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. 

One Location. Two Entirely Different Photos.

Change your position_compSometimes we take the shot we had in mind and call it a day. But when the light is so beautiful at sunset, it pays to take a few steps around just to check out how the sun is lighting your subject. The photo on the left was the one I was after: two girls watching the sunset, captured in near silhouette as the center-weighted meter gave an exposure for the bright setting sun and made most of the other parts of the shot go dark. Just what I wanted. But then I sat down next to the girls to watch the sunset with them, and wow, was the light across their faces gorgeous. So of course I snapped away while the sun set! Because the light was low, I boosted my ISO to 640 and got a shutter speed of 1/100th sec at F/5.0 aperture. If I had unlimited cooperation from my two subjects, I would have boosted the ISO to 1000 and shot more photos at F/8 so that the girl further back would be in sharper focus. When shooting more than one person, either try to get them on the same plane of focus, or deepen your depth of field by using a smaller aperture like F/8. Not always possible, as was the case here, but the sweet expressions and the light make the shot a perfect one for me.

Take in the Scene with a Slower Shutter Speed

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It’s very hard to catch him smiling naturally. So, as I did in this restaurant during lunch, I often snap a few photos in a row hoping for that “in-between” moment when he’s more relaxed. I think I got it here! This photo has a nice natural background since I used only the light from the window my subject was facing for lighting, rather than using my flash. And since my ISO was set to 400, my shutter speed was a slower 1/50th of a second (I turned on the anti-shake on the lens to eliminate any blur that might have occurred from hand-shake). That slower shutter speed allows the shutter to remain open long enough to capture the ambient light in the background, also lit by the large bright windows. The result is a nice shot that shows the whole scene. So when indoors, ask for a seat near a window and capture the ambiance of the whole scene.

Shoot Wide and Close to Eliminate Distracting Backgrounds in Your Photos

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During winter break, we spent a few days in sunny and warm California. Our trip to Hollywood was brief and pictures were difficult with so many people on the crowded boulevard that was in full set-up mode for the Academy Awards. And with two kids all too anxious to see the sights, I had just a moment to capture a “we are here” photo in front of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By setting my lens to a 23mm wideangle setting, getting close to them and tilting down on the scene, I was able to quickly eliminate the people in the background while still capturing their expressions and John Travolta’s star. I used a slightly small F/6.3 aperture, that when combined with the wide focal length, kept both the star and the kids in focus. Be sure to focus on the subjects eyes and then tilt down for your best exposure and to keep the most important focus point sharp. (Note: I did Photoshop out one lingering foot of a Storm Trooper from the upper right side of the frame. Don’t be afraid to crop or retouch to make your photo even better before posting, framing, scrapbooking or adding to an album).

"My Photo Are Too Dark" — Solutions for Common Problems: Part 2

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In my last post (so long ago, I apologize but summer seemed to have gotten in the way), I covered easy solutions for blurry photos. The next most common problem is dark photos (i.e., under-exposed). While the most logical answer is there just is not enough light, there are other reasons for dark photos.

Problem: You are using the flash but the subject is still dark. Reason: The subject is too far away. The built-in flash on your camera can safely cover a distance of about 10 feet or so. If your subject is well beyond that, chances are it cannot be lit by your flash. Solution: The answer in this case would be to move a little closer. (You can also try raising your ISO to give your flash some more distance coverage).

Problem: The background is really bright and the camera’s meter is fooled. This is called a “back-lit” situation. The meters in today’s cameras are excellent, and you have the choice of several metering patterns to help you achieve your desired result. However, there are still situations like back-lit where you camera’s meter is fooled and gives you the wrong exposure for your subject. When the background is overly bright, the camera “puts on a pair of sunglasses” by closing the aperture down a little to let in less light, resulting in a nicely exposed background and a darker subject.

Examples of back lit situations:

  • in front of a picture window
  • at the beach or pool
  • on snow
  • when shooting from below up against a bright sky, etc.
  • under an overhang (like a stadium with field in the background)
  • The sun is behind your subject

Solution: 1 My favorite option is to use the + exposure compensation (covered here and here). This +/- button usually positioned near your thumb is one of my often used adjustments since you can quickly darken or lighten a subject. By adding (+) .3 to 1 full stop of light by dialing towards the plus side (see your instruction manual to see just how your camera works), you can trick your camera into removing the sunglasses and get a perfect exposure on your subject. By bracketing (taking several shots at several different exposure compensation settings) you are sure to get the proper exposure.

Solution 2: A second solution is to pop up the flash and fill in the subject.

