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.
When we told my sister-in-law — twenty-two-ish years ago — that we were moving to Texas the first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh great, now your kids are going to have big heads!”. Turns out she was right as most of us pretty much love living in Texas. Truth be told, we would be happy living anywhere since life is more about the people around you than the place itself. In fact, not many years ago we passed on an opportunity to move the family to a place my wife had always dreamed of living. Her words: “This [Austin] is home now.” The pride of Texans is manifest in many ways. First, I’ve never been to a state where the state flag flies as much as it does here. People sport “Native Texan” tattoos and bumper stickers. Some transplants (not me) display bumper stickers which say “I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here as quick as I could”.
So, March 2nd was Texas Independence Day and I really didn’t plan on posting anything. However, in the wee hours of this morning — wide awake after a 2 am run to Walgreens for chicken pox relief potions for my son — I found some unprocessed pictures like the one above that I had taken on the way back to my truck after a recent photowalk on the University of Texas campus.
Some brief tidbits: Six national flags have flown over Texas (the origin of the “Six Flags” amusement park name). They were the Spanish, French, Mexican, Republic of Texas, Confederate, and now the US flag.
Texas is a huge state in land area — far larger than California which is the next largest in the lower 48. My big Texas head is not so large that I don’t get a good laugh at an Alaskan saying, “We were going to divide Alaska into two states but we didn’t want to make Texas the third largest”. That’s a pretty good put-down for too-proud Texans IMO 🙂
Texas also has very distinct geographical areas. When we lived in Illinois we constantly saw TV ads which used a slogan along the lines of “Texas — It’s like a whole other country.” Frankly, it’s true in many ways. We grew up equating Texas with tumbleweeds but I probably lived in Texas 15 years before I ever saw one. The regions range from plains in the north to hill country in the middle to plains and river valleys in the south. There are piney forests in the east to mountains in the west. The coastal plains with their fertile black soil are pretty much like the fields in Illinois.
I think we’ll stay a while.
Some of my friends are involved in “HDR Tennis” where one of them posts a set of bracketed shots and they all process them in their own way. Once the processed HDRs are posted the public can vote on their favorites. All that to say that when the latest HDR Tennis brackets were posted — from the interior of the Texas Capitol building — it reminded me of some bracketed shots I had yet to process.
On the same night I took these shots, I walked inside the Capitol and grabbed some shots inside. The building is beautiful and one could spend weeks taking a range of pictures from the standard rotunda images to abstracts of fancy railings, floors, windows, door knobs and hinges. I took a few bracketed sets that I hadn’t done before then had to run off to pick up my daughters nearby.
Both images were processed from 6 exposures in Nik HDR Efex Pro. Minor tweaks were done in Lightroom after that.
On a recent evening I dropped my daughters off at the IMAX theater downtown and decided to poke around with the camera while waiting for them. I had in mind a particular shot of the Capitol (which is only a few blocks away from the IMAX). The planned shot was one of the Capitol’s reflection on another building. I had been inspired to get this planned shot after noticing the reflection on our drive home from the Texas Longhorn volleyball matches. In these drive-by glimpses it seemed like such a cool place for a shot, not so much in person though. It turned out not to be compelling at all and I never even put the camera up to my eye when I arrived at the spot.
While trekking around I noticed this a puddle in the parking lot above and decided to get some images of the Capitol in the reflection. While shooting a car approached at one point. I realized that if I stayed where I was the car would be forced to drive through the puddle, messing up my glassy reflection. So, I quickly grabbed the tripod and backed away to allow the car to go around the water. Turns out it was a security guard and I think I aroused his suspicions after grabbing my stuff and running off a bit. He quizzed me a bit but was satisfied that I was up to no harm and let me continue.
The shot above was a single exposure which was tweaked a bit in Lightroom. I shot this with several apertures — f/16 in hopes of awesome starbursts from the lights (f/22 was beyond my 30-second manual exposure, I did not have my remote along, and I was not going to hold my shutter button in bulb mode), f/2.8 in case I liked the bokeh of the background. I decided that I liked the background (parking lot) mostly in focus to make it clear what the scene was about.
The following shot started life as a 7-exposure HDR but I bet I masked in enough from the original exposures to make it more of a composite in the end.
I made another dark o’clock airport run last week and brought the camera along to catch the sunrise blue hour on my way into the office. There were no clouds in the sky (boring) so I decided to swing by the Texas Capitol to take some shots of it against the colors of the sky. It turned out to be a gray hour rather than blue — no color at all so I was about to bag it completely. However, I did notice the reflections in this fountain at the corner of Congress and Cesar Chavez and stopped for some pictures. The above image was taken on the NE corner of the intersection looking east down Cesar Chavez. As the traffic lights (and the traffic) changed it provided many variations in the colors and this was my favorite. Processing was a handful of curves adjustments mainly.
The image below was a 3-second exposure at the same fountain but on the other side of the wall where the water cascades down into the courtyard. Processing was done in Lightroom — so minor that I really don’t even remember what I did 🙂
In truth, this fountain has endless photographic possibilities both as a subject and as a background. I’m sure I’ll be back some day.
The Oasis Restaurant, which sits on a cliff some 450′ above Lake Travis in Austin, labels itself as the sunset capital of Texas…and it may very well be. I recently visited with an out-of-town guest and a few of my daughters and was amazed at the enormity of what they are building out there. You see, in 2005 the Oasis burned as a result of a lightning strike. It has since been rebuilt and then some. An employee informed us that the place currently seats 2600 people — enough to be the third largest restaurant in the USA. Construction is well underway on an expansion which will increase the seating to 4000…largest in the country is their claim! According to their own website there will also be about 30 retail shops on site.
