We recently spent a week at a family camp and one of the activities was rappelling from the top of a 45′ tower (or you could climb the other side of it). My eight year old couldn’t get enough of this. He was absolutely fearless and did it over and over. I made him stand for the portrait above before he bounded up the stairs so he could do it once again.
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…
IMO an important part of growing up is learning how to work. I’ll say the caveats up front: We’re not slave drivers, we have a lot of fun too, blah, blah, blah. We’ve finally had our burn ban lifted since we’ve been receiving some rain lately. Our burn pile has been growing, and growing, and growing — especially since it includes an old carpenter ant tunneled playscape. The boys have been anxious to get the fire going (all boys are pyros, no?) so I put off the rest of my to-do list and spent the afternoon burning. Once it was stoked we really couldn’t add wood very fast (at least not if we wanted to keep it under control) so the boys played in the wood pile and one even built a mini fort inside the pile. I reminded him to watch for snakes and he just said, “All I see is sticks”. After a long pause I heard him mutter, “But I guess the snakes match the sticks…”.
I had my daughter bring out my Canon 50D so I could grab some pics. I had only snapped a couple and it started to rain so that camera got put away. I would have liked to switch lenses as the telephoto lens compressed the scene a bit much for my liking, but the weather didn’t cooperate. [It was a typically unpredictable Texas weather day: hot and sunny in the morning, thunderstorms whipped up and it poured, went back to bright and sunny (and humid), and as I write I hear thunder again] I did get out my Canon S90 later and got a couple more pictures. The top photo was the 50D, bottom was the S90.
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.
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.
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…
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.
My mother lives close to Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, IL. Their band performed in a parade we watched last year and I caught this shot. I don’t know what this guy’s title is though — I just call him Big Red. The kids enjoyed the fire trucks and candy most of all of course.
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.
One of the first requests the little brothers make when big brother comes home is “Come jump on the trampoline!!!”. The boys love their older brother and he indulges them completely. Today they enjoyed another fun jumping session on the trampoline while I snapped away. In some of the pictures you can see the joy and awe the younger boys feel when watching big brother. After a while my 7-year old even showed some sweet skills of his own too.
Photo stuff…flash would have been ideal but I wanted a really fast shutter speed. I don’t have the stuff to do a high-speed sync setup with parallel flashes, nor would I have bothered anyway. I shot in manual mode and in motion situations like this with such a high dynamic range you just have to pick your exposure based on what will keep the most important details. Sometimes you hit it, sometimes not. Sometimes the subject is in shadow and you lose details to shadows, sometimes (like when the faces are pointed to the sun in these shots) you lose detail to blown-out highlights. I gambled with f/2.8 to allow the fast shutter without going way up on ISO and to get some blur in the background but my focus distance was far enough that my DOF was fine (and I didn’t get much blur). All that sounds like I went through a bunch of “photo stuff” to set up for a photo shoot but frankly I just quickly chimped a few shots to pick an exposure — all of that is a 20-second thought process then I fired away.