Solution 3: Another way to get a good exposure in a precise area is to switch the camera’s metering pattern to spot metering. Most of the time, you are most likely shooting in the camera’s matrix mode that reads several areas of the image and gives you an exposure based on a lot of data built into the camera. This pattern works well much of the time. But the camera also has a center metering pattern where a smaller area is read and the exposure is based on that area. And even smaller sliver of the image can be measured by suing the spot metering mode (the rectangle with a small dot in the middle is the symbol for this pattern). Make sure the dot lays over the area of your subject you want properly exposed and then take the shot. If you need to recompose your image after taking the reading (dot on subject), then hold in the AE lock button located near the +/- button until you have finished taking the photo. Breaking out your camera’s instruction manual will give you the exact steps to set spot metering and to use AE lock.

In my example above (a perfect shot to end the summer), the child’s face my have been under-exposed, or dark, due to the brightness of the sky, surf and sand. But by adding 2/3-stop of light using the +/- feature, I was able to get a great exposure on her cute face.

"My Photos Are Blurry" — Solutions for Common Photo Problems: Part 1

DSC_2702_6x9So while talking with friends who are all new DSLR owners this past weekend, we discussed the solutions for the most common problems people have with their photos. So of course, it sparked an idea for a blog post. Here is part 1: “My Photos Are Blurry.”

The reason for a blurry photo is that the shutter speed is too slow to stop either fast moving action or camera shake in low light situations. The faster action moves, the faster the shutter speed required to stop the action; the longer your lens setting (telephoto), the faster the shutter speed required to stop camera shake since the shake is magnified (think about looking through powerful binoculars and how hard it is to hold them without the seeing shake); and finally, in lower the lighting conditions, the shutter speed slows down to let in more light, making it harder to hand hold.

So what to do? First, you need to understand what the ideal shutter speed is for hand-holding to avoid camera shake. The quick answer to to shoot at a shutter sped that is no slower than the reciprocal of the focal length setting of your lens. So if you are zoomed out to 300mm to catch sports, nature, wildlife or candid portraits, the ideal shutter sped will be 1/300th of a second or faster to stop hand shake blur. However, with today’s stabilized lenses, you can shoot a 2-3 or even 4 stops slower with no resulting hand-shake. Second, understand that it is almost impossible for anyone to hand hold the camera at any focal length setting if the shutter speed goes below 1/30th of a second. Thirdly, if action is moving fast, like soccer or basketball, you will need a shutter speed of approx. 1/500th of a second. If the action moves even faster than that, such as car racing or horse racing, you will need to shoot even faster (1/1000th, 1/2500th, etc.(.

Solution 1: Open your aperture to let in more light and the camera will pick a faster shutter speed.
If you set your camera to aperture priority, move the aperture towards a wider opening (e.g., F/6.3, F/5.6, F/3.5) and watch your shutter speed get faster. Hopefully, you will be able to get a shutter speed / aperture combination that allows you to have a fast shutter speed for the action or zoom setting. Be mindful that with an open aperture, you have less depth of field, so precisely focusing on the critical part of your image is very important.

Solution 2: If opening the aperture does not give you a shutter speed high enough to action blur or stop hand shake from slow shutter speeds as a result of low light or long telephoto settings, then the next solution is to boost your ISO higher. A higher ISO, will automatically provide you with higher shutter speeds. While your photo might have a little more noise or not as vibrant of color, you will be able to shoot the image. (Some DSLRs have really great high ISO capabilities, so don’t be afraid to try higher ISO settings).

Solution 3 (and my least favorite): If neither solution above works, then you can try to increase the lighting in the scene. One way is by adding flash. Flash will certainly freeze action and eliminate hand shake blur (as long as you are not in night time portrait mode). While flash can lead to an artificial feeling in your shot, hence my reason for it not being my favorite, it can do the job effectively and send you home with images of the moment. Remember, however, that flash can only cover a certain distance, and is sometimes not allowed at certain venues, so solutions 1 or 2 or a combination of both may be your only choices to correct the problem.

The image above would have been completely different had I used flash. So I boosted my ISO to 1600 so that the little bit of light coming into the room could be captured naturally. My lens was zoomed to 60mm, making the magic shutter speed 1/60th of a second. However, with my stabilized lens, I was fortunate to be able to catch the image at 1/8th of a second, the fastest shutter speed I could achieve with the given lighting, ISO setting and open aperture (F/4). The VC stabilization allowed me to shoot 3 stops slower than what would be normally required.

