A few weeks back, reader Anna sent me an email asking some questions about photography. I wrote her back, telling her I would come up with a post answering her questions.
Okay, so technically she emailed me back on September 1st.
And now, if I understand correctly, it's some time in early October.
I'm so Johnny-on-the-spot.
But I'm seeking to honor my email assurance to Anna and share a few tips I've picked up along the way. Anna specifically was curious about tips for taking portrait shots of her kids, so we'll deal with those techniques specifically.
1. Don't be afraid to take that camera off the automatic setting.
It is very difficult to get the 'portrait' quality you're looking for if your flash is popping off. But if you leave your camera in an auto setting, more often that not, your camera is always going to want to give you a little light boost. For the pictures I do of my kids, I put my camera on AV mode, which gives me the ability to open up my aperture. The aperture is what controls the amount of light that comes into the camera. Now here's why things are a little strange; the wider your aperture, the lower the number. It's called an f-stop and an f-stop of, say, 2.8 means that the camera is letting in far more light than an f-stop of 7. From my big ol' Canon to my Sony Cybershot to my daughter's little inexpensive point-and-shot digital, all of these cameras offer the opportunity to switch to the AV mode and control the light without having to use a flash.
(7 of 8, taking with my little point-and-shot SonyCybershot, AV setting, f-stop of 3.5, soft edge edit, open shade on the back porch, black sheet backdrop)
2. Use what is called 'open shade'.
Now that you've decided to boss your camera around some using the AV mode, you're going to want to get in the shade of a tree or on the front porch or what have you. Direct sunlight while in AV mode is going to be too harsh for the look you're going for...and your photography subjects will tend to squint. I often shoot inside as well, using the indirect light from windows. It takes a while to figure out what lighting you like best with your camera and your lens. But there are certain rooms in my house at certain times of day that yield great results. I often use my master bathroom as my 'studio'--we have a glass block window in that room that offers fabulous light.
(6 of 8, glass block window, sepia edit)
(Mike and 5 of 8, black sheet backdrop, indoor, glass block window light source, 3.5 f-stop)
3. The eyes have it.
When taking shots of my kids, I really work to get them to look directly in the camera. Now don't get me wrong, there are definitely some keeper shots of them looking off and laughing, looking off to the side, what have you. But the shots that still just get me are when I can get them to look into the depths of the lens.
(2 of 8, open shade, soft focus edit, vignette frame, f-stop of 3.5)
(1 of 8, outdoor, light cloud cover, open aperture, post-edit lightened)
4. Try to get some shots in their natural environment.
While you may have to shoot many, many frames, it is still worth it for getting shots of the kids as they play, jump, explore and climb. And those are the memories you want to capture of them, being kids, getting dirty. Some of my favorite shots are not the ones with the perfectly coiffed hair and pressed outfit, but the scruffy smiles of playful days.
(1 of 8 and Best Buddy, on the trampoline, smaller aperture, open sunlight)
(3 of 8, open shade, under a canopy on the soccer field, f-stop 3.5, edit vignette frame)
5. Edit, crop, shade, trim.
Back when I was shooting a medium format Mamiya, it was a study in how to hold your breath until the proofs were developed and you could see what you had gotten. The guy who owned the lab I used for my development was forever scolding me for not using a flash. He didn't understand what I was trying to achieve and didn't like having to lighten things for me. He took it as a point of honor that what I shot and at what speed and setting should be the product I should receive.
I'm in my bliss being able to take a well-saturated shot and then being able to digitally edit it to fit my vision. While the purists out there may take justifiable pride in getting everything just right with no edit needed, I've found great freedom in simply getting the best shot I can and then touching it up as needed. Sometimes a simple crop can take an 'okay' shot to 'gorgeous'. Sometimes that cute color shot is stunning as a black and white. I personally am a big fan of Flickr for fast edits and use Gimp as my 'Photoshop' on the cheap. I do love when I have a shot that comes straight out of the camera awesome, but I have no pride wrapped up in it--that's why digital editing is such a gift.
(4 of 8, indoor, window light, cross process edit to make freckles 'pop')
(8 of 8, glass block window light source, edit in 'curves' for burned out look on color)
6. Don't get hung up on backgrounds and settings.
Some of my favorite shots are of the kids on the front porch steps, propped up against the post of our fence or with a simple black sheet behind them. I used to really scout locations when I professionally shot back in the day. But for my style now, I'm more interested in capturing faces and expressions...the backdrop is just gravy.
(8 of 8, sitting on a low window sill, soft focus edge edit)
(6 and 7 of 8, sitting on a low window sill, sepia edit, vignette frame, letter box crop)