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  • Tool Kit

    Posted on October 10th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    Of course I’m thinking about the workshop next weekend. There are only two spaces left, so you should SIGN UP NOW!

    Samantha will be one of the models for Sunday October 18th.

    Samantha will be one of the models for Sunday October 18th.

    One of the things I want to examine at the workshop is the lighting tool kit for a photographer. The equipment manufacturers want us to buy everything; they’re not exactly on our side. Many of the available tools are of little use, or totally redundant. So I hope that this workshop will actually help you to save money by experimenting with the tools. I’ve seen a lot of people who work with hammers: carpenters, roofers and neurologists. The all use different kinds of hammers; purpose built for their applications. When we choose our tools we need to exercise the same care a carpenter does when he buys a hammer.


    The main tools we use as photographers are designed to work for a large variety of applications. So my Nikon D800 is a terrific camera to fit onto a microscope or use for architectural photography or even an auto race. While the camera will work well in all those applications, I’ll need to use different lenses for each situation. This is one of the great strengths of camera design: a good camera can be adapted to different situations. Can you imagine buying a whole new camera everything you needed a lens or even a filter? Strobe lights are the same way: a basic strobe can be used for a lot of applications, if you have the light modifiers for the job. This is one of the good aspects of strobe lights over movie lights, which are purpose built. Over the years I’ve worked with many light modifiers for strobes, everything from large soft boxes to fiber optics. These modifiers are designed to make the lights useful in all kinds of applications. Some of modifiers have been good, some bad; some work in a lot of situations and some are only good for one kind of job. I hope one of the things you’ll receive from the workshop is a better way to choose your tools.

    The first step in adding a tool to your kit is identifying the reason you need or want that tool. So I may choose a new light because I didn’t have the lights I felt I could use at my last job, but I may also choose a tool because it inspires me. I think this second reason is really important. I often get tools because they make me want to work, or because they open up new ideas for shots. I also get tools because they replace or upgrade or back up the tools that I have. Of course one problem is that I now have too many tools to take on location.

    When i shoot a motorcycle i need to use large light modifiers to build good light.

    When I shoot a motorcycle I need to use large light modifiers to build good light.

    I’ve got a large studio so I have some tools that are only useful in a full time studio. One of the best is my Broncolor Hazylight. I picked up the frame in a studio sale, and adapted a Norman head to fit the frame. Then I put the whole thing on a camera stand, so it’s easy to position in my studio. Most photographers don’t have a space for a light modifier this big. If you’re going to use a smaller studio you might want to use light panels. The panels are cheap to make and incredibly adaptable.

    Here's a shot that mixes hard light, soft light and continuous light effectively.

    Here’s a shot that mixes hard light, soft light and continuous light effectively. Effective catch lights as well.

    One of the important aspects of a portrait is the catch light in the eyes. The catch light, which is really just a small reflection of you’re the light, can change the whole quality of a portrait. If you don’t see a catch light, or if you see an umbrella, or just a tiny pin prick of light, it can damage an image. There are all kinds of light sources for portraits shooting that address this problem. I’ve used quite a few: portrait dish, soft box, octabox, umbrella and so on. One of the things that makes better catch lights is a large circular light source, which will make a round catch light in the subject’s eyes. For this reason I’ve got a cover with a circular cut out for my Hazylight. I would build a similar cover for a soft box, if I were using one. I also use a light panel and a snoot to make a circular light source. I can use the snoot to put a circle of light onto the panel. I can use these tools to make other shapes and control the direction of the light. This gives me a round catch light, or I can change the angle of the snoot and get many different shapes on the light panel. So both the snoot and the light panels are at the top of my list for light modifiers. I also use the snoot as a hard light source in my shots. I’ve found that the snoot is an incredibly fun tool to have in my lighting kit.

    Just a guy using thee right tool for the job!

    Just a guy using thee right tool for the job!

    I also like using a set of barn doors with my light for illuminating the light panels. The barn doors can even crate a strip with the light panel. I also like the barn doors for shooting architecture. I can control a bounce off a ceiling or other surface, to keep the light out of my image. Of course the barn doors can help to place a highlight in a subject, say a hair light or a rim light. Both the snoot and the barn doors are small light sources, so the position of the light is important, but if you use the snoot or the barn doors with a modifier like the light panel you can make a large light source.

    It really doesn’t matter whether you make light with a mono-light or a dedicated strobe. What matters is controlling just a few things: the color of the light, the power of the light, the size and shape of the light source and the position of the light. The color and power of the light really only matter relative to other light sources in your shot. So if you were using just one light you could change the ISO or the aperture to control the amount of light, but if you have two lights they have to be balanced. Not necessarily the same power, but a balance that suits your vision for the shot. Similarly you might want all the lights in a shot to have the same color balance, but you might also want one light to be warmer. A warmer light might give the effect of sunlight coming into your shot. You can control the color of one light in your camera, but the camera won’t make one light warm and another cool. Controlling power and color are tools that you use to build your shot. The size of the light source, relative to your subject, affects the quality of the light: hard or soft. The larger your light source is the less that the position of the light matters; consider how the light comes from the whole sky on an overcast day, no shadows and no direction.