And of course, a solution that works the best for low light situations is a tripod. As long as there is no movement in your shot, a tripod will stabilize your camera and let you shoot at rather slow shutter speeds. Tripods are the most essential tool for landscape and nature photographers since a smaller aperture like F/11, F/16 or F/22 are required to achieve deep depth of field, but shutter speeds are naturally slower.

Next time you are shooting in low light, shooting at a longer telephoto zoom setting, or shooting action, consider the solutions above and you should find your images will be sharp as a result.

Lighting Diagrams for Window Light Photos

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Click the link below to download Photo Tips Card #4 and add it to your d-ring with the other tips cards. Window light is one of my favorite ways to take portraits and still life shots as you well know since my blog entries frequently feature this type of shot. I felt by sketching out how I position the camera and the subject might be helpful. I am going to ask you to not laugh at my funny sketches, but I am sure you will not be able to help yourself. I laughed too as I was making the card.
http://www.4shared.com/document/Nuyubuu8/TIPS_CARDS_WindowLightDiagrams.html

Take a Candid Holiday Portrait by Window Light, and Add a Prop!

easter_portrait_1The window is your best photo accessory for portraits. It’s so easy to use, always there, you don’t need an assistant to hold anything, and you don’t have to pull out your auxiliary flash. I just love the light that streams through my windows in several rooms. Positioning your subject very close to the window, like in the shot at left from early Easter mornning, can give you a nice dramatic light since the light falls off the opposite side of the face quickly and the eyes have a nice sparkle from the window catchlights. To get more of an even light, move your subject just a further away from the window (as in the first photo below- the subject was across the room from the window), or, face your subject perpendicular to the window instead of parallel. In this case, you can actually stand right in front of the window with your subject in turn in front of you and you will not block the light! See this post here for an example of this type of positioning. You can also “fill in” the other side of the face with a pop of the flash as you can see in the second photo below. If you find there is still a slight “artificial” feeling, you can adjust how much light the flash puts out by adjusting the flash +/- button usually found near the flash. Hold the button in and dial it towards the minus side. Perhaps -.7 or -1.0. Review the flash section in your camera manual to see exactly how to set this on your camera. And don’t foget to add a prop that gives your portrait a sense of time. In my case, the tulips scream spring and the eggs of course will remind me this was Easter time when we look back at these photos years from now. (Watch for a forthcoming download card with lighting diagrams for window light positioning).
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Bring a Symbol of the Holiday Into Focus

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I have made this same picture over and over and I still love it. Birthday cupcakes with lit candle, a number of fingers held up to signify a birthday year, a lottery ticket, a dyed Easter egg, and more. This time it’s the four leaf clover my subject plucked from a pot in the yard (look closely since at first glance it looks like three, but it is four). I was actually taking pictures of her cute Valentine’s outfit when she found the clover and held it out to me to inspect. The resulting image is really cute and the clover pops out not only because my aperture was set wide open at F/2.8 and I focused on the clover (thus blurring the background), but also because of the contrast of the green against the red and white of her clothing. So whether it’s your child’s favorite stuffed animal, a perfect test score, or a special holiday object, this effect is a great way to bring focus to the event or milestone while still keeping the subject’s face present in your photos.

Take a Portrait With Shallow Depth of Field

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This is a repeat, but one that needs repeating since I think we all want to achieve great portrait shots— even when it’s just a quick candid shot we’re grabbing before the cake is served or before the kids are leaving for school. And using shallow depth of field is a key to great portraits (along with expression, lighting, angle). Shallow depth of field, when the parts of the image in front of and behind the subject are out of focus, makes your subject pop off the image. The example here (a repost from the summer), for instance, shows the eye and smile in sharp focus, yet the tip of the nose, ear and hair are out of focus. Another advantage of shallow depth of field is that you can eliminate distracting backgrounds like indoor clutter, foliage, cars on the street, etc., It makes the background less defined with soft colors.

To get shallow depth of field, the key is to set your camera to the “A” mode: Aperture-Priority. You can leave your ISO setting at 200 or 400 (or higher if the lighting conditions are low) and leave your camera in autofocus. You will then use your thumb-wheel to dial in the smallest number you can, like F/2.8, F/3.5, F/5.6. Focus on the eyes of your subject, or the eye that is closest to the camera. Depending on how close you are to your subject and what lens you are using (telephoto lenses and closer proximity make the effect even more apparent), you will notice that the background is just soft to almost unrecognizable. If you want the photo to have some context of where you are (like cooking in the kitchen), then maybe F/5.6 is a better choice. But if you want the crowd in the background to go really soft, “open the lens wider” to F/3.5 or F/2.8 if you can.Please review the aperture download card here.