That’s of course one of the tricks to getting a good photo. Just keep taking pictures! But even when your doing some of the most mundane things, you might just find some perfect light and a child with a great attitude for the day! Here are two shots from our recent overnight in NYC. We went window shopping down in SOHO and while in a furniture store, she sat down while we browsed. When I checked on her, I noticed that the window light streaming in from the high broad windows was beautiful. Her eyes just sparkled when she looked up at me. Of course, I said, oh, you look so pretty, stay right there! The warm tones in the store made it even more beautiful and she cooperated for two or three shots. (32mm; F/5; ISO 400).
Understanding the function of F-stops, or the aperture of your lens, is undeniably the most confusing of your DSLR’s features. However, once you master it, you will make a huge leap forward in the quality of your photos.
As a photo student in high school and college, I stuck a slip of paper onto the back of my camera (yes, in film days SLRs had a bookplate slot on the back of the camera where you slipped in a flap from your film box so that you could remember what film you had loaded. Can you imagine?!). On this slip I wrote, “open aperture=blurry” and “small aperture=sharp.”
An open aperture lets in a lot of light. On your lens it is a setting like F/2.8, 3.5, 5.6, or 6.3. Think of the aperture as your eye’s pupil. If there is not much light, your pupil gets bigger, or “opens” to let in more light. But a big result of using an open aperture is the effect of a blurry background that really makes your subject pop off the page (or screen). You can easily control the aperture setting on your camera by putting the camera on “A” and dialing in one of the aforementioned numbers. Your camera will automatically pick a shutter speed to make a proper exposure.
If you have a distracting background, dialing in a wider (or open aperture) will make the background blurry and eliminate the distractions. However, maybe you want the background really clear. Like if you’re standing in front of a sign that you want to be able to read in the photo. Then you would dial in a small aperture.
In this first photo, her eye is in focus, but her earring is not, and neither is the tip of her nose. I was just a few feet away and had the camera set to “A” (Aperture Priority) and dialed in F/6.3. Now conversely, if you choose a small aperture, like F/22 or F/32, your background will appear more sharp. Again, imagine a bright sunny day and how your pupils react: they get smaller and let in less light. But also, think about when you squint and how things get clearer. This is sort of how a smaller aperture works. In the second photo, I dialed in F/32 and her earring is now in more focus.
You know that sparkle we strive to get in every subject’s eyes? The sparkle that brings a portrait to life? Well, that same feature needs to be in your pet photos, too. I remember a photo contest judging once where the guest judge, a wildlife photographer, eliminated a contestant’s bird entry since the bird looked dead! It had no pin-point highlight in its eyes and she felt it looked like a taxidermy prop. So when shooting your pets, avoid that same horrible criticism. Walk around them to find the right light, or if you have a well-trained pet, make it sit near a window just like I ask my model to do when I want a casual portrait.
Now with Cinder here (a new addition to the home of close friends), how can you miss? Those eyes! But I still looked to see how the light hit his baby blues. The sun was behind me and we were under the shade of a tree. This is called open shade and gives the image a nice even tone, not contrasty on the bright sunny day. And it also leads to great highlights in the eyes.
Open shade can be found in many places: just inside a doorway, just inside the garage overhang, under the light of the first tree in a forest or tree-lined road, under a beach umbrella, just inside a beach cabana, and many more places just like that. Just be sure to not move your subject too far inside, but keep them just inside where the light is no longer harsh. Use a wide open aperture to blur distracting backgrounds. (ISO 400; 200mm; 1/1250 sec; F/6.3)
The lighting on an overcast day, even at midday, is ideal for natural and easy candid portraits. My daughter played in the snow, got her cheeks all rosy, and then stopped for a minute for me to grab a couple of shots. I stood back and zoomed in to 120mm to blur out the background and I had no worries about the “raccoon eyes” you might get midday on sunny days since the snow acted as a natural reflector and bounced light back into her beautiful face.