Albums: A True Family Heirloom

Sacrilege!  Last week I threw out a large professionally framed family portrait that had been in my family for 40 years.  Must have cost someone a bundle, but I didn't want it's 1960's faded vibe displayed on the walls of my modern-ish home or taking up precious storage space.  It felt wrong to toss a treasured (at one time) family photo, but it was possible thanks to one thing - an 8x10 of the same image, unfaded, neatly tucked into a folio.   I could happily hang onto that one without angst.  

It was a learning experience - specifically, I learned that wall portraits won't be the family heirloom most people think it will.  It won't be cherished forever by your children and grandchildren.   Instead it may end up passed around like a hot potato until the last in line who wants to say 'no thanks' overcomes themselves and pitches it.  The takeaway is:  most people don't want to display large old family portraits, but will keep small, easy-to-store prints for generations.  This leads me to the point of the post:  invest in a quality ALBUM.  Albums are small, meant to be handled, the pictures won't fade since they're stored closed, are relatively classic in their design, allow for a series of pictures rather than just one, and last but not least, will last much longer than any technology you're currently storing images on.  Bonus:  thieves will pass your albums on their way to your computer!  No one steals printed family photos ;)   

So the next time you hire a professional photographer, consider asking them to make an album the priority.  Albums will be pulled out and enjoyed year over year over year, so purchase one that feels good and will last.   All those pictures together tell the story of your family like nothing else, and truly memorialize the sweet children who quickly grow into men and women, and the people who will leave this world before us.  If you have to choose, invest the money in a good album rather than an expensive framed portrait.  It'll likely stay in the family beyond your lifetime and not be relegated to the attic.  You, your children, and grandchildren will be glad for your wisdom ;)    

Camera Settings - Which Mode? Aperture!

Chances are if you have a decent DSLR camera, you're only comfortable in 'Auto' mode.  Perhaps you've tried to use 'Manual' mode because you think you should, or a pro tried to teach you how in 2 hours, and it didn't work out - and then you couldn't get your camera back to 'normal'.  Never fear, there is a mode that requires minimal camera knowledge, but gives you gorgeous pictures - 'Aperture' mode.  I used this mode for 3-4 years before I was able to easily transition to manual - after I'd become limited by 'Aperture's capabilities. The aperture controls the depth of field, and it's the MOST IMPORTANT feature of a picture that 'Auto' doesn't even let you adjust.   It's the sole reason you should get out of Auto and into Aperture mode, now. 

The aperture is the variable-sized opening through which light passes, it controls the 'depth of field', and the 'depth of field' refers to how much of the picture is in focus, e.g., whether the subject is in focus and the background is blurry.   For pictures that really stand out from a cell phone snap, controlling the aperture on a DSLR is what makes the difference.  The smaller the aperture number, the larger the opening, and the blurrier the background.  I know instantly whether an image was cell-shot or DSLR-shot by the depth of field alone.  Cell phones just can't do what your DSLR can, and sadly, most DSLR owners can't take advantage of it.

Aperture mode requires you to adjust just 3 settings:  ISO, white balance, and the aperture, and the camera does the rest.  You can even opt to have 2 of those 3 settings (ISO and white balance) handled automatically by the camera, especially if you're just getting out of Auto for the first time.  For the record, ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera's sensor, low ISO (100-200) for bright outdoor light, and high ISO (400+) for indoor images.  Similarly the white balance controls the 'color' of the light in the image you create - indoor incandescent lighting looks orange, flash lighting looks bluish.  The proper white balance setting will make the light look natural.  But you're going to leave those 2 on auto, which means you have just one thing to adjust:  the size of the opening that light passes through.  Easy!

