Sunday, February 13, 2011

quick and easy - tips for child photography

The story you are about to read is real, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. 

The shoot is not one of your typical shoots. Most of it is the same. Gear is your typical bag of goodies. Light is tested and ready to pop. So, what is this unusual part of the shoot? A child.

Photographing a child can be quite a task. You have multiple obstacles to overcome. Today, we will discuss those obstacles and figure out how to make the best of a difficult situation.

Preface to the Shoot

During the week I had to shoot a client and his son. The job was pretty straight forward. He wanted some portraits of the kid and some candid shots of them together. Sounded like cake work to me.

They arrived at the home studio around noon. Surprisingly, they were more prepared than I had anticipated. Both had enough clothing for wardrobe changes. That was something I would not have expected from a family shoot. Most would just bring their child dressed in some awful holiday outfit.

Dad is covered in tattoos, which I thought could accent the photographs in some way. It was an option to shoot a grungy styled photograph. Some photographers would find them repulsive and fear the outcome. Not me. The freakier the better. Freakishness will only add more interest to any photo. He had a wide range of clothing. Dad brought everything from a suit to a very street casual flannel and jeans.

Child, who we will call, Child, had two, very casual outfits. Dad was happy with one but scared to death that the good one would be destroyed by the bag full of Yoo-Hoo drink boxes that he brought along (mmmm Yoo-Hoo). I advised the dad not to worry, that if any small amounts of the chocolaty goodness were to spill on his shirt, I would be able to fix in post processing.

Dad and Child were preparing their wardrobes and hair. My assistant/director/wife and I prepared the set. I didn't want to have much time wasted due to Child's short attention span. Everyone was working efficiently as a team.

Problem Child (ren)

From the beginning, I mentioned the unusualness of shooting a child. So what makes them so unusual? Let me share. First of all, and also mentioned, is Child's and any child's attention span. I'd say that 99.9% of children will not be your easiest subjects to work with. Professional models can be difficult in their own way, knowing more than you, the photographer, in their own mind. Little rug rats are difficult due to the fact that, they simply do not want to listen, to anything (actually just like me). To remedy this first obstacle is easy if you anticipate this problem in advance. Valium (just kidding). The answer is, be prepared. If you, the photographer, have a preconceived notion of how you want to shoot the child, your work will be simplified, exponentially. If you are prepared, you will be able to shoot fast and fast is good in this situation. Fast, on the other hand, does not mean sloppy. A famous quote can explain what I mean:

"Fast is slow, slow is steady and steady is fast."

I'm not sure who coined the phrase but they are words of wisdom while working as a photographer, especially with children. 

The next obstacle that you will encounter is the child's size. Unless they have a pituitary gland problem that causes them to release insane amounts of growth hormone, then your subject will usually be, well, small. A first tell tale sign of an amateur child photographer will be the angle at which they shoot a child. Many amateurs will see a kid sitting on the ground and take a shot from a standing, elevated perspective. Some may even crouch down a bit, still having an elevated point of view. A photography no no. If you are shooting something artsy and know what you're doing, then that can help you achieve whatever it is you are going for. If you are trying to make a timeless portrait, it just won't work. There are two ways to fix this problem. First, and not my favorite, is to raise the child up to a more workable height. You can plop he or she down on a stool or chair. I don't favor this due to problem number one, the short attention span. If you want that kid to sit in a stationary position, in a chair or stool and have that kid listen to everything you direct them to do, well, good luck my friend. Solution? Switch roles. Rather than have the child raise up to your level, you get down to their level. I've found this solution to be most effective, even though I do hate it. Confused? Well, the only reason I hate it is for the fact that it is not always comfortable shooting in awkward positions while my fat ass is trying to maneuver on the hardwood floors or any floors for that matter. I usually get cramps in my belly and soreness in my hips. Another quote to aide in your agony (or mine):

'Pain lets you know that your alive.'

I'm not sure who coined this phrase either. It was either Nietzsche or Viggo Mortensen in "G.I. Jane," I can't pin point it. Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in "The Doors," may have said something along those lines as well. Ok, when I figure out who said it, I will get back to you with the proper answer. The point is, suck up the pain and don't be a cry baby. The results will be rewarding in the long run. 

What does any of that have to do with getting a good shot of a child on the floor? While your butt is uncomfortably plopped on the cold hardwood floor, where it doesn't usually sit, the kid is right at home. Most children play on the floor. Ok, maybe not hardwood floors but I'm no Hitler. I had plenty of blankets and pillows laid down for his comfort (mental note, pillows for me next time). If that child is in more of a comfort zone than it will be much easier to keep them there and in return, this will give you ample time to complete the photo shoot.  

Shoot the Moon!

Shoot the moon was a famous quote from "Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke." I have movies in my head now, so sue me! Anyways, the quote was shouted from an undercover police vehicle disguised as a laundry truck. It basically meant that it was time for attack. I too was ready to attack. 

As dad and Child entered the shooting arena (just my studio), I had everything ready to go. Here's a breakdown of the set:

Background:  white shower curtain hanging on wall

Light:  Canon 430 ex ii.

Modifier:  Calumet 45 inch umbrella. Black back removed to shoot through.

Modifier:  3x4 foot white reflector.

