27 Oct 2010

Snap Happy on the Hill

I am so excited to be writing this monthly photography column for The Hill is Home! As a professional family and wedding photographer I have spent many years discovering and refining ways to get beautiful candid photos that grab attention and tell a story. As a photo geek, I love sharing the tips and tricks that I am learning along the way. This column will be about exploring new ways to improve your photography and get the results you are looking for, whether it is documenting the adventures of family life on the Hill, capturing the monuments of D.C., or going on Safari in the Serengeti.

Although we may use different types of cameras — from cellphone, to point and shoot, to Digital SLR — the main elements of all great photographs;  light, composition, subject, and mood, can be achieved with any type of camera. These are the elements that I will return to in this column each month as we explore getting the most out of photography around Capitol Hill.

The end of October is the perfect time to kick-off this column because Halloween is a time to take really colorful and fun pictures of your kids, your neighbors, and Capitol Hill festivities. Think about the amazing photo opportunities at events like Hilloween, Frager’s Pumpkin Carving Contest, and the East Capitol Street legendary spooky decorations.

For the purposes of this Halloween photography project, I will isolate one really important factor in your photography: light. The following quote by George Eastman perfectly captures the importance of light in photography – I literally have it framed on my wall above my desk.

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it.
But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth,
and you will know the key to photography.
George Eastman

There are many different kinds of light and each one will affect your photography differently – the natural light of the sun (hard and flat in the morning, sharp and contrasting at noon, soft and long in the late afternoon) the orangey glow of tungsten lights (lamps in your house), the flat hard light of fluorescent lights (sports arenas, your basement), and the hot white blast from your flash.

If you are using any type of point and shoot camera, this last type of light is going to be a constant problem (because the flash is mounted directly next to the lens and is trying to light all elements of the scene – a trying task), resulting in your foreground (the subject) being blasted and the remainder of the scene being unevenly lit.

The simplest answer to this problem is to move your subject to the light.  Pictures in your basement will never look great with a point and shoot and will always be a source of frustration – so stop taking them! Part of what makes photographing children so easy is that you can move them to where you need them to be, so look around your space, find the best light, and bring your subjects there.

• In the first picture the boys were playing in a dark part of the basement and I had to use flash. Result – the light is hard and flat.
• In the second picture I changed some settings on my camera, but still the background is dark and cluttered and the light on the boys looks unnatural.
• For the final picture I moved Kevin closer to the sliding doors leading to the backyard, (he is facing the doors, and I have my back right up against them) and I found the light I was looking for.

How to get the best light for your Halloween Pictures.

Get them dressed early! Getting dressed before 5pm ensures plenty of light. Find the room in your house with the best light and get them dressed there. If the master bedroom has good natural light in the late afternoon make a game of getting the kids dressed on your bed (bed is at light level, sheets and walls reflect light), and don’t forget to pull shades and curtains all the way up – maximum light is optimal. Or in front of the glass sliding doors in your kitchen (with your back to the doors and the kids up close). Check out the amazing natural light and soft reflections from the sheets and walls in the picture to the right.

Get them outside! When they are all dressed take those little tricksters outside for some fun portraits – they will be excited to show off their moves. Get them role playing and acting in the character of their costume. Use the beautiful fall late afternoon light  – you can even have your partner hold a piece of white poster board to reflect the sunlight back onto the kids – it really works. Get down on your knees and shoot at their level – move all around them, even shooting into the sun – experiment! Instead of ‘forcing’ a child to stand still and smile (we all remember this painful experience from our own childhoods, right?), engage them in play acting their Halloween character, singing funny songs, or making a funny face – you will get a natural smile sooner or later. See picture on left!

Follow the light! If the front of your house is catching the sun, have your kids stand on the porch or in the open doorway – the darker background will provide a nice contrast to the lighter elements (your subject). See the picture to the right for an example.

When it gets dark (and spooooky).

Okay, so it’s dark and you still want to take pictures…
When indoors – Turn on every room light and lamp you can – really make the house as bright as possible. Read your camera manual (beforehand hopefully!) — many cameras now allow you to raise your “ISO” to maximize light intake, and change your White Balance settings to match the type of light around you.  Now turn off your flash and see if you can get sharp images. If not, turn your flash back on but tape a piece of vellum on your flash or even stick a couple layers of Scotch tape over the flash – this will modify the blast. N.B. – if the terms ISO and White Balance are meaningless to you, don’t fret – I will be coming back to these in later months.

When outdoors – in the dark of night your options become more limited. For pictures with flash, leave the tape or vellum on your flash but also look around for the ambient or available light and experiment with it. Streetlights, jack o’lanterns, candles and even the old flashlight under the chin trick – these will all make for interesting pictures without flash.  Play with a tripod (or just set your camera on a steady surface) to minimize blurring from camera movement.  Play with shutter speed and take some ghostly pics!

So here is your project. Using light as your tool, take a wide variety of Halloween pictures indoors and outdoors, with flash and without flash and see how you do! Once you get them onto your computer analyze them for success and failures and see if you can identify the things that would have made particular pictures better. Send your best picture in along with any questions you may have and I will post a few next time along with the answers to your questions.

Have a great and ghastly week and I will catch up with you again next month where I will have tips and tricks for taking holiday shots, fun in the snow, and taking large family group portraits without tears…

Happy shooting!


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  • MambasBonkersWonka

    This is a fantastic column. I’m looking forward to your futures posts on this as well.

  • Rachel

    This is great! Can’t wait to try these tips; looking forward to the next column.

  • Lyndsay

    LOVE THIS! Thanks THIH!

  • Cathy

    Read it and learned alot! Thank you. 🙂

  • I found this very helpful and well written.

  • Love this! I just got myself a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which is faster and brings in more light than a variable focal length lens. It’s obviously not a solution for eveyone, but it’s a relatively inexpensive (~$150) and useful tool for DSLR users that are constantly struggling with inadequate light.

  • Liz

    Meredith, Hi. Welcome. What if we do get fantastic shots but don’t want to get them cheaply printed, with off-tone colors? Can you recommend a few good printers in DC? I hear Chrome is good in Gtown…I used to go to Asman, but they closed after the founder died. Thanks, Liz

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