    The image should start in your mind. If you have an idea of how to position a model, or how to light a face, or a room, or a product, then you can start to build that shot. If you start with the same light each time, or only use existing light, then you have much less control over your shot. So it’s important to understand how each tool works, how you can use the tools together, to build the images you want to make. One of my heroes is Felix the Cat, because whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks. As photographers we need a big bag of tricks. Here are a couple of things I have in my bag of tricks whenever I go on location: umbrellas (white, silver, gold all with black covers) gaffers tape, magic arm and super clamp, small tripod, large tripod, lighting filters (Rosco gels) light stands, maybe even a reflector or two. Of course I’ve also got some interesting strobes on location, mine work with both ac and dc power. The heads are small enough to fit almost anywhere. I’ve been doing this for more than forty years, which means a couple of things: I’ve got multiple kits for different location work. I can grab just one box if I’m shooting an executive portrait, but I’ll add a couple of boxes to this, if I’m making room shots. The time I’ve spent shooting also means that the way I use the tools, and the tricks I use, have evolved over the years. Part of being a creative photographer is learning to see what could be, not just what is. I want to help you to build the images that could be.

    This is shot made with just a snoot.

    This is shot made with just a snoot.

    Of course I want to see you at the lighting workshop on October 17 & 18. You can sign up here. You can also see another post about the workshop here. There are only two spaces left for the shoot on Sunday. You can also sign up for just Saturday, which will be demonstrations and explanations. Of course if you just can’t make it to the workshop, you can still get my books.

  • Lighting Workshop on October 17 & 18th

    Posted on September 21st, 2015 John Siskin No comments
    Samantha 1

    Samantha is going to be one of our models!

    I’ve made some arrangements for models for the Lighting Workshop on October 17 & 18th. So I have pricing and sign-up information for this workshop below. This workshop is about lighting for still photography with strobe lights. We’re going to work on building the images that you see in your mind: pre-visualizing and creating shots. You can sign up for just the first day of the workshop, where I’ll introduce the tools and explain how to manipulate them, or you can sign up for both days. On the second day, Sunday the 18th, we’ll work in the studio with models and still life shots. You’ll be doing the shooting on Sunday! This workshop is about building images in the camera, but of course we’ll also discuss post-production.

    Cassie is also going to model for the workshop

    Cassie is also going to model for the workshop

    Here are some of the details, on Saturday we’ll start at 10am. The day will be about understanding how light works and how to control light. We’re going to concentrate first on how to achieve the quality of light you want. For this part of the day we’ll see how to modify the light to create hard or softer gradations in the light. Then we’ll work on how to pre-visualize your light: how to build an image in your mind and translate it to your camera. In order to build images for the camera we’ll examine how to balance the light between multiple light sources. We’ll also work with color filtration on the light so that we can change the color as well as the amount of light. We’re also going to discuss how to direct a model so that you can realize your visualization. You’ll get to see professional equipment and how it’s used to create an image in the studio. Of course we’ll also discuss how to build better lighting on location.

    F2382346 (1)

    On Sunday we’ll be shooting all day in the studio. There will be several sets. You’ll get the opportunity to work with live models, and different lighting tools. This will be an opportunity for you to shoot, so bring your cameras! This part of the workshop is limited to just 6 students, and 3 are already signed up! You can bring your own lights on Sunday, if you’d like to work with them, of you can use my lights. Trust me, I have plenty of lights!

    F23D2301 (1)

    The workshop is a little more expensive then I originally projected, but if you sign up before Sunday (1 whole week from now) I’ll take $50 off the Sunday shoot! You can sign up for just the Saturday part of the workshop, which will give you new ways to work with light, for just $95. If you’d like to come both days (the 17 & 18th of October) it’s just $395. Pretty great for a two-day workshop with live models! As I mentioned, if you sign up in the next week, it’s just $345. The $345 price is set on PayPal, until Sunday. You can sign-up on my site at


    Of course, if you can’t come to this workshop, you can still buy my books at Amazon:

  • Shooting the 11X14 inch Camera!!

    Posted on September 10th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    Just a couple of details to mention, before we get to the good stuff. I’ve taken down my site at BetterPhoto: I think BetterPhoto and Jim Miotke are absolutely wonderful, but since I’m not teaching for them anymore I wanted to have the fine art part of my site hosted along with the rest of the site. It’s going to take a few days to complete the new pages I hope you’ll be patient. I hope you’ll check out the books, click on the cover pictures below, and don’t forget my workshop page ( I’m going to offer a lighting workshop in OCTOBER. More information soon.

    I wrote about my 11X14 film camera some time ago, and included a couple of pics of the camera. You can see that earlier post here. There is something quite magical for me about working with a very large camera. I suppose it’s not that different from people who want longer lenses to shoot surfing or birds. I should say that an image made with a large camera is different from an enlargement. In an enlargement there is another optical system, that changes the information in the image in some way and there is less information in the image. If you do an enlargement that is just eight time the size of the negative you’ll usually see grain: the shadows of the silver crystals that record the image. A print that’s made by putting the image right on the printing paper has a sense of infinite detail. I hope you’ll find a way to see an original contact print of a big negative, preferably made by a great photographer.

