Posts tagged “Family

Family Portraits…Another Lesson Learned

(Mostly Salvaged) Family Portrait

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.

Unedited Frame

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 🙂  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…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.

Will My Photos Be Treasured For Generations?

I LOVE old family pictures and recently received this one from my father.  In this Tolsma family photo is my paternal grandmother (standing on the left) with her parents and siblings.  My great-grandfather passed away in 1935 but my great-grandmother (wearing glasses) lived until my high school years and my siblings and I were fortunate to know her.  I’m guessing this photo would have been taken in the mid to late 1920s based on my grandmother’s age and the age of her youngest brother (born 1924 I believe).  My great grandparents both came from the Netherlands at a young-ish age and married in Minnesota.  As a kid I remember my father talking about all his aunts and uncles but I was generally confused — couldn’t remember who was who, etc.  Now that I’m grown I wish I knew so much more about all the family history.

One thing I notice when looking at this portrait is the amazing resemblance between the members of the Tolsma family and the descendants I grew up with — brothers, sisters, cousins, more distant cousins, my own children — I see all their faces in these faces.  Kind of weird, but in a cool, amazing way.

For family reunions my maternal grandfather has written up and handed out a history of their family and we really enjoy it.  I’m inspired to write one about our family and update it over the years.  Even if our life seems rather mundane at present, I’m certain that future generations will appreciate having it preserved and shared with them.   I hope that the pictures I’m taking (like our family portrait below) are treasured by those born many, many generations from now in the same way I treasure the photo above.

Family Portrait

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…In 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 🙂  In the end we got a fun picture that we all like.

Replacing Color In Photoshop

Portrait, Color Replaced

Portrait, Color Replaced

I recently posted our Thanksgiving Day family portrait and today wanted to show how I modified it.  The only direction I gave to the family for the picture was “wear something solid-ish on top, and something denim on the bottom”.  As you see in the picture at this link, we all ended up in rather muted colors except my youngest son who had a bright yellow shirt on.  I was busy thinking about how to add fill to the shot, position us reasonably without taking all day to do it, etc. (I should have spent a bit more time on the positioning).  So, when the bright yellow shirt was pointed out to me I thought to myself, “Whatever…it won’t matter”.  Of course, when editing the photos it bugged me to death and I wished I had changed it.

The solution?  Photoshop’s “Replace Color” adjustment.  I used the tutorial linked below as a starting point to learn about it and experimented from there.  Other than choosing the new color, the key setting for me was the “fuzziness”.  This determines how aggressive the automatic selection is.  What I found is that because of the variation in saturation throughout the shirt I had to slide the fuzziness way up which causes other parts of the image to also be selected (trying to automatically select the shirt’s colors reveals how much variation is really there).  I thought the checkbox for ‘Localized Color Clusters” (not shown in the tutorial but exists in CS5 at least) would help minimize the selection but I didn’t see a lot of difference once the the fuzziness was increased much. I also used the +/- eye droppers to add/subtract from the selection. Finally I needed a bit of manual masking to only change the shirt and not other areas of the image.  Something which is more solid in color would far easier to use this tool with.  The resulting photo is above — a 5-minute edit.  I will probably do another version and use a color picked from someone else’s shirt so that it matches even better with the rest of us.  When I look at the new image I kind of think it doesn’t look right because *I* know that I made the edit but in my brief survey of people who didn’t know about it, not a single person noticed anything.

Here’s the link to the tutorial I started with.

I Am Thankful For…

Tuuk Family Portrait - Thanksgiving Day 2011 45mm, f/5.6, 1/180s, ISO 400

I’m thankful for:

Jesus dying in my place…I’m glad I don’t have to pay the eternal price for the garbage I’ve done.
Family…wife of nearly 25 years, 10 wonderful children, great extended family.
Friends…*good* friends, more than we can count.
Employment…21+ years in the same company.
Shelter…middle class by American standards…nicer than most of the world lives in.
Health…my back/knee problems are piddly compared to the problems of others.

I could go on but you get the idea.  My son says that he’s thankful for the five F’s: forgiveness, family, friends, food, and football.

