Take Great Photos of Your Kids Every Time

In order to take great photos, you need to know how to take bad ones first, right? Here is the first in a series of simple rules to keep in mind in order to take lousy photos...

Rule #1. Ignore the lighting
Who needs natural light when you've got a built-in flash right? Wrong. On-board flashes can ruin almost any photo if you let them. To be fair, an automatic flash can generate a fair photo out of poor lighting conditions, but more often, it masks beautiful lighting conditions. Take the photo at left as an example: an automatic flash would have blown out the magic of these sparklers. Look also at the lower photo: here we see a nice soft glow of the candle on Tommy's face as he blows out his birthday candles; an automatic flash would wash out the candle's warm glow by blasting everyone with harsh white light. Ans worse, itwould outline the subject with a dark shadow on the back wall.

Does this mean never to use a flash? Heck no. Flashes rock when used properly. In fact, (even though implied that I didn't) I used a flash on the birthday candle photo*, I just dimmed the flash considerably. How can you dim the flash? Many SLRs have adjustable flashes, so you can simply set the onboard flash a stop and a half below the ambient light.

Most point and shoot cameras (and some SLRs) won't allow you to adjust the flash, so you need to devise your own adjustment strategy. I've found napkins and scotch tape to work well. Napkin layers dim the intensity of the flash and also diffuse the light like a soft box does. Use trial and error to determine how many layers of napkin you need: try it with one, two, three or more layers of napkin (tip: yellow or red napkins will warm the light). And even if you don't want to dim the flash much, a single napkin layer will help diffuse the light.

How should you balance the flash with the ambient light? Many photographers use the back light front fill method: use the natural light as the key lighting (back light), and the flash as a filler to soften shadows (front fill). This fill flash is set around 1-1/2 stops below the key light. If you don't have a light meter, use trial and error.

The sun at noon is a bummer, not a boon. Shooting outdoors in the sun can yield great photos but you need to do it at the right time of day. When the sun is low in the sky (morning and evening) it shines sideways, which creates long dramatic shadows that go sideways. The color of the sunlight is also warmer, i.e, golden reddish. High noon sun casts shadows straight down on your kid's face (which makes it look like spanky has two black eyes), and the light is harsh white.

The raking light of morning and dusk also highlights the texture of things, such as clothing. The shadow difference is evident in these two photos. The high noon shot works well enough though because Tommy's face is in a shadow, and he's not looking at the camera. But you can also see the difference in the light quality: see how white and bleached out the pavement in the background is? The morning beach photo above has much warmer light. The photo at left of Moms with Jack was taken in a nice evening light that's raking sideways and has a yellow tint. Raking light also highlights the folds in fabric, which adds a ton of depth to photos.

*The flash is evident in the photo because you can see the shadow behind the man's head in the background.

Rain-proof Your Camera for Free

Hotel room goodies can keep you dry on a rainy shoot, diffuse the light on a sunny shoot and keep your filters clean and safely packaged.

Because I shoot home building job sites quite often, I don't have the luxury of choosing which weather I'll work in. If it's dumping rain, many builders will typically bail out (pun), but a drizzle won't stop most of them (especially in Oregon). If I want to get my shots, I have to be ready.

Here's a tip I got from National Geographic magazine. Robert Caputo and Cary Wolinsky wrote a column in the front-of-book section My Seven. It's an interesting column because it's really more about the author than any particular thing. It's an interesting use of magazine space; Henry Kissinger's "My Seven" is likely to ba quite a bit different than Ozzy Osborn's.

Much of Robert and Cary's Seven focus on setting up a temporary photo studio in your hotel room, but a couple of items about location shooting. Among the most useful: hotel room shower caps make a great rain shield for your camera. You can cover the whole camera leaving the front of the lens exposed (a clear shower cap allows you to see the knobs and the display screen on the back of the camera body). They also reccommend grabbing the shower curtain to use as a light diffuser (or additional rain protection) which is a pretty good idea, but I often need a larger diffuser on an architectural shoot, so I reserve rooms with King size beds and grab the bed sheet. Fitted sheets have conveniently rounded corners which makes them easier to hang from curtain rods or other stationary objects.

