It’s only the second year we’ve taken this photo, but we’re calling it a tradition anyway. We once again piled wrapping paper on ourselves and snapped a family photo. No one is posed — “sit down, grab some wrapping paper, and smile at the camera”. I used f/8 to get sufficient(ish) depth of field and the lighting is simply an on-camera flash bounced up and behind the camera. I have a wireless remote but used the self-timer for this shot (I had forgotten to get the remote out and everyone was just ready to get the pic done and go make breakfast). I ended up having to photoshop a new version of myself and one of my daughters into the shot — that’s standard operating procedure in our family shots it seems.
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.
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.
I never thought I’d say it, but after the heat today I wouldn’t mind being back in the snow (grass is greener thing). In March we enjoyed some tubing at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington. Some of us really didn’t have the clothes for it but we made do and decided to tough it out — it was great. Given our snow activities I only brought along an old point-and-shoot for the actual tubing part, but the portrait at the top was taken with my DSLR on a tripod. The idea with the tripod was that I would be in the picture as well, using the remote to trigger the shutter. I couldn’t get the remote to work, however, and it was too far of a run around the snow piles to use the timer…AND I really didn’t feel like explaining to any passers-by how I wanted the shot composed (rarely seems to work out). The little ones were freezing and were just ready to be done anyway. For the other shots the point-and-shoot worked fine — mostly. The main problem I had was that the white balance was all over the place and made each shot look like entirely different light. I got a few “action” shots but just liked the “environmental portraits” better.
On a recent photo walk on the University of Texas campus these three joined in and were simply having a blast posing and taking pictures of each other. They were quite fun to watch and the provided the rest of us with some interesting pictures too. Unfortunately they dropped out of the group at some point and I never got the chance to properly meet them.
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.
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.
Another quick one in this post…still really busy. The Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago (aka “The Bean”) is just like a fun house mirror with infinite possibilities as far as my children are concerned. We took a lot of group/self portraits on our last visit to Millennium Park and I’m sure this won’t be the last one I post. I put this one through all sorts of tweaks in Lightroom in an attempt to highlight the subjects (us) and to bring out the various fingerprints, dirt, streaks, and distortion on the sculpture. I pulled the image into Photoshop and tweaked some colors here and there (to mute them a bit). I used Topaz Adjust to do some wild-ish things on a duplicate layer and blended that into most of the image at about 30% opacity. Finally I used selective (via masks) sharpening and noise reduction to touch it up.
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.