The portrait was lit with some fill through an umbrella at camera right, triggered via Elinchrom Skyports. I wanted to place the light on-axis just above the camera but the tree situation makes it impossible. The camera-right placement gives some odd shadows but it works well enough.

An Accidental Portrait

Due to a ticket snafu with Delta Airlines my daughter was delayed by a week on her trip to Africa.  The new itinerary that Delta emailed the day before her flight showed that her destination was not even in the correct hemisphere!  Fortunately Delta acknowledged that it was as much their mistake as it was ours so they fully refunded the old ticket and set her up with a flight in a week without any penalty for short notice.  So, she gets to be home and see friends for another week.

With the additional time we decided to try a few more portraits and play around with the lighting.  My friend “B” and two other daughters acted as voice-activated light stands and reflectors.  In addition to the main light we added a hair light behind her.  When I fired off the first few test shots the hair light didn’t trigger.  However, one of those shots ended up being my favorite of the bunch.  We were goofing off and I was fortunate enough to capture a natural, joyful look.  You never know what “mistakes” will bring.

An Accidental Portrait 125mm, f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 100



Lighting was a Canon 580 EXII with a 1/4 CTO gel through a white umbrella, triggered via Elinchrom Skyports.  I believe it was at 1/4 power.  Post-processing consisted of using the “Sharpening: Portraits” preset and adding a slight vignette in Lightroom to get rid of a few details which showed in the background.

[Side note: The Elinchrom skyports work 100% reliably when everything is connected properly.  However, the transmitter has no means to tighten it on the hotshoe — it relies on friction.  Quite often a slight bump move it enough so that it does not make contact and things don’t fire.  It’s not always visually apparent that the transmitter is not seated correctly.  Still worth the money I think (otherwise excellent performance and “reasonably” priced).  There’s my Elinchrom Skyport review…]

Last-minute Portraits

Took a few “impromptu” portraits today.  These have been planned for a while because my daughter is getting ready to fly to Africa to visit family and we wanted to take a few portraits for her to print and take with her.  Due to the busy-ness of our household lately we just hadn’t gotten around to taking pictures but now things are down to the wire — her flight is in the wee hours Tuesday morning.  So, these became impromptu portraits — grab the gear, throw some makeup on, round up a few assistants (family members) to help, and head to the backyard before *all* the light is gone.

Lizzie Portrait #2 155mm, f/2.8, 1/180s, ISO 100

These images were both taken with an off-camera flash high camera front and left Joe McNally style (Joe McNally personally helped us light one of my other daughters a couple weeks ago — see posts here and here).  The flash had a diffuser on it (Joe McNally’s recommendation) and was shot at 1/4 power through a white shoot-through umbrella just barely out of the frame.  A white reflector was held low and right, also just out of the frame.  I normally default to using a 1/4 CTO gel on the strobe in shots like this with warm daylight.  However, given the already warm color of my daughter’s skin I didn’t gel the flash at all and it proved to be the right call.  Once we dialed in the power on the strobe we took about 10 shots using two backgrounds and decided we had what we needed.

Lizzie Portrait #1 78mm, f/2.8, 1/180s, ISO 100

Sweetest Face Ever?…A Family Photo Shoot

Sweetest Face Ever? 60mm, f/2.8, 1/125s

I love shooting portraits but I’m not that great at it yet.  There’s really so much to learn about composition, posing, lighting, all the hair and makeup stuff, etc.  For the second year in a row I shot family and individual portraits for some friends’ and was able to practice what I’ve learned so far.  The deal is that they get free pictures and I get freedom to practice, experiment, and try their general patience.

Overall, I was pleased.  After an initial review of the images I came away with quite a list of things to improve on — hand and head positions, tweaks in exposure, unwanted things in the background, strobe positioning for the shots where I needed it, etc., etc..  However, this year’s shots are light years better than the previous year (in my opinion anyway) and I see marked improvement.

I sat with the mom of the family to pick out the “to be processed” images out of the 380 I kept from the shoot (that was after rejecting the obvious losers).  Lightroom is an awesome tool for this.  We categorized into “keepers” (will get the basic Lightroom edit mostly using the “Sync” panel) and “finals” (which get a full edit…which in some cases is simply Lightroom but may include Photoshop as well).  If I were shooting for a client I would have reduced the starting point to far fewer than 380 images (we shot 14 combinations of groups and individuals) but we were doing these as a favor for each other so I gave her a lot of say in what images got the full treatment.

After shooting the family group portrait I shot individuals of the little one pictured above.  The idea was to get her pictures done before shooting her (many) siblings.  As you can see, it’s not hard to come up with great images with a face like that.  She even followed directions when we had her purposely play with her hair — very cute.  The hair was a bit of a challenge though.  It is so light and wispy that we could not keep it in place even in a very light breeze.  It’s still a cute portrait and when she starts modeling for clients we’ll get the hair and makeup people out to make sure her hair stays in place.  Photoshop could be used to fix some of it up for sure.

Processing for the shot above was mostly in Lightroom (reduced clarity for the skin), brightened the eyes, slight curves adjustment, vignette.  I did pull this image into Photoshop to mask in sharpening around the eyes and bump the iris saturation up to +10 or so.  I also played around with all sorts of things like high-key effects, etc. — they’re all awesome with a subject like that.

The shot below was processed solely in Lightroom.  Reduced clarity in the skin, sharpening around the eyes, curves, and vignette.

Reflecting 60mm, f/2.8, 1/180s

I Used To Have A Blog

Deer In Headlights

What an autumn our family had in 2010 — I hope my three regular readers didn’t miss my blog too much. We dealt with breast cancer, a back injury which will require surgery, and the normal busy-ness of a family with lots of children. All is good however. My wife is doing great and I’m walking again. I might even take a picture sometime soon.

God is good. While in bed with a severe back condition — which was most of the month of December — I meditated a lot on Philippians 4. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”. So, I did that. In my pain I rejoiced. In my pain I thought of a thousand things I was thankful for and expressed that thanks to God.

What’s with the picture above you may ask? The whole family is headed out to a friend’s ranch next weekend to hunt deer and stock up on venison. Our friend needs to cull some of the herd in order to keep the deer healthy and we’d love to have the meat. He is going to show us his method of processing a deer from field to freezer. He’ll show us how to make our own venison sausage (many variations). Since I am now able to stand and walk reasonably I am going to take advantage of the opportunity to hunt on the weekend before my surgery (which is just after the final week of deer season). I can shoot and wield a knife just fine and my oldest son can do all the lifting. I went to the range and sighted in the rifle yesterday (and blasted a bunch of rounds out the Glock). While I had the rifle out I had my son snap a picture of my younger son and me holding our guns. My six year old (in the picture) inherited this BB gun as a Christmas present and just loves to shoot. Don’t worry — we keep the gun out of reach, only let him shoot with supervision, and make him wear eye protection. We tried to be serious in the picture but came out looking like deer in headlights.

I hope to be taking pictures again soon. It’s been necessary to put the camera down for a while but I think I’ll have time to do a little bit here and there in the near future. Maybe I’ll have something useful to post as well. See you around.

Almost Time For Ice Skating

Learning to Skate 73mm, f/2.8, 1/400s

It’s finally getting (almost) chilly here in Texas and I’m glad for it.  I know that after a couple of really cold days I’ll be longing for the heat of summer again and I definitely prefer the heat over the cold.  I don’t miss those Chicago winters I experienced growing up.

The cold reminded me of the ice skating our kids got to do in Fredericksburg last winter.  Just off Main Street in Market Square (Marktplatz) there was a very small rink set up for a week or two and the kids gave skating a try (the older ones already know how to skate).  Despite my love for skating (I grew up playing pick-up hockey in the winters) I sat out  and photographed the occasion.  I’m sure I had back problems, knee problems, or some other old-man thing going on at the time else I would have been skating.

