A little gift from Sarah Sue

It seems like everybody and their dog owns a DSLR these days (though, in all reality, you shouldn’t give cameras to dogs – no opposable thumbs). And yet, with all these high quality cameras floating around our great nation, your friendly neighborhood photographer finds herself in high demand as holiday card season approaches. Now part of this phenomenon is that parents like to appear in their own Christmas card, so they must bring in a third party to take the pictures (remember that the dog has no thumbs). But the truth is, if the parents choose their photographer wisely, they are paying for much more than thumbs. They are ideally bringing in someone who can intuitively find a visually pleasing moment and capture it on film. But what do I mean by visually pleasing? This is largely a subjective concept and is part of the choice you make as a consumer when you compare photographers’ styles. So the truth is that I can only answer this question for myself. Other photographers may go through a very different process behind the lens. But in this post I will lay out just a few of the factors that play a part in my favorite shots. A little sneak peak Christmas gift from me to you…

The quality and location of the light.

Light is really the #1 priority in any photography endeavor. Quality of light refers to the diffuse-ness of the light you are working with. Shooting in the morning or the evening, you should find nice, soft, relatively diffuse lighting that will bring out the facial features of your subjects without casting harsh shadows. Shooting in the middle of the day, however, will give you harsh overhead light that casts shadows under the eyes and nose of your subjects (a less than flattering look I can tell you). So if you are shooting midday by necessity, you should be looking for a shady location. Here’s an example of beautifully diffuse morning light. Notice that the color of the photo is buttery and warm and you are able to clearly see all of the subjects’ facial features with no harsh shadows:

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I also take into account the location of my light source (which, as an outdoor photographer, is generally the sun). The following two photos were taken of the same family in the same location. But for the first photo, I asked them to pose with the sun in front of them (behind my back). And in the second I had them stand in front of the sun so that they were backlit. Both of these options can give you a nice photo. Straight-on sun will provide a more traditionally lit portrait. Backlighting can be a bit more tricky but can give some cool effects, including silhouettes, sunny haze, or bright spots of lens flare.

Lit from the front:

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Lit from the back:

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The angle of the shot.

I always wear my workout clothes to a photo shoot because finding good angles means moving around A LOT.

Sundance Kid: ‘Can I move?’ from Andy Gayton on Vimeo.

Especially when it comes to child photography, shooting from the hip is not going to give you a very nice result. One of my favorite shots is this one, taken years ago, with yours truly belly-down in the dirt (you don’t get the impression that the tulips are towering over you unless you manage to actually get lower than the tulips):

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Basically be ready to climb, swim, squat, run… you get the picture. Move.

The comfort level of the subject(s).

This one cannot be overstated. And make no mistake, it is difficult. I generally start my shoots with a super duper pose-y group of family shots. Often that whole group of photos ends up being thrown away because the kids are hiding shyly or crying or staring at my camera in terror or playing distractedly with a leaf. I take the opportunity during those “throw-away” shots to chat with the family, asking the kids about their friends, their pets, their teachers, their favorite foods. We make friends and they get used to the camera. Phase 1:

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After these pose-y posed shots, I have a golden opportunity to get some really nice photos. The kids are comfortable but still happy, willing to sit and smile and interact with parents and siblings. These are the keepers. Phase 2:

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Eventually with kids everything devolves into chaos. All is not lost though. As long as you are willing to MOVE (see the previous section), you can get some really nice candid shots chasing around tired and nearly done kiddos. Phase 3:

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The frame.

Lucky for us, a photo only shows a small portion of what the eye can see. There is no peripheral vision in a photograph. That means that we can take an otherwise uninteresting setting and, with proper framing, create a beautiful photo. With time and practice, you will get better at mentally framing photo ops before you even put the camera to your eye. Take a look at this cute example from a newborn shoot. Below we see me (awkwardly) photographing this sweet curled-up baby in her parents’ bedroom. Not such a fantastic photo op at a glance.

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And yet, with the proper framing, we come out with…

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Your equipment.

This is, obviously, another important one. You can’t create a quality product without the proper tools. I use my big ole DSLR and could not be happier with it – you can generally find me at portrait shoots with a 50mm and 85mm prime lens. I also tote around a 28mm for landscapes and other wide angle use. I have to say, though, that phone technology is improving to the degree that you can carry around a high-quality camera in your pocket. And as we move into the New Year, I am feeling quite excited about a new technology that is coming out of a company called Light. It’s looking to be a huge step beyond phone cameras in the same tiny package. The possibilities are really expanding for you on-the-go parents out there!

So there you have it – a few items to consider as you look for a photographer or practice photographing your own family in the new year. Here’s the thing though. Each of these photographic decisions and adjustments happens quickly and more or less unconsciously… or not at all. The beauty of photography is that sometimes the best photos disregard the “rules” altogether. So for the ambitious parent who would like to get some nice family shots in the new year, my recommendation would be to take out they camera as often as possible and play. Learn to follow the rules so that you can later choose to mercilessly break them. Have fun and your kids will too. May you see beauty all around you in 2016!

 

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Grief

I enjoy thinking about “the human experience” (surprise surprise, counselor lady) and spend my days talking to people about the ups and downs of their lives. Often my photography serves as an escape for me into the lighter, more beautiful or sweet or adorable sides of life. But I believe there is also reason to photograph the darkness. I took these particular photos years ago and am currently not grieving. But I pull them out periodically and find great comfort in reminding myself of what my grief looked like. I began simply wanting to destroy… or at least render something unrecognizable. I wanted to take the chaos that was churning inside of me and impose it on the world around me. After debating the usual possibilities (shave my head? get tattoos? go skydiving?), I decided to… paint my apartment. And what began as a (feeble) attempt at destruction slowly changed into an act of creation. What started out literally in darkness (I couldn’t sleep and began painting only at night) was found by light. I am beginning to think that, out of all life’s travails, grief comes closest to looking and feeling like pure chaos. Our moments of grief are the ones when we begin to think that the center cannot hold. And yet we have reason to hope. Perhaps we should tell our stories of grief a bit more often. In my experience, the chaos doesn’t win.

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Take heart.

Self Portrait (and a new flash!)

I’ve always been a natural light portrait photographer. But for Christmas, I received the awesome gift of a new flash – the Canon 600 EX-RT. So of course, what else could I do but spend an afternoon playing around with it in the living room?

As it turns out, there is a huge difference in process between natural light and flash photography (as you would expect). In natural light photography, the photographer’s job is to “run towards daylight” as my dad would say, using the existing conditions to her best advantage. The photographer is an observer and a participant in the scene and is left, to some degree, at the mercy of the sun and the subject. In flash photography, the photographer becomes the director of the scene, conceiving of an idea and then adjusting the lighting and the subject as needed to make it a reality. As a total novice, this time around involved a LOT of trial and error. I am a slow and clumsy director, which is exactly why I chose to use myself as the first subject.

In the end, there were three light sources involved in this picture. I already owned a 430 EX speedlight, which I set up as a slave flash to the left of my face, fired through a handheld diffuser. To the right is a window, which I covered with a sheet. The backlighting behind me is another window. My goal was to use the side lights to outline the contours of my face, highlighted by the backlighting. I’m pretty happy with the result, although the left side is a little too bright. If I had more time, I probably would have played with it a bit more, making the highlights as symmetrical as possible.

I also found that it was difficult to capture a relaxed expression when I was dealing with so many moving parts. Newsflash: I will never be a model. I’d be constantly making my “let’s do this” face.

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Of Jobs and Jesus: Merry Christmas from Sarah Sue

I have two jobs. By weekday I am a counselor, sitting and talking with people who are trying to cope with life’s confusions and difficulties and surprises. By weekend I am a photographer, driving to pretty parks and chasing babies and doing crazy dances to get a smile. (By night I am a masked avenger, but that’s another story). Counseling and photography are, to me, wonderfully complimentary professions. Both deal with people and require quite a bit of creativity. And in both, I do my best to see and interact with beauty, albeit in very different ways.

As a counselor, my interactions with beauty often take place from a distance. Beauty functions as a beacon – a shining source of hope – but rarely a close companion. Generally people choose to come to counseling when they find themselves in a dark place. They’re down in the hole, sitting in grime and wondering if beauty ever actually existed at all. As a counselor, it is generally unhelpful to say “Hey but don’t worry because… beauty! That grime’s not as bad as you think. Let’s just pretend we’re in a tropical paradise – mind over matter right?” Attempting to manufacture beauty for someone who is mired in the depths usually does more harm than good. Instead, my role is to climb into the hole and sit down in the grime saying something like “Well here we are – it’s pretty grimy down here but at least we’re together.” With time, I can begin to remind them of the beauty that exists outside the hole. And with even more time, we can begin to climb out. The process is slow and, at times, frustrating for all involved. As a counselor, if I am going to be helpful over the long haul, I must be careful to not let myself become mired in the same hole that my clients are in. It’s easy, as a helper, to spend too long in the grime, to get a bit stuck, and to forget about the beauty that I know exists.

For me, this is where photography comes in. I’m sure there are very sophisticated artists out there who would disagree with me, but in my mind the purpose of photography is to find beauty and to capture it in a way that allows others to experience it too. This, to me, is an incredibly freeing goal. As soon as my camera is slung around my neck, my eyes are trained for beauty. Now over time, I have developed an ability to see beauty where others might miss it (I’d like to think that this makes me a good photographer). And in these moments, with the help of my camera, I am able to capture that snippet, that bright corner of reality, and share a beautiful moment with those around me. This mission is, in some ways, the exact opposite of counseling. As a photographer, I get to say “Look, I get that the world is a dark and broken place… but look at this. There is beauty and I can prove it.” Now I am writing this as if my mission as a photographer were very altruistic – the sharing of beauty with those who might otherwise miss it. But let me be honest here. Often, the goal is much more selfish than that. Often my time with my camera is spent rebuilding my own faith in beauty, enjoying the minutia of this world, and shaking off the grime of that deep dark hole.

There is something of heaven in both of my jobs. As Christmas approaches, we remember the divine leap that the Almighty God made in coming to earth and living a human life. I have heard sermons about his Counselor role that have made my heart ache. This holy, blameless, and loving God stepped down from his throne and into a world full of brokenness. He lived in the midst of the selfishness and the ignorance and the sadness and the confusion that is humanity. In an act of grace that I will never fully comprehend, he crawled down into our human hole with us and sat down in our human grime and provided us with an eternal advocate – One who gets it because he’s been there. One who can ultimately wipe away our tears because he, too, has wept.

I have heard fewer Christmas sermons about his Artist role. Because our Creator God is truly an artist. And when he made this world and the people in it, he stepped back admiringly and called it “good”. Though marred, this world is his masterpiece. Our God appreciates beauty. It came from and points to him. And on Christmas, he himself entered into his great work of art. Ultimately, he did not come to sit in grime and darkness. He came to remind us of beauty – the beauty that is here already and the beauty that is coming through his work of restoration. And what’s more, he enjoyed the beauty of his creation while he was here. He made friends, he went to parties, he ate food and admired nature. And he himself became a part of the artwork – an example of a man living an upright life and loving others well.

There is much more to the story. Jesus’s work was multifaceted, impossible to summarize. But this Christmas, these pieces bring me comfort and joy: God can handle my grime and he can see my beauty. I am, to him, one of those bright corners of reality worth capturing and treasuring. You are too.

Merry Christmas.

People Watching at the Texas Renaissance Festival

Yesterday I had my first Texas Renaissance Festival experience and all I can say is… How has it taken me so long?? I had such a fun time enjoying the shows, the shopping, the food, and most of all – the people in their costumes. Some of these people travel the Renaissance Festival “circuit”, taking their elaborate costumes to festivals all over the world. And, for the most part, everyone was more than willing to pause for a photo op.

We also managed to find Waldo.

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My People

I’m glad to be back in Texas, though I love and miss St Louis. And the biggest reason for my love of this place – the people. Allow me to introduce my best people: mom, dad, and bro (sis-in-law, niece, and nephew not pictured but also favorites).

My dad, out standing in his field (Ha, that’s a dad joke!):

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My mom, my friend:

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My brother doesn’t always pose for pictures. But when he does, he holds the coveted Manimal Trophy, complete with Planet of the Apes action figure guy:

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