Bonus tip: Carrie and Robert suggest using the shoe mitt for cleaning filters, but I also like to use it to dry the inevitable water droplets on the front of the lens...

Cheap Photo Tip: Duct tape and Step Ladders

You can triple the height of your tripod by spending five bucks at Home Depot.

One thing that can make a photo especially interesting is to get an angle that most people will never see. Down low or up high are two obvious options. On architectural photo shoots, I try to gain elevation for exterior shots; getting lower doesn't lend itself to shooting a house (it can be great for interiors thjough and it's awesome for shooting kids and dogs). The magazine I work for is big on quality photos, but small on budget; we send me alone with as much photo gear as I can carry rather than sending me with a lot of assistants, catering crews, and boom trucks (to be fair though, they do encourage me to eat well and stay in nice hotels when I'm on the road).

With low budgets, it pays to be resourceful. I used to climb up the homeowner's extension ladder leaned against a tree to shoot an exterior freehand, but that limited when I could shoot to sunny parts of the day (the least best light) and it was very hard to frame the shot exactly right (especially when bracketing for exposure). This kind of shooting means fast shutter speeds. The money shot that my art director always wants, at dusk when the interior lights just match the level of the outdoor light, was out of the question shooting freehand, high up in a tree.

A colleauge, Roe Osborn (www.capecreative.com), gave me a great tip: duct tape your tripod to a step ladder and then use another step ladder to climb on so that you won't shake the tripod. I can usually come up with a couple of step ladders between the homeowners, architect and builder. If not I can rent or buy a couple from Home Depot (I return them for my money back the next day).

The photo above shows me taking Roe's advice, or at least partially, I was on a 16 foot step ladder (!) and the builder, Rich Elstrom didn't happen to have another (frankly, it's pretty stunning that he has one). As it turned out, I wasn't able to get quite enough elevation for the shot I wanted, and because I had to climb the same ladder that my tripod was duct taped to, it was difficult to keep the ladder steady for a long exposure. The next day, Rich's Foreman, Mark, rented me a cherry picker which got me plenty high for my money shot.

The shot ended up being reprinted in TIME Magazine's 2006 Design and Style Guide. The article can be seen at the architect, Nathan Good's, website.

Through-the-Windshield Photography

There are a lot of 65 mph photo-ops -- if you're ready
A fun way to document road trips, and keep yourself busy, is to shoot photos of the countryside as you speed through it. Occasionally, you need to stop, soak up the view, and shoot away, but many of the best things you see don't accommodate stopping to frame the shot.

Personally, I like shooting barns, cows, and weird signs along the road. It's also fun to take photos of people reading the paper, talking on their phones, shaving, or applying lipstick while they drive. I suppose I should mention that when shooting the countryside at 65 mph, I'm not the one who's doing the driving. I'm the passenger. Not only does this give me a rest from driving, it also gives my wife's immaginary brake pedal foot a rest.

In addition to cows, barns, billboards, and bookworms, there are lot's of other things to shoot if you've got a camera handy. Of course, taking the pictures is only half the fun; actually looking at them is fun too, so you need to hedge your bets on getting quality photos.

Wash the windows at every stop

Shooting through the windshield is my second choice, I prefer to roll down the passenger's window and shoot sideways. If you look through the viewfinder, you can track a good shot from front to back (this works well with cows and barns, not so well with weird signs). When tracking shots like this, it's a very good idea to have the strap around your neck (or your wrist, depending on your strap). But many great shots are through the windshield, complete with a potential layer of dead bugs and grime. This grime layer will either apear as a fuzzy haze in the foreground or it will fool your autofocus causing you to lose your shot. Either way, it'll degrade the quality of your photo (if you get one at all).

Make sure to wash the windshield and side windows and top off the winshield wiper fluid at every gas fill-up (this is a great job for kids). Relying on the wipers to do your dirty work is fine between fillups, but you have to work to avoid the peripheral fuzz outside the wipers' reach. Don't forget to wash the side windows too, it's not always acceptable to backseat adventurers to blast them with air. And slightly tinted side windows can give you a free polarizing lens filter.