    The big camera in the studio. It took 2 people to put it on the tripod.

    The big camera in the studio. It took 2 people to put it on the tripod.

    I can do contact prints from my 8X10 camera, and it’s quite satisfying. Now that I have a darkroom I can process and print from this camera again. I can even take the camera out to shoot on locations. However, the 11X14 is a beast; and it creates challenges that are different from 8X10. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve worked out ways to work with the camera. I’m going to detail some of the things I’m doing, some of the compromises I’ve made to get successful tests.

    11X14 test image

    Successful test image of Wiggy, made with 11X14 camera.

    The biggest problem with the 11X14 camera is film. There are still quite a few sources for 8X10 film: a search at Freestyle Photo reveals fifteen separate results for actual camera film. You can get a sheet of film for less than $3. If you’ve been shooting digital the cost of shooting large film will come as a shock. If you search for 11X14 film you find one result: Ilford HP-5. This is a good film, but at about $9 for a single sheet, and that’s one picture, it’s expensive. One of the ways photographers afford to work with large cameras is to work with films that aren’t designed for cameras. One of the most popular is litho film. This is a graphic arts film. The good news is that it’s inexpensive. There is a lot of bad news: first it’s designed to make black and white images: no gray tones at all! I did some tests with litho films and I was unhappy with the results. You can process the film to get some gray tones, but it’s a real challenge to get a complete gray scale. The second problem is that the film is quite slow, insensitive to light, the ISO speed is about 3. I swear my skin sunburns with less light than it take to expose this film. An additional problem is that the film is designed to work under darkroom safelights, so it doesn’t respond to all colors of light. This is a good news bad news sort of problem: you can process the film by safelight so you adjust the development by inspection, but many colors of light just don’t show up on the film. I used a Macbeth color checker in my test shot and there were a lot of color patches with no density. Another inexpensive film choice is x-ray film. I haven’t tested this yet, but I’ve read about the challenges it presents.

    This is an image made with litho film. I used my 4X5 camera to test. Not really successful.

    This is an image made with litho film. I used my 4X5 camera to test. Not really successful.

    At some point in this process it occurred to me that I own a flat bed scanner that will scan 12X17 inch images, much large than most scanners. I also realized that I had a great deal of 11X14 Ilford Multigrade glossy resin coated paper. I decided to try loading this paper into the film holder and shooting it in camera. In the beginning of photography Fox Talbot used paper negatives, so this was not a unique inspiration. The thing was that I realized that I could use the scanner to turn the images I made in the camera, which would be negatives, into positive images. The big advantage here is that I have all the tools of digital photography to interpret my images, but I’m not going to be making contact prints. Right now this seems a good trade. If I want to I can make a digital negative with my printer and make a sort of a contact print, and I can use a digital negative to make cyanotype or Vandyke prints. Of course I can also output a digital print, so I have a lot of printing options. I suppose some would say that I might just as well capture the image with my Nikon D800, but that would take away the pleasures and challenges of the big camera.

    Negative image made on Ilford Multigrade paper

    Negative image made on Ilford Multigrade paper

    My tests revealed that the Multigrade had an ISO of about 100, which is so much nicer to work with than 3. In addition my tests revealed that Multigrade reacts to a much wider range of color than the litho film I tried. While the paper isn’t panchromatic it does react to most colors other than red. I think that’s because it’s a variable contrast paper. Of course the paper is designed to give a complete gray scale with normal processing. The Ilford paper can be processed under regular darkroom safelights, for instance the Kodak OC filters. I am lucky to have a Thomas sodium vapor safelight, which is a very bright safelight. I set it up in my studio, and it provided a good working environment for loading and processing the paper, even posing the subject. I should also mention that it is MUCH easier and quicker to process and dry this resin coated paper than to work with any film.

    The image with the hat was made with Ilford Multigrade paper and the hatless image was made with my digital camera and converted to black and white. Note that most of the color samples show in the Multigrade image.

    The image with the hat was made with Ilford Multigrade paper and the hatless image was made with my digital camera and converted to black and white. Note that most of the color samples show in the Multigrade image.

    The paper is designed to change its contrast range depending on the color of light you use with your enlarger. There are filters for this purpose. Right now I’m working without a filter. This seems to provide a long contrast range. One advantage of scanning the negatives (ok, I know that these things are not transparent film negatives, but still they reverse black for white) is that I can control contrast in the computer. I can also flip the images left for right because, like any film image, the picture on the emulsion side of the base is reversed left for right.

    Studio set-up

    The set up in the studio, for the shot of Wiggy and myself. I used 4 power packs to make over 5500 watt-seconds of light.

    My scanner (actually it’s a very large all-in-one) is a Brother MFC-J6910DW. I did my first tests with the software that come with the scanner. This provides little control over the scan. I also have VueScan for my film scanner and, happily enough, this will also control the Brother scanner. I can scan at 2400 dpi, which would enable me to make a print that is 110 inches on the long side at 300 dpi. The resin coated paper lays flat and the glossy surface scans very well, no surface detail.

