A Note on Content

The purpose of this blog is twofold: (1) to advertise my services as a photographer, and (2) to provide useful information to people who want to take better pictures, particularly when it comes to photographing children.

Although I have not organized the blog posts in any particular order, I have tried to start with basic information and build from there, so those wanting to learn more about photography and visiting the site for the first time may want to start with the oldest posts first.

If you have questions or comments about the blog, please feel free to leave a comment or to email me directly. I hope the photos and other information presented here help you appreciate the art of children's photography, and inspire you to take great photographs of your own.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lens, Baby!

Building on the “M is for Manual” post from a week or so ago, we can now talk sensibly about lenses.

If you own a digital SLR camera (like a Canon Rebel or a Nikon D80), chances are it came from the manufacturer as part of a kit, with a “free” neck strap, a few other doodads, and some kind of zoom lens attached to the front. And here’s the bad news: chances are that that kit lens is an el-cheapo of dubious quality. Let’s put it this way, if the enormous lens you see a professional sports photographer lugging around is a Ferrari, the kit lens on your new SLR is almost certainly a Yugo or a Ford Pinto.

Camera manufacturers know a couple of things: (1) first, even a savvy consumer will likely ignore the quality of the lens and focus his or her attention on the camera itself, in the process becoming enamored with fairly meaningless metrics like the number of megapixels (“Geez, Lorna, with a bazillion megapixels, we could outshoot Ansel Adams!”); (2) second, they can sell a kit at a premium because the camera is “ready to go,” and make a nice profit by including the cheapest possible lens.

Experienced photographers, on the other hand, know a dark secret: the camera is only one part, and often a modest part, of the total investment necessary to take good pictures. The real money—the real investment—is often in the lenses.

This was particularly true in the days of film cameras, where the quality of the lens and the quality of the film determined the quality of the final image, and the camera had little or nothing to do with it.

In the digital age, the image sensors built into cameras play a much more important role. Nevertheless, the lens—not the camera—remains the single most important factor in determining the quality of the final image. Put a crappy lens on a great camera, and you’re going to get a crappy image. Put a great lens on a crappy camera, and you may be surprised at just how good the resulting image looks.

So, what do you need to know about lenses? Not much really, but you do need to understand the two most important features of any lens: FOCAL LENGTH and MAXIMUM APERTURE. Future posts will address each of these in turn and hopefully point you towards (a) what lens will give you the “look” you want, and (b) what lenses offer the best quality and value.

(“Lensbaby” is actually a company that manufactures selective focus lenses that make for some sweet effects. See http://lensbaby.com/. I don’t own one, but they look like fun.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tell a Story

I've said it before, but it bears repeating:  good photos do more than just show, they tell.  To my mind, an interesting photo, just like an interesting painting or poem, should have layers of interest and meaning.  A good photo needs depth.  It should pull the viewer in and hold his or her interest.    

To illustrate what I mean, I've attached a few photos from a recent trip to my in-laws cabin near Scofield, Utah.  One might debate the quality of the images, but I hope each one contains at least a snippet of a story.  Take the one of my youngest niece, for example, sitting on the four wheeler with her father.  Any doubt that there's a story there? 

If you enjoy this documentary style of photography (often referred to loosely as "photo journalism"), then you should invest in a relatively long telephoto lens.  The lens used in these photographs is a Canon 70-200 mm zoom, which, when used on a digital camera like mine, captures a view more on the order of 100-300 mm (we'll talk the mechanics of focal length later).  A long lens like that allows me to stand far away from my subjects while photographing them.  What that means in practice is that they often forget that I'm there, allowing me to capture people acting and interacting naturally.   

Monday, May 18, 2009

Natural Light

Okay, so I'm a big believer in using natural light for all kinds of photographs, including portraits.  Why?  Because that's the way we typically see the world.  Flashes and soft boxes and studio lighting have their place, to be sure, but I love the moods and features created by natural lighting.

The trouble is that natural light--that is, sunlight--is pretty harsh unless it's filtered or reflected in some way. In the East, where we lived for many years, clouds and the air itself--usually dense and heavy with humidity--act like an enormous filter, scattering the suns rays and creating soft even lighting for hours on end.  

Here in Utah the lighting's a bit tricky, particularly those stretches where the sky remains a cloudless expanse of bright blue for weeks on end.  Those "Utah days" pose a real challenge, particularly for portrait photographers, as the bright sun burns out highlights and creates harsh shadows, kids (and adults) squint their way through a photo session, and even if you put the subject in the shade, most photographs take on a kind a washed out, steel gray tint, as all that blue gets reflected and captured by the film or image sensor. 

So, what's one to do?  Well, figure out a way to soften all that harsh light and make it work for you. You can do that by taking photos early in the morning or during "the golden hour" just around sunset.  You can use filters to diffuse the sun (tough though, as the kids still squint), or reflecters to pull a bit of sunlight into a deep shadow.  You can wait for a cloudy day, or you can, as in the photo above, simply position the subject close to a window, where light is reflected from the outside and often diffused through a sheer, white drapes.  (Actually, this subject positioned herself, thank you.  Anyone know a one year old who will sit still?)

Whatever you do, however, and whatever your light source, the goal remains the same:  finding a soft, even light that that makes your images pop.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

M is for "Manual"

A lot of you are lugging around digital SLRs of one kind or another (you know, big cameras with interchangeable lenses, like a Canon digital Rebel), but even those of you with smaller point and shoot cameras generally will have an “M” setting on your camera control dial, and here’s the thing:  I know it’s scary, but you really do need to learn how to use it.

I know, I know:  it’s so easy to put everything on automatic and let the camera do the work, and the “M” setting means funkiness and general confusion, but learning to use the “M” will pay rich rewards—I promise—and it’s really not all that hard.  In fact, there is probably no single thing you could do to improve your photography more than to learn to use the manual setting if you don’t already know how to do so.  Understand this, and suddenly a whole world of possibilities opens up.  So, it’s worth a little time and effort to figure out. 

With that, let’s take a bold leap into the technical side of photography.  Some people love it.  I am not one of those people, and you don’t have to be either.  For me, it’s a necessary evil, but—alas—necessary nonetheless.  You don’t need to grasp the physics, but you do need to understand the basics.    

Here’s the deal:  in both film and digital photography, basically three things determine how a photograph is exposed—in other words, how much light is recorded by the film or image sensor:  (1) the film speed (or ISO setting), (2) the shutter speed, and (3) the aperture. 

For purposes of understanding the “M” on your camera, let’s leave No. 1 (film speed) for another day, understanding that most digital cameras set the film speed automatically, but one can set that manually as well, and it affects how much light the camera can/will record and the quality of the final image.

When you turn the dial to “M,” a few things will appear at the bottom or one one side of the view finder or LCD screen:  first, something that looks like a ruler that typically has an arrow in the middle and then regular increments to the right or left of that arrow (or above or below), with numbers usually indicating 1 and 2 (on the positive side) and -1 and -2 (on the negative side).  Somewhere next to that little ruler you'll see another arrow that tells you how what you see in the viewfinder will be exposed based on the current settings for aperture and shutter speed.  If it points right in the middle of the ruler, then, according to the camera's built in light meter--the image is properly exposed.  If the arrow points at the positive number 1, then we say the picture is "one stop" over exposed.  If it points at the negative 1, it's one stop underexposed, etc.  

When first learning to use the manual setting, it's best to tinker with aperture and shutter speed values until you get the little arrow right in the middle of the ruler.  Later, you may choose to deliberately over- or under-expose and image, but for starters, just put the arrow in the middle, and everything will be okay.  I promise. 

Now, none of this will make much sense unless you pull out your camera and look for yourself.  So, turn your camera on, turn the dial to “M,” and take a peek.  You’ll see all this fun and exciting stuff right there:  the little ruler, the little arrow, the positive and negative numbers, and also two values that show aperture and shutter speed, respectively.  (You may need to consult your camera manual at this point to figure out which is which, and to distinguish aperture (which may be identified as "f-stop") and shutter speed settings from other settings that may appear in the view finder.)

Whew!  Without worrying about the actual numbers for the moment, let’s think about what these two things do:  one—the shutter speed—determines how long the shutter is open and the other—the aperture (which is just a fancy word for “opening”) determines the size of the hole through which light enters the camera.  If you think about it, both of these affect how much light gets into the camera to expose either the film or the image sensor.  A big hole (aperture) = lots of light.  A little hole = little light.  A slow shutter speed means the shutter is open longer and more light gets in, while a fast shutter speed means he shutter is open for just a split second and less light gets in. 

To illustrate, let’s go back to the idea of a pinhole camera—that oatmeal box with the film taped to the inside and a little hole on the opposite side of the box.  Because the film is sensitive to light, the oatmeal box must be completely sealed off, completely dark inside.  Once the film is in place, the hole must be covered by a piece of cardboard or some similar cover so that no light gets in until the photographer is ready to expose the film.  The photographer points the oatmeal box at a subject, and then removes the cover to expose the film for some amount of time:  a second, or maybe two or three.  The longer the cover is removed, the more light gets in to expose the film, and the less time, the less light gets in.  Follow me so far?  That’s shutter speed, basically the amount of time that the shutter remains open, even if that “shutter” is just a piece of cardboard. 

The size of the hole also affects the amount of light that gets in.  A pencil-sized hole will let in a lot of light, even if the cover is removed only briefly. While a pin-sized hole will let in a lot less light, even if the cover remains off for some time.  That’s aperture—the size of the hole. 

Let’s say that the film our photographer is using requires a certain amount of light to be exposed properly at high noon on a sunny day.  Too much light, and the film will turn white when it gets developed (over-exposed); too little, and the film will remain black (under-exposed).  The photographer can get to that right amount of light with either (a) a small aperture and a slow shutter speed, or (b) a large aperture and a fast shutter speed.  The amount of light reaching the film is exactly the same, but—and here’s the reason any of this matters—shutter speed and the size of the aperture affect the final image in ways having nothing to do with the amount of light they let in. 

And that’s why “M” matters.  Because, under one set of circumstances, we may want, say, a fast shutter speed, and, in that case, we will likely have to compensate with a large aperture to get the right exposure.  Under another set of circumstances, we may want a small aperture, and, in that case, we will likely have to compensate with a slow shutter speed—again, to get the right exposure under that particular set of circumstances. 

Why might one want a fast shutter speed?  We’ll discuss that in more detail later, but the short answer is that a fast shutter speed freezes action—a desired effect when, say, photographing a kid at a soccer game.  A slow shutter speed, on the other hand, captures movement, as in those lovely, silky white waterfalls you see in landscape photos or in the following photo I took the othe other night using--you guessed it--the manual setting.   

To get enough light to get any kind of recognizable image, I had to leave the shutter open for about 20 seconds, meaning that all moving objects (here, the tail lights of a single car) appear as a blur or streak.  Why?  Because during that 20 seconds the car appeared a the extreme right hand side of the frame and then moved across and away from me.  The tail lights stop suddenly because that's when the shutter closed again, allowing no additional light to touch the image sensor.       

And what about aperture?  A small aperture creates a greater depth of field, meaning that more of an image will remain in focus front to back (as in a landscape photo with flowers in the front and a mountain far behind), while a large aperture creates a shallow depth of field, where only a narrow range of the picture remains in focus, as in many fashion photographs or children’s portraits where the person’s body or face remains in perfect focus while the background dissolves in a soft, pleasing blur.  Consider another recent photo:  

Again: classic use of the "M" setting to create a deliberate visual effect--here an extremely narrow depth of field that creates a soft, warm image and keeps the viewer's focus on the flower.

So, learning to use the “M” setting—and understanding shutter speeds and apertures in the process—gives one the ability to create all kinds of cool effects: stuff the camera can’t do (or at least can’t do well) on its own.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?  I hope not, but the take home message is this:  you can and will figure this stuff out, but you may have to push yourself a bit.  So, turn that dial to “M” and start shooting!  If your first efforts don’t turn out, no sweat, that’s why they invented the delete button.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Seize the Day

Sometimes the essence of children's photography is simply catching a moment.  No perfect set-up, no time to fiddle with controls and settings.  Just time to grab the camera, start shooting, and hope for the best ...   

Here's a keeper (to my mind anyway) from the other evening, when a small neighbor rode over to say hello, just before bedtime.  
Becky said, "Grab the camera!" and so I did.  (Notice the slippers?!)  Awesome.  

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Avoid Clutter

I wanted to use these two photos to make a point about the importance of choosing a single theme and avoiding image "clutter."

Here's the problem:  the world is an interesting place, full of interesting things, and there's a strong temptation to include it all ... in a single frame.

"And what's wrong with that?" you may ask.  Well, it's annoying, for one, and confusing to boot, and it may just ruin a great portrait.  

By choosing a single "theme," I mean that something--the eyes, the face, an activity, a relationship--should dominate the photo, and other bits of information that may compete for attention, no matter how interesting in their own right, should be eliminated or at least played down.  Otherwise the viewer may get confused:  What's this picture about, anyway?  

Our lovely engagement photo here, taken by an extremely successful wedding and engagement photographer, provides the perfect illustration of what not to do.  There are me and Becky on the right side of the frame, looking like we're about 14, with that giddy, happy just-about-to-be-married glow about us, and there, on the left hand side is an automotive classic--a perfectly restored 1948 Mercury Coupe, in all its chromed and shining glory.  Can I tell you how many times some well-intentioned friend or family member has looked at that photo and remarked, "Nice car"?  

Nice car, definitely.  Nice engagement photo?  I'm afraid not.  It's a lovely engagement photo and a lovely photo of a classic car in the same frame, which means it serves neither purpose well.

So, back to the photo of my four neices (thanks, Jenny), where I think the theme is "sisters" or something like that, and, more importantly, these four sisters at a particular point in time. Notice the mountains. Lovely, eh?  I think so too, or I wouldn't have put them there.  I did try, however, to make the mountains a backdrop to the sisters, allowing the lens's depth of field to blur them out a bit, giving us an impression of snow covered mountains without (I hope) allowing the mountains to become the focus or even to compete for attention with the girls.  

The final cautionary note I'd throw in here involves the use of props when taking child portraits--you know, hats, ribbons, pretty dresses, bats and balls, detailed backdrops.  All these can be successfully incorporated into a child portrait, but I think the critical question is this:  what does a viewer remember after seeing the photo?  And if the answer is anything other than "the kid" or "the relationship" then I think that photo is a failure as a child portrait (unless, of course, you are in the business of selling dresses, ribbons, or photo backdrops).  If the bow is bigger than the child's head, well ... Houston, we have a problem.

Please note:  the original post did not include the totally awesome engagement photo, but Gretchen bullied me into it, so went ahead and added it.  On the positive side, it does give me the chance to showcase my oh-so-stylishly huge eye-glasses, which were all the rage at the time. (I think the best 80's word to describe them would have to be "rad," as in "Dude: those are some rad eye glasses.")   

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

I’ve been doing so more thinking about composition: that routine—but vital—question about what to include within the four corners of a photograph.

Consider this recent photo of a plain old dandelion. Do you like it, and if so, why? Could you approach the dandelion in a different way? Create a different image or a different mood, perhaps? To get this one, I got my nose down in the grass with a long telephoto lens and the late afternoon sun positioned behind the flower. (We could talk about what that means for the photo from a technical standpoint, but let’s save that for later.) But there are literally hundreds of other ways one could approach that same flower: different angles and positions, different lenses, different camera settings … the possibilities are infinite. And if the possibilities are infinite for something like a dandelion that doesn’t move or change expressions, consider how complicated things can get when we start talking about kids!

I believe that the conscious decision to approach a subject in a particular way is what elevates photography from merely “recording stuff” to an art form. That’s where the creativity comes in. That’s what turns a boring photo (yawn) into a memorable one (oh, yeah!).

As I think about it, composition is the result of several distinct choices made by the photographer: where to point the camera, where to position the camera, and when to push the button.

Let’s briefly consider each in turn:

(1) Where to point the camera. Seems obvious. You want to take a picture of Junior, you aim the camera at Junior. Easy, right? Not so fast. What are you going to focus on: the full body, head and shoulders, just the face, just part of the face—a hand, a pair of feet, or even a pair of shoes? What’s in focus and what’s not? Is the kid sitting down (for a portrait) or running around or playing baseball? Get the idea? Creativity comes in at that first most basic question: what do I want to take a picture of?

(2) Where to position the camera. Again, seems obvious: pick up the camera, point it at the subject, put it to your face. Right? Wrong. Way, way, way too many photos are taken from that typical, adult-height perspective. What does that mean for the final result? Too often, boringness. So, how about taking the camera to the child’s level? Below the child’s level? Directly above? That doesn’t mean you can’t take a perfectly good photo from an adult’s height, only that where you position the camera should be the result of a conscious choice and not mere convenience. You choose it because that’s the best angle, not because “it’s just easier that way.” So, move around. Get down on your knees or even your stomach. Try something new.

(3) When to push the button. Here, finally, is a genuine softball. With kids, you should push the button just about as fast and as often as you can, particularly if you are confident in the lighting and the subject, hoping to capture that one perfect moment or expression. In nature or landscape photography, my ratio of “keepers” (the pictures I save) to “deleters” (those I trash) is about 1:3; in children’s photography, that ratio jumps to 1:10 or even 1:20, meaning that only one out of every 10 or 20 photographs makes it to a final print. I don’t know any other way to get those great kid shots. Try a lot of different stuff, and blaze away.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The "Eyes" Have It

No doubt you've heard the old adage: The eyes are a window to the soul. Nowhere is that more true than in portrait photography where the human face is the principal subject. Not to say one can't do an interesting portrait that doesn't highlight the eyes, only that the eyes often prove key to a great portrait. Portraits that highlight the eyes have depth and layered interest. They hold one's attention.

So, here's the deal: little white sparkly things in the eyes are good. No sparkly things, not so good. The technical term for those little white sparkly things is "catch lights," and you certainly want to look for them if you are taking an picture of a child's face and their open eyes are part of the subject.

Studio lights--which can be carefully controlled--produce catch lights in studio portraiture. Outside, the photographer often has to make do with what he or she can find. In that setting, catch lights usually come from reflective surfaces of one sort or the other: for example, a sunlit sky or window, the light reflected off a white fence or some other object. (We have a vinyl fence in our back yard, and, when the sun is on it, it produces wonderful catch lights.) All three images above incorporate natural catchlights (in this case, windows). See how those catch lights help the overall image? (Feel free to disagree if you like. I can take it.)

The broader point is to pay attention to those little sparklies. If you can't see them, you're probably too far away to start with. So move closer (which has the added benefit of removing image clutter) and experiment with positioning your perfectly obedient and willing child subject (right!) in different directions until the fairy dust magically appears. Chances are, you'll find both the best catch lights and the best overall lighting in the same place, as all that reflected light illuminates not only the eyes, but the child's face.

One last word to the wise: while image editing software allows a photographer to enhance or bring out the catch lights in a digital image, it's a tool ripe for abuse. Look around and one can readily find children's portraits where something "doesn't look quite right," and the explanation may well lie in a photographer having a little too much fun with the dodge tool in Photoshop.

Photoshop can fix minor flaws, but can't turn a bad image into a great one and can't, realistically, create catch lights where none existed before. So, keep it real.