1:1 at 12 inches.

Nikon Macro Lens

This last lens is the 200mm F4.0 Micro Nikkor. It will focus at 1:1 at a distance of 19.2 inches.

Working distance is important to macro photography. Greater working distance allows several advantages. These include the freedom from making a shadow on the subject, the ability to get ample light or lighting fixtures onto the subject, the ability not to frighten or run off a live subject and the ability to work at a safer distance from a dangerous subject.

One additional attribute to remember is that the angle of view of any lens gets smaller as the focal length increases. So as a result, a 200mm lens focused at 1:1 will have an area of coverage of one half that of a 100mm macro lens at the same magnification.Three Focal Lengths-Sm

These three images were made with the macro lenses described above.  In making the photographs, emphasis was given to producing the flowers at the same size in each frame in the camera when shot. To do so the image with the 60mm lens is made from fairly close; the 200 mm lens much farther away.

The resultant images look the same, but upon close inspection there are notable differences. First, the longest lens tends to compress the image more than the other two. The distant flower looks closer to the close one. This is an example how the focal length of the lenses affects perspective. The second difference is an apparent difference in angle of view. Notice the black form in the upper right of the images. We see less of it in the 60 mm view and it tends to move and get larger as the lens focal length gets longer. Otherwise, there is little difference perceived in the three images. Because the subject size is the same in the three images, the Depth of Field is also the same. All images were shot at the same F5.6 aperture.

So, to answer the question: The lens that’s right for you depends upon your most common use. If you need a lot of accessory lighting like flashes, diffusers and other modifiers in your set up, you may enjoy the freedom of the longer focal length/longer working distance. If you want a real compact lens, then the shorter lens may be perfect. A good compromise and my recommendation is the 105 mm F2.8 AF VR Micro Nikkor.

Copyright © 2014 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.



My customers make great photographs. You can too!

Goluch Jays

This is a recent image made at my South Texas Bird Photography Workshop by Denver photographer, Richard Goluch. A repeat customer, Richard shot this aggressive pair of Green Jays from one of the permanent bird blinds at my last workshop in October. The jays always make good subject matter, but Richard was able to take it a step further, catching the in-flight squabble. Well done, Richard!

Workshop participants often return for an additional season. Here is a note from another repeat customer:

“Brian is a great teacher and host. He wants you to be successful and goes to great means to make sure that you are.  I really liked the ranch and the atmosphere of the hotel. “ G. Payne- Arkansas

My South Texas workshops are three to five days long and prices are most reasonable, including all meals, lodging, instruction and ranch fees. Our ranch has four purpose-built bird blinds, each with permanent water features, automatic feeders and plenty of birds. Additional, specially constructed blinds for shooting raptors provide added exciting and action-filled photographic opportunities. South Texas specialties like the jays above are plentiful.

Crested Caracara

Incoming Crested Caracara landing at the raptor blinds. Nikon D800, Nikkor 80-200 mm F 2.8 lens with 1.7 teleconverter. This is an ideal setup for shooting on this ranch. Many of the birds are 12-15 feet from the blinds. Raptors, about 15 yards.

Workshops are planned to take advantage of both spring and fall migration. The species count is now at seventy-seven species photographed. There are two slots remaining for the next workshop in late February, 2015.For more information, please see: .

Copyright © 2014 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.

Understanding the myth of “Crop Sensor” cameras.

Why crop sensor cameras do not produce greater subject magnification than their full-frame brothers.

I am disturbed by a lot of talk over the last few years stating that cameras with “crop sensors” produce larger in-camera subject size to cameras with full frame sensors. This thinking is both incorrect and continues to mislead the photography world. I feel this misleading language comes from two camps: One, the marketing folks who try to tell us that with a 1.6 crop sensor our 200mm lens is now a 320mm lens. And two, the wildlife photographers who want large in-camera images and who use a crop sensor camera believing the crop sensor somehow produces greater subject magnification.

Let me provide a couple of examples of that talk:

“For nature, wildlife and sports enthusiasts, it might make more sense to stick with a smaller sensor. You can take advantage of the crop factor to get maximum detail at long distances.”