    Wigg & Me, selfie

    The negative of Wiggy & me. Actually it’s quite amazing to be able to make a portrait with a camera this big and strobes.

    There are other details. One of my favorite areas to explore is the lenses for this large camera. The camera is too heavy and unwieldy to take out of the studio and this affects the choice of lens. The normal lens for this camera would be about 16 inches (400mm) long. It’s unlikely that I would use a wide-angle lens for a distance shot in the studio, but I would use a wide angle to shoot closer to a subject. My tests were done with a 24 inch (600mm) f11 Artar that I got for the camera. This lens is rather long for the studio. Because the distance between this lens and the back of the camera is quite long it’s a little difficult to control the camera. Since I did the tests I’ve mounted my 270mm (10 inch) G-Claron W.A. f6.3 on a lens board for the camera. I think this will be a useful lens for the camera, especially for small subjects. I’ve also ordered a board for my 14 inch Dagor. I have very high hopes for this lens. I’ll also set up my 48cm (480 mm, 19 inch) f5.5 Dogmar for this camera. I should note that I love Goerz lens design, but because the lenses were made at different times and places they are sometimes described in inches and sometimes in centimeters or millimeters, which is why I’ve used different both English and metric measures. The only one of these lenses that has a shutter is the Dagor, but that’s not a big deal. Since you can keep the safelight on in the studio you don’t have to fumble in the dark.

    Right now I only have one holder and this holder only works on one side. Since I can shoot load and process immediately, under safelight, this isn’t as big a problem as it might be out of the studio. Additional 11X14 holders are amazingly expensive: used ones are usually more than $200 each! I am working on a design using framing parts to build a holder for the studio. This design wouldn’t have a dark slide, so it would only be practical in the studio. Updates on this as they become available.

    As you can see I’ve done tests with Wiggy and a color checker. Wiggy’s wearing a serape in the 11X14 tests. The serape is mostly green. I also did a selfie with me and wiggy. An 11X14 selfie is a heck of a thing. If I used a selfie stick it would have to be a telephone pole. As it is, my Majestic tripod is a little overloaded by this camera.

    Positive of Wiggy & me

    The last test with Wiggy and me. Would you like to come in for some shots?

    Now that I’ve done the tests it’s time to shoot some actual pictures. I’m going to do still life shots of course, but I’d also like to do some work with people. Since the paper has an ISO of 100 I can actually shoot portraits and figure studies. Any volunteers?

    Thanks, John

  • Finally the Darkroom!

    Posted on July 23rd, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    I’ll start with a mention that you can find some of my courses from BetterPhoto on the workshop page of my website: You can also arrange a One on One Workshop or sign up for the Portfolio Workshop. Check out the whole site:! You can get my books by clicking on the pictures below, and why not do that now?

    Sometimes a circumstance or a thing sets off an idea in my brain. I see something that I like and I need to make a photograph, or I get to work with someone and that brings up new ideas, or a desire to work on an old idea. For instance I just did some testing with an Indianapolis model, Khristian Hildrith, and it was a great chance to work with my Norman Tri-Lite. I’m adding one of these shots here, and I’ll probably add more later.

    Khristian with the Norman Tri-Lite

    Khristian with the Norman Tri-Lite

    The thing about being a professional creative, and I suppose this applies to all visual artists, writers and other creatives, is that there is a responsibility to work even when you’re not inspired. Not only do you need to work, but also you need to do good work. Sometimes this means doing the craft more than working with inspiration. For instance, a client may come to me to do a product shot that doesn’t require a new vision, just a good solid interpretation of a three-dimensional object into two-dimensions. Sometimes doing the craft of photography will lead me to new ideas. Often, when I haven’t done any real shooting for a while I’ll get out the microscope equipment and search for new worlds in a plastic ice cube. Creativity is something I need to exercise.

    Plastic Ice Cube

    Plastic Ice Cube

    There are always stumbling blocks and obstacles to creative work. The desire to make an image doesn’t always begin with a road map to the image, or even with a visual inspiration. I’ve written about my delight with big film cameras and large format lenses in the past. Just using these things makes me feel better about photography and my way of working. A view camera slows me down; it makes me more deliberate about everything that goes on into the frame. My problem has been that, if I want to make an image with a large camera, I also need to be able to process and print it. When I did commercial or personal work ten years ago I could send the film to the lab, but now I need to do the lab work. I am so pleased to announce that I now have a darkroom!



    This is a black and white darkroom; frankly I just can’t find any reason to do color work in a wet darkroom. For color work, digital is not only easier; it just seems better. You can see a couple of images here, but I want to tell you a little about the tool kit in the darkroom. It starts with the sink, in a chemical darkroom the sink is where stuff happens. This sink will hold three 20X24 inch trays, so I can make very large prints. It’s a wooden sink, and it’s coated with marine grade varnish. It’s a real sink, with hot and cold running water, not just a catch basin. My Jobo processor fits easily into the sink, which means I can process most any kind of black and white film or paper.

