If you don’t work as a photographer full-time, it can be a challenge finding reasons to shoot pictures. And if you don’t shoot pictures, you’re not going to get better. Finding a personal project is one great way to get you making pictures. I recently helped a friend with a great project she’s been working on the last six months – photographing her new granddaughter.
I like to joke about being the fourth kid in my family, and not showing up in any pictures until I was about four-years old. It’s not far from the truth. In those days people didn’t shoot many pictures, and with three kids running around already, my folks had their hands full. It’s different today. For my friend Gina, the birth of her first grandchild was a perfect opportunity to spend time with the baby, work on improving her photo skills and create a wonderful set of pictures for the family.
Gina’s daughter Ashley and her husband stop by with their baby Hallie on a regular basis, so Gina’s always got her camera ready. But she was having some problems she wanted help with. First we worked through the classic topics of Subject, Light, Background. The subject was the easy part – Hallie – with or without her parents. The Light part was more involved. Harsh light, like full sun, isn’t very flattering for people photography. So finding a place where there was “soft” light was the first step. With warm weather, it’s easy to go outside and find an area with open shade. If it’s overcast, that means you’ll have soft light too.
But finding a good spot to shoot isn’t just about the light, it’s also about the background. Bad backgrounds ruin a lot of good pictures. What’s a bad background? One that’s distracting, that pulls the viewer’s attention away from the subject. Dark foliage (trees, bushes) is an easy way to have a nice, what we call a “clean” background.
The next thing we worked on was depth of field. Gina’s fortunate to have a great set of lenses, with fast apertures (f/2.8 or lower). That lets her shoot in low light and also gives her the ability to have shallow depth of field (only one area in focus). When shooting more than one person, though, you usually want all of their faces to be in focus. That means working with distance and aperture. Since Gina wanted to have out of focus backgrounds, the challenge then was finding a distance where the telephoto lens and aperture combination that would keep the family sharp but the background out of focus. Her 70-200mm, shot around f/5.6, was the right lens for that.
Gina also has an 85mm f/1.4 lens. The “fast” aperture of that lens means she can shoot in poor light indoors. It also means she can create photos with very limited depth of field (shallow area of focus). That combination is great for photographing Hallie around the house. And candid, real-life pictures are an important part of a project like this. Staged photos are well and good (and can be a lot of fun, as you’ll see below), but those little slices of life – candid shots – are just as important. Keeping the camera handy, and having it set for the light you’re in (ISO, exposure), means you can take advantage of those little moments.
Of course, six-month olds don’t have great attention spans, and need naps (don’t we all!). The nice thing about their naps is it gives you a chance to plan your next shoot, which is what Gina often does. When I was there, during Hallie’s nap we headed to a room she’s set up as a studio.
Most people think it takes a lot to have a studio, but that’s not true. You just need enough space to work in (I use our living room). Then you need a good background. And you need light. That’s the basics, and you can do a lot with just those. Gina’s got a nice large room, but works with just one strobe in a softbox, and has a couple of reflectors. Those reflectors are very important. Without them, she only has the light from that one softbox, and one light alone means you can get some heavy shadows on the side opposite the light. With a reflector on that side, light from the softbox hits it and bounces back, adding light into those shadows. The reflector becomes her second light source.
She’s also bought some inexpensive paper backdrops, large enough to put behind Hallie. The one we worked with was a photo of blue sky and clouds, and we put it far enough back so that it would be a bit darker (further from the light) and slightly out of focus. I filled in for Hallie as Gina figured out her exposure, so everything was ready when Hallie awoke.
With Hallie back on set, it was time to add some props. Gina had found a cute little pair of wings, and Hallie was great posing with them. Since she’d already figured out her exposure, Gina could focus (pun intended) on Hallie and making nice pictures. Hallie’s mom was there too, standing just behind Gina and making faces and calling to Hallie, to keep her attention. Having an extra set of hands when doing baby portraits is essential. It turned into a fun shoot, with some great pictures.
Gina’s project is resulting in a wonderful collection of photos her entire family will cherish. At the same time she’s improving her skills and becoming a better photographer. To me that’s a perfect combination. Start thinking about what kind of project you can do. You’ll build your photo skills while having fun. What more could you ask for?