Portrait 20mm, f/3.5, 1/400s

The shot at the top of the post has a great Norman Rockwell look to it.  That effect was all done in Lightroom and then I use Photoshop to tweak a few areas.  The portrait of my daughter was processed in Lightroom and got some ‘clarity’ added and a lot of adjustment brush to manually tone down the sunny spots and the like.  Both shots got a bit of noise reduction in Photoshop (applied sparingly to the Norman Rackwell image).

Our Servicemen (and Women) Deserve Our Appreciation

T-45 Goshawks, Kingsville NAS

I happen to be one of those types who loves the military.  I’ve never been in the services myself but many family members have.  I’ve got nothing but respect for those who serve and it bugs me when people diss them.

I also happen to love (fast) military aircraft.  I don’t geek out about them in the sense that I get to know everything about them — they just impress me to no end and my jaw drops when I see them perform.  When I remind myself that the performance I’m watching (the Blue Angels for example) consists of jets performing maneuvers at one-third to one-half their maximum speed, I’m even more impressed.  What I wouldn’t give to witness a high-speed pass at full speed!  I remember the days when Bergstrom Air Force Base was still open in Austin.  Several times a day pairs of (old) F4s would fly over our house.  I loved how the whole house would rumble when they flew by.

The picture above was taken at Kingsville Naval Air Station (Kingsville, TX) and shows a host of T-45 Goshawk training aircraft used by the modern-day Navy to train pilots.  When I saw these my first thought was of my grandfather, who did his Naval flight training in Kingsville and Corpus during WWII (he would have loved to fly these).  My grandfather graduated from flight school on August 14, 1945 and says “When the Japanese heard I was coming they surrendered immediately”.  These T-45s also bring to mind all the current pilots who are preparing to be the next wave of defenders of our freedom.  I respect them.

The image above was created from three exposures which were then fused (not tonemapped) in photomatix.  The single, center exposure wasn’t too bad but fusing brought back the blown-out sky and added subtle detail in the cockpit and landing gear.  Did very basic curves and sharpening after that.

Never Too Ill For Taking Photographs

Swinging 70mm, f3.2, 1/60s, ISO 100

On Wednesday I left work mid-afternoon — wasn’t feeling so great.  I walked in the door at home, said ‘hi’ to my family while making a beeline to my bed.  Three hours later I woke up to miserable aches and fever.  While (barely) standing at the sink to get a drink of water I looked through the window and saw my daughter swinging.  Loving that backlight from the sun, and remembering that the dailyshoot assignment was to take a photo using natural light, I grabbed the camera (which is always handy) and took this shot.  I purposely included the window frame to give a sense of someone inside looking out.  Headed right back to bed for the night at that point…

I had in mind to try and use the window frame in a rule-of-thirds mode but it just didn’t work out with the other elements in the frame as I tried options.  Of course I only tried for about 30 seconds because I couldn’t get back to bed fast enough.  I got a little lens flare…that’s OK sometimes and doesn’t detract from this shot IMO.

Finally processed the image the next day — picked a preset in Lightroom, added a bit of warmth and clarity — done.

Why I Don’t Blog About Politics…With Some Flash Photography Thrown In

Texas Governor Rick Perry Gives His Primary Victory Speech


More about the picture of Texas Governor Rick Perry later in the post…

Anyone who knows me would tell you that as long as the discussion stays civil, I’m more than happy to sit and discuss politics over coffee or a meal.  However, I try hard to avoid political discussion in any online setting.

Why?  Here are some of the reasons:

1) It takes (me) a lot of time to write thoughtful, insightful, well-reasoned commentary.  I don’t have the time (nor the skill probably) to write *well*.  With verbal, face-to-face communication you still have to be thoughtful, insightful, and reasoned but you have the benefit of immediate rebuttal and explanatory remarks.  You also have the advantage of seeing facial expressions and hearing the “tone” of the conversation.

2) The Kevin Bacon theory…There are six degrees of separation between the “I don’t agree with that” comment and the guy who says, “You’re a !#$%#$! jerk and your mother wears army boots”.  People are very brave (and thoughtless) over an internet connection.  What a waste of time.  Now that I’m thinking about it I’d say it’s usually only 2-3 degrees of separation.

