Environmental Portraits

Recently, a friend asked me to take a portrait of her in her office for professional use. We started behind the desk, but I didn’t feel that location captured her and the inviting warmth of her office and professional style. So we moved to a chair where she normally talks with clients, which was conveniently located by a window that let me avoid using a flash to maintain the natural feel of the office environment. I used a very fast lens (Tamron’s SP 35mm F/1.8) with a wide open aperture of F/2.2. This allowed me to capture my subject in sharp focus while blurring the background of the desk, laptop and books that let the viewer know the subject is in her office.

Blur Your Travel Snapshot Background

As travelers and vacationers, we want the “we are here” photo memories, but they do not need to be quick cell phone grabs, selfies or images that are just flat documentation of our sojourns. Blurring the background elevates your travel snapshots and is simple to do. Set your camera to aperture-priority mode and choose a wider aperture like F/5 or F/6.3. If you are nervous about using a non-program mode, set your camera to the “portrait” mode, which will automatically set your camera to deliver similar results. The sharp subject pops off of the softer background canvas that still lets the viewer know where we are, but feels more professional in nature. In this case, the girl is framed by the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park located within the NYU campus area. The arch is blurred out, but identifiable. And the bonus is that all of the distractive elements in the background are also blurred to put our focus on the subject. Try this technique when posing your child or family in front of an iconic structure on your next vacation.

{38mm, F/5, 1/500th sec., ISO200}

For Better Outdoor Portraits, Add a Little Flash-Even in Winter

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In the photo on the left, I did not use a flash. There are harsh shadows all over the girl’s face, to the point where you cannot even see her eyes. By popping up the flash, even outdoors in winter, you can eliminate the harsh shadows on a bright sunny day and capture a much more flattering portrait of your subject. This is called fill flash. I had my camera in regular program (not green box) mode and popped up my flash to get the photo on the right. Now there’s the eyes! And notice how the camera/flash system automatically balances the daylight with the flash to maintain the saturation in the blue sky, brown trees and green grass.

Fall Foliage Background Perfect for Photo Portraits

When sunlight hits colorful fall foliage, it makes a stunning backdrop for your impromptu family portraits. The trick to getting the painterly background look that makes the subject pop off the background is to use a wide open aperture. The portrait here was taken at 70mm with an aperture setting of F/2.8. Focusing on the eyes, the background drops out due to the shallow depth of field into a painterly sparkle of fall colors. If your lens does not open to a fast aperture like F/2.8, use your telephoto lens at its maximum zoom, set the camera to aperture priority and choose the widest aperture opening (most likely F/5.6 or F/6.3) and step in a little bit closer. That combination will drop out the background for a similar look that makes a beautiful portrait suitable for framing and display on your mantle. 

Shooting Sample Images to Learn How to Achieve Shallow Depth of Field

I find that the best way to make aperture-setting selections stick in your mind to be able to achieve a desired effect is to shoot sample images at two aperture extremes. Start by putting your camera into the aperture-priority mode (A on Nikon cameras; AV in Canon cameras). Then set your aperture to the widest setting (like F/2.8, F/3.5, etc.) and take a photo. This will be your sample A (see my sample below). Then move your aperture to its smallest setting (like F/22, F/32). This is your sample B. Then study the difference between the shots.

{Sample A} Wide Open Aperture (F/2.8 – 1/1000th sec shutter speed – 34mm)

{Sample B} Smallest Aperture (F/22 – 1/125th sec shutter speed – 34mm)

Now, to make things confusing, your results will vary depending on your widest aperture setting, focal length setting and how close you are to the subject. In my sample shots above, I was very close to the flowers I focused on and my aperture was F/2.8 in the first, so the brick building in the background is out of focus perhaps more so or less so than your sample shots may show.

If you keep making samples for yourself like this, eventually it will become second nature when you are shooting to select the appropriate aperture to get the photo you have in mind (with out of focus background or sharp background).

Typically you will want to blur the background a little for portraits for a more professional look; or if the background is very distracting; or if you want the viewers of your photos to be drawn to so a very specific part of the shot.

Photographers will use a smaller aperture to get the foreground to background in focus for landscapes, and sometimes for shots that tell a story of where you are. For example, you may want a store name to be in sharp focus so that it is legible. Or you may want the details of a landmark to be in sharp focus as well as your family standing in front of it.

