This post could also be titled “What Are You Paying A Portrait Photographer For?”. Important caveat: the comments below have nothing to do with the family in the portrait. Their portrait just provides a convenient moment to bring up the subject.
There’s great debate in the world of photography regarding business and pricing models. Some well-known photographers go so far as to denigrate other photographers because they price things cheaply, sell CDs with all the images, charge only $1000 to shoot a wedding and reception, etc. I’m in the camp of “I’ll do things my way but I couldn’t care less how someone else does it”. If someone wants to charge $50 for a photo shoot and a CD of images, so what? If someone wants to let a publication use an image in exchange for “exposure”, so what? I’m amazed when photographers actually get personally offended at other photographers for this — it’s a free world and everyone is free to give away whatever they want. I’m not going to shoot weddings for $1000 or hand out digital images on the cheap (except for photo donations to certain organizations like this — shameless plug — I donated the Austin skyline image at the top of the American Red Cross of Central Texas page and images for a couple other sites) but I don’t care if anyone else does. If I cannot add enough value to make it worth purchasing my services — taking photos, providing prints, etc. — then I don’t deserve the business. If Joe Blow undersells me by some huge margin and the client is happy with the result, that’s my fault for not clearly differentiating myself (and I’m apparently not as good as I might think!). If the client isn’t happy with Joe Blow…it’s either my fault for not convincing them my services are worth it or theirs for being duped by the “too good to be true” offer. Also, not every client is willing to pay for the same level of service and/or quality — that’s true for any type of product. That’s why there are both Toyota Corollas and BMW 750s available on the auto market for example.
Along those lines, a common remark is “I can’t believe I have to pay so much for a print!”. Often the comment includes “…when I can just go to Walgreens and pay $XX”. Ignoring the issue of the poor print/color quality you may get at a Walgreens, I’ll tell you what went into producing the family portrait above in hopes of giving some understanding of why you might pay so much for a “print”. If you’re not convinced, that’s fine — not everyone cares about the same level of quality or detail and it’s completely within the rights of every consumer (of any product) to choose the product that suits them. It’s also the right of a photographer to specify “You aren’t printing anything with my name on it at a Walgreens”.
The short answer: You’re not just paying for a print (ie just a piece of paper). You’re paying for equipment, art/creativity, editing, making you look your best, years of skill building and practice, etc. After all, you’re hiring a photographer because you know you can’t just hand your point-and-shoot to someone on the street and get the family portrait you are after. You are also (hopefully) hiring a photographer because he *knows* how to go make that picture you want and doesn’t just press the shutter over and over in the hope of accidentally getting a good shot. I think that people accept this more when it comes to most other forms of art or craft. If you commissioned an artist to create an oil painting to hang over your mantle and he charged $500, would the first thing out of your mouth be “But you only had to pay $50 for the canvas and paint!”?
So, what went into this photo? Here’s a partial list:
(1) Picking a decent time and location. Upon arrival, quickly picking a specific spot to provide good light, a good background without distracting elements (subjective of course). Or…scout a location ahead of time. The location for the above portrait is the Texas Capitol grounds. The time was chosen in an attempt to balance getting a family out the door early enough for good light and cooler temperatures, yet late enough to not be miserable. There was a partial gamble here — we went a little later than I’d like gambling that the partially cloudy skies would block the sun often enough. That gamble paid off.
(2) Pick the right lens. Long/wide/normal…this has a big effect on the final image.
(3) Determine aperture. I wanted to go as wide open as possible for maximum blur in the background. However, in a family portrait in particular, depth of field really comes into play. Even if you calculate the “right” DOF you have to be careful where you focus. For example, if the people in the portrait are 2 feet deep and you use an aperture which gives you a total DOF of about 2 feet, you had probably better not focus on a face in the front of your group. If you do, some of your in-focus plane will be in front of the group while the rear of the group will start to go out of focus. I’m not explaining that well but suffice it to say that it matters. There’s always the option to stop way down and get a bunch of the background in focus to be safe but that’s not (generally) what you want. For this photo I varied position and focal length a little bit but was generally working with about a 3′ depth of field at f/4.
(4) Determine optimal exposure around the chosen aperture — shutter, ISO. If using a strobe, be sure the shutter is within the maximum sync speed (Don’t know what that is? That’s why you pay a photographer.). Set up a strobe — triggered remotely — and umbrella with enough light to provide good fill yet not so much light that the image screams “FLASH WAS USED!”. Yes, flash was used in this image. Direct assistant (daughter) to position the light certain ways. Shoot whenever the sun is behind the clouds. I set my exposure for this case and timed the shooting accordingly.
(5) Arrange the family reasonably — lots of options and opinions here but time is precious (see next item). I could name 5 immediate things I’d change about the posing in this photo but we were trying to get something quick. Pay particular attention to dad being in a masculine pose of some sort. You don’t know the difference between masculine and feminine poses? That’s another reason you pay a photographer. Have you ever seen a family photo where the dad has his knees turned together and his hands folded gently on his lap? It doesn’t usually look masculine. Note that it has nothing to do with “macho”, but most dads don’t want to look like a total sissy. Shoot the family arrangement with enough margin in the photo for various cropping options (uncropped photo above).
(6) Do all the above before the kids have the meltdown that the mom warns you about (picture-taking is pure boredom for kids and they may not last long). That’s why the background may not be perfect, light may not be perfect, and posing may not be perfect — you need to get *something* before you hit the point where you can’t get *anything*.
That’s the picture “taking” part. Then you have the “picking” part:
(7) Import your photos to your favorite software. Go through them one-by-one with a semi-critical eye to weed out the absolute rejects and pick the possible candidates for editing.
(8) Go through the pictures with a MORE critical eye. Smiles, eyes, hair, positions…which are the keepers?
Then come the edits. The saying is “Get it right in the camera” but some realities come into play. Pick the best photographer you know and ask them if they use many images straight out of the camera. Not a chance. In our case, remember all that hustling to get *something* before the kids melt down? We got our exposure right in the camera but I didn’t try to perfect the posing, didn’t take time to pick up every distracting leaf/branch. I left some background elements in that I knew I could reasonable fix later. And so on…
(9) General edits…tweaks to white balance, contrast, etc. Includes making use of your experience regarding how a photo will print in addition to what it looks like on your screen.
(10) Switch mom’s head to get her nice smile in the same image as her kids’ nice smiles (resize it, rotate it, mask it in and make it look like it belongs). Fix gaps in mom’s hair so it’s as nice as the head we replaced (thanks to Scott Kelby for excellent tips on how to replace/add whole sections of hair — worked like a charm).
(11) Replace one child’s face. Same smile as the one we started with but in the original they were moving and therefore blurry. Fortunately we had an exact match (size, position, and smile) in another frame which was sharp.
(12) Remove a scab, some drool, and stray hairs. Tone down a few specular highlights on the lips. Remove dead leaves in the grass. Replace some background elements with trees and vegetation. I even added a technical flaw (on purpose) to make the photo more aesthetically pleasing. I won’t point it out but some clever person will probably notice it.
(13) Touch up bags under eyes…hey, the kids got up really early for this. I don’t like to go to an extreme but I at least tone them down. Some photos might require significant skin touch up (this photo didn’t need any other than the bit under the eyes).
(14) More general stuff…vignette, selective sharpening, local exposure and contrast tweaks to taste.
All told — hours worth of work. Although I have MANY more skills to learn, what skills I do possess so far came not only from work on this photo, but hours worth of practice in weeks, months, and years past to learn the skills needed to set up, take, and edit the photo. Maybe a few things are overkill and just part of my perfectionist bent (I see plenty more that I would tweak even). However, I don’t want mom to walk by the mantle for years and think “I wish that tuft of hair wasn’t hanging down over my forehead” or dad to think “I wish so and so would have held still so they would be in focus” and so on.
While we’ve gotten much more rain this year than in past years, we could use more. I’d love to see the sky go black, hear some good thunder, and feel the rain coming down again. During one of our spring rains my daughter and I had lunch at the Whole Foods mother ship (as we sometimes call the headquarters) and walked around downtown Austin in the rain. I went monochrome, super contrasty, and dark/moody with this shot of my daughter walking along Lamar Blvd. For most of our walk I had to keep the camera put away — too much rain — but we had a lull here.
Many have given their lives for our freedoms…I’m grateful. War memorial at DKR Texas Memorial Stadium at the University of Texas.
Stairway to nowhere…looks kind of eerie down there. HDR of an outdoor staircase in Snohomish, WA. One of many random(ish) shots I took while my wife was enjoying a massage in town. In keeping with my view that many HDR guys (and gals) go too far and bring out too much detail in the shadows, I tried to process just enough to give a sense of what’s down there without bringing it out completely.
All I could think of when I saw these two conversing on the street in Boston: “One if by land, two if by sea! C’mon, lady, how hard can this be to remember?!” Heavily cropped, but not much processing on this photo otherwise.
A recent picture of two of my girls strolling in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Looking forward to getting back to Seattle soon.
I loved the contrast between the blues in the windows and the oranges/yellows in the flowers in the next shot.
I liked the possibilities in the next shot but didn’t execute it very well. The water and buildings made a cool backdrop through the windows IMO. I used manual mode and stopped down to f/14 to get a lot of depth of field and used a shutter speed fast enough for my shaky handholding yet slow enough for flash. It was a dark place relative to all the light streaming in the windows so flash was a must if I was going to keep the rainy mood in the background. I had no way to get the flash off-camera and bouncing didn’t work well so it’s not a lot better than a point-and-shoot. I’m sure I could have improved it with some effort but I didn’t want to stretch the girls’ patience too thin.
Most of our family’s favorite pictures are candids like these. While at the dinner table our daughter was being cute as usual and the 50D was just sitting out from having been used for these pictures of a fawn. My 70-200mm lens was attached and while I was tempted to open all the way up to f/2.8 (love the bokeh) I stopped down to f/4.5 to keep a little more depth of field in the portraits. The toughest part, as always with a wriggling baby, was focusing on the eye and taking the shot before she moved out of the plane of focus — which was 2″ at the wide end of the lens with this body/lens combo @ f/4.5. I had mixed success but the shots we ended up with are fun. Exposure, contrast, vignette, and noise reduction in Lightroom…
We went out to watch the eclipse with another family tonight. I lugged the camera and lenses out just in case I wanted to get pictures of the kids with their funny eclipse glasses, etc. At first I didn’t bother to get it out and just snapped iPhone shots of the kids but on a whim I decided to play around with pictures of the eclipse. While the sun was high I started with f/32, 1/8000s with a polarizing filter (just to close down two more stops) and even then the sun was completely blown out. As the sun neared the horizon I was able to remove the polarizer, open up the shutter a bit, and get a silhouette of the horizon and some color in the sky. Not bad for just fiddling around on a whim. An improvement might have been to open up the aperture to a point where the lens tends to be sharper but once the sun nears the horizon around here it drops like a rock so I didn’t bother with that…I just kept clicking the remote here and there to capture different stages of the sunset/eclipse. Processing was spot removal and noise reduction in Lightroom.
In the burbs around Boston I occasionally came across a “Thickly Settled” street sign. It struck me as rather funny and while I expected that it had something to do with it being a more crowded residential area, it really was meaningless. After all, I could see with my own eyes that I was in a residential neighborhood.
I looked it up and found all sorts of humorous comments about this and other street signs. “Slow Children” elicited a comment along the lines of “When I see a Slow Children sign I always wonder how all the slow children all ended up living in one neighborhood.” The best I can gather (I did not bother to dig into the MA government sites to verify this) is that the Thickly Settled sign is an indication to observe a speed limit of 30 mph even if it is not posted. I’m not entirely sure why they don’t just post the speed limit itself if they’re going to bother with putting up a sign at all. Maybe I’m wrong about all this…
On a semi-random note, I’ll give a shout out to Enterprise Car Rental since you can (barely) see the hood of my rental in the picture above. I typically rent from Hertz through my company. I have Hertz #1 Gold which allows me to bypass the rental car checkin. Having #1 Gold means I just show up in the Hertz garage, find my name and parking spot on the display, and the car is waiting in that parking spot with the keys and paperwork in it, ready to go. Pretty convenient. This time my admin set me up with Enterprise which was only $17 per day for an “intermediate” car. I arrived at the Enterprise counter in Boston sometime around midnight and after checking in asked if I had any choices regarding cars. The agent asked what I drive at home — a 4×4 crew cab pickup truck. Upon hearing that she said that since it was midnight I could pick anything in the lot at the $17 price, but mentioned that the sweet, black 2012 Chevy Tahoe might be best suited to my tastes. True enough…nice! Especially nice because I had added some personal time to my trip and was paying some of the days out of my pocket. I’ll pay $17 a day for a new Tahoe anytime.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom (pictured above), who doesn’t get on the internet much and probably won’t see this anyway 🙂 I’m not one for lots of sappy words on the internet so I’ll just say that I love her and I appreciate her greatly.
I’ve gotten over my thing about missing the snow and am now thinking about getting back to the Texas coast. My 7-year old son brings it up constantly so we’re just going to have to set a date and do it. The shot above was taken on our last big trip which was during Sharkfest at Padre Island National Seashore. When we scheduled our trip we weren’t aware of Sharkfest and on arrival were very surprised by the crowds. This 63-mile stretch of beach has one way in and out (via land) as is mostly limited to 4×4 vehicles so it’s generally rather empty. Of course “crowded” is a relative thing and even with 10x the normal crowd there were still plenty of places along the seashore to fish and play in the water without crowding anyone out. Normally you can pick a place where you have at *least* 1/2 mile between you and your nearest neighbor. We had to settle for 1/8 – 1/4 mile this trip (once we made it 30 or 40 miles)…first-world problems. Unfortunately we saw no sharks being caught. On our “normal” trips we often see them and thought that with all these shark fishermen we’d see several. No luck.
For those of you not familiar with shark fishing in the surf, here’s the very rough description of how it works. Gear consists of short-ish, stiff rods with reels capable of holding hundreds of yards of approximately 100# test line. At the terminal end there are leader rigs made out of materials ranging from 400# test monofilament to stainless steel cable. Hanging from those are huge hooks (the size of your hand). For bait something like a big chunk (even half) of a jack crevalle is used. Once the rig is ready, the bait is generally paddled out with a kayak and placed beyond the third sand bar. Then you wait, and wait, and wait. When you get a decent sized shark on the line the fight often lasts well over an hour. It’s pretty amazing to watch. On a side note, it’s extremely interesting to witness the various vehicular rigs that people come up with for their shark fishing — giant platforms on top of trucks, etc. If I’d known how unsuccessful our fishing was going to be on this trip I might have just spent time photographing the shark rigs.
I processed the image to make it appear a bit like an old print from film. Kept the colors reasonably saturated (via the vibrance slider in Lightroom) and made the image warm like prints in the “old” days. In Lightroom I added grain to taste. I rarely use additional grain in images but really like it for this beach scene and if it weren’t for the vehicles it could pass for a pic from the ’70s. I wasn’t “into” photography in my film days so I can’t wax nostalgic about this film or that film or tell you that I mimicked a certain film. I bought whatever was cheap.
My mother lives close to Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, IL. Their band performed in a parade we watched last year and I caught this shot. I don’t know what this guy’s title is though — I just call him Big Red. The kids enjoyed the fire trucks and candy most of all of course.
We’ve always taught our kids to stay out of debt so when my son went to buy a car last weekend he brought a big stack of “Benjamin Franklins” ($100 bills for those not familiar with US currency). The purpose was twofold: (1) paying cash and avoiding debt as I mentioned and (2) having a stack of bills to flash in the negotiations a la Dave Ramsey. Once we determined the car was a good buy my son did his negotiating thing and a deal was struck. While papers were being written up I spread the bills out and snapped some shots with my iPhone just for fun.
I never thought I’d say it, but after the heat today I wouldn’t mind being back in the snow (grass is greener thing). In March we enjoyed some tubing at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington. Some of us really didn’t have the clothes for it but we made do and decided to tough it out — it was great. Given our snow activities I only brought along an old point-and-shoot for the actual tubing part, but the portrait at the top was taken with my DSLR on a tripod. The idea with the tripod was that I would be in the picture as well, using the remote to trigger the shutter. I couldn’t get the remote to work, however, and it was too far of a run around the snow piles to use the timer…AND I really didn’t feel like explaining to any passers-by how I wanted the shot composed (rarely seems to work out). The little ones were freezing and were just ready to be done anyway. For the other shots the point-and-shoot worked fine — mostly. The main problem I had was that the white balance was all over the place and made each shot look like entirely different light. I got a few “action” shots but just liked the “environmental portraits” better.
My daughters and I can’t wait for NCAA volleyball to start…
At most sporting events I’m in attendance because I want to *watch* the event. I’m always tempted to carry my camera with me but I generally leave it at home so I’m not distracted. When I attended the semi-finals of the NCAA volleyball championship this past December I left my camera behind. However, when I saw that fans were allowed to carry in any camera/lens combo they wanted, I decided to take my camera and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS to the championship match and at least take a few pictures.
While warm ups were going on I experimented a bit with settings. When shooting any fast-action sport one is generally trying to freeze the action (there are exceptions to this of course). If you don’t use a relatively fast shutter speed you have no chance of getting a decent photo of a hard kill for instance — unless your goal is to turn the ball into a blur that you can hardly see in the frame. Manual mode is pretty much a given in a venue like the Alamodome as the light never changes and being very well-lit a fast shutter speed is possible (the gym where my daughters play is not so well-lit and a really fast shutter speed isn’t possible) . For shots of the action on the court I settled on using manual mode with 1/750s to 1/1000s shutter, f/2.8 aperture, and ISO 2000. Generally the only time you vary your exposure is if you are taking shots of the crowd as opposed to the court (the crowd near the court was lit a stop or so less than the court).
I was able to convince the elevator operator to allow me and my son upstairs to the skybox area so we could take some pictures from a different perspective. While there, a pro photog plopped down two seats away from us and we got to chatting a bit. I asked him what settings he typically used in the stadium and they were 1/1250s, f/2.8, ISO 2500 — not far off what I was shooting. He said my settings were fine for the lens I was using (70-200mm) but he wanted that slightly faster shutter because he was using a 400mm lens and needed some help compensating for lens movement. We talked about depth of field (DOF) a bit too. Up in the balcony we were maybe 200 feet from the net which gave him a DOF of approximately 10-12 feet (depends on the camera body…he had one of the Canon 1D bodies I’m sure). That really required accurate focus — if he accidentally focused on a back row the action *at* the net would be out of focus. When I shot at 200mm, I had a great DOF of about 52 feet to work with.
My 5D mkii has great high ISO performance which is nice for these sporting events but one huge deficiency is its (relatively) low frame rate — not so great for sports. I was kind of jealous of the pro as he machine-gunned frames when a kill was imminent. Of course, the slow frame rate cuts down on the number of images I need to go through in post 🙂
I LOVE old family pictures and recently received this one from my father. In this Tolsma family photo is my paternal grandmother (standing on the left) with her parents and siblings. My great-grandfather passed away in 1935 but my great-grandmother (wearing glasses) lived until my high school years and my siblings and I were fortunate to know her. I’m guessing this photo would have been taken in the mid to late 1920s based on my grandmother’s age and the age of her youngest brother (born 1924 I believe). My great grandparents both came from the Netherlands at a young-ish age and married in Minnesota. As a kid I remember my father talking about all his aunts and uncles but I was generally confused — couldn’t remember who was who, etc. Now that I’m grown I wish I knew so much more about all the family history.
One thing I notice when looking at this portrait is the amazing resemblance between the members of the Tolsma family and the descendants I grew up with — brothers, sisters, cousins, more distant cousins, my own children — I see all their faces in these faces. Kind of weird, but in a cool, amazing way.
For family reunions my maternal grandfather has written up and handed out a history of their family and we really enjoy it. I’m inspired to write one about our family and update it over the years. Even if our life seems rather mundane at present, I’m certain that future generations will appreciate having it preserved and shared with them. I hope that the pictures I’m taking (like our family portrait below) are treasured by those born many, many generations from now in the same way I treasure the photo above.
This sign just cracked me up. Driving in Redmond, Washington almost two months ago I came across this doctored sign and without the iPhone camera handy I wouldn’t have been able to share it with you. I’m not a big fan of iPhone photography necessarily. It’s a fine camera but I’m not enamored with it to the point some seem to be and it’s frankly a pain not to have control of the various settings most of the time. That said, in a pinch it’s very handy to have around. The only edit was a crop done in one of my iPhone photo apps (don’t remember which).