3) Discussions often end up in a barrage of anecdotes flying back and forth.  Healthcare debates are a great example — “So and so died because they didn’t have health insurance” vs “So and so died because such and such country’s healthcare bureaucracy prevented them from getting care”.  Both stories may be true…but did you really get anywhere in the discussion?  Anecdotes have their place but IMO a handful of anecdotes are not a sufficient basis for most policy decisions.

3a) Candidate discussions tend to focus on anecdotes as well.  In any discussion about imperfect humans there will be no shortage of flaws to point out.  A candidate’s character, skeletons, inconsistencies (real or apparent), etc. are all important to evaluate.  However, at some point one needs to make a judgment about who will do the best job, do the right things, etc.  Online discussions of political figures rarely seem to get there…they’re mostly just rants about people you really only know through carefully-crafted sound bites (pro and con) and a few sentences of print.

So…about that photo of Texas Governor Rick Perry.

The Texas primary elections were held this past Tuesday.  I’ll skip the details but my daughter and I ended up getting invited by a new acquaintance to Governor Rick Perry’s election watch party at the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant in Driftwood, TX.  The Salt Lick is right around the corner from my house so we decided to join in.  I stopped by my house and grabbed the camera and flash and headed over there.

I didn’t realize ahead of time how big a deal this was going to be.  Every news outlet in the nation was there — I have never seen so many news trucks and satellite dishes in my life.  CNN and a few others had immense broadcasting tour buses.  Inside, the podium was lit by a wall of lights from all the news coverage.  Maybe I’ll add a picture of that later…

Once inside we took care of “first things first” — hit the buffet line and ate some great BBQ.

I was using a Canon 50D with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens with my 580EXii on camera.  I was fairly close to the action but had to experiment quite a bit with settings.  The first problem I had was blown out highlights.  The Salt Lick Pavilion is relatively dark and has dark wood on the walls and ceiling.  The camera automatically thinks it needs a bunch of flash to light the scene.  However, the main subject (the governor in the shot above) actually needs very little light due to the bazillion watts of light from the news orgs at camera right.  When I let the camera have complete control with no compensation the governor’s face (at least the side toward the news lights) was completely blown out.  I tried bouncing the flash — “no worky” — those dark wood ceilings and walls eat almost all the light.  I had to shoot with the flash pointed straight at the governor then I experimented with a combination of dialing down both exposure and flash compensation to get my preferred combination of governor and background.  I really just needed enough to see the crowd a bit and fill some shadows on the governor.  Then there were all those other flashes going off which messed things up here and there…was a great photography learning experience.

I also took this shot below of my daughter with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.  Notice that there are almost no shadows on the faces.  I did have the flash partially bounced off the ceiling here but the lack of shadow under the nose shows that almost all the exposure came from the part of the light that went directly from the flash to the faces.  That’s my reading of the situation anyway.  Love the face of that guy in the background!

Emily with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott


We actually had a great time and met some interesting (in a good way) people at the event.  I also learned some photography lessons along the way.  Practice makes perfect.

Photography Takes Me To Places I’ve Never Been

House Above Lady Bird Lake

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  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, “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”.

Shoot Candids…Part 2

We were staying with friends in Rockport, TX this past summer.  As some of us were standing on the second-story porch my wife called out, “Mike, get the camera quick!”.  I quickly captured this shot with our Rebel XT.  It tells of a 19-year-old boy loving his young adopted brother.  The younger brother feels safe walking with his older brother…you get the idea.  It’s a special photo.

Brothers (click to view on flickr)

Sometime back I wrote about capturing candids even when you are posing your subjects.  I also wrote about being ready with the camera.  As I was looking through some old pictures recently, I found myself being reminded over and over to take plenty of candid shots.  These often end up being our family favorites.

Here are a few other candids which have become favorites.  They aren’t necessarily the best technical or artistic shots but they’re personally meaningful because of the moment they captured

Searching... (click to view on flickr)

My son spent hours on this little piece of Rockport waterfront picking up “stuff”.  I have no idea what he was finding but he sure had a good time.  It was very cute to see the intensity with which he scoured the sand.

