Thursday, June 11, 2009

Saving the Candid

Hypothesis: Taking candid photos is harder as a professional than it is as an amateur.

Discussion: For years I have been taking candid photos, mostly at events that had many people in attendance. Nobody paid me much mind; they went about their business as if I didn't exist. Oh sure, sometimes they would notice me and give the "creeping me out" expression, but generally my camera changed nothing. But when people hire you to take candid photos, they become hypersensitive to your presence, and start performing for you. I suppose culturally we're trained to "smile for the camera", so when we know there is one around, and especially one we have paid for, we pose and smile at the mere hint of a pending shutter click. Poof, away goes the "candid".

Corollary: Candid photos can only happen when the subject is more interested in their natural activity than they are in the camera.

Discussion: Get the subject distracted with an activity. But it has to be an activity that occupies their attention to the point that they forget that there is a camera in their vicinity. I did a session with a wonderful family over the weekend, focusing on their young son. For almost an hour he did his best to smile whenever he saw my camera up, or on command, or just spontaneously. The whole time he was checking to see where I was, and what I was doing with my camera. His smiles reflected his preoccupation with the camera. It wasn't until near the end of the shoot that he forgot about me. It was the swing that did it. His dad pushed him on a swing, and was goofing around with him. Sure, it was prompting, but the son forgot that I was there and was just reacting to the swing and his dad. Finally, a genuine smile. It was worth the wait.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quick, act natural!

I took my son with me to a family portrait session on Sunday. He's a theater lighting major at Virginia Tech, and helps with the lighting, equipment, logistics, etc. He has a good eye. When he's not hauling gear or adjusting lights, he uses a spare camera I have and shoots with me.

For this session, I kept the family's attention, setting and taking the posed shots. He wandered around and took the ones we really wanted - the candids. The family wanted both posed and "real" shots. However, they were very aware of the cameras, and good candids were difficult to find. Their dogs, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less about us. So my son was able to grab some great candids of their dogs having fun.

Now I just have to figure out how to get my clients to ignore me like dogs do...

Depth of Field

The more I practice with depth of field, the more I struggle with it. I understand depth of field well, and how aperture and focal length play a role. I'm just not consistently getting the results I want. I don't own it yet. But I'm getting closer.

The other day I was taking photographs of two women on their horses. Although they were jumping the horses, I didn't want a "sports" shot. I was looking for a portrait of them while jumping. Not much distinction maybe, but for me that means I needed a very shallow depth of field. Specifically, I wanted the rider and the horse to be in sharp focus, and the background to be as diffuse as possible. No prob, I brought out my sweet 50mm f/1.4 lens. It was a sunny day, so I was at ISO 100. I like to shoot in aperture priority mode, so I set for f1.4 and checked my exposure. Not good. Too sunny, the shutter speed couldn't go high enough to compensate. I ended up at f/3.5, 1/2500 at ISO 100. The histogram was good, and the display looked ok. I checked my DOF calculator app on my iTouch and determined that my depth of field was about 10 feet, from 20 feet to 30 feet away. Perfect.

So I shot the session with those general settings, making minor adjustments as the sun went in and out. When I got home and reviewed the photos, the exposures were all great. But I was unhappy with depth of field. With the sun, I had no choice but to move up to f/3.5. But even at that aperture I expected some diffusion in the background. Nope. The background was sharp as a tack. This is not the way I like my portraits.

So what went wrong? I checked in with my local Penn Camera guy and, after spending some money, asked him what he thought. His answer elevated my understanding of depth of field quite a bit. The problem was distance to the subject.

Using my 50mm, I had to be about 25 feet away from the jump to get all of the rider and horse in the frame. That's in the range of infinity for the 50mm lens. That is, the autofocus set the lens to infinity focus. As my Penn guy reminded me, by definition when the focus is set to infinity everything in the background is in focus. My calculator didn't remind me of that fundamental principle. In order to get some diffusion in the background, I had to be closer to the subject. But then I couldn't fit the subject in the frame.

The ultimate answer: bad choice of lens. What I should have used was my 70-200mm f/4L. Now when I take my test shots, I'll look to see where I am on focus and adjust so I'm not at infinity. Another valuable lesson learned. So will I relegate my 50mm to the bottom of my camera bag. No way hoser. I'm shooting an indoor wedding on Saturday. I'll be in dim light, where every stop counts so my aperture will be f/1.4 for sure. I'll be about 25 feet away from the couple, which puts me at infinity for focus, which makes everything sharp on the alter, which is exactly what I want.

Now I just need to get out to the horse farm again and re-shoot that session with the right lens.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I spent Saturday morning doing portraits at a horse farm in Montgomery County.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I Don't Care for Asparagus

I had a client recently who, after viewing their photos, remarked "Some I don't care for, but [there are] several that I LOVE!!!". This is very positive feedback, and I should take it as that. In fact, I think this might be the ideal client response.

But I'm struggling to get past the first five words:

"Some I don't care for"

I don't care for asparagus. That's what Mom said we should say when we disliked something beyond polite description. Just push it to the side of your plate and, if asked, simply state "I don't care for it". I'm not a huge fan of yams, but I'll eat one if pressed, just to be polite. I am definitely into a good Russet potato. So I simply say "I prefer a Russet to a yam". I reserve the "don't care for" phrase for those things that will find their place on the side of my plate.

In fairness, the client was direct and clear about their feedback on the photos I took. I value that, and appreciate the candor. I don't expect every client will fawn over every shot I present. I hope I am creative enough that I always get some mixed reaction. And I like that everyone sees something different in every photograph. So a polite rejection of an image is something I expect and can take in stride (probably). And truth be told, there are some photos in this client's collection that I prefer over others.

I'm going to have to get past the thought of some of my photographs being pushed to the side of the plate. Besides, I'm sure somebody likes asparagus.