Holiday Portraits

I've dedicated previous posts on providing tips for taking holiday portraits, so I'm not going to waste your time telling you what we've already discussed.  If you're looking for tips for improving your portraits, especially those taken during the holidays, type portraits into the search box and the top, right side of this page.  Doing that should bring up previous posts that were focused on the subject.  I thought today's post I would highlight some of my favorite portraits I took over the last few days. Pictures of my best and cheapest subjects... my family.  

As we did last year, we spent the holidays with family in El Dorado Hills, CA.  It's a about 30 minutes past Sacramento on the way to Lake Tahoe.  Well, I had lots of plans to take some landscape shots in nearby areas, but of course one of my main priorities this time of year is to take photos of the family, and especially the kids.  Anybody with kids knows how fast they grow up and having new photos of them every year will help you remember how young, cute and awesome they were before they turned into the little terrors they are today. Even if you're kids are totally ugly, you'll want photos.  I took pictures of these same kids last year, but I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to capture them again. The most beautiful family holiday photo is the photo that captures what your kids or family members are like now... this year.  What is the "now" for your family?  Do you have little ones who run around everywhere?  If so, consider a photo like that for your photos, cause in the next few years your "now" will look very different.  Capture something about today that will be unforgettable to not only you but your family!

When I'm hanging out at the house I usually have a plate of food in one hand and a drink in the other, but I never know when a great photo opportunity will pop up, so I always keep my camera close.  I think it drives my family crazy, cause it's always near by... usually on the kitchen table, in front of the TV or hanging on the coat rack.  You can be sure wherever it is, it will be in the way.  I also always make sure when I'm just hanging out that my  batteries are charged and the lens I want to use is on the camera.  During this trip I mostly had my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 on my camera while I was in the house.  It's a great lens to use in doors cause it's wide aperture can almost see in the dark, so I can still get sharp photos in relatively little light.  I also always had my Canon Speedlite 580ex on my camera.  Again, it's not used all the time, but I want it ready to go when I do need it.  I actually found myself using it a lot this year.  An off camera flash is one of those things that you don't realize how much it will benefit your photos until you start using it.  Try it, you'll like it.

If you remember last year, I actually set up a studio in the garage and took portraits on a backdrop, with a full lighting set up and even snacks!  This year I decided to go more causal.  Don't just plan on taking photos around the tree or at some fancy family dinner.  You never know when you'll have a great opportunity.  I literally took my camera with me when I took the dogs outside for a pee, or when we hit the malls for those after Christmas sales.  I just took my camera around with me and took photos when the mood hit, or found myself in a moment I really wanted to capture.  Below are a few of my favorites from the week.  No rules, nothing set up, just took 'em when I felt like it.  I got some good shots and I know the family is really happy to have the photos, even if they think I'm really annoying at the time. 

So I don't want to leave you without offering a tip.  Some great kernel of knowledge that makes the last two minutes of reading worth it.  Okay... here it goes. DON'T TELL YOUR SUBJECT TO SMILE!!  Seriously, there's nothing that generates a faker, more uncomfortable, unnatural smile than to tell somebody to smile.  Say something else... anything.  I used i know a photographer that would have her subjects say "fuzzy pickle."  When I'm taking pictures of kids, I usually include the word "fart" somewhere in my request.  That always gets a laugh, cause come on... farts are funny.  Anyway, try it.  Say something that will illicit a nature smile rather than a forced, uncomfortable one. Oh, and when taking a family holiday photo, get everyone to close the gaps by getting as close as they can to each other.  If you can see any background between two people (or worse crazy Uncle Bob), have them get in closer, tighter, for a more affectionate feel.  

Twas the Season for Portraits

Twas the season and twill is!  Hi everybody!  Happy New Year and welcome back to the blog.  For the four of you keeping track, I've been gone for the last two weeks.  I was spending the holidays with my in-laws.  Now before you make a lot of in-law jokes, I really like mine and the family and I had a great time.  Lots of food... lots of drinks... and lots of food.  Also, did I mention there were drinks?  One of my favorite parts of the break was all the photos I got to take.  I took photos of the dogs, photos of the kids, photos of strangers... photos of stranger's kids.  I even got up for a few sunrises and took some really cool pics of my favorite bridge in Auburn, CA.

However, my favorite photos were the portraits I took in my make-shift photo studio I created in my in-law's garage.  I decided the holidays were a great time to bust out a bunch of my lighting and photo equipment and take portraits for whoever wanted over the time we were on vacation.  If you know my in-laws, you know that there are about 400 different parties and dinners over the break, so I thought this was a great opportunity.  Usually the light, background, room, subject or something isn't ideal for a portrait, so I figured I'd just make it perfect with a really controlled environment.  I started with a background of white seamless paper.  I then put a stool a few feet away from the background which would allow me to light a specific area and then keep people coming to the same spot... it was far enough away from the background to help keep shadows off the white paper.  I put an "x" with tape on the floor right under the stool, so if there were groups, or tiny people, we could shoot knowing the exact same spot without the benefit of the stool..  I then placed two soft boxes about four feet in front of the stool and about three feet off to each side.  Each soft box had a Canon 580ex II speedlite in it and there was one additional flash on the ground, behind the stool, aimed at the background.  Why?  Well, if you know about the principles of light falloff (lookup the inverse square rule), you know that with the subject a few feet away from the background, the light would falloff before reaching the white paper, causing it to look gray.  Now, that's okay and I wanted it that way in some of the photos, but in others I wanted a pure white background, so the additional flash was needed.  The speedlite on the right was at about 1/8 power and the one on the left was about two stops less.  This made for some interesting shadows on the subjects, even though they were lit from both sides.

Here's what the setup looked like without anybody standing in for a photo.  Keep in mind that in this photo I haven't yet placed the flash behind the stool aimed at the background.  You can see it all ready to go off to the right on the floor, but that's not the place where I used it.

So now we were ready to go.  I set my ISO at 100, my aperture at f/5.6 and my shutter speed at 125/sec.  That would give me sharp photos with just the amount of depth of field I was looking for.  I was shooting in manual cause I didn't want any of my settings to change.  I used a light meter to get the proper exposure for the flashes and then I was good.  I knew that as long as my subjects were roughly the same spot and if the lights didn't move, I would have the same, perfect exposure every time.  If I wasn't shooting in manual mode, the camera would automatically change it's settings every time somebody moved or the lighting changed.  This allowed me to keep control and keep everything constant.  

It was a lot of fun and I think the photos came out really well.  Everybody had a good time and I don't think that had anything to do with the alcohol being served.  Okay, maybe a little.  Some of my favorite photos can be found below.

Happy New Year!