Friends at the Pass (click to view on flickr)

My wife and I are blessed with a set of very close friends.  Over the summer five couples took a trip to Montana and simply had a blast.  One afternoon we drove to Bear Tooth Pass (see a great image of what we were looking at here in Justin Kern’s photos) and got out to walk around.  I was snapping photos here and there and as I turned back to the group I saw them in this pose.  I said, “Freeze” and took this shot.  It’s one of the images I revisit regularly and it reminds me of a great time with friends.

Shoot tons of photos and you’ll capture some good ones.  Of course, be ruthless when you’re committing them to your hard drive — throw out the junk.  You’ll be glad you didn’t hesitate to click the shutter.

Impromptu Portrait

Impromptu Portrait (click to view on flickr). 50mm, f7.1, 1/250s, ISO 200

I’d really like to learn how to better make use of strobes be they on or off camera, big or small. I have a basic wireless setup and am gradually learning with help of sites such as One recent afternoon I happened on one of my daughters playing the piano (*someone* is always playing the piano in our house) and I decided to take advantage of the situation to experiment with off-camera flash.  She continued to play — I started shooting.

At first I didn’t even bother to get the light stand out. I used the “foot” that comes with the Canon 580EXii and placed the flash at various points on, around, and under the piano. Sometimes I shot from the same side as the light, sometimes I shot such that the light created a backlight effect. I used CTO (that would be orange) gels and blue gels…just had fun with it.

I got permission from my daughter to post the shot above (she hadn’t done “hair and makeup”). There are some details I don’t like about it but for a quick experimental session I thought it turned out cool. This was lit via flash @ 1/32 power through a 43″ umbrella at camera left. I used a full-CTO gel (Why? Because that’s what happened to be on when I got this shot). Inspired by this post, I used shutter speed to control the ambient. I used a fast shutter speed to darken the ambient (for the purpose of eliminating the background in my case).  It was mid afternoon and there’s a very large window a few feet from the piano.  The background was very busy — pictures on the wall, an old lamp, part of a door frame — but I was able to remove it in-camera to the point where slight background color variation was all that was left. I used the adjustment brush in Lightroom to remove that by reducing the exposure in these areas (literally a 10-second fix).

Lots to learn yet but I’m having fun so far.

Warmth of a Friend’s House in HDR

A Friend's House Is Always Warm (click to view on flickr)

I really like watching football (and many other sports).  However, I find myself watching less and less and I’ve decided this is a good thing as it gives me much more time to do “stuff”.  It gives me more time to interact with friends and family.

New Year’s Day has historically been a football and food feast for me but this year we just hung out with friends in Fredericksburg.  We ice skated, ate a lot of food, and jawed.  Enjoyed it immensely.  Talked about subjects ranging from family to faith to photography.  Just enjoyed the fellowship and I didn’t miss the football at all.

The image above was made from three exposures tonemapped in Photomatix, blended with the ‘0’ exposure somewhat (and a teeny, tiny bit of the -2 exposure to squelch a few blown-out highlights).  Played with contrast and some sharpening in Lightroom.  I could have easily brought out much detail from the shadows but the real scene was full of dark shadows.  The warmth of this room is intense — lots of warm lighting on all the reds and yellows in the room, with a warm fire adding to the light.

Family Portraits For Christmas

Loving off-camera flash…

Over the holidays I invested in some new equipment, including a flash, stand, umbrella, and wireless triggers.  I’ve been putting the family through some quickie portrait sessions and thought I’d share some of the results (mostly because I’m a proud dad).

I played with all sorts of lighting variables in these pictures — flash power, distance of flash to subject, placement relative to subject (straight-on vs. side and also height), gels, reflectors, etc.  I’d love to give a tutorial based on what I learned but I’ll refer you to (or pick your favorite “strobist” site) for that since I’m still very low on the learning curve.  All these portraits used a single strobe.

This first image was taken ad hoc when my five-year old son walked in the door after a trip to the barber.  He looked so cute that I couldn’t resist getting some shots.  Elijah was begging to get in the shower to rinse off the itchy hair so I quickly set up and started shooting — guessing at the flash power.  I believe I used a 1/2 or 1/4 CTO gel for the final shots.  If you’re observant you’ll notice chocolate on his nose and cut hair on his face.  No matter…good picture in spite of it (maybe a better picture because of it).

He's Just Too Cute (Click to view larger)

The portrait below is my daughter Erin and son-in-law Josh — their first Christmas together.  The lighting was more of a challenge and I got the best results lighting from his side (I’ve always heard that it’s best to have your main light on the female side but we liked this one the best).  Depth of field came into play here also.  I wanted to shoot f/4.0 so I had to be careful about keeping them posed so their faces were both in focus.  In a few shots his head was just too far back to remain in focus.

Josh and Erin - First Christmas (Click to view larger)

Another challenge was the dark skin of a few of my children.  Had to play around with all the variables to get something I was reasonably happy with (I think I’d tone the lighting down if I did this over).  Here’s one of the images:

Lizzie (Click to view larger)

I’ve got a ton to learn about lighting but I’m happy with the results of my experimentation so far.


Experimentation – Silhouettes

When starting out in photography it’s always good to experiment with creative ideas.  Experimentation is a great way to learn about exposure, lighting, posing, etc.  You discover what works and doesn’t work and will certainly retain that knowledge better than if you had just read about those things in a book.   You will also refine your own style as you try out ideas and develop a knack for particular things.

One great thing to experiment with is silhouettes.  You don’t need fancy equipment — the sun, a lamp, or a flash can be used to create a silhouette.  Soft, reflected light combined with shorter exposures often creates striking silhouettes in images.  You might try posing someone under (or near) a streetlamp at night and then get down on the ground to shoot the silhouette.  Another element you can vary is how much the silhouetted subject is exposed (as you increase the exposure you eventually lose the “silhouette” effect of course).

Here are a couple of images which I created on a whim to experiment with silhouettes.  I created the first while out catching the sunrise in Rockport, TX (see some of my Rockport images here).  My daughter happened to show up on the scene so I asked out her to stretch out her hand roughly in front of the sun.  Not a great overall composition but it’s useful as an illustration here.

Rockport Sunrise Silhouette

Rockport Sunrise Silhouette

This silhouette of my son jumping on the trampoline was just an idea I had while sitting on the porch watching him jump.  I got underneath the edge of the trampoline (be especially careful with larger children or you’ll end up with a concussion!) and fired away.  The shot I set out to make was one of him jumping high in the air with his arms stretched out (I did get some of those).  However, the way the sun flared out from my son’s hand in the following photo made this a favorite.

Trampoline Silhouette

Doing His Tricks

Have some fun and experiment with silhouettes.  You’ll get some great shots, and hopefully learn a few tricks which will become a useful part of your photoshoot arsenal.

Depth Of Field…Not Simply Determined By Aperture

Understanding depth of field (DOF) is one of the keys to great photographs.  Having too shallow a DOF can result in important subjects being out of focus.  A very deep DOF may result in background distractions — areas that you intended to be out of focus may be sharp and detract from your subject.

For a long time I thought that the only thing to know was “large aperture = shallow DOF”.  However, in addition to aperture, DOF depends on many other factors like the focal length of the lens, the size of your camera’s sensor, and the distance to the subject you are focusing on.

I have no intention to discuss the equations and physics which govern DOF here.  If you find that interesting then search for articles on a site such as  What I will do is give a few examples of what to expect with certain settings.  All the calculations come from  I use their iPhone app — quite handy.  Google “DOF calculator” or search the iPhone app store to find other programs if you’d like.

Let’s assume you are using a Canon 50D (my current camera) with the trusty 50mm f/1.8 lens.  If your subject is 5 feet away (that’s your “focus distance”) and you’re shooting at f/2.8, whatever is between 4.85 feet and 5.16 feet will be in focus (roughly 4 inches).  In a portrait situation this implies that if the eye is in focus, the tip of nose will barely be in focus (depends on the size of the nose 🙂 ).  The back of the ear may be out of focus a bit.  If you stepped back to a distance of 20 feet (granted this will be an entirely different composition) you now will be in focus from 17.7 feet to 23 feet — total DOF of over 5 feet.  Note that this depth is obtained using the same lens and aperture as the portrait above but the DOF is different due to the focus distance.