In Aperture mode, you simply set the aperture number.  The smaller the number, the larger the opening, and the blurrier the background.  E.g. your little girl is sitting in front of you in a field, you set the Aperture to it's lowest number, and in the resulting image she stands out as your crisply focused subject, surrounded by softly blurred fields.  Or another example:  your son's class is lined up to march in the school parade, you again set your aperture number as low as it'll go, then focus on your child.  Then he is the ONLY person in focus, and stands out as the subject of the picture despite 15 other kids lined up with him.  Conversely if you're taking a picture of a house, you want your aperture to be a high number, so as much of the house and landscape is in focus as possible.  Frankly in that situation, I grab my cell phone ;)    

There are a few other intricacies to learn, because a high aperture number = small opening = less light for the camera's sensor, which can result in a looong exposure and human hands just can't hold a camera steady enough.  Solution:  tripod or flash.  Similarly in bright sunlight the lowest possible aperture could let in too much light, and the picture will be 'blown out' and way too bright.  Solution:  Raise the aperture number, or use a 'neutral density filter'.  With practice you'll quickly realize the limits of your camera and will find ways to compensate. 

A caveat, pictures in Aperture mode tended to be slightly underexposed, at least they were for me.  But even the simplest photo editing software can handle the exposure adjustment for you should you wish.  So give it a shot, and enjoy the jump in picture quality.  Not to mention the satisfaction of finally getting your money's worth from that expensive camera!  

Happy shooting :)

Tips and Techniques - The Golden Hour

It's warm, the sun is shining high in the sky, and the kids are out playing.  A good time to snap some pics, right?  Actually, no.  It's really the WORST time, because the sun is far too bright.  Your eye can adjust to the bright sunlit areas and the dark shadows, but your camera's sensor can't.  The photos will have bright 'blown out' areas with no information other than pure white, and also have dark underexposed areas.  Meaning the children's pictured faces will have overexposed cheeks and underexposed eye sockets.  If you must photograph in high sunshine, have your subject turn their backs to the sun and shoot into the sun, placing the sun itself behind a tree or other object when you can.  

But this doesn't mean sunlight is never good for photography.  Au contraire, there is a special time of day when the sun is low on the horizon which is regarded as the BEST time for pictures.  The light is soft, not too bright - the Golden Hour.  It's the hour right after sunrise or right before sunset.  The light is gentle, pleasingly warm, giving subjects golden 'halos' of rim lighting on hair and bodies.  Plus nothing compares to the carefree mood that a sunlit photograph suggests.  It's worth waiting for, and that's why many photographers only schedule outdoor family portraits at this time of day.  The results can be spectacular.  

To photograph someone at the golden hour, your subjects can look directly into the sun, or even better, have the sun behind the subject for that wonderful 'rim' lighting effect.  You can consider using 'fill flash', which helps bring the subject's brightness up, or make a similar adjustment in post-processing.  If there are no clouds or haze lowering the sun's intensity, you may still need to moderate the brightness of the sun's orb itself by placing it behind a narrow object like a tree trunk, or filtering it through foliage.  You can also decide to have the orb in the photo for some 'sunburst' ray effects, or have it just off camera to avoid sunbursts.  Finally you'll often see 'flower hoods' on professional lenses too - these protect the surface of the lens from direct sunlight during a shot, because such light can produce haze and wash out colors.  A nice effect at times, but one you want to control. 

As an aside, do you think fog is the worst condition to photograph in?  NO, it's actually one of the best times, because the fog acts like a giant natural 'softbox', giving your subjects flattering, even skin tones.  If you have the opportunity to capture your kids in fog, take it, and enjoy the soft skin, perfect exposure, and thoughtful mood you'll effortlessly achieve.  

So if you're setting out to take print-worthy photographs, schedule the shoot during the golden hour, and you'll be rewarded with beautiful sunlit images with good exposure, tone, and a happy feel.      

This image was taken 30 minutes before sunset at McFarlane Nature Park in East Cobb, with the setting sun filtering through the trees.  Notice the golden tones and halo of 'rim lighting' on her hair.     

In Front of the Camera - Top 5 Tips for Great Family Pictures

A family photo session can be fun - it really can.  Dads, you don't have to dread the day, and moms, you don't have to worry about the kids misbehaving and wasting money on a photographer.  Read on for 5 ways to help ensure you get photos you'll love:

1)  Do not expect or attempt perfection.  Families who realize that goofy smiles and bad moods make good stories at the rehearsal dinner are more relaxed, have more fun, and in turn generally get better pictures.

2)  Think about ways to make your kids laugh.  Most parents know how to get their kids to laugh.  As the photographer, there's only so much I can do, and it usually isn't physical.  Kids LOVE physical.  Gentle rough-housing, throwing them in the air, bouncing on the knee etc. work 95% of the time, and only YOU can do it.  The camera will be ready to capture the happy expression just as the moment ends with everyone in a decently posed position, so don't be afraid to let loose.  

3)  Have well-rested, full-bellied kids.  Obvious, but it deserves a mention.  However, sometimes this isn't possible, so...

4)  Choose the least 'moody' time of day.  If the hour before sunset is the witching hour at your house, perhaps a morning shoot will work better.  Both sun-up and sunset have lovely 'golden' light, leading to what many consider the best family pictures.  

5)   Ask about a Do-Over.  In the end, if it all goes askew and a child just won't co-operate, a re-do is possible.  Let the photographer know that if they don't find the material they need during editing, you're open to meeting them at a convenient time and place to try again.  

Most of the time, good pictures are created even if things didn't go as planned, and you'll be pleasantly surprised.  But I've done re-do's twice, and both times I worked in another short session when I was already onsite, at no charge to the client.  I had what I needed within 5 minutes, as the problem child turned up full of smiles and ready to engage.  

Notice none of the tips involve location or wardrobe.  It's all about attitude.  Approach the session as a time to focus on having fun with the kids, with lots of laughter and playing.  All is not lost if everything doesn't go the way you anticipated, so relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings and downtime with family.  

Behind the Scenes - How Many Pics are 'Keepers'?

Although I'm a creative person, I don't mind the supporting tasks of running a business.  I graduated as an engineer and later obtained an MBA - so spreadsheets, finance, and efficiency are second nature.  As a photographer and small business owner, one very important element of efficiency is how many shots are 'keepers' - i.e. what percent of pictures are spared the recycle bin.  For me, it's about 5-10%.  Not much.  And that percentage is...falling.  Huh?

Why isn't the keep rate improving?  With digital imaging, the costs and time required to take hundreds of photos during a client's session are low - so low that during a day's conference work, I'll take several thousand. And as my skills improved, my 'keep' rate - fell.  As I learned to capture better images, I learned to cull, hard.  Because what gets kept needs editing, and average shots need A LOT of editing to make the cut.  Not efficient.

So picture me at the computer the evening after a client's shoot.  Waiting for the images to download.  Middle finger (how appropriate!) on the 'down' key, left index finger on the '1' key.  Ready, set, go:  click click click click click, 1 image per second, and every now and then a 'click-click', meaning it's marked with a '1' as a potential keeper.  At 60 images per minute, that's about 10 minutes to get through the first round of culls.  Then filter for just the 1's.  Next, mark 2's, then 3's and sometimes 4's.  What's left are the best images from the session, which will be presented to the client.  And it sounds like a dull process, but it's not!

Because if you watched closely, every now and then you'd see my face light up, eyes widen and mouth curl into a smile, and left index finger hit '5'.  An exceptional image, far and above the others.  Editing a session is an exciting discovery process, that ends with digital gold.  In fact, it's more satisfying than the shoot itself.  

As my photography improved, that golden treasure got shinier and more valuable.  And now, I only want the most beautiful, surprising, compelling shots.  And so, the 'keep' rate fell.  

As time goes on I expect it will rise again.   I'm becoming more selective about WHAT I capture; I no longer grab the camera for every flower or soap bubble.  Now I wait for the golden moments most likely to produce images that meet my higher standard.  The exception is photographing children - that remains a numbers game, as they are so unpredictable.  But overall, those 5-10% of images are getting better and better, and I'm perfectly happy with that :)    

                                                                 This image was buried in a series - everything came together - his expression and the backlit spray framing him were perfect.

                                                                 This image was buried in a series - everything came together - his expression and the backlit spray framing him were perfect.