 “…the Mark IV has the 1.3 crop factor and a higher megapixel count than the D3s, which are nice for telephoto work.”

 “Focal length measurements on lenses are based on the 35mm standard. If you are using a crop frame camera the sensor is cropping out the edges of the frame, which is effectively increasing the focal length. The amount of difference in the field of view or focal length with a crop sensor is measured by its “Multiplier.” And,

 “…while a crop sensor DSLR doesn’t provide the same level of image quality as a full frame DSLR, it does [offers] sic. major advantages when it comes to cost. It can also be very effective for telephoto photography for the extra reach gained from the crop sensor multiplier. For example, this can be very useful when shooting sports, wildlife, and other types of photojournalism…” both from:

 First let me state two facts: One, images from crop sensor cameras are not inherently of lower quality than those of full-frame cameras and, two, crop sensor cameras produce exactly the same in-camera image magnification as do their larger full-frame brothers.

Before I take this discussion of why these facts are true, let’s understand some things about cameras and their sensors.

First, a full-frame sensor gets its name from the fact that is physical measurements are, in round numbers, 24 x 36 mm. That’s the same size of our old standby, the full-frame 35mm film negative or transparency.

Second, I truly believe that the term, “crop sensor” is a misleading term. It is simply a sensor that is smaller than the full frame cousin. And there are now several sizes of “crop sensors”. They range from the APS-C (15.7 x 23.6 mm), the APS-H (19 x 28.7 mm), four thirds systems (13 x 17.3 mm), and even smaller. So there is really no “Standard” when it comes to identifying a sensor size.

Now let’s talk about the lens for a moment, the image forming device that projects our picture on to the sensor. Lenses have several characteristics. They affect:

  • Image size. This is governed by the focal length. Longer focal lengths produce larger subjectdetail on the sensor at any given distance,
  • Angle of view. This is the area of coverage in front of the lens that the lens may capture and project on to the sensor. It too is governed by focal length. Shorter focal lengths produce a wider angle of view that longer focal length telephotos for example. And finally,
  • Perspective. This is a relationship of components within the image to others within the same image. Focal length affects perspective, but only when the lens-to-subject distance is changed.

Crop sensor-Example 1

Let’s look at the image above to understand the physical relationship. The large frame is that of standard 35 mm film and also that of a full frame digital sensor. The yellow outline represents the area and magnification of an APS-C sensor, similar to that of a Nikon D2X or D7100 series camera body. The image was taken with a Nikkor 80-200 mm F 2.8 zoom lens.

Lenses have physical characteristics in addition to the optical characteristics above. One that is most important here is lens flange-to-sensor distance. This is the physical distance from the rear mounting flange of the lens to the sensor. That distance is specific to allow the lens to be focused at infinity. This distance is somewhat different between manufacturers, but it is standard within a manufacturer family so that all lenses will work properly.

In order for a lens of any particular focal length to produce larger image details on the sensor, the lens must be moved farther from the sensor or closer to the subject. Since the flange-to-sensor distance must be the same for cameras of a particular brand, any given lens (of that brand) will produce an image of the same magnification at the sensor regardless of the sensor dimension. What changes is the area of the projected image, not its magnification.

So let’s look at how this works.

The set-up

A standard, single focal length 200mm prime telephoto lens is mounted on a tripod. A subject is placed at a constant, pre-measured distance from the lens for all images. And two camera bodies, Nikon D90 with its APS-C sensor and Nikon D800 with its full frame sensor, were used.

The Process

Two photos of a mounted scaled quail are made from the same spot. Nothing changes but the camera bodies. Both images are processed in Photoshop in the same manner. A new composite file was made using both images together. Each image was reproduced at the same magnification for comparison. The APS-C image is produced at a six times multiple of its actual size of 15.7 x 23.6 mm, and the full frame image is printed at the same six times multiple of its actual size of 24 x 36 mm.

The Result.

One can clearly see the subject is the same magnification on both sensors and the reproduction sizes of the bird are the same for both sensors. The full frame sensor on the left captures significant additional area than the smaller sensor. This is the source of the term “Crop Sensor”.

