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:

V Family Maternity 05

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:

L Family Blog 11

Lit from the back:

L Family Blog 01

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):

S Family 122

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:

C and M Family Mini Session 01

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:

B Family Portraits 06

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:

T Family Mini Session 11

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.

Photographing Newborn

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

Photographing Newborn 2

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!


Tutorial: Correcting Shadows

A few days ago, I took photos of the N family (which you can see in this post) on a lovely sunny morning.  The weather was perfect for the park – bright but not too hot.  There are a million good things about a bright sunny morning.  The bad thing about it is the shadows.  Morning shadows are not as harsh as midday shadows but any time the sun is bright, shadows will be a problem.  We did a lot of maneuvering to stay on the sun’s good side that morning.  But sometimes it can’t be helped – a magical moment will occur and the sun will not cooperate.  I ended up with this precious photo of Katie and Abigail next to the fountain:

I knew that this photo was well worth saving but that something had to be done about the harsh, angular shadow across Katie’s face.  Luckily, darkening or lightening parts of a photo is easy to do in photoshop.  We photog types call it “burning and dodging.”  Here are the steps to follow:

1. Create a new blank layer and change the blending mode to “overlay.”

2. From the edit menu, choose “Fill” and select the contents to be “50% gray.”  This will fill your overlay layer with gray pixels.  You won’t see them because gray pixels in overlay mode have no effect on the underlying photo.  Your photo should look exactly the same.

3. Choose the paintbrush tool.  For color, select white.  White pixels in overlay mode will serve to lighten the underlying photo.  You want to do this a little at a time so change the opacity of the paintbrush to 15%.  Choose a size that will allow you to paint over the shadow in one or two strokes.

4. Begin painting over the dark area.  You may have to go back over the same spot several times – it will get lighter each time you paint it.  Don’t get too carried away here!  If you go too far with this handy tool, your photo will begin to look unnatural.  If you make a mistake, simply paint back over the entire layer with 50% gray.  Your photo will go back to its original state and you can try again.

5. If there are any areas of the photo that need to be made darker, follow the same procedure but use black instead of white.

The result:

Tutorial: DIY Bounce Card

As you know, I describe myself as a natural light portrait photographer.  I love the depth and interest that natural sunlight brings to a photo.  By comparison, flash photographs can come out looking harsh and flat.  That said, the sun is a dynamic and somewhat unpredictable light source.  An evening shoot, depending on the setting and the weather, could turn into a difficult task without the help of some artificial light.  So when I shot Isaac and Juli’s vow renewal ceremony (in the evening, under the cover of a pavilion), I knew that I should be prepared to bust out the flash if needed.  Generally, my game plan when shooting with flash is to bounce the light off the ceiling, which maintains some of the depth of the photograph by placing the light source above (rather than directly in front of) the subject.  But I knew that this particular pavilion has a high, dark-colored ceiling which would absorb a good amount of my bounced light.  I would therefore need to send the light in two directions – up and forward.  Some of it would bounce off the ceiling and some would shine directly on the subject.  This is generally accomplished by using a bounce card – a white card attached to the back of the flash that reflects some of the light forward when the flash is pointing up.  Unfortunately, this shoot was booked at the very last moment and I was not in possession of a bounce card.  You know what that means… time for a DIY project.  I wish I could tell you that this was all entirely my idea, but that would not be entirely true.  I found my muse in this video by Peter Gregg.  The video is sort of long but here’s a summary:

1. Cut a piece of sturdy paper into the shape of a trapezoid.

2. Attach it to your flash (Mr. Gregg wanted to sell me a velcro attachment strap.  I used tape instead).

So here’s my flash all decked out with its bounce card:

And to give you an idea of what it does, I photographed a shelf without the bounce card:

Notice that the top of the shelf is casting a triangular shadow because all the light is bouncing down from the ceiling.

Here’s the same shelf with the bounce card:

There’s still a little shadow because there is still some bounced light, but it is much less harsh.

Of course if you plan on doing lots of flash photography, a good bounce card is probably a smart investment.  But if you find yourself in a last-minute bind, this little trick just may serve you well!

Tutorial: Light Through Trees

During Joelle and Luke’s engagement shoot, I had the happy couple pose under a low-hanging branch that I thought would create an interesting composition.  I was right – the resulting composition was nice.  The light, however, left something to be desired.  We had started our photo shoot a little late and by the time we made it to the tree, the soft morning light had become harsh and unforgiving.  The stark silhouette of the tree drew my eye away from Luke and Joelle.  I needed a subtle tweak that would gently soften those lines.  Lucky for me, there are all sorts of free photoshop tutorials on the internets just waiting to be found by a well-crafted google search.  In this particular case, my solution was here.  The author gives a simple step by step method of creating rays of light shining through tree branches.  The tutorial uses Photoshop’s “Radial Blur,” which gives the light rays the look of bicycle spokes shining outward.  For my purposes, I chose “Box Blur” instead, which gave the illusion that the sunlight was softly enveloping my tree branch.  As a final touch, I added some slight vignetting using the Photoshop gradient tool.  The result: soft morning light in the middle of the day.