    The large sink, with the Jobo Processor

    The large sink, with the Jobo Processor

    I guess that when most people think about film photography they’re remembering 35mm cameras, so they think the enlarger might be the main tool in the darkroom. While my goal is to work with larger negatives than 35mm, I still want an enlarger. Mine is an old Omega D-2 that will handle film up to 4X5 inches. The strange thing about this D-2 is the head (light source). Many years ago I converted an omega color head, and this head was old even then, to work with filters for printing black and white paper. This head used to be referred to as the Mickey Mouse head, maybe because of the shape: a black sphere with cylinders on the side, or maybe it’s just the technology. Regardless it gives even light and control over contrast. I’ve also got an ultraviolet light source for contact printing large negatives and alternative processes. The UV light source means that I can do Cyanotype and Vandyke prints maybe even platinum prints someday.

    Omega D-2 Enlarger

    Omega D-2 Enlarger

    The dry table is a little smaller than I might like, but it’s big enough to load large film holders. Of course, with all the black plastic, the darkroom has the ambiance of a homeless encampment, but it’s going to be a good place to work. The important thing is I was able to build a workspace that will enable me to unlock all of my large format photography tool kit, even the 11X14 camera!

    Dry Table

    Dry Table

    I hope you have inspiration and the tools you want. Thanks for your attention!

  • Nikon PB-4 Bellows

    Posted on June 24th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    My books and my classes give me a reason to keep doing this blog. If you’re in Indiana I hope you’ll consider taking my Portfolio Workshop. You can see a more  about this workshop and other classes if you visit the workshop page on my site. Thanks so much for your attention.

    I’ve done blog posts about micro-photography in the past. You might want to check the posts at this link: I generally like the term micro photography, rather than macro photography, for a couple of reasons: first Nikon calls their close-up lenses Micro-Nikkor. If it works for Nikon it works for me. In addition much of the time I’m shooting at a reproduction ratio grater than 1:1. This means that the image of the object is grater than life size on the camera sensor. Another way to think of this is that the full frame 35mm sensor is 1X1.5 inches. So if a U.S. quarter just fills the short dimension of the frame you’re shooting 1:1, since a quarter is 1 inch tall. I could add metric equivalents, but I hope you get the idea. For a smaller sensor you need to more than fill the frame to get to 1:1. The size of the object and the size of the image, on the camera sensor, are the key to the reproduction ratio, at the camera anyway. If you then multiply the reproduction ratio by the size of the print or the monitor image you get the actual magnification of the image. If I did a shot at 1:1, and then made an 8X10 print, the print would magnify the subject 8 times. If I did a shot that was 10 times the size of the object, on the sensor, the reproduction ratio would be 10:1. If I made an 8X10 print the print would then magnify the image 80 times.

    made with the cell phone

    made with the cell phone

    The thing to keep in mind is that you can magnify the image many times on the monitor, or the print, but usually the resolution will suffer. I’ve included a butterfly picture from my phone. The whole image looks good, especially from a phone. I cropped a closer version of the image, and frankly that doesn’t look so good. There is a very significant improvement in image quality when you magnify the subject in the camera rather than trying to magnify the image in post-production. The camera optics you use to magnify the subject also have a huge effect on the quality of your final shot. The blog posts I mentioned earlier have a lot of information about how various combinations of lenses and other hardware perform for this kind of photography.

    Butterfly wing

    Butterfly wing

    I’ve recently acquired a new bellows and I wanted to write about it here. The bellows allows you to magnify the image, on the sensor, by moving the lens further from the sensor. I know this seems backwards, but the further the lens is from the camera sensor the grater the magnification is on the sensor. Of course the problem is that camera lenses, even Nikon Micro lenses, limit the distance you can move the lens from the sensor. So there are bellows, and extension tubes, so that you can mount the lens further from the sensor. For many years I’ve used a very simple bellows to do micro work, the Nikon Model 3, and its worked pretty well. However I have long wanted to get the Nikon PB-4 Bellows. This isn’t the newest bellows Nikon makes, but I think it’s the best they ever made. First the bellows have a swing movement, so you can change the geometry between lens and camera. This means that the middle of the lens doesn’t have to be parallel to the film. One thing you can do with this adjustment is to change your depth of field so that it follow the subject, or you can use it to change the shape of the subject. There’s a lot of information about swing and tilt movements in other places, so I won’t go into it here. The bellows also has a shift movement, which makes it easier to place the subject in the frame. The thing that really improves my micro shots better is that the camera and the lens can be moved together with a focus adjustment on the bellows unit. This is relatively simple, and a lot of bellows have it, but not my Nikon Model 3. Since I use an old copy stand for my micro set up this offers me better fine focus. The Nikon PB-4 bellows are the only model Nikon made with the swing and shift movements. Of course there are other ways to do this: This digital view camera works, but it’s more awkward to use than the Nikon PB-4.



