Saturday, April 23, 2011

newborn and infant photography - how to

Due to the overwhelming response, in the form of emails to, with questions about "quick and easy child photography," I decided to take that post to a new level, newborns and infants. Here is an example of one of many emails:

"Michael, thanks for the photographs and the lessons. I'm a photographer from Dallas and my specialty is wedding photography. I was recently commissioned to do some baby portrait work. This type of photography is Greek to me. I don't want to turn the job down but I don't want to mess it up either. Any advice on how to make this process go as quick and smoothly as possible?"


First of all, I'd like to thank Justin and the other readers for your generous emails. I tried to respond to as many as I could and if I have missed yours, no worries. Today's post should answer any questions, if not more. 

Click the "read more" thingy to view the rest of this groundbreaking article.

Plan Plan Plan

I've said it once and I'll say it again. It will help you tremendously to have a preconceived idea of how a shoot will turn out. Do whatever it takes to get these ideas stirring. Brainstorm. Jot it down on paper. I'm a big fan of stick figure drawings on scrap paper. You may laugh but this technique is very efficient. Give it a try and you will thank me. 

Take a look at the photo above. We, for privacy sakes, will call him baby Bobby. Bobby's parents gave me a call one day and asked if I could do some portraits of their semi newborn baby. I happily obliged. It was time to plan. As soon as I hung up the phone, I grabbed my trusty notebook (the old paper kind) and began the brainstorming process. 

I took some time to think and scribble notes and illustrations onto paper. I was pondering where I would have baby Bobby sit, or lay, for that matter. Background ideas were flying around in my head. Lighting would be an issue. I had to think about different lighting scenarios to get what effects I was imagining. Aside from drawings I had down on paper, my equipment list. 

It would be easy to haul everything to the shoot location but that can be cumbersome in certain environments. It was possible that I would be shooting Bobby in a crib or some other constricting environment so I didn't want to turn his room into a living studio. Why? two reasons. First, mommy and daddy may get slightly pissed off. Second, Bobby may get equally, if not more, pissed off. This shoot was to be quick and smooth so I decided that less was more. 

On Scene

I arrived at the families home one Monday morning. Now, having never been in their home could change things. Any ideas that I previously had could have been quickly destroyed by certain environments. As the parents offered me some coffee, which I obviously accepted (coffee junkie), I did a quick scan of the home. We sat and discussed my ideas as well as theirs. It is good business practice as a photographer to entertain the clients ideas. Even if you think that they are absolute crap, pretend to admire and consider their awesome ideas. Don't overdo it or they will call your bluff. So why entertain the ideas at all? Rather than a photographer's technique, this is more like a sales technique. The family or client or whomever wants to feel involved. If you, the photographer, shuts them out, they will feel this and your business relationship can and will suffer. With that being said, listen to the client's art direction, hell, they may spark up something that you didn't think of. 

I took a look outside. Nothing out there had caught my eye. I decided to do the shoot in house, literally. I kindly asked the mother to produce some sheets that she would like to see as a backdrop for her son. I also advised her to dress him in something neutral, even white, as I didn't want to shoot Bobby with any distracting colors or patterns. First, mom showed me a plain white sheet and one that was covered in skulls. The white sheet would work as my main backdrop. The black sheet with white skulls, well, I have to admit, was different. I could have denied the skull ridden sheet but something about it was very cool. Bobby was also dressed in a plain white outfit. Very plain yet very good for the lens. It was time to get some photographs. 

Time For Some Action

This is the point where time is of the essence. Right now, Bobby is in an awesome mood. He's laughing at everything. His smile never leaves his face. Being a semi newborn, we all know this can turn on a dime. Wether it be that he gets hungry or decides to, well, do a number two. Whatever the case may be, there are many variables that can change a baby's mood instantly. The answer is to work and work quickly. There is no time to fumble around with umbrellas or softboxes. You better be a master at exposure. If you end up wasting five minutes just to find the right shutter speed, you better cross your fingers and pray that you are the most entertaining thing that the baby has ever seen. 

Easier said than done? Not really. Let me explain. I already knew that I had to get this job done quickly. I decided to have some exposure ideas already in my mind. If I had to adjust, it would be a very minimal amount of tweaking. 

I went in with the Canon 40d all ready to go. I had the speedlite on camera. This way I could make any light adjustments without leaving the back of the camera. The Canon 430 ex ii is adjustable in every sense. It can be pointed in just about every direction imaginable so you do not have to worry about the horrors of direct flash. Just point that light and bounce it.  

My lens of choice was the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. I chose this lens for its incredible speed. A fast lens is one that can open its aperture nice and wide. The Canon 50 1.4 gives a nice wide aperture that results in spectacular DOF. This would help me in two ways. First, I would be able to get some nice blur. Second, it would let in lots of light so I could keep up speed much faster at lower ISOs. 

I shot the baby in a spare bedroom. The room had white ceilings. And class, what is a large white ceiling? You better have guessed right. The large white ceiling is a giant softbox. I would simply aim the strobe directly at the ceiling, light will leave the flash head, travel upwards and on its return down towards the subject, has become an exponentially larger source of light. This larger source of light now becomes a soft light source. The soft light source now will yield minimal shadow to light transitions. Perfect for baby portraits. 