Crop-Full Comparison

Left: Full frame sensor, Nikon D800. Right: Nikon D90 APS-C sensor. Initial enlargement (left) = 6 times sensor length 36 mm x 6= 216 mm. Initial enlargement (right) = 6 times sensor length 23.6 mm x 6= 141.6 mm.

The Misconception

When both images are reproduced at the same dimensions, the APS-C subject is reproduced at a larger size. This is only because the image is blown up to be the same reproduction size. This is why some people think there is actual in-camera magnification increase.

When viewed in the camera through the viewfinder or in live-view the smaller sensor frame is filled with the subject at a given distance than the full frame sensor. Therefore, the APS-C camera appears to produce a larger image. This is simply because the frame is filled faster with any given focal length and subject distance. What actually happens here is that the APS-C (crop sensor) image is blown up to match the outer dimensions of the full frame image.

Same enlargement comparison

Left, Nikon D800 full frame sensor. Right, Nikon D90 APS-C sensor.

Image quality

Image quality is not entirely based upon image size at the sensor, but is based upon in-camera processing technology, pixel size and pixel density. Many “crop sensor” cameras have better sensors and processing engines than full frame cameras. But that’s another story. (Maybe later.)

Copyright © 2014 Brian K Loflin . All rights reserved.

Sights and colors of Autum

The last week of September, I took a short trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. In addition to getting some much-needed “away time”, I wanted to photograph Elk in the rut and the colorful Aspens at their peak. I was surprised to discover that I arrived at the best week- for both!


 Nikon D-800, 600mm F4.0 Nikkor lens, tripod.

The bulls and their hormones were very active and good images were easily found. The color was a bit splotchy as there was a previous beetle kill in the the pines. But a little perseverance paid off with some nice color.


Nikon D-800, 80-200 mm zoom Nikkor lens, tripod.

Copyright © 2014 Brian Loflin. All rights reserved.

Don’t miss: Two new South Texas bird photography workshops


South Texas Bird Photography Workshop •Laguna Seca Ranch Edinburg, Texas
• October 23-26, 2014
• February 27-March 1-2015

This instructional, hands-on bird photography workshop is located in the heart of the South Texas flyway. The October workshop features a half-day of hands-on instruction and a day and two and a half days of shooting (or a day and a half in February ) in some of the best South Texas birding habitat available where neotropical South Texas varieties abound.

The workshop will be held at the Laguna Seca Ranch north of Edinburg, Texas in the heart of the lush Rio Grande Valley. The facilities of the 700-acre ranch are purpose-designed for photography and preserved with all native species. It features four constant-level ponds, each with permanent photography blinds oriented for the best use of light. A fifth blind is set up specifically for raptors.

Each location has been hand-crafted to provide the most outstanding bird photography opportunities. With nearly eighty species found on the property, Laguna Seca Ranch clearly offers a uniquely outstanding South Texas bird photography adventure! Many photographers have added numerous birds to their species life list while at the workshop. Read the website for their testimonials.

For more information, see:

June Macro Photo Workshop

June Macro WS-7688

Ten avid participants from as far away as Minnesota discovered great surprises as they developed new skills in the exciting small world of macro photography. The workshop was held in the heart of the Texas Hill Country at the historic Mo Rance Conference Center in Hunt. Everyone expanded their understanding and skills through classroom instruction, and intensive, hands-on field and lab photography sessions.

Participants said their macro images are much better than any they would have taken before this instruction.  Most participants were also in for a big surprise as they learned precisely how little DOF their macro lens has. All appreciated learning how to use flash to improve their work and learning to use Live View for better focusing on tiny objects.

Of special interest was the use of a macro focusing rail, focus stacking, flash for additional depth of field and techniques for mitigating wind.

Mo Ranch was a really great place to hold the workshop–very relaxing and lots of nature to photograph. Participants would definitely recommend this workshop to others.

Several of the images from the workshop are shown below:









Photos:© Melody Lytle, Rose Epps, Steve Houston.

See more participants small world images on Facebook at

Copyright © 2014 Brian K. Loflin. All rights reserved.