Here’s a shot taken with a 50mm lens, f/2.0, approximate distance was 6 feet which gives a total DOF of only a few inches.  The near eye was my focus point.  Note how the rear eye and cheek are already a bit out of focus (I like it).


Impromptu Portrait of Elaina

Here’s a shot taken with the same 50mm lens at f/4.5 (reasonably large aperture) but with a large focus distance.  Everything is in focus from the front of the car to the sign behind it.

VW Bug

VW Bug at Magnolia Cafe South

Let’s look at an example using a smaller aperture.  Most of us would consider f/7.1 to be a reasonably small aperture and expect this to give “good” DOF.  If you are focusing on a single person at a distance of 10 feet, they will be nice and sharp.  However, your total DOF is only about 3 feet.  If you were shooting into a crowd at this distance you would only be focused at a depth equivalent to a few people.


Elijah Is Five Today!

In the above image of Elijah, a 28mm focal length at f/7.1 gives exactly the effect I intended.  The hand is in focus and prominent due to the wide angle, his face is blurred but still very much recognizable and part of the picture, and the distant background is quite blurred.  Someday I’ll photoshop the kiddie pool out of the background…

So — pay attention to DOF and know how it will affect your images.

There’s a LOT more to know.  I’ve ignored the fact that DOF is constant in a *plane* rather than simply a radius from the lens.  I’ve not explained hyperfocal distance.  Research and learn the basics at least.  You may avoid the disappointment of finding out your small aperture didn’t give you much DOF or that your large aperture didn’t blur the background like you thought it would do.

© 2009 Michael Tuuk

Shoot Candids Even When Posing Your Subjects

Had a wonderful weekend camping with a large group of families at Pedernales Falls State Park near Austin.  We have the most awesome group of friends that any family could hope for.

It’s tradition on these trips that we get a group photo to cement the memory.  In one of his tweets Dave Wilson (click his name to check out his blog) recently mentioned how taking the group shot of his singing group was scarier than the performance itself.  I agree 100%!  Everyone wants it to look good and they’re counting on you.  In our case they’re also all in a hurry to get back to playing games, eating junk food, and conversing around the fire.

For this year’s traditional shot I wanted to take it from a slightly elevated vantage point so that I could get all the faces in view without having to spread the group too wide.  I set up the tripod on top of the toolbox in my friend’s dually and found a likable perspective.  My friend set his camera up on top of his enormous camper.

You might be wondering what this posed group shot has to do with candids?  While everyone was getting in place for the shot I snapped off a series of shots — some of the whole group, some zoomed in to certain people, etc.  The shot below is one of my favorites because it captures so much about the people in this picture.

Pedernales Falls Group Candid 2009

Pedernales Falls Group Shot 2009

A wife viewing this image will be laughing at her husband because his eyes were closed.  A mom is saying, “I love that picture of my daughter with her dog”.  Another mom is laughing at her little son forcing a smile so hard that it looks painful.  The parents of the little guy in the yellow shirt are saying, “He’s SO cute!” (full disclosure: he’s *my* son and we really were saying that).  The one with the tongue out will get a talking-to about not making faces in pictures (OK…he’s mine too).

When you are getting paid to shoot for a client always remember that they are often less interested in technical perfection (depends on the situation of course) than they are capturing the moment.  Don’t discard (all) the images which aren’t perfect from your technical perspective — they may be the very ones that your client would call “perfect” because they are intimately familiar with the personalities of those involved.  Shoot LOTS of candids while you’re trying to get your subjects posed into position (digital film is “free” after all).  Tease some laughter out of them and capture it.  Press the shutter while they’re fiddling with their clothes or hair.  You’ll get some great shots.

© 2009 Michael Tuuk