My son spotted these little nine-banded armadillos in our back yard last night so we walked out and took some pictures. Armadillos don’t spook all that easily — maybe because they have their face buried in the dirt half the time (notice the dirty snout) — so we walked up pretty close and they worked their way toward us. I squatted down to take pictures and after a few seconds one of them stopped rooting in the dirt and walked right over to me like a dog who wanted to be scratched — stopped about a foot and a half from me. I had a “hey this is cool” thought but immediately switched to “I don’t want some wild animal messing with my kids”. I decided to pick it up by the shell like my older son used to do but as soon as I moved he bounded off (Armadillos do a kind of bounding hop when they want to move fast).
On our land there’s plenty of wild landscape for armadillos to root around in but many people find these to be quite a nuisance. They’re not quite as destructive as a wild hog but armadillos can destroy landscape beds in a hurry. Sometimes an armadillo takes a liking to particular flower beds and revisits them night after night until the homeowner has had enough and…well, never mind 🙂
I’ve been very delinquent in taking the picture above — my youngest girls in their matching winter dresses. Between the baby’s sleeping schedule, weather, and that general “don’t feel like doing it now” feeling that we all get (wasn’t just me) we haven’t gotten these done. I took the day off today and I made it a definite to-do item for this morning when our infant (“Dolly” as we often call her) is usually happiest. We ended up pushing it a little — Dolly was ready for bed by the time we were done.
The usual caveats apply: I don’t like this or that, I’m not happy with the light (we waited too late in the morning), I don’t like the setting/background, and I’d change/fix/tweak many things. There wasn’t so much posing as there was “Hold her and look at the camera quick before she gets fussy”. However, my wife says: “I don’t care about the professional photo — I just want a picture of them together with their dresses so get it done”. It’s hard for me not to try to make everything as professional looking as I can, however meager my attempts may be.
Exposure was a bit tricky. The dark skin, light skin combination was challenging to balance (always takes some effort in our family pictures since we have four races and a wide range of skin tones). I chose to use no additional lighting — we just wanted to get this done and not fiddle with triggers, umbrella, and adjusting flash power. The sun was in and out of the clouds which affected the exposure dramatically. Ultimately I determined my exposure by metering Dolly’s light skin to avoid blowing it out (I shot in manual mode). For my taste we couldn’t go any brighter than you see above and we got sufficient exposure in the dark skin so we could make do. There were of course the usual difficulties in getting two children to look good at the same time. The littlest didn’t cooperate very well — she wasn’t a complete crank but wasn’t her usually smily self. In the end I ended up swapping a head to get them both looking good. I lightened the dark skin a bit more and tweaked the image with several curves, exposure, and saturation adjustment layers.
I’m sticking with the pool theme for this post. We recently were invited to swim at a friend’s pool (cheers all around from the kids) and I decided to lug the camera along to get some pictures. It was 5pm and the sun was high in the sky. Fortunately when the kids were on the diving board the sun was slightly behind — meaning that if I could manage to get *enough* light reflected off the kids’ faces it would at least be *even-ish* light. Coming up with that light — while saving the background somewhat — was the first challenge then.
The next challenge was the huge dynamic range in the skin tones. In the song “Jesus Loves The Little Children” the line goes “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”. We didn’t have “yellow” but we had red, black, and white figuratively speaking. If you light for the lightest skin the darkest skin might be way too underexposed. Expose for the darkest skin and the lightest gets completely blown out in the bright sunlight. The challenge was to maintain the best balance in the situation — via my camera and flash settings.
My gear: Canon 5D mkii, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L, and Canon 580exii flash gel’ed with a 1/4 CTO. I started out using shutter speeds of 1/200 to 1/250s to stay within the sync speed of the flash. This was reasonable for much of the action and gave me quite a bit of flash power, which I needed when shooting from these distances (50’+). Remember that the light follows the inverse square law — double the distance and you are only left with 1/4 the light. Later I switched to using high-speed sync which allowed shutter speeds up to 1/500s to freeze the action but reduces the power that the flash can put out. Both methods were effective in their own way. With the 5D mkii I also had ISO as a lever. I didn’t want to go too high with it (but I did use up to 3200 some of the time). A higher ISO also reduces the need for so much flash power but you pay in noise. Note that sometimes when using flash in bright light you *can’t* go very high with the ISO because the flash sync speed is a “long” shutter speed (relative to the overall brightness in the scene) and is allowing a lot of light to hit the sensor. In summary, I can’t tell you what the “best” settings are for a situation you might be shooting, but hopefully I’ve given you enough info to jump start your thoughts and get you experimenting with it. Keep in mind that in the evening the light changes rapidly so you’ll have to adjust for that as well.
In Lightroom I still had to use an adjustment brush to even out the exposure of the faces a bit (in most pictures). All in all, I was very happy with the way they turned out. The important parts of the backgrounds were preserved and the kids are exposed well enough. There’s always plenty of room for improvement though.
As much as I don’t want to post my mistakes — especially the really stupid ones — they can be helpful to look back on and point out to others. It depends on the natural light situation of course, but in a portrait like the one above I often use a single strobe through, or reflected from, an umbrella placed above-camera. This may be to provide a catchlight in the eyes, a bit of fill in the eye sockets, some overall light, or all of the above. I occasionally use a bare strobe (well, sometimes with a gel but no other modifiers) to give a hint of a rim light on the shoulders to help separate the subjects from the background. My daughter typically holds this in position behind the subjects when I use it. During a recent family portrait shoot on the grounds of the Texas Capitol I pulled a real boneheaded move with this light.
Just before we shot the pose above (which fortunately wasn’t the “preferred” pose) I got my rim light strobe out of the bag and quickly tested that everything was working (flash on, remote trigger operational, my guesstimated manual power set). All was well so I dropped it in the grass and we set to arranging people and reminding the kids not to watch the squirrels running around. We shot a bunch of frames to make sure we caught everyone looking their best-ish and moved on to our next pose. I had decided not to use the rim light because the separation from the background seemed fine.
To my horror, when I loaded the pics up on the computer at home, I noticed that all the shots of this pose had a bright light in the grass and two of the subjects were lit like they were being blasted by the sun. Well, they *were* being blasted — by my portable sun as you see in the picture below. I had left it turned on and the trigger active…probably at 1/4 power. Oops. I couldn’t believe I had not noticed this while chimping my test shots. My (young) daughters didn’t point it out — one didn’t even notice and the other assumed that I intended to use the flash that way.
Needless to say it was a big mistake. While this was not the ideal pose we wanted to keep one from this set. I was fortunate enough to have a reasonable fixable frame in the bunch so I went to work. Switched a head, toned down some of the effects from the misplaced strobe, and made the other usual edits. I believe the photo *is* completely salvageable given enough effort and time and I may work on it for practice in the future.
Lesson learned. Chimp and look around the *whole* frame — Check everything…check again.
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.
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.
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 🙂
I got to second-shoot my nephew’s wedding in Seattle a few weeks ago. Since I wasn’t responsible for the primary set of photos I spent my time experimenting and attempting to get some unique images. When the main photographer was using a normal lens, I mostly used my 10-20mm or my 70-200mm. If she was using a telephoto, I typically went normal or wide, etc. My goal was to capture things from a different angle (literally and figuratively) and get a different perspective on this blessed event.
For the shot at the top of the post I used my 10-20mm from about a foot off the ground. This was the bride and groom’s first dance and I shot the whole thing from that angle.
The shot below of the groom and his mother (my sister-in-law) was taken with a focal length of 200mm. It was tough getting this shot framed when zoomed in this tight on a moving couple. However, since the main photog was getting the normal shots I just went with it and hoped it worked.
As it got darker, things got tough. There was almost no light where the dancing was taking place. I shot with my widest aperture (f3.5 on the 10-20mm I used for most of these shots), bumped the ISO up, and then dragged the shutter a lot to get at least some ambient light from the background [I could write a whole post on how I played with flash/ISO/shutter/etc]. Here’s a shot from the dance floor well after dark:
I had a great time, and while I certainly had to cull many images from the set, I ended up with many good images for the bride and groom to enjoy the rest of their lives.
So — I finally found a camera bag that I like and am not going to return for a refund. Mind you, it’s not the perfect bag for all situations (no such bag exists IMO), but it fits my immediate need for a bag to carry some gear in a manner I’m comfortable with. Bags are such a personal thing but I thought this little review might give someone an idea of what to expect from the Domke F-2.
The type of bag I was searching for was something to carry on photowalks and also transport my camera and a lens or two in the trunk of my car (keep gear from rolling around and be available so I can just grab the bag if I decide to stop and take an impromtu photowalk). I was also hoping to find a bag which would do double duty and serve as a half-camera/half-general-purpose bag on an upcoming trip to Europe. Since I’m fortunate enough to live in a city which has a full-blown camera shop (Precision Camera in Austin, TX) I was able to take my gear into the store and try packing it in various bags — that helped eliminate many possibilities up front. I also had a friend who allowed me to borrow a Kata sling for a month or two.
I ended up really liking the Domke in the store and when I first used it “for real” I just loved it. The image below shows the bag along with the gear I’ve recently been carrying in it. I could easily fit more if I chose to stuff every corner. Please excuse the lousy product shot using on-camera flash and taken with no thought regarding setup or background.
I had the following gear packed in the Domke F-2 with room to spare:
Canon 50D with Sigma 10-20mm and hood
Canon 24-70 f2.8 L with hood
Canon 70-200 f2.8 L with hood – sticks up into the top flap a bit but isn’t problematic
Canon 50 f1.4 with hood
Canon 580EXII in its case
Lens cleaning stuff
Hand strap (for the bag)
Black Rapid RS4 strap
coiled flash sync cord
cable shutter release and a wireless remote
batteries, mem cards
Granted, the bag was heavy with those items but they easily fit and I still found the bag easy to work out of. The shoulder strap is a couple inches wide and is quite comfortable. Note that I wouldn’t normally carry all that gear but I wanted to put the Domke through its paces.
The bag itself is extremely lightweight and forms to your body. There are removable inner compartments (velcro) but even when those are used, the outer shell of the bag remains flexible and allows the bag to effectively collapse and shrink into a smaller bag when you don’t stuff it full. This is a big plus in my book — I don’t like the stiff, permanently-shaped bags. A downside to this is that there’s no outer padding (just the internal compartments are padded).
The four outer pockets (two in front, one on each end) have no padding whatsoever. Advantage: pockets collapse small when not used. Disavantage: if you’re putting delicate items in those pockets you need to be extra careful with your bag.
Zippers…the only zipper on the bag closes the pocket on the inside of the top cover. I wish there were zippers on a few other pockets because the loose flaps make me a bit nervous that something small might fall out or that someone with a small hand might be able to grab something out unnoticed when in a crowd. The top cover includes two metal clips in addition to velcro to keep it securely closed.
I’ve tried shoulder/messenger bags, a sling, and backpacks. Each has certain advantages and disavantages but I found none to my liking before I tried this Domke. Of course, when it comes time to haul all the camera gear along with a laptop and other items, I’ll be shopping for a second bag and writing a second review…
The Domke is available in a regular canvas material or a waxed canvas. I chose the wax for a little protection.
[Follow-up: Attended a photo workshop after posting this…both our instructor and another pro in the workshop were carrying this bag]
[Follow-up #2: Lugged this bag all over Paris and London. Carried my 50D, 10-20mm Sigma, 18-200 Sigma, batteries, cards, etc. and still had plenty of room for maps, my jacket (had to stuff it when both the jacket and camera were in the bag at the same time), phone, water bottle…still love this bag. I would have liked a shoulder pad for those days I carried the bag for 12+ hours, but the strap is wide enough that it wasn’t really a problem.]