Stick to fast shutter speeds
High shutter speeds can eliminate blurs from your photos two ways: by isolating the movement, and by increasing the depth of field. How does the shutter speed boost depth of field? It doesn't, but if you're shooting on an automatic setting favoring a high shutter speed, the camera will compensate for the lower light availability by opening the aperture wider (lowering the f-stop) which boosts the depth of field.

On an SLR camera (Single lens reflex cameras allow you to change lenses), this setting is often labeled TV (time value). On point and shoot models the setting is usually represented by a sports figure. I shoot with an SLR and try different speeds to see how they're working, but on a sunny day, I can shoot at 1/500 of a second and get crisp forgrounds with the focal point in focus. Of course, you may want the foreground to be blurry showing that you're rocketing along the interstate, it depends on what you're trying to say with the photo. I'm typically trying NOT to say "I was too lazy to stop the car, get out, and set up this photo". If I get a great shot at 65 mph that I can publish in a magazine, I'm a pretty happy camper.

A fast shutter speed also minimizes the bumps in the road and any other camera movement caused by the car or the photographer's ability to hold the camera steady, such as whith heavy zoom lenses. As a rule of thumb (normally I'm against rules of thumb, but this one works) you can set a minimum shutter speed as the inverse of the lense size. For a 200 mm zoom, use no slower than 1/200 sec for hand held shots.

Different road types call for different lenses

This is more for SLRs than point and shoot cameras, but if using a point and shoot, you can set it and forget it, so you won't have to zoom or pan while trying to frame the shot. Shooting at 65 mph doesn't always allow you the time to fiddle with the composition, you need to point and shoot. Even when you're ready you miss some good ones, but you'll miss fewer if you're ready.

Federal interstates typically have a big buffer zone between the road and the barn (or cows, or 'See Rock City' sign), so you've got a naturally wide window of vision. Zooms work well for these roads. I like a variable 25-105 lens, which gives me the flexibility to re-frame the shot, but occasionally a 200 mm zoom is a great choice. Of course, if you're shooting with a professional SLR, a variable zoom to goes up to 105 may be all you need because an 8 megapixel camera on 'Fine' or RAW setting* will allow you to blow up the image substantially and then crop to your taste.

National and State highways, typically 2 or 4 lane, tend to have a smaller buffer zone so zooms will put you too close to your subject. Here a wide angle works best, again variable if possible, I use a 16mm-35mm, but I've got a 14 mm in the bag just in case the road is really tight. Again, with a high resolution photo, you should be able to blow it up substantially and crop to your taste.

Great lighting makes you look like a Pro
The best light is at dawn and dusk. On a road trip, dusk is much more likely to be a time when you'll have the luxury of goofing around with a camera. On a clear day a couple of hours before dusk, the light will be golden, and enrich your subject matter tremendously. Also the sun is lower on the horizon which casts real nice long shadows. At high noon, the shadows are short and uninteresting; they also look strange on people's faces because they go from top to bottom, they darken people's faces in very unflattering ways. Sideways light is more dramatic.

I'll go into a deeper discussion of using light in photography in a later post, but here's a quick tip: bright sun means strong contrast, so use a flash to soften the shadows. But you need to adjust the flash to be dimmer than the sun. With expensive speedlite flashes this is easy to do. On many SLRs the built-in flash can be adjusted as well, but on point and shoot models, you get what you get, so you need to outsmart the camera. Do this with a layer or two of napkin and some scotch tape. The napkin will diffuse the light, giving it a softer quality and the scotch tape will hold the napkin to the camera. Try out different napkin settings (1 layer, 2 layers, 3 layers) to see how your particular camera reacts. This scotch tape soft box is a pretty good idea for all flash photography because onboard flashes are usually pretty harsh.

*A note about camera settings: shoot on the highest quality you've got available to you. This will decrease the number of photos you can fit on your card, but if that's a problem, get a bigger card. Huge images allow you loads of flexibility in printing.

Take Control of your Photos: Spin the Knobs Like a Pro!