However, sometimes landmarks, such as the Disney Castle, are so recognizable, that having the castle slightly out of focus works really well to give you a “here we are” shot that is elevated to a more professional looking image. Below is a sample from Epcot’s China Pavilion.

A slightly wider open aperture.

 

 

Bounce Flash So Much More Flattering Than Direct Flash

RT_SE27380Using an external flash on top of my camera instead of the pop-up one built into my camera gives me much more natural-looking photos. So I use it a lot; but because I feel I have not really mastered flash lighting, I keep everything in a program mode. My camera is set to “P” and my flash is in its program mode. The real trick, however, is the bouncing of the light off of the ceiling. With many external flashes, the head of the flash swivels so that you can make the light from the flash bounce off of a wall or ceiling. Below are two examples of direct flash, like your built-in pop-up flash, versus bounce flash. The images with bounce flash feel more natural – the shadow in the background disappears and the overall result is not harsh. An external flash does make your camera heavier, but the results are so flattering that to me it is worth the extra weight. Be sure when you bounce a flash, the wall of ceiling is white or very light. If you bounce off of a green wall, for example, the photo will have a green cast.

Flash Comparison 2 Fash Comparison

Change Your Position to Eliminate Distractions in Your Photo

RT_SAE_3490Sometimes when you travel to busy tourist areas, like Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport, the idea you have for a photo may seem impossible because of the distractions like signage and people. One way to eliminate the distractions, especially when there is not enough time to wait it out or come back when it is not so busy, is to change your position. In this case, I crouched down very low and shot upward towards the lighthouse, which helped to hide some of the more distracting words on the door of the lighthouse. This position also allowed me to use the flowering bush to hide the people standing next to the lighthouse. Another advantage? The small lighthouse (a replica of the Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket) appears taller than it actually is and the sky becomes a beautiful background against which the lighthouse stands.

Quick Silhouette

Exp Comp(-2.0)_SAE_3640There are several ways to capture silhouettes. I find one of the easiest is to use your exposure compensation function, the same feature discussed in the previous post. The image above was shot at -2.0, under-exposing the image by two stops. The sky is a rich color, and the couple on the beach swing is completely black. Below, you will see variations of compensation (0, -1.0 -2.0 and -3.0) of the same scene. Next time you’re shooting around sunset, take several images of your subject that has strong identifiable lines at different exposure compensation settings until you find the one that best suits your vision.

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Exposure Compensation 0

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Exposure Compensation -1.0

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Exposure Compensation -2.0

Exposure Compensation -3.0

Exposure Compensation -3.0

 

 

 

 

My Picture is Too Dark

There is a quick fix when you feel your photos are too dark. The +/- exp on the top of your camera lets you add or subtract light from the photo. This button is called the Exposure Compensation Button and is the fastest way to adjust the exposure of your image. Most cameras can do this in small stops of .33 at a time. Hold the button down while turning the wheel at your thumb (or forefinger depending on your camera model) and dial towards plus (+) to add light to the image if it is too dark and towards minus (-) to subtract light if the image is over-exposed.

Look at the first photo below. It was shot normal, no exposure compensation. Since the subject on the table was backlit by the window, the image is slightly dark. By adding a bit of light with the +/- button, I can brighten up the image.

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The photo below shows a real difference at +1.33. I added more than I really normally would have for demonstration purposes so that you can see the difference.

+ 1.33 Exp Comp_SAE_3514

 

Photograph Your Thanksgiving Spread

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When the family is gathered for the holidays, it’s the perfect time to catch up with relatives and document happy faces around the table (tip: try bouncing your flash off the ceiling to avoid harsh shadows on the walls behind your subjects). But Thanksgiving is so much about the food, why not make it one of your “must-photograph” subjects of the day? Most of us are not food photographers, and when the feast is being served, no one wants to wait around for us to stylize the scene and chance the food getting cold. So my trick is to zoom in close to eliminate as much of the cluttered background as possible when photographing your favorite dishes on the Thanksgiving table. The photos are not only fun to look at (and drool over), but they will also make nice additions to any recipes you pass around to other family members! See the recipe card using one of my food photos that I made to share my sis-in-law’s amazing Cranberry Chutney recipe with friends and family. This midwest chutney has become a staple now on our east coast Thanksgiving table. And don’t forget to capture funny moments (see the turkey carver’s helpful assistant below) and the cooks of the greatest meal of the year! Happy Thanksgiving.

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Recipe_CranberryChutney

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