    There are a lot of lenses you can use with the bellows. One good source of optics is enlarging lenses, another is microscope lenses. I’ve discussed lens choices and adapters in the earlier blog posts: One of the things I want to do is mount a 135mm enlarging lens on the bellows. This should allow me to focus at infinity, so I can easily use this lens to do table top and other set-up that aren’t actually micro. Of course the advantage will be the swing and shift movements.


    Parrot feathers

    I’ll be posting more shots soon, here and at my facebook page: These are just my first experiments with the new bellows. I’ll also be doing a post about the Nikkor 60mm G ED f2.8 micro lens that I recently added to my tool kit. Please keep an eye out. You may also want to check out my magazine articles: as well as the workshop page: I’m continuing to add the classes I used to teach at BetterPhoto to the workshop page. Of course I hope you’ll consider purchasing my books at Amazon.

    Tiny Skull

    Tiny Skull

    There are over 2900 subscribers to this blog! 3000 soon! Thanks for your interest. I hope some of you will remember to like my page at facebook:

  • One on One Workshops

    Posted on May 14th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    It’s been a while since I got to blog. As some of you may know I had problems with nerve pain that kept me in bed. Anyway it’s great to be back. I’m so grateful to be able to stand and walk. I’ve been working for a few clients: Alter’d States & National Gypsum, and I have a shoot for the Future Farmers of America next week. I’m also glad that my books are still selling; both are in the top 100 of their categories today. Pretty good performance since the last one was published three years ago. I really liked working with Amherst Media, and I’d just like to say: Thanks for those royalty checks!” So buy one more copy today. They make great gifts. I’d also like thank the over 2,700 people who are registered subscribers to this blog. I’d just like to ask why?


    I got to do a One on One workshop with a student from Illinois just after I got back on my feet. I really like the chance to work with individuals in these workshops. The two of us worked together in the studio, doing demonstrations and applications. When I started working with lights I heard all sorts of things about how different the tools worked, but I only learned how to predict my shots by doing shots. It took a long time because I didn’t test each tool individually. When I started testing each of my tools I was able to see how the tool would work in my mind. I’d like to add here what my student said about the workshop: “I just wanted to drop you a line to thank you for the one-on-one Studio class that I attended with you a week or so ago. This was a great adventure in lighting and I cannot tell you how much I learned about the subject. I think the concept of how to see the light and how you must know how  each lighting tool (i.e.: snoots, barn doors, umbrellas, etc.) modifies the light has been extremely helpful in my understanding of the whole concept of total lighting of a subject, be it a person or an object. Your concept of pre-visualizing what you want the finished product to look like is absolutely necessary. Since my return home I have been trying to do just that with some really great results. I only wish that we could have spent some more time in a hands on practicing mode, but the entire day was spent on the above concepts. Well worth the time spent. I think if I can work it out, I will try to schedule another day with you for the experience of actual putting in practice the concepts that were taught in the class I just completed. I must say that anyone who would like to understand and light people and/or object will be very pleased  with a day, or better yet two days, with you in a one-on-one day . Thanks again for your time and knowledge.”
    It’s always nice to hear good things about what I do!


    If you can visualize how your lighting tools work you can build a shot in your mind before you even pick up your lights. This is one of the ways a photographer pre-visualizes an image. The process of building a photograph in your mind enables another level of creativity than finding and recording a shot. I like to work with people who want to build photographs and give them tools and techniques that help.


    I’ve included a couple of test shots from the workshop. You might want to see if you know what tools we used for each test shot. The important thing is to test your own tools so that you really know how they light.


    If you want to do a One on One workshop please get in touch. My e-mail is We can discuss what you want to do in your workshop. You might also want to check out the workshop page of my site: and this earlier blog entry: about the One on One Workshops. The cost is still only $300, which is a great deal since you get personal attention and all the facilities of my studio.


    Speaking of learning opportunities, I posted another of the lessons I offered through BetterPhoto. You can download these lessons for free at the workshop page of my site: If you want to have me critique your assignments there is a small charge.

  • Working With A Cucoloris

    Posted on February 10th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    My books and my classes give me a reason to keep doing this blog. If you’re in Indiana I hope you’ll consider taking my Portfolio Workshop. You can see a little more information about this workshop if you check out this blog post. Thanks so much for your attention.

    Matthews Cucoloris

    Matthews Cucoloris

    I just bought a used Matthews Cucoloris. Now this is certainly a piece of equipment you could build, but I didn’t. Basically it’s a piece of plywood, about 18X24 inches, with a bunch of irregularly shaped holes in it. It fits on a C-stand or even a standard light stand with a grip head. The idea is to use the cucoloris to make shadows. You can put it in front of a light with a bowl reflector or perhaps a snoot. By moving the cucoloris around you can change the position and shape of the shadows. You can also change the size and edge sharpness of the shadows by moving the cucoloris closer or further from the light source. On the whole a really useful tool as you can use it on a subject or on the background. I’ve attached some examples.


    With CTO filter

    With CTO filter

    There’s a kind of a calculation in deciding whether to buy or build a piece of equipment. Money is a part of it: if I only wanted one light panel I might buy it; but I’ve got five light panels, so I saved a few hundred dollars by making my panels. There are things like a chain-pod or my fish-eye camera  that aren’t available commercially. I’ve also built things, like my mono-pod, when I didn’t know if I would really like working with them. One problem, when you build your own gear, is that it doesn’t always perform well. Of course building gear is also time consuming, for instance I still haven’t completed my darkroom.

