Our youngest turned one year old recently and on her birthday I wanted to capture a “good” portrait. It would be her “official” one-year picture. Of course I decided to try something I hadn’t done before — a high-key portrait with a white background — which ensured it would take three times as long as something I’m already comfortable doing. I don’t have white seamless paper and I don’t have a proper background stand. So…I have a huge (12′ x 20′ I think) white polyester background that I picked up on clearance for $20-ish. I draped this over the back of a couple of chairs (with my subject being only a couple feet tall I didn’t have to worry about the height). My main light was a speedlight into a reflective umbrella at high camera left, triggered by an Elinchrom Skyport. I placed a large white reflector on camera right and used a speedlight behind the subject to light the background.
My first issue was to decide how I wanted the background to actually look. Blown out? Super smooth (problematic with the deep creases in the freshly unpackaged cloth and being draped over uneven chair backs)? Don’t worry about it and fix in post? From a quick internet search I learned that I couldn’t simply iron that polyester cloth and get rid of the creases in a few minutes. In the end I went with an aperture that blurred the background somewhat but provided a safe depth-of-field for the shots. My daughter was far enough from the background so it would be reasonably out-of-focus and I could reasonably edit it in post for a few shots if desired. The background light was adjusted “to taste”. I had planned to shoot with a much brighter background but the light was too uneven (no surprise when trying to light with a single speedlight in the center).
The shot above was taken as a test during setup. The hair and clothes are a mess (hadn’t prepped her yet) — but it’s cute and I decided that this is actually one of my favorites. The only edits were crop, slight WB adjustment, sharpening around the eyes, vignette, and the removal of a small scratch on the skin. I really like the way it turned out overall even if the background isn’t ideal.
For the second year in a row I’ve taken pictures for my daughters’ volleyball team. The individual shots were pretty much a piece of cake and they turned out great. The set up for those involved spreading a neutral-colored paint tarp on the floor to eliminate the red glow on the girls’ skin, standing the girls on a stool, setting up one speedlight (triggered with Elinchrom Skyports) shooting through a white umbrella for the key light, a strobe flashing the gym behind the girls to add light to the background, posing them with a volleyball, and firing away. These went very quickly as there was no change in setup between each girl. The gym is horrible for pictures but was workable for these individual shots.
We also goofed with some dramatic shots with the girls looking serious and got the shot above. The main light is the same speedlight-thru-umbrella held nearly on axis with the camera (slightly toward high camera left). The back light is simply a speedlight plopped on the floor. These took longer to get the girls set and posed, and as you see above, we never got the posing or the spacing quite right. We didn’t have all day so I had to take what I could get as they say. There are lots of photographic flaws but the girls and parents are plenty happy with the pic, which is what really counts.
I did some basic processing in Lightroom then headed to Photoshop to grunge out and darken the background (mostly with curves), do some very minor edits and retouching, noise reduction, and add the text.
I had no idea until now that I haven’t posted in almost two months…I have had zero time for photography and blogging…for all sorts of reasons. I knew it had been a “long time” but not this long. I finally log in to WordPress and find some of the formatting changed, all sorts of cool posts from others that I’ve managed to miss, and oddly enough — I’m getting more hits on the blog than when I left (not that I’m all into that, but it’s interesting nonetheless). My top posts every week are still the Domke F2 review and the Hill Country Wedding. Interesting.
Having grown up a Chicago Bears fan I jumped on the opportunity to go to the Bears vs. Cowboys game last week Monday. Given the insane cost I’m not likely to do that again anytime soon unless I win the lottery…and I don’t play the lottery. It was a fun time with my son, daughter, and some friends.
The picture I’m posting today was taken with the trusty Canon S90 that I purchased from my friend Mike Connell. Yeah, I know there’s almost nothing related to the Bears in the photo except that this is where they were playing…oh well. I’m finding the S90 pretty handy for situations like this — where I either don’t want to lug a big camera around or they aren’t allowed yet I still want some manual control over the exposures. Cowboys Stadium has a 3″ lens rule so I’m sure I could have brought my DSLR in with certain lenses. However, I don’t want to risk the hassle of walking up with a DLSR and being told mine isn’t allowed — then what? Argue with them and maybe win but if I lose I have to haul it back to the car, risk having people see me lock it up in the car, etc. The S90 will do just fine…
Ever since taking Raul Touzon’s workshop I almost never shoot using auto white balance (AWB). The camera rarely gets the white balance correct when it guesses, and the photos from a single shoot are often inconsistent in color when they are shot with AWB. If they are going to be “wrong” when AWB is used, you might as well guess wrong yourself by choosing one of the manual white balance modes — at least the images will be consistent with each other.
Ideally one would shoot an image of a gray card (or a similar type of product) which has a known color and use it either to set a custom white balance in the camera or to sample it in software to do an automatic adjustment. If I don’t use a gray card, I pick a WB mode (my default is “daylight”) and shoot everything with that. In Lightroom I either sample a white point to fix up the WB or I adjust it to taste (I might even want to make it wacky here and there).
The shot above was snapped in the kitchen while I was testing my newly-repaired camper. Canon had changed all my default settings of course and I don’t even remember what WB was set in the camera. No matter, I simply used the WB eye dropper to sample one of the white polka dots on my daughter’s dress. The image above is the result — straight out of the camera except for the white balance.
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.
My son leaping out of the water pretending to be a monster. I love how the motion makes his hands look like claws. And the mask? Well, nothing needs to be said.
It was in the middle of a bright sunny afternoon — terrible time for photographs. I used a flash so that I could dial down the ambient a bit. We took several shots like this, using a fast-ish shutter speed but not so fast that it froze all motion. In post I processed things pretty heavily in Lightroom — lots of contrast and clarity.
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.
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.