My settings were something like this. First, my ISO was a low 100 to keep noise at a minimum. Next, I went with a shutter sync speed of 1/200 of a second. After that, I dialed the aperture way down to its max of f/1.4. Finally, I dialed the strobe in at 1/8 power. This was my baseline setting. There was a large window to camera right letting in lots of ambient and there were some scattered clouds. If necessary, I could have tweaked my shutter or strobe power to compensate for any loss of light. That would have taken less that two seconds. I could have also upped my ISO, although I don't usually like to do this. If need be I will max out at an ISO of 400. Any more than that and the noise will get to an unacceptable level. 

Once dialed in, I began shooting. I had the camera in continuous drive mode. This setting allows the photographer to simply hold down the shutter release and fire off frame after frame, simultaneously. This feature is used mostly for sports photography but I find it equally useful while shooting portraits, especially when you need to get a shoot done on the fly. My particular camera gets somewhere around four frames per second. Not the fastest of the Canon EOS family but more than adequate for my needs. Any faster and my strobe would probably misfire about half of the shoot. My camera and strobe play nicely together. I can fire off about 20 continuous frames and get about 5 misfires on a fully charged flash. Not bad in my eyes. 

It's a Wrap (mmmm wraps)

Baby Bobby was an excellent model. After about ten solid shooting minutes, we were done. I thanked little Bobby and his parents and I was on my way. I walked off into the sunset, one more shoot down. I was victorious and exhausted at the same time. My bag of gear hung heavy on my shoulder just as the shoot hung heavy on my brain. How did I do? Time will tell my friend, time will tell. 

Did you think I was serious with that poetic crap?! I couldn't help myself. 

Post Shoot Post Processing

By now, if you have been reading this blog, you should be somewhat familiar with my post processing workflow. If not, I going to be quick so you'll have to check out some [older] posts to catch up. 

First, Adobe Camera RAW edits. Those include some exposure, sharpening and details adjustments. Next, over to Photoshop where I like to get down and dirty. My initial adjustment is to correct any and all color casting. After the color cast removal process, I do some High Pass Filter to add some sharpening to the details. After I complete the High Pass Filter process, I usually add or remove any unwanted artifacts from the image. These were a doozy, believe it or not. Read on...

I can only hope that Bobby's mommy and daddy don't read this post. Thank goodness I changed his name. He has one of those trendy names, in real life. I wouldn't want mommy to stumble upon this article accidentally by Googling her son's name. Why? It's not that bad but you'll see. 

Little Bobby's face was covered in baby boogies. Was that so bad? I don't think so. Anyway, to lighten up the blow even more, it wasn't all boogies. When I viewed the images at 100 or 200%, I could clearly see lots of little newborn flaky skin. Nothing unusual about that. I'm not that mean. Hell, that boy was living in an environment with 100% humidity for nine months. Now, in the dry earthly air for the first time, ever, he developed some dry skin. Who can blame him. You may be asking yourself, what is the point of all this skin talk. Well, I didn't want the family to have a portrait of Bobby on their wall with skin flaking off of his face. How do we remedy that situation? Photoshop!

My first plan of attack was to use the trusty Clone tool. The Clone tool is very efficient, if you know how to use it properly. I was able to remove the majority of flakes and boogies in just a few minutes.

I could still see the dryness of his skin though. I wasn't sure if it was just me or it was really pronounced. I decided to soften his skin even more. How so? First I duplicate the main layer. Now that I have a second layer, I go up to Filter, Blur and choose Gaussian Blur. With that dialogue box open I adjust the sliders as follows. First, is the level of blur which I drag the slider to 30 or so. Next, the Radius slider, which I always leave at 1.0. Finally, I leave the Threshold at 0.0. After hitting Ok, there will be a totally blurred photograph. Fear not. To get the skin softening process going, I now need to add a layer mask. Once I have the layer mask, it is inverted. Once the mask is inverted, I now see the original photo with no blurring. Now, I grab a white paint brush and paint over the areas of skin to be softened. It will look horrid after this process is complete. Again, fear not. The next feature to be used in Photoshop is probably my favorite of all, the Opacity slider. This adjusts the how much of the layer will show through on the original photo. I drag the Opacity down to about 20%. This gives the skin a nice soft effect that is barely noticeable. Finally, flatten the image and save as whatever.jpg.

The photos are now ready to be printed and hung on the lucky new parent's living room wall. 


Not much to say here but this:

Know what exposures should be, in the ballpark area, to minimize shoot time. This will help you shoot fast and avoid missing the important moments. It also is a clear indicator of a pro. People will spot an amateur in a heartbeat. So, don't go fumbling around trying to get the right settings. As corny as it sounds, become one with the camera. Know it inside and out. Hell, I'm to the point that I don't have to look to know how far I turn the wheel and what shutter speed or aperture will result. . . Pretty close anyway. 

Until next time.