Camera:  Canon 40d DSLR

Lens:  Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM (still alive and kicking)

Triggering:  Lumopro

It was a pretty sight to say the least. When they entered the room, Child was eager to pose for the camera. This was going to be easy breezy. My set director/wife helped Child to the floor and entertained him quite a bit. Child couldn't have been any happier. I was making some last minute exposure adjustments. Tech specs were as follows, for both shots:

Shutter speed:  1/200 

Aperture:  5.0

ISO:  100

White Balance:  Flash (shot in RAW so this can be easily fixed in post)

Metering:  Center weighted

Strobe power:  1/4

My exposure choices were very deliberate. First of all, lets talk aperture. I chose f/5.0 to avoid excessively shallow depth of field. The reason being, a child will move on you and at a wide open aperture you risk losing focus on the eyes. F/5.0 was a small enough choice that I didn't have to sacrifice too much light power. Next was the strobe distance and power. I was able to have the umbrella approximately two or three feet from the subject(s). The higher powered strobe allowed my to light the background enough to brighten it up. I didn't want a blown out white background. Slightly gray was my goal. If I wanted to darken the background, I would have simply lowered the flash power a bit and moved the umbrella in closer to the subject's face(s). On the other hand, If I wanted the background even whiter, I could have backed the umbrella out to about five feet and bumped up the power on the speedlight. It's all a matter of taste for that particular shoot. 

Once I was dialed in, I began shooting. It went incredibly smooth. I was very pleased that the strobes did not misfire once. I was able to get almost 200 usable frames. Dad and Child were like pros, posing for the camera. Before they arrived that day, I was a bit apprehensive about how the director and I were going to have them pose. Turned out they they were very receptive to each direction. 

My ass was finally numb and cramps subsided. I was done. It was time to head on over to the digital darkroom. 

Post Processing 

The beautiful thing about Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) is that you, as the photographer, have the ability to batch process. Batch who?!? Oh yes, batch processing can change the world as you know it. Please, read on. 

First things first, I will tell you when not to use batch processing. You do not, I repeat, do not want to use batch processing when your lighting situations are not in a controlled environment. You will confuse the ACR software. 

When batch processing works. If you are shooting in a controlled environment, where everything is going to stay the same and nothing altered, then batch processing is the way to go. It will ultimately save you lots of time and that will give you more time to do other work. 

How do you do that? Let's say you are reviewing all 100 shots in Adobe Bridge. You make sure the metadata matches up, such as, shutter speeds, lighting, etc. You then can select every single photo and open them together in ACR. You will be given a prompt asking if you are sure that you want to open all of the photographs. Once you click OK, every Selected RAW file will open in ACR. 

Now you are in ACR. Look to the upper left hand corner of the screen. You can see there that there is a selection that says Select All. By selecting all, the slightly obvious happens. You guessed it, all of the files are selected and ready to be edited, in synchronization. 

What I do use batch processing for. First, white balance adjustments. Next, I tweak the exposure to my preference. Finally, I bump up the detail and noise reduction, ever so slightly. After all of these corrections are made, I check through the individual files to be sure that they do not need any specific attention. All of this can be done in about ten minutes. Simply, amazing.

What I do not use batch processing for. The biggie would be retouching. Although Adobe software is nothing less than spectacular, it does not perform miracles. If you are trying to remove a blemish in one RAW file, it will not figure out where the same blemish is on every single photo. Why? If the subject is carbon based and blood is pumping, chances are they will eventually, move. Need I say more? The other  function I won't usually use batch processing for is special effects. I find that even from the same shoot that some effects will work on some images and not for others. Take the photograph of dad and Child, for example. I added a soft glow to the photo. I felt that this effect would work nicely on that particular shot but not the other one. Ultimately, I like to do edits of this nature in Photoshop. So, when the batch processing is completed, I find individual photographs that I want to work on. And, it's on to Photoshop.

Photograph of Child and photograph of dad and Child are edited in different manners. I was very happy with Child's photo. I did nothing more than remove any color casting with the Curves adjustment, a bit of High Pass Filter to sharpen, and finally a few color adjustments. If you are wondering what color adjustments were made, I guess I will share as painful as it may be. Ok, you know that the shower curtain liner was used as the background (cheapo numero uno). If you were to see the RAW file, and I will take it with me to my grave, you would see that the white shower curtain liner was not totally white. There were some odd yellowish and brownish stains on the curtain. It almost looked like winter camouflage. Not appealing to anyone. I'm hoping they were just soap stains. Anyway, to rid of the strange stains, I duplicate the layer, desaturate that layer, create a layer mask and with a black brush paint away the desaturation of Child. Flatten the image and save as .jpg. Ready for the printing press. Easy.

Now, on the other hand, you notice the soft glow of the dad and Child photo. This can be achieved numerous ways. That's the cool thing of Photoshop. There is no right or wrong way to get a desired adjustment. It is all just a matter of how and what you, the photographer, knows. The basic edits were identical to the first photo. To add the glow, I typically make a Gaussian blur layer and lower the opacity. I went another route to adjust this one. I decided to use the Nik Color Efex professional plugin. This plugin runs about 200 bucks and is worth every penny. It's like Photoshop inside of Photoshop. When I opened up Nik Color Efex Pro, I chose Glamour Glow. this gives a nice colorful blur to the entire image. I adjusted the amount of glow and the amount of saturation until I had the desired results. Once you click OK, Nik Color Efex Pro adds this effect to its own layer so that if needed you can adjust as a layer mask. Awesome. Again, I tweak accordingly, flatten the image, save as .jpg and call it a day. 


It was a lot to take in, I'm sure. Trust me, I know, I wrote the damn thing. So what have we learned? First, shooting a child (photographing, that is), can be easy, as long as you prepare in advance. Next, with a single speedlight and a reflector, you can produce awesome photographs. Third, batch processing can save you hours in the digital darkroom, under the proper conditions. Finally, check the goddamn cleanliness of your uber-cheap props, mods, et al. You will ultimately embarrass yourself. I got lucky. Hopefully Child was not sure what color the liner was supposed to be and maybe dad just didn't notice. Regardless of the reasoning, I got lucky and if need be, will spring for a cheap shower curtain liner, in the future.