Life is about learning, right? But before we go any further, I’d like to differentiate between learning and education. Education is book knowledge. Learning comes from experience, and the understanding which comes (often) from making mistakes. And mastery of any subject is a long, LONG road of learning, especially for those of us who are more impulsive than methodical! And, as you have probably discovered, photography is an art which requires a stable balance between emotion AND method, a lifelong pursuit, to be sure!
So why the lexical lesson? Because I’ve noticed each blog post seems to be more of a confession than an affirmation of my stunning photographic skills. My writing veers more towards the lessons-learned approach rather than the “look-what-I-did-and worship-me” attitude adopted by most photographers today. Maybe it’s partly confidence, maybe it’s personality. But the way I see it, if I’m going to learn from my mistakes, why should I be the only one to benefit? Why not let others learn from my mistakes, too.
That being said, let’s move forward with the understanding that I do NOT photograph babies. I have nothing against babies. In fact, I love babies- I had two of my own! Babies are wonderful, delightful blessings which bring life, love and most of all, a sweeping heart change to each proud parent who’s life ambition quickly swings from blind self-servitude to compassionate servanthood. I love the joy of motherhood, the glow of proud mommies, the expression of pure delight as an infant looks into her mother’s smiling face. And then, moved by the moment, I pull out my camera… and it all falls apart. Oh, the mom and babe continue in their blissful infatuation, but you would never know it from the pictures I get! