I’m Eight, Darling!

Eight 24mm, f/5.6, 1/100s

Many of my local photo friends will understand the reference in the title. ¬†If you don’t…then never mind ūüôā ¬†We celebrated another birthday today and my son asked me when we were going to take the “eight picture”. ¬†I didn’t know what he was talking about until he reminded me that we had taken a picture of him holding up fingers representing his age each of his last three birthdays. ¬†I’m glad he remembered. ¬†We spent the day with immediate and extended family playing games, opening presents, eating cake and ice cream, and jumping on the trampoline with the sprinkler.

Photo stuff:

Top photo: Manual mode, on-camera flash bounced off the porch behind me for fill, basic edits in Lightroom. ¬†It was taken early in the morning when the light was really soft. ¬†I took two versions of this photo — one with the face in focus, one with the hands in focus (this one is our traditional picture). ¬†Of course we want photos with his face in focus but we take lots of other pictures on the kids’ birthdays.

Bottom photos: Manual mode, on-camera flash in high-speed sync mode, with 1/4 CTO gel, pointed directly at the kids, basic edits in Lightroom. ¬†Taken in the middle of the afternoon when the light was at its¬†worst. ¬†I used the flash in order to even it out a little bit. ¬†I don’t (totally) care for the look — maybe could go to 1/2 ¬†or 3/4 CTO gel and/or dial down the flash a bit — but it’s better than not using the flash at all IMO (I did some non-flash shots too). ¬†I could play with the white balance, etc. too and try to come up with something better but I’ve captured what I want…

Jumping 40mm, f/7.1, 1/500s

Acrobatics   28mm, f/9, 1/500s

The Making Of A Family Portrait

Family Portrait, Texas Capitol Grounds   80mm, f/4, 1/60s, ISO 100

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‚Ķit’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 “‚Ķwhen 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‚Ķ

(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‚Ķhey, 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.

The Heavens Are Telling The Glory Of God

200mm, f/32, 1/80s, ISO 100

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.

2011 NCAA Volleyball Championship

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‚Ķhe 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 ūüôā

The Kiddos…

So…Are You Going To Take My Picture Or What?

Impromptu Portrait 125mm, f/2.8, 1/160s, ISO 400

When I sat down at the dinner table this evening I found this grin staring at me. ¬†How could I not get the camera out? ¬†I used my Canon 5D mkii with the 70-200mm f/2.8 — shooting wide open to blur the window frames and scenery outside as much as possible. ¬†I bounced a flash off the wall behind me. ¬†There was no posing, very little attention to what was in the frame, and only minimal attention to composition. ¬†I spent most of my efforts on catching my daughter’s eyes in focus. ¬†With the shallow DOF and my daughter’s constant motion it was tough and I missed it a lot. ¬†How could I not love the pictures anyway? ¬†I took 60-70 shots and ended up with quite a few keepers.

Editing was all done in Lightroom — white balance, slight crops, exposure, contrast, vignette, and a tad bit of noise reduction. ¬†I did none of the typical overdone baby skin stuff. ¬†In fact, I did no “retouching” at all (it would have been a lot of work to fix all those healing chicken pox marks anyway). ¬†No skin edits, no eye enhancements. ¬†They are cute enough the way they are ūüôā

Boston Skyline…Blue Hour

Boston Skyline At Blue Hour 23mm, f/8, 6 exp, ISO 100

Last weekend, after spending the day touring Boston, I walked across the pedestrian bridge (near the left side of the above image) next to Seaport Blvd which connects downtown to the old seaport district.¬† The bridge is part of the South Bay Harbor Trail.¬† I stopped for dinner and waited for the sun to set behind the city.¬† As I neared this photo spot I found that four photographers were already sitting there — tripods and cameras already set up.¬† I walked toward them and without a word stopped 10′ in front of them and pretended to set up my tripod.¬† Silence.¬† After a few seconds I turned and said I was just kidding and relieved laughter set in.¬† I asked if it was OK to set up just behind them and they were nice enough to extend an offer to make room in the middle of them if I wanted (I just set up behind and above them).

My intent was to bracket a bunch of exposures as it got darker using f/22 to get a starburst effect.¬† I switched to f/8 because (1) I really wasn’t getting much of that effect, (2) f/8 is good and sharp, and (3) my exposures were getting longer than 30 seconds and I was too lazy to start timing the exposures manually even though I was using a remote ūüôā¬† White balance was set to daylight.¬† That’s somewhat arbitrary since I always shoot in RAW but it helps keep things consistent when viewed in the LCD.¬† I included a couple of straight-out-of-the-camera exposures below so you can see a sample of what I was working with.

On my flight home I plugged six exposures into Nik HDR Efex Pro.¬† My personal default is to use the realistic-subtle preset as a starting point 99% of the time and I tweak a bit in Nik.¬† Tweaking and saving complete, I took the Nik output into Photoshop along with a couple of the darker exposures and masked in a few spots which were still over-exposed after the HDR junk.¬† I toned down the colors in the water and burned the sidewalk darker a bit (more on the dodging and burning below).¬† Relative to colors, I did want an “HDR look” to this image but I sometimes find the reflections and colors on the water to be a bit overdone for my taste in these skyline shots. ¬†I also dropped the overall saturation by 20 points to bring it back to realistic colors as tools like Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix tend to saturate everything a lot.

Finally, since the perspective wasn’t too bad I decided to fix it by stretching out the top corners a bit and aligning the buildings with rulers to make them more upright on the edges (the SOOC images above do not have that correction). ¬†If you do too big of an edit like this it can degrade the image but it’s fine for this one. ¬†The final image turned out crisp and sharp at high resolution.

This screenshot shows my dodging and burning layer.¬† A trick I learned watching a Joe Brady video (something about Photoshop for landscapes sponsored by Xrite) is to create a new layer, fill it with 50% gray, then dodge and burn on that with black/white.¬† There’s no real need for that but the layer gives you a visual to show where you’re doing your adjustments.

Party Portrait

My Beautiful Wife 70mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 3200

Candids are often my favorites and this is no exception for more reasons than one. ¬†This shot was not posed at all unless you count “Please look over here for a second” as posing. ¬†My wife of 25+ years loathes being in front of the camera so I appreciate that she indulged me this time. ¬†There was nothing to bounce flash off of (outdoors, no roof or ceiling overhead, no wall nearby) so I used direct flash with a diffuser. ¬†I started the evening using a 3′ sync cord and holding the flash off-camera at arm’s length but tired of that fairly quickly. ¬†Lightroom was used for most of the processing and for noise reduction (ISO 3200 was used) but I also cloned out a few unattractive elements around the scene. ¬†I didn’t do any skin retouching or the like.

Playing In The Snow

Snow Portrait 70mm, f/8, 1/125s, ISO 400, flash

We played in the snow today — quite a change from the warm, Texas weather.¬† While I have no interest in living in a snowy climate again I do enjoy getting in the snow every once in a while.¬† I took five of my children up to Stevens Pass in Washington for the express purpose of playing in the snow.¬† There has been all sorts of snow up there in the past few days so we knew it would be fun.¬† Things looked even better when it began snowing in the Seattle area before we even left the house.

After getting all wet and cold we headed back down the mountain and explored some side roads to enjoy the scenery.  At one spot my daughter (the one in the picture above) pointed out a spot she thought would be nice for a group photo (below).  At another nearby spot she asked me to take a few pictures of her in front of a bridge and the snow-covered trees (no one else wanted to get out of the car again).

Photo stuff‚ĶIn the group photo below you can see the snow falling in front of our faces — we wanted to show the extent of the falling snow.¬† However, in the individual shots we wanted to avoid the snow in the face and found a space under some trees which allowed that. ¬†However, it was so dark that we had to add some flash into the mix (no gels used).¬† With the others waiting in the car I didn’t spend much time perfecting things but we like what we got.

The odd composition above came from just moving around trying different things out. ¬†I don’t like it…but my daughter does so I’m posting that one.

Snowy Group Portrait 70mm, f/6.3, 1/125s, ISO 640, no flash

Candid-ish Christmas Group Portrait

Family Christmas 24mm, f/8, 1/160s, ISO ?, flash bounced on wall behind the camera

I was revisiting some of my favorite photos recently ¬†— most of which don’t get shared because they aren’t worth much photographically speaking. ¬†I decided to share this one since it’s a good illustration of a semi-candid shot that one might not consider taking but ends up being a (personally) memorable shot. ¬†After opening all our presents on Christmas Eve morning we gathered all of us (minus the two out-of-town siblings and the baby who was sleeping), threw wrapping paper around, and snapped some photos. ¬†The setup was simple: camera on a tripod with on-camera flash bounced on the wall behind the camera. ¬†I have a remote but I just used the self-timer here. ¬†If I were trying to get the “ideal” shot I would have rearranged the room to allow a longer lens to be used and avoid the distortion from the wide-angle. ¬†I would have also lit up the background (simply by turning on lights in the other rooms) so it wasn’t so dark. ¬†I probably would’ve gotten out an umbrella or two and the remote triggers. ¬†However, I would have also annoyed everyone and made them impatient ūüôā ¬†In the end we got a fun picture that we all like.

Trampoline “Candids” And Clipping Masks

Backlit Jumping

Last Friday I walked past our kitchen window and was blinded by the light of the setting sun reflecting off the trampoline as my daughter was jumping. ¬†The backlighting also made for great highlights on my daughter’s nearly black hair (it’s that beautiful American Indian super-duper dark brown — and the brown really comes out when it’s backlit). ¬†I grabbed the camera and told her to keep jumping. ¬†I picked an exposure in manual mode and fired off 50 shots or so with the intention of posting something for #weareparents on google+. ¬†My son ended up in the g+ post (see here) last week so I decided to post the trampoline pics this week.

I wanted to include several “poses” in my image and set about to do that via clipping masks. ¬†I’ve played with clipping masks in the past — they’re easy — but I use them so infrequently that I always have to refresh my memory on how they work. ¬†I’ve posted some pictures below to illustrate a simple clipping mask. ¬†I started with a white background layer and a layer with a random image from my desktop (which happens to be a variation of HDR Tennis #18 which I modified via inverted curves to look rather nuclear:

Between those layers I inserted some text that said “Clipping Mask”:

My layers then look like this:

To use the text as a clipping mask, simply hold press option (alt on windows) and click on the line between the text and image layers.  The result is this:

And the layers now appear like this: