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, August 22, 2009

Reflectors and Diffusers

One can't excel at photography without learning to control and manipulate light. To do so, a photographer can employ a wide range of tools, but I'd like to focus on two that are particularly important when it comes to natural light portraiture: reflectors and diffusers.

I'm sure you've seen those white circles professional photographers like to use when shooting outdoors. Well, those little (and not so little) white circles come in two principal types: (1) diffusers, which scatter the harsh rays of the sun, covering the subject in a softer, more diffuse light; and (2) reflectors, typically employed in shady locations or with a backlit subject and used to reflect additional light onto the subject. Fair enough, and one can read about those tools endlessly on various photo blogs and "how to" sites and buy them and try them out and "look professional," but here's the point I want to make: the world is full of reflectors and diffusers, most of them free (or cheap) and readily available.

Best diffuser: clouds.
Best reflector: water.

But that's only the beginning! ANYTHING that reflects can be a reflector, and ANYTHING that diffuses (scatters light) can be a diffuser. Consider for a moment your hand: does it reflect light? You better believe it does. Try holding it close to something small (say, a flower) and notice what happens to the light on the flower. Does that mean one's hands are make for a good portrait reflector? Not at all (far too small), but for that flower close-up? Maybe so.

White objects of any kind make wonderful reflectors: white walls, white cars, white drapes, white snow--anything--but so does literally anything bright or smooth: stone walls, the sides of building, parked cars, you name it. So, keep an eye out for those natural reflectors, and be sure to position yourself and your subject to take advantage of them.

Same goes for diffusers. Can't afford an expensive professional diffuser? Well, I made a diffuser for about $2.50 with an old screen from the local junk store (Deseret Industries). I bought the screen for $1.00 (maybe 3 feet x 5 feet) punched out the screen, and attached a double layer of clear polyethylene pastic in its place. Voila! A diffuser that works every bit as good as an expensive circle thingy. (I've seen similar low-tech diffusers used in professional fashion shoots.) I use another to cover windows: it's a cheap set of sheer white drapes I bought at Walmart for next-to-nothing. (I also bought a few stick on velcro buttons so I can easily attach it to any odd curtain rod.) What difference does it make to the final image that I used a cheap set of Walmart drapes instead of a professional diffuser? None. Nada. No difference at all.

But even if you don't have on hand a cheap set of Walmart drapes, realize that the light is there for the taking: it's a tool you can use if you pay attention and understand what's going on.

So, go forth and conquer. Lights, camera, action!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Making Color Count


Paying closer attention to color is a great way to add extra "oomph!" to your photos. So, at the risk of evoking bad memories from junior high art class, I wanted to talk briefly about color and how to use it as a creative tool.

At the top, you'll see the familiar color wheel. (Not quite sure why this version chose to add the funky shape in the middle, though, if I had to guess, it looks like it's designed to serve as a reminder that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, and they combine to form the secondary colors of orange, green, and purple.) Considering the various colors in relation to one another, you'll find the "complementary" colors at opposite points on the wheel: for example, red and green, purple and yellow, orange and blue. Nature produces bold complements in spades: think red holly berries and green holly leaves, a field of dandelions and violets, california poppies against a blue, blue sky, or, as in the second photo, a bright red blanket flower against a background of green grass. That picture pops because the colors complement each other.

Now, here's a wrinkle: which colors are "complements" depends on the color wheel you use. So, for example, on an RGB color wheel--the color wheel used in ink jet printing, computer screens, and Photoshop--the complement of blue is yellow, green is magenta, and red is cyan. Fun stuff, eh?

But here's the point: regardless of the source of the color wheel or exact location of Color A and Color B on whatever wheel one chooses to use, complementary colors work: in painting, in advertising, and, yes, in photography.

To illustrate, take look at the final photo. Here the complements are subtle and soft: a slate blue dress (and blue eyes) with a faint yellow wall/drape in the background, and yet that bit of complementary color gives the photo a balanced and refined feel, at least to my mind.

So, give color some thought. Often there isn't much a photographer can do about color, particularly if one is photographing children outside and on-the-fly. But even if you lack the ability, as in a studio setting, to pick the perfect background, often a little foresight can help make color work for you. So, for example, consider putting the little girl in the pretty pink dress in an orchard in early spring, where the fresh green of the orchard grass will act as a perfect complement. Little boy blue? Maybe stand him in front of a row of sunflowers. Get the idea? Think. Color. Create.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Praise of the Snapshot

I've discovered a certain tension in portrait photography between control and spontaneity. At the one extreme, a studio gives one ultimate control over every aspect of the photograph (except, of course, your subject); at the other extreme is the casual snapshot, which offers variation in everything: lighting, movement, backgrounds, colors, etc. etc. Little control available there: just point the camera and fire away. Success is equal parts instinct, equipment, and dumb luck.

As I suspect is clear from my various blog posts and photographs, my personal taste leans more to casual and informal settings, even as I sometimes find myself wishing for more control.

I guess what I'm saying is this: I love taking snapshots, grabbing those "moments" posed or casually posed ("psst! hey Mary!!"), the infinite variety of expressions and emotions that play across a child's face.

I suppose that desire is captured in this quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Last Word on Lenses

Okay, so we talked about focal length and f-stops, so you know everything there is to know about lenses, right? Not quite.

While those are the primary features of lenses, I need to explain why a 50mm f1.8 lens sells can sell for under $100 at B&H Photo while a 50mm f1.4 lens sells for $400, and an 50mm f1.2L goes for an eye-popping $1350. (You can see these for yourself at the following link: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?O=search&A=search&Q=&sb=bs,upper(ds)&sq=asc&sortDrop=Brand:+A+to+Z&ac=&bsi=&bhs=t&shs=&ci=274&at=Brand_Canon&at=Lens+Type_Standard&basicSubmit=Submit.) As we discussed, engineering for those extra f-stop values likely accounts for some of the difference in cost, but not all of it. What explains the rest is build quality. Simply put: some lenses are engineered and built for consumers (read: occasional, light use, demand a low price), while others are engineered and built for professionals (heavy use under a variety of conditions, image quality at any cost).

So, for example, a professional lens will almost certainly be built out of metal and the finest optical glass available, while many consumer grade lenses incorporate a lot of plastic into the body and sometimes into the lens itself. Drop one of those 50mm f1.8 lenses and it's probably done. Gone. Finished. (Some pros call them "disposable" lenses for that reason and use them only as an emergency back up.) Drop that 50mm f1.2L on a rock, and, while you probably will have a heart attack, except for a few scratches, the lens itself may be just fine. So, choosing a lens is all about trade-offs. Generally--if you're serious about anything beyond scrapbook photos, you want the best lens you can afford, and you'll typically find the best values in fixed focal lengths (50mm 100mm etc.), but you have to decide what's most important to you. If in doubt, many professional stores will let you take a lens out and given it a trial run for, say, a weekend. For those here in Utah, I believe Pictureline in Salt Lake will let you do that.

One final note: photo retailers sell lenses made in the USA and also "gray market" lenses made elsewhere, which retail for less money. The trick to keep in mind here is that a gray market lens may not have a USA-backed warranty, meaning that if you have problems with the lens, you are out of luck. While a reputable dealer like B&H will make that clear, some less reputable dealers will not. So, I would recommend paying a little extra for a USA manufactured lens or making sure that a gray market lens has a warranty (for example, a "North America" warranty) that can be used in the U.S. If the seller doesn't specify what warranty applies, that should be a warning flag to you.