    Bastard Amber Filter

    Bastard Amber Filter


    Pale Lavender Filter

    Pale Lavender Filter









    If you’re going to save time by buying gear instead of building it you should use some of that time practicing with your new gear. I’m sure I’ve written before that photographers don’t practice enough. Most good musicians practice everyday and many photographers don’t practice at all. We may learn about techniques or tools but most of the time we don’t do the kind of repetitive practice that a musician does when playing scales. So as soon as I got the cucoloris I grabbed a strobe and the wig head and started to experiment.


    Background with even light

    Background with even light

    I have a mottled gray muslin background on each side of my studio. Neither of them is particularly lovely, but they get better if you light them creatively. So I used the cucoloris and various Rosco gels to see how I could change the background. I am very pleased with the results. I usually work with CTO filters when I want to warm up the light, but this time I also tried bastard amber, which was quite nice. I also tried a pale lavender, which looked more neutral than I expected. I was really pleased with how easy it is to make changes in the appearance of the background, both color and pattern, with the cucoloris. I’m sure I’ll be using the cucoloris to create better backgrounds in the future.


    Of course you can also use the cucoloris on a subject rather than the background. In order to practice I brought out a wig head as a test subject. If you’ve looked at my Intro to Lighting class you’ll know that I think the wig head is a great test subject. By keeping the strobe close to the cucoloris I was able to create some interesting shadows on the subject. I’m sure that there will be opportunities to use this.


    When I look at any test I learn how the image actually looks, rather than how I think it will look. I also get ideas for more testing. In this case I want to see how the cucoloris will perform if I put a snoot on the strobe. Also I have diffusion domes that fit over my strobes. These are designed to make the light from modeling light look more like the light from the strobe tube. I want to try working with the dome because the visual presentation with the modeling light didn’t really look like the image the camera captured with the strobe light. This isn’t surprising because the difference in the shape of the tube and the modeling light can be important when the strobe is used close to the cucoloris.


  • On Contests

    Posted on January 17th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    My books and my classes give me a reason to keep doing this blog. If you’re in Indiana I hope you’ll consider taking my Portfolio Workshop. You can see a little more information about this workshop if you check out this blog post. Thanks so much for your attention.

    I seem to be judging photo contests more often. I would guess this is because I’m getting a more extensive network here in Indiana. Judging is always interesting, and occasionally inspiring. I’m usually asked to make some remarks about judging, as well as talking about the images. What follows are some of the things I think about photo contests.


    First judging is capricious. Any individual judge has his/her particular experience as well as taste. So any contest that has multiple judges is likely to have more even standards than a contest judged by one person. I know that some organizations have standards for judging, but I think that the personality of the judge will still affect her/his choices.


    Photography is not inherently a competitive endeavor; like ice dancing the results are much more open to interpretation than a 100 meter run. A photograph can be extremely personal and deeply evocative with out being a contest winner. I have images that look good to me, for personal reasons, that I don’t want to share. Photographs are a form of communication. Some photographs are able to communicate with almost anyone, while some images are only for a personal journal.


    When I choose to enter a contest there is usually some reward besides winning. For instance the images might be published in a magazine or part of a show. I’ve also entered some contests to get my work in front of a particular judge. Usually I’m looking for an opportunity to promote my images or meet people. In addition I often enter contests that have an entry fee. When there is a fee people only enter their best images. I can understand that people only want the opportunity to share images with friends, but I’m not sure that a contest is the best way to do this. The whole business of winning and losing is not as important as communicating ideas, vision and feelings.


    When I’m judging a contest I look at how much the interpretation or manipulation the photographer brought to the image. While there are may fabulous images that are technically just f8 and be there, I enjoy seeing images that the photographer worked for. I always want to see the photographer’s interpretation and expression in an image. Frankly I think it would be interesting to see a competition where everyone worked in the same location and had a choice of when to visit the location. Here’s the thing: many people take pictures, fewer people make pictures. I’ve included a couple of made pictures with this post.

    disney 2 copy (1)

    An image for a contest needs to be pretty strong. In most cases a judge won’t have time to become deeply involved with a very subtle image. You need to do a good job presenting your images matting and framing them. If you don’t present your images well it’s unlikely a judge will fully appreciate them. It’s my opinion that a neutral color mat: white gray or black is better for competition because you can’t control what will appear next to your shot. If I’m showing a more graphic image I might use a smaller mat to make the image space larger, but many images need extra space around them to isolate them from the surroundings. If two images are equally good, if such a thing is possible, that the image with better presentation will win. A good image, well presented, may often do better than a better image poorly presented. I usually use black metal frames for my images because are durable and separate my images from the surroundings.

    jennifer solarization

    One more thing, and this is a personal opinion. I don’t like canvas mounted photographs. I think that putting a photograph on canvas is a way of making a fake painting. My photographs are supposed to be photographs not paintings. If you would rather have paintings than photographs, or you think that paintings are better than photographs, perhaps you should learn to paint. If your clients will pay more for a photograph mounted on canvas then, by all means get canvas mounted photographs. Having said this, I think gallery wraps, where the image continues around the edges of the canvas frame can look good in some rooms, but I don’t think they are good for a competition. They are too easy to damage and they don’t separate from their surroundings.


