We get a lot of questions on how exactly we take Reagan’s monthly portraits. The questions come from friends, relatives, and even some random people on the internet who found our site through photo forums. We are flattered by the kind words and compliments. In this post we will spill all our secrets on how we capture Reagan every month. We will make every attempt to write this so we are not talking over the heads of those with little experience and not talking beneath those who know more.
First of all, we are not professionals and we do not have a studio (maybe someday). We do not have a nice strobe setup or a cool seamless background; we have no reflectors or umbrellas. Rather, we have a poor-man’s attempt at a studio which is improvised in a MacGyver-like fashion. You do not need a fancy camera to reproduce our results (although it is easier to do with an SLR-type camera). All you need is a camera that allows you to manually set the exposure, a shoe-mount flash with a directional head, and some simple things from around the house.
Our background consists of a white sheet and two speaker stands arranged as shown in the two photos below (please excuse our messy apartment). The speaker stands could be replaced with just about anything to hold the back edge of the sheet up. Note in the second photo (taken from the side) that the sheet is not allowed to simply fall straight to and then out along the floor. Rather, the transition from vertical to horizontal is gradual. This prevents a noticable shadow or line where the sheet meets the floor and substitutes for our seamless background. As with most white linens, our sheet is not *really* white. There is an ever-so-slight yellow cast to it. Depending on whether or not I am lazy I will remove this cast using Photoshop during post-processing.
The next few tricks to getting our portraits are all done with the camera. Trick number one: we do not use an auto metering mode!!! This includes full auto, scene modes, program mode, and aperture/shutter priority modes. If we would use an auto metering mode we would end up with something that looks like this:
Compare this with the first photo in the post. The photo is too dark. The reason? Well the short version is that your camera will try to force large areas of white to be a light-medium gray. (the extent of which of course depends on your metering mode…) The ultimate solution is to use Manual mode. The reason why is a bit technical, so you may wish to skip to the next paragraph. Still with me? Well, with portraits you usually like to control the depth of field (how much ahead of and behind your subject is in focus) which means you would like to have the same aperture setting in all of your shots. Full auto and Program modes generally do not do this. If you use Aperture Priority mode to fix the aperture setting you can end up with very different exposures from shot to shot (i.e. one is brighter or darker) as the subject (Reagan, in this case) moves around. This will happen even if you use a spot metering mode. The only way to control depth of field and get consistent exposures is to use manual mode (you set the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).
The next trick has to do with lighting. As I mentioned, we do not have studio strobes, reflectors, or any real lighting equipment, i.e. we do not have full control of the lighting. The on-camera flash on any camera is generally of no use unless you are outside in the daytime and using it for fill lighting. Our sole lighting tool is a shoe-mount flash with a directional head (i.e. can be rotated and pointed anywhere) as shown in the photo below. This allows us t0 choose where the light goes and set the amount of light thrown.
Next, we shoot in a room with a large window, but do so only when there is no direct sunlight shining in. This gives a reasonable amount of light without casting harsh shadows or creating high contrast areas (between areas in and out of the direct sunlight). This allows us to meter at about 1/100 at f/2.8 and ISO 400 with no flash. Now for our trick. From a properly metered shot at ISO 400 and f/2.8 we like to bump down the aperture to f/5.6 without changing the shutter speed or ISO. We then point our flash at the white wall to camera left and angle it up 45-60 degrees to point about where the wall meets the ceiling. The effect is that of a giant softbox or umbrella with a large, uniform light source coming in from the subject’s upper right. This lighting, coupled with the under-exposure set in the camera, creates subtle shadows which give the photos depth. If we were to point the flash directly at Reagan the result would be a flat, lifeless picture. The other benefit of using the flash is the glitter or shine in her eyes that add even more life to the photos.
One of the more subtle things we do with her portraits (from the six month portraits on) has to do with the choice of focal length (zoom) and the working distance to the subject (how far away the camera is from the subject). This really boils down to choosing the perspective of the shot. We choose to slightly compress the perspective by working at 70mm (on a 1.6 crop camera body, mind you) and typically place the camera about 7-8 feet from the subject. If we were to work at a close distance and wider angle this would cause distortions that would make her look oddly proportioned and less “real.”
We choose a time when Reagan is in an especially good mood so we really don’t have to do much to get her to smile or make her cute expressions (not that we have to work that hard any other time…). We sit the tcamera on a tripod and click away. Once the shot is framed, we often use a remote shutter switch to trigger the camera so we do not have to be standing (or sitting) right behind the camera. We typically take 30-50 shots to get the 1-2 great shots and 2-6 good shots that we print and post on the website.
We use Photoshop or photo-editing software very sparingly, and even then usually only to crop. We do our very best to get the image correct at the time of exposure because post-processing on the computer is time consuming. We use a program called Lightroom (by Adobe) for all of our photo catalogging and organization and 90% of the simple editing that we do. We use Photoshop CS3 for the more heavy editing, but that is rarely performed on Reagan’s portraits.
That about sums up our process. With a little know-how and improvisation we get studi0-like results without the studio. Many times when we get prints made at Walmart they make us verify that we are the copyright holder of the photos, i.e. that we are not trying to illegally print photos taken at a professional studio. Eventually we would like a lighting setup so we can have independent subject and background lighting (as well as light modifiers). We would also like a larger, dedicated room so we can use larger working distances and not have to setup and tear down each time we want a couple of quick shots.
Finally, I know a few of you are gear junkies and need the specifics of what we are using. The camera is a Canon 40D (we also use our older 20D ocassionally) and our most commonly used lens is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L. (It’s hard to use our 70-200mm f/2.8 IS for indoor portraits in our current apartment.) Our flash is the Canon 580EX Speedlite. And yes, we took the picture of the 20D with the flash that is displayed above.