You can control how light a picture is with shutter speed or f-stop, but they both can cause blur. The secret is predicting the blur so you can avoid it, or use it to your advantage.

Good photographs don't happen without good light. Part of this is the quality of the light, such as warm vs. cold, but also it's the balance of light in a photo and amount of light. The simplest to get a grip on, amount of light, can be illustrated with a couple of extreme examples: a dark room and a sunny snowfield. When you take a picture (without a flash) inside a room, the picture is usually too dark. When you take a picture on a sunny day in the middle of a snowfield, the picture is usually too light. In order to take photos with the right amount of light, you need to spin the knobs on your camera to correspond to the natural lighting conditions (I'll talk about augmenting the natural light with flash in a later post).

A camera is basically a box with a hole in it that lets light in. The light either exposes film or catalyzes some digital voodoo to produce a picture, but the amount of light that gets through the hole makes the picture too bright, too dark, or just right. Photos that are too light are easy to darken with a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture setting. Lightening a dark photo is where the problems begin. There are two ways to control the amount of light getting through the hole: shutter speed (how long you let light through the hole), and aperture setting (how big the hole is). The rub is that they both have blurriness as a potential side effect.

If you let light through the hole for a long time, the picture will be lighter
The first way to control the amount of light in a picture is to leave the shutter open longer thereby letting in more light. But slow shutter speeds will cause blurriness because while the shutter is open, things will move. The camera will see this movement and capture it as a blur. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It can be a neat effect when shooting a waterfall, for example, or on an ultra-long exposure of the night sky where you capture the circular movement of stars.Both of those examples assume that only one thing is moving: the thing you want to move. But that’s not what really happens. The camera is more often what moves because it's very hard to hold a camera steady for more than 1/60th of a second. That’s why you need to use a tripod with slow shutter speeds; to control the blur.

If you make the hole bigger, more light can get in faster
The second way to control the amount of light in a picture is to make the size of the hole that lets light into the camera bigger. This hole is called the aperture, and its size is measured in f-stops. To make things seem harder than they really are, f-stops are the inverse of the aperture size, or 1/aperture. An aperture opening of f2.5 is bigger than f16 (even though the number is smaller), so all other things being equal, the photo will be lighter on f2.5.

Again, spinning the knobs down to a lower f-stop can add blur, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you use it. F-stop determines how wide a range the camera can focus on, or it’s depth of field. Very small f-stops have very small depths of field. The camera can only focus on a very limited range in front of and behind the subject you’re focusing on. The foreground and background will appear blurry. This can be an interesting effect, such as if you’re trying to highlight an object in a busy scene (a person in a crowd), but it needs to be intentional, or you’ll be disappointed.

Combine shutter speed and f-stop to get the shot you want
Mixing these two settings in various combinations can allow you a ton of flexibility in controlling the look of your photos. If you know that you want to keep the shutter open for a long time, to make the waterfall look really cool, you’ll have to use a tripod to steady the camera, but you’ll also have to close down the aperture so that the photo isn’t blown out (too bright). This will put most everything in the viewfinder in focus.

Automatic camera settings are typically pre-engineered to account for depth of field, fast movement, or low light; and sometimes, that's the easiest way to go. But now that you understand how to control this stuff yourself, you're not handicapped by the pre-sets.

There's another way to lighten a dark setting
Now that we’ve talked about the two ways to lighten a photo, there’s one more way: film speed, measured in ISO rating (formerly known as ASA). ISO is a measure of how sensitive the film is to light. Typical daylight conditions call for an ISO of around 100 or 125. Night photography needs a film speed of around 1000. Digital cameras don’t use film, but they have ISO settings, so you can boost up your ISO for dark conditions, but the side effect is that the photo will be grainier than it will be at a lower setting. Practically, this means you have to print the photo smaller, or that you can’t blow it up as much. But at least you can print it right? When shooting photos at trade shown inside a convention center, I typically boost the ISO to around 400 so that I don’t have to use a flash (which is annoying to many people).

The other way to boost light is to provide more light either with a flash, more ambient light, or both. I’ll cover that next.