Environmental Portraits

Recently, a friend asked me to take her portrait in her office for professional use. We started at her 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 and maintain the natural feel of the office environment. I used a very fast lens (Tamron’s SP 35mm F/1.8) and used a wide open aperture of F/2.2. This allowed me to capture her in sharp focus while blurring the background. The desk, laptop and books let the viewer know the subject is in her office while maintaining sharp focus on the subject herself.

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

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

 

 

 

 

Changing the Look of Your Photo with Aperture Priority Mode

You can dramatically change the look of your photo by changing the aperture of the lens on your camera, which controls the depth of field. Depth of field is how much of your photo in front of and behind your subject is in focus. If foreground to background is all in focus, your depth of field is deep. If the foreground and background are out of focus, then you have shallow depth of field. Learning to control this function on your camera will help you to yield more professional-looking photos that let your subject pop off the image because it will be separated from the background. In the two example photos below, the one on the left shows shallow depth of field. The aperture was set to F/4.5 (a wide open aperture). The photo on the right shows deep depth of field and the aperture was set to F/16 (a small aperture).

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RT_Blog5_F16_SAE_1607The aperture is easy to set on your camera by setting your camera mode dial to A (on Nikon cameras) and Av (on Canon cameras). Then use the thumb wheel to move the aperture number to a smaller or a larger number. The smaller the number, the more blurry the background will be like the above left photo. The larger the number, the more in focus both subject and background will be, like the above right photo.

This technique is particularly useful when shooting portraits. You want your subject to stand out from the background, especially if there are distracting items behind the subject. You can choose how blurry or sharp the background will be by experimenting with different aperture settings. To practice, shoot the same subject twice at the two extremes like I did above. Do this several times with different subjects each time you have your camera out until you feel comfortable that you can easily pick the aperture to get the look you want. See more examples below and don’t forget to download the photo tips card for your gadget bag to help you in the field.

My Favorite Fix When Your Photo Is Too Dark

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Sure, you can always lighten up your photo after you download it into your computer, but getting a better exposure right from the start is much better and faster in the long run. I return to the lesson of exposure compensation often simply because it a tip that bears repeating. When your photo is too dark, like the one below, a rather unflattering shot of me and my subject taken by holding the camera at arm’s length, simply add light by dialing +0.3 or +0.67 using your exposure compensation (+/-) button on the top of your camera to brighten up your image.The top image had +0.67 dialed in. It’s a quick and easy solution for dark photos. Read more about Exposure Compensation here, and here and here. As you can tell, I use it often. I think I need to do a Photo Tips Card on this (download previous cards at links on right).
too dark without exposure compensation

too dark without exposure compensation

 

Understanding the Histogram on Your Camera to Make Better Photos

What is a histogram?
The histogram on your camera lets you view the exposure of your photos so you will know whether your photo is too light or too dark. This is important since there are so many times that we cannot really see the image on the LCD screen because of bright sunlight. Or you may have your LCD set to a lower or higher brightness and therefore the image on the LCD will not look the same as the image downloaded to your computer. 
Histograms which represent an image that has all tones from the blackest black to the whitest white will look like an even hill as in the sample above. But if your image is over- or under-exposed, the hill will fall short of one or both ends as in the sample below. So how does this information help you? You can adjust your camera setting using exposure compensation (+/- EV) and take another shot that is properly exposed.
 
Is my photo under-exposed or dark?
To read your histogram to determine if the photo is under-exposed, press the info button on the back of your camera while playing back an image. You will see a graph like the one above. Look at the right side. Does the information (the black hills) go all the way to the right side? If it does not go all the way to the right, then your image may be too dark. Try “adding light” to brighten up your image by dialing in a plus (+) exposure compensation, such as +0.33, +0.67 or perhaps +1.0. Then take another shot and see if the right side moved further to the right.
Is my photo over-exposed or too light?
To check if you are “blowing out the highlights” look at the left side. If the information does not reach all the way left, you may not see any detail in the brightest parts of your image (think bride’s dress or facial features). Before making any correction, press the info button once again. You will see any that any areas that are over-exposed or blown out will be blinking. If a critical detail (like the face) is blinking, you will want to make a correction by dialing in a minus (-) exposure compensation, such as -.33, -0.67 or perhaps -1.0 to subtract some light from the image.
Consider what type of image you are shooting before making any correction
Keep in mind that the histogram is giving you a representation of the darks and lights in your image. If you take a photo out in bright snow and your subject is wearing light clothing, there may not be any black in the image and your histogram will naturally lean to the right making a an uneven hill. Making an adjustment in this case might lead to grey looking snow. 
Conversely, if your image is of a black cat in a low lit room in front of a brown wall, there may not be much white or brightness for the camera to record and the histogram hill will lean to the left naturally. Making a correction here might make the blacks look grey and you will lose the richness of your shot.
So the histogram need not be an even hill from left to right.
By checking your histogram from time to time during your shoot, you can be sure before getting you r photos onto your computer whether or not your exposure is on the money. To learn more about the histogram on your camera, consult the owner’s manual. Add information about the histogram to your camera bag by downloading the new Photo Tips Card: Histogram at right and adding it to the others on a D-ring.