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 was saving this so I could post it in honor of the Longhorns making the final four in the NCAA tournament but…they lost in the regional final over the weekend. Illinois managed to win and will face USC on Thursday.
Here it is:
Just for fun, here are some pics from the University of Texas Longhorns vs. Michigan State match in the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament. I hadn’t ever brought my camera to Gregory Gym but decided to for this last home match of the year. I used only my 17-40 f/4L (“long” lenses are not allowed) and took most pictures from my seat. Right away I discovered that the color temperature is not consistent throughout the place — something I hadn’t noticed until I took pictures — but I didn’t attempt to fix the color at all. It’s amazing how our eyes just adjust to the situation but the camera cannot. Most (all?) of the images were shot in manual mode at f/4, 1/500s, and at ISO 3200 since I didn’t have the benefit of using any strobes like the official photographer (he has four strobes mounted in the rafters). I chose the fast shutter speed in hopes of freezing the action reasonably well. For shots in between the fast action (preparing for service for example) I could have switched to a smaller aperture and slower shutter but I was mostly there to enjoy watching the match and didn’t want to fiddle with settings. “Photography” wasn’t number one on the agenda for the night. The pictures are by no means awesome but in any case recorded a fun evening watching volleyball with my girls.
Of course we cheer for the Longhorns…for now. However, my alma mater (Illinois — the #3 seed) is still in the tournament and should they meet Texas in the finals we’ll be behind the Fighting Illini (we already have our tickets!). My kids know they will be grounded if they choose to favor the Longhorns 🙂
And finally, what happens when your shutter is open and the stadium photographer triggers the strobes in the rafters.
Last Friday evening I joined Alex Suarez, Steve Wampler, and Sylvia Brogdon for an impromptu photo shoot outside the Palmer Events Center. They had just spent the day in the Flash Bus seminar put on by Joe McNally and David Hobby and wanted to practice what they’d learned to help cement it in their minds. I was not able to attend the Flash Bus event but I wanted to join in and learn what I could and get some practice myself. Our models were “Eight” and my daughter Evelyn. The location was the grounds of the Palmer Events Center in Austin, TX. It has many architectural features which lend themselves to unique portrait settings and there are different backgrounds to choose from on each side of the building.
As we got started, Steve talked about how David Hobby “lights in layers”. This is the process of building your setup one light at a time. Assuming a fixed shutter speed (at or below your max sync speed), start by picking the aperture which gives you the ambient light exposure you desire. The correct exposure is quite subjective of course — just find the one *you* want. You can darken the background somewhat or allow it to blow out. Next, add your main light and get it to the f-stop you want and in position. Finally, add fill as necessary and maybe even a rim light to light the hair or shoulders if you want.
We stuck with one or two lights and assisted each other by holding lights as we took turns shooting. I actually have as much fun helping with the shoot as I do taking the photographs and always enjoy the company too. We started out near the southwest corner of the building — very challenging due to the setting sun. The positive side of a situation like this is that it forces you think about solutions to the light problems, some of which equate to just going with it and trying to make interesting images with the light that is there, be it harsh or soft. The image at the top of the post was taken here with my daughter standing in the shadow of a large pillar. Shooting someone with very dark skin provides additional challenges as you need extra light to balance out the ambient and bring out the facial features. This extra light blows out light clothes (had that happen a lot) and sometimes other features like the pillar next to her. I shot in manual mode at 1/250s (max sync speed), did a few test shots without the strobe to pick my aperture (f/8) then began experimenting with light position and power. This shot had a strobe camera right, bare other than a 1/4 CTO gel, triggered with Elinchrom Skyports. I used my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS for all the portraits (love that lens for these situations).
We moved to the northwest corner of the build for a bit and I got the shot below. No strobe used in this portrait. Alex used a silver reflector to direct the sunlight to Evelyn’s face and I shot from down low to get a reasonable background. Aperture priority was used with an f-stop of f/4. The light was literally golden even off the silver reflector — made her skin look great.
Another mass migration of gear and bodies occurred as we relocated to the north side of the building. There was great shade and many choices for backgrounds including the Austin skyline. I shot this final portrait (below) at this location. I chose an aperture of f/9.5 and set up two lights. The main light was again a 1/4 CTO gel’ed bare strobe at camera right. The fill was a bare strobe (I didn’t have tape or velcro for another gel) placed on the ground in front of the camera. I placed the strobes on different Skyport channels and experimented with each separately to adjust them to taste. I had to lay out on the ground (see the pic by Alex Suarez at the bottom of the post) to get the composition I wanted (Evelyn + The Austonian + TX flag). I was somewhat limited due the angle required for my composition and the locations of some trees which blocked the flag if I moved out of this position. I would have liked the wind to blow the flag up a bit more but I took what I could get. Someday I’ll work on perfecting this shot. I would try two things for starters: (1) use a shoot-through umbrella with an assistant (no assistant was handy for this shot and it was too windy to set it up without an anchor) and (2) try a stronger CTO gel to warm up the subject to match the background better. I prefer the darker backgrounds but I think I’d experiment with backing off to f/8 or even f/7.1.
After shooting the skyline portrait, Sylvia and I were helping Steve shoot portraits of my daughter. In a moment of serendipity, Joe McNally and David Hobby walked out of the building. Our group bantered with them and Joe made a smiling comment on the order of “good luck with that portrait” as their group walked to a spot nearby. After a minute or so he and David Hobby just couldn’t stand watching us flounder so they came over, gave a few tips, and Joe McNally even held the strobe/umbrella for a couple of shots. That was cool. I think they took pity on us in the same way that we would a distressed animal — you just can’t stand watching it suffer 🙂
I had a lot of fun shooting with these folks and my daughter had a blast being the model (she’s asking to do it again). Hopefully soon…
A few weeks ago I got “B” (his nickname) to pose for some impromptu portraits (Hi, B…I know you’ll be reading this). It’s nice to have someone other than my kids to use as a subject. I used two off-camera strobes — one for B and one for the background (the shots that aren’t processed so dramatically actually show the background). The main light was shot through a 43″ umbrella for some shots and reflected from that umbrella for others. In this shot the camera is camera-right, slightly higher than the subject, and just barely out of the camera frame. I don’t remember the power setting but we were generally using between 1/16 and 1/32 power. Flashes were controlled by Elinchrom Skyports.
For the background strobe I used various gels to change the color of the background (see this post for examples with a different subject). We had fun with it. And, when you’re having fun with photography, you are more likely to be creative, try new things, and come up with something cool.
In post, I played around with the images and ended up really liking this one. I used a preset called Freebird in Lightroom (a free preset I picked up somewhere). A couple other minor tweaks and this image was done. Dark. Mysterious. I love how the right eye is lit by its own little spot of light. I like about everything with this portrait except where the catchlights are in the eyes — I’d rather have them more in the center of the eyes. Live and learn. The best thing about this portrait is that it’s simple and every step is easy to recreate if I want to do it again.
As I progress in the development of my photography skills I’ve found myself becoming more of a perfectionist. Now, that doesn’t mean that I never keep or show something that I is imperfect — I’d have no images left if I were so picky. What it does mean is that I take more care when framing and setting up a shot, more care with the light, and more care in post-processing. I also find myself asking people, “Don’t tell anyone I took that picture” because I know I could’ve done better on many shots.
My children are painfully aware of this because I’m never happy with the family shots we take and often want to spend a bunch of time getting things “right”. For example, even when the light is reasonable, I want to get the strobe out just in case I need to tweak the shot and add some fill…and so it goes.
So, this past Sunday my girls wanted some pictures taken with a friend who was visiting for the week. They were in their Sunday best and thought it would be a good opportunity to get some pictures before they changed clothes. They were very clear that they didn’t want a “photoshoot” and frankly would have been content to use the point-and-shoot to snap some quickies.
In the end we compromised. I didn’t get the strobe and umbrella out but I did get them to allow some test shots and tweaks before taking the final shots. I wanted to explore backgrounds around the yard but I let them pick the spot as long as they weren’t in the sun. They got to pose themselves and I just tweaked them here and there.
Above is one of the resulting images. If I were constrained to that background but had my way otherwise, I would have stopped down a hair to darken the background in-camera. Then I would have added just enough strobe and/or reflectors to bring the exposure of the faces back to normal and provide some fill/catchlights in the eyes. In reality though, this image already exceeded the expectations of the girls and that’s what really counts. I don’t even mind telling people that I took these pictures.
I had the privilege — and challenge — of taking some photos for my son and his friends this past weekend. I’ll let them tell they’re own story (link at the end of the post) but the short version is that they are going “on tour” for a month to sing as a quartet, do various service projects, and promote the International ALERT Academy (where they have received various types of emergency response training — paramedic and other misc certifications in my son’s case).
Our only options for shooting were a short bit early Sunday morning and then in the afternoon from about 1-3pm. We did what we could in the morning and left the rest for later. The afternoon sun was as intense as it ever gets in Texas — which makes for lousy natural light in many locations. If I was shooting only one person, had a set of great lights and diffusers, etc. I would have felt better about all this. However, I worked on making do with my single speedlight and whatever shade we could find.
The guys wanted to do some shots on the railroad tracks — no shade there. One of the favorite spots required them to be looking toward the sun, which was *mostly* overhead but off its peak just enough to create extremely harsh shadows when they faced that direction. Nonetheless, we took a bunch of shots and attempted to overcome the sun on five guys with a single speedlight…not quite successful. I told them not to tell anyone I took those pictures 🙂
In the shot with the locomotive you can see how turning them out of the sun (and using the single speedlight) doesn’t turn out too bad. While shooting the previous into-the-sun images I broke my sync cord and could no longer use my Elinchrom skyports to control the flash. So for this shot I used a 3′-ish cord attached to my hot shoe and use E-TTL with -2/3 flash exp compensation if I remember correctly. I held the flash above-camera-left as high as I could reach (I was slightly crouched to take the shot). It turned out OK — and the guys seemed happy with this one.
Of course we did the obligatory look-cool-standing-against-some-grungy-wall-album-cover-type shots. We found a random wall with just enough shade to make it work. The sidewalk in front of the wall had a slight slope which made things a bit tricky. If I lined up the frame with the brick, I ended up with a bit of grass where the sidewalk was higher…stuff like that. I think I should have worked my angles more and come up with something better. However, we had already spent a lot of time doing individual shots and various group poses and with it being nearly 100 degrees, all of us were ready to get on with it and finish up.
I had fun taking the photos. I learned a lot. I learned most of all that I have a lot left to learn. It was also fun for the guys (who are not nearly as serious as some of their pictures would imply) to be able to goof around while posing. Most importantly, they got some shots they were happy with.
Their website (still a bit under construction): http://www.servantscall.com
On facebook: Servant’s Call