The signature architectural feature of the Oasis is its many levels of outdoor decks. Large patio umbrellas cover the tables and about ten minutes before the sun hits the horizon the staff makes a mad scramble to collapse all the umbrellas to maximize the view. As the sun sets, a bell rings out, hundreds of cameras click, and everyone cheers.
What’s the food like? Let’s just say that I’m not all that picky and I still don’t like it much. Oh well, I go (once every 5 years maybe) for the sunset and not the food.
I took brackets of three different compositions on our last visit. One was an immediate reject and I processed one of the others (shown above). Standard-ish 3-exp (or was it 6???) HDR tonemapped in Photomatix, combined with bits from the original exposures, and run through a bit of curves adjustments, etc. I plan to get out there again sometime soon and really spend a bit of time taking photos from various vantage points.
I always liked the stars that adorn the gates and fences on the Texas Capitol grounds. I played with variations of this shot for a while but couldn’t seem to capture what I really had in mind — both the star and the Capitol in focus, with this perspective. The formula may exist but I didn’t figure it out. The wide-angle lens (used for this shot) gave a perfect perspective but I had to use a focus distance which precluded a deep depth-of-field. Stepping back with the wide lens pulled in some out-of-balance elements (IMO) of the gate unless I centered the star (blocking the Capitol building). Tried the 24-70mm but the bit of added compression in perspective wasn’t quite to my liking. That compression does help square up the star and Capitol relative to each other but again, it wasn’t what I was after.
I decided to post the shot anyway — still an interesting shot IMO and I hope you enjoy it. It’s interesting how the tonemapping process turns the background blur into a somewhat dreamy scene while keeping the star a nice, realistic focus point. I might experiment with this shot again someday.
My daughter and I recently took up the task of doing a daily shooting assignment handed out by the folks at http://dailyshoot.com. I’m finding many benefits to this:
– Simple ideas that challenge me to increase my photography skills.
– A project to do with my daughter
– Accountability (sort of)
Regarding the last point, while I have an assignment so to speak, I don’t *have* to complete it if I’m not interested in a particular one or if other obligations rule the day. I can put as much or as little effort into it as I’d like. I usually make a sincere effort to put thought into the idea and execution of an assignment. This includes thinking about ideas before pulling out the camera. Sometimes I never get time to actually set up and execute my planned shot and settle for something quick, but I believe that even just going through the thought process grows my creative skills.
Today’s @dailyshoot assignment was to take a photo that illustrates the coming of spring (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). Immediately upon reading the assignment I knew that I wanted to capture an image with a redbud tree as they are in full bloom this time of year. Since I had to get up at dark o’clock to help the family get off to Colorado, I decided to head out before the sunrise to work on another photo project I have going. This brought me near the Capitol so I decided to use it as a backdrop for my redbud shot. The shot above is one of my favorites and I hope you like it too.
Another favorite shot was from the assignment to make an image of something being made or fabricated. For a while I couldn’t come up with anything interesting but suddenly I remembered the longbow I had been making. I arranged the bow and tools on my workbench and sprinkled some of the sawdust around. I played with different perspectives and compositions. A friend had loaned my a couple of lights so I even spent time working on lighting angles and balance. I ended up with a very satisfying shot — I made the bow, and I created the image from start to finish. Here it is:
Maybe you should consider some type of dailyshoot/365 project…
One of the fun things about photography is exploring new places and taking time to see new viewpoints. Diving deeper into photography this past year has caused me to view old places in a new way and visit new places that I wish I had seen years ago. An example of the former would be the Texas State Capitol building. I’ve been there many, many times in the 20 years I’ve lived in Austin but never took a picture there until 2 months ago. An example of the latter would be the cliffs high above the Pennybacker Bridge (or “Loop 360 Bridge” to most of us locals). What an awesome place and I can’t explain why I’ve never taken the time to visit before January of this year.
My daughter and I have been doing most of the assignments on dailyshoot.com. I approach these in a semi-serious manner. I want to improve my photography both in the technical aspect and the creative aspects therefore I make an attempt to come up with something original that also challenges me from a technical standpoint. However, I have a family and can’t devote all my time to the assignments so I often compromise and complete them with a result that I’m not entirely proud of. That’s OK though — I’m still learning in the process.
Today’s assignment was to “go somewhere today you’ve never been, even just a different street, and make a photo”. I was headed out on a date with one of my daughters tonight and we chose Mangia Pizza on Lake Austin Blvd. Yum. Not quite as good as Giordano’s in Chicago but ‘yum’ nonetheless. While pumping gas at the station next door we were looking at the incredible houses high on the cliffs above Lady Bird Lake. As usual I had the camera stashed in the trunk so we grabbed it and walked down to Eilers Park (or Deep Eddy as many know it) to attempt a capture or two of those houses. I’ve been to Mangia many times before…never took the time to go down to the park.
Eilers Park was built on a tract of lakefront which the City of Austin purchased from A.J. Eilers in 1935, for a price of $10,000. According to http://www.friendsofeilerspark.org/, “Mr. Eilers and his partners had developed the property as a resort that included a spring-fed pool, a bathhouse, rental cottages, a bandstand, and concession stand. The park had a carnival-like atmosphere with a Ferris wheel, music performances, free movies, and much, much more.” Over the years the park deteriorated but over the past several years improvements have been completed and a master plan for new projects has been created.
The image above is an HDR generated from 3 exposures. The light was just right. I wanted to capture a wider scene with several of the houses on the cliff but there are plenty of power lines around. I’m just not that good with photoshop yet and the lines would have seriously detracted from the image. I also had to shoot above some brush in the foreground which is why the house is tight to the bottom of the frame. I’d love to find out more about this house…someday. For now it remains another “place I’ve never been”.