Our youngest turned one year old recently and on her birthday I wanted to capture a “good” portrait. It would be her “official” one-year picture. Of course I decided to try something I hadn’t done before — a high-key portrait with a white background — which ensured it would take three times as long as something I’m already comfortable doing. I don’t have white seamless paper and I don’t have a proper background stand. So…I have a huge (12′ x 20′ I think) white polyester background that I picked up on clearance for $20-ish. I draped this over the back of a couple of chairs (with my subject being only a couple feet tall I didn’t have to worry about the height). My main light was a speedlight into a reflective umbrella at high camera left, triggered by an Elinchrom Skyport. I placed a large white reflector on camera right and used a speedlight behind the subject to light the background.
My first issue was to decide how I wanted the background to actually look. Blown out? Super smooth (problematic with the deep creases in the freshly unpackaged cloth and being draped over uneven chair backs)? Don’t worry about it and fix in post? From a quick internet search I learned that I couldn’t simply iron that polyester cloth and get rid of the creases in a few minutes. In the end I went with an aperture that blurred the background somewhat but provided a safe depth-of-field for the shots. My daughter was far enough from the background so it would be reasonably out-of-focus and I could reasonably edit it in post for a few shots if desired. The background light was adjusted “to taste”. I had planned to shoot with a much brighter background but the light was too uneven (no surprise when trying to light with a single speedlight in the center).
The shot above was taken as a test during setup. The hair and clothes are a mess (hadn’t prepped her yet) — but it’s cute and I decided that this is actually one of my favorites. The only edits were crop, slight WB adjustment, sharpening around the eyes, vignette, and the removal of a small scratch on the skin. I really like the way it turned out overall even if the background isn’t ideal.
For the second year in a row I’ve taken pictures for my daughters’ volleyball team. The individual shots were pretty much a piece of cake and they turned out great. The set up for those involved spreading a neutral-colored paint tarp on the floor to eliminate the red glow on the girls’ skin, standing the girls on a stool, setting up one speedlight (triggered with Elinchrom Skyports) shooting through a white umbrella for the key light, a strobe flashing the gym behind the girls to add light to the background, posing them with a volleyball, and firing away. These went very quickly as there was no change in setup between each girl. The gym is horrible for pictures but was workable for these individual shots.
We also goofed with some dramatic shots with the girls looking serious and got the shot above. The main light is the same speedlight-thru-umbrella held nearly on axis with the camera (slightly toward high camera left). The back light is simply a speedlight plopped on the floor. These took longer to get the girls set and posed, and as you see above, we never got the posing or the spacing quite right. We didn’t have all day so I had to take what I could get as they say. There are lots of photographic flaws but the girls and parents are plenty happy with the pic, which is what really counts.
I did some basic processing in Lightroom then headed to Photoshop to grunge out and darken the background (mostly with curves), do some very minor edits and retouching, noise reduction, and add the text.
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.
We *tried* to take some portraits of my wife and daughter but not everyone was cooperating. Eden was a bit fussy when we posed her but I snapped off some frames anyway. This is image is one — the ONLY one — worth keeping. Despite being the only good image I call it an outtake because it’s not at all the image I was after. I like the expression on my wife’s face and Eden’s outstretched arms but it has a few technical issues. For starters, because I was shooting near wide-open and my wife was moving back and forth to rock the baby, the focus is a bit off. We’ll try again soon.
This was shot with two lights: a Canon 580EXii at about 1/16 power in a small softbox at camera left for the key light and a Canon 430EXii high, behind my wife at camera right for hair/highlight (1/64 power and gel’ed with some ND to kill more of the power). The background is a sheet we hung in the hallway (yep, I need to get some backgrounds). I started by setting an exposure which killed the ambient. Using my older daughter as a test subject I then added the key light followed by the hair light. The background is not lit because my intent was to make it pitch black.
Before even shooting this my intent was to process in black and white but I haven’t even attempted to go that route in processing yet. I tweaked some areas in Lightroom then brought the image into Photoshop. I used masked curves to brighten the hair, eyes (a tad), and a few areas of skin. I also used curves to darken a few areas. One final curve dropped the red channel ever so slightly. I sharpened the hair and used noise reduction on the rest of the image. That’s all I can remember anyway…
Here’s another version of the same image which I processed slightly differently. I can’t personally decide which I like best although I lean toward the one at the top of the post which blends subject/background relatively seamlessly.
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.
I took individual and team pictures of my daughter’s volleyball team and here’s one of the outtakes. It was an afterthought that I decided to try before calling it a day so we didn’t even bother including a ball like we did in the “normal” shots. Lighting was a Canon 580exii into a reflective umbrella in front at slightly camera left and a bare 430exii on the floor behind the team. The exposure was chosen to darken the ambient light quite a bit. The girls attempted to look serious for this dramatic shot (after having been smiling and goofing off in the previous pictures). If I could do it all over again with less time pressure there are some shadows I’d work on getting rid of (in-camera, not in post) and a few other changes I’d make but the girls are pretty happy with it.
For processing I did various tweaks to little spots here and there. The floor is a deep red so I used curves to decrease the red channel a bit (and the green channel a *tiny* bit). I added the text and colored it with a color I grabbed from the jerseys.
I’m doing a little craft project with my three youngest children to celebrate the fact that “God made ME”. Part of this uses a picture of themselves and I thought they would enjoy doing their own self portrait (I guess that’s a tautological statement). I was correct — they had a blast making faces, etc while they pressed the remote shutter release.
One light, no reflectors, no worry about background or whether shadows were filled in. I set up the flash with a shoot-thru umbrella (having the flash go off was half the fun for them), plopped it in a semi-open space, and sat them in a chair. The camera was on a tripod. No posing to speak of. No thought of changing into a shirt without fresh strawberry juice spots. Manual focus was used because they (well, the boys) moved around so much that the camera had trouble focusing in the dim light.
There were some really funny results. The picture above was my favorite though. He thought he had to point the remote at the camera. Very cute. Almost straight out of the camera — cropped and the exposure was bumped up 1/3 stop.
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.
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…]
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.
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.
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…