    If an image is good enough, and sufficiently better than the competition, than it can break any rule and still win. But good enough means pretty damn good. Things like the tonal separation in your print, sharpness and color are critical. It’s possible to have a good image on your computer and get a poor print. Before you enter a print in a competition make sure that print presents your image as well as possible.

    knife   pepper

    If you’re in Indiana you might be interested in my Portfolio Workshop. We discuss many of these issues and others. There’s more information about the workshop at this link. Also I’m putting some of my BetterPhoto lessons on my site. Please check them out at this link. If you’re interested in a One on One Workshop or private consultation please get in touch.

  • Free Photo Classes!

    Posted on January 5th, 2015 John Siskin No comments

    My books and my classes give me a reason to keep doing this blog. If you’re in Indiana I hope you’ll consider taking my Portfolio Workshop. You can see a little more information about this workshop if you check out this blog post. Thanks so much for your attention.

    I taught Photographic Lighting and other subjects at BetterPhoto for about eight years, and it was a wonderful experience. I got to work with emerging photographer from all over the world as well as the other experienced pros who also offered courses at BetterPhoto. BetterPhoto is charting a new course that won’t involve any of the interactive classes that I, or the other instructors offered. I hope that Jim Moitke and the rest of the BetterPhoto crew do well with this venture.

    I’ve been thinking about what to do with my classes. They’ve done well for me at BetterPhoto where I supported them with photo critiques, responses to questions and regular e-mails. Since the classes were priced around $200, I was compensated for this work. I’ve decided to make the lessons available on line for free, but if you want critiques and other support for the lessons I’ll charge a per lesson, rather than per class, fee of $25. This will give interested people a chance to use the course material and get help when they need it. I hope you’ll understand that I don’t have time to support these classes for free.

    I’ll be putting up the lessons over the next few months. I hope to post a new one weekly. They’ll also be available at the workshop page of my site. So please check pack for more lessons. There is a PayPal link with each lesson so you can choose to get critiques of the assignments, or if you just want to support the lessons.

    An Introduction to Photographic Lighting

    Photographic Lighting, Lesson 1.pdf

    Photographic Lighting, Lesson 2
    Photographic Lighting, Lesson 3

    Photographic Lighting, Lesson 4
    An Introduction to Product Photography

    Product Photography, Lesson 1

    Product Photography, Lesson 2

  • Do It Yourself!

    Posted on December 7th, 2014 John Siskin No comments

    My books and my classes give me a reason to keep doing this blog. If you’re in Indiana I hope you’ll consider taking my Portfolio Workshop. You can see a little more information about this workshop if you check out this blog post. Thanks so much for your attention.

    As the faithful readers of this blog will know I updated my website a while back. I wanted the site to appeal to commercial photography buyers. So, for instance the site is designed to work on a desktop computer rather than a phone. It’s been working out for me, perhaps because of the changes, or maybe because I’m using Adwords from Google. Regardless I’ve been getting a few jobs from new clients, which is great. I’ve added a couple of recent pics to this blog entry.


    One of the things I didn’t put back on the website is the Do It Yourself page. Frankly I really don’t want to encourage my clients to do it themselves. So I thought I would put links to some of the stuff that was on the page here. Don’t hurt your hands clapping. These aren’t all my designs, but they are things I use. My favorite project is the Chain-Pod. It’s easy to build and really useful. It helps to steady your camera when you don’t have a tripod or a monopod. And it fits in a pocket. Check it out!

    _DSC6269 copy

    You don’t have to actually build anything to use the Booty Light. It’s just a cover for your flash, but it really works!


    If you came to my studio you’d see a lot of Light Panels. I use them a lot in the studio, more than softboxes. They are really great tools for modifying light. You can change the size and character of a light much more than you can with a softbox or an umbrella. There are a lot of plans for light panels. I like this plan because they have feet.


    Here’s a plan for a Monopod. It’s probably not as good as one you can buy, but I think it cost less than $5, so it’s not a big investment.


    I like using this Computer Table on location. It’s simple to build and it’s very helpful if you’re tethering your camera to a computer.

    _DSC6205v-2 copy

    I like this Modified Umbrella for quickly lighting a room. It’s designed after a table lamp and it works very well.


    There are a few other projects at this link, including several cameras I’ve built. I’m not sure these really come under the heading of Do It yourself, as you might not even need these cameras, but I really like them. This article has a lot of information about the cameras & lenses I’ve built.

    I’ve been mentioning my classes at BetterPhoto since I began doing this blog. I’m sorry to say that BetterPhoto has discontinued their interactive classes. I’ve really enjoyed working with BetterPhoto, so I’m sorry to see this happen. I may have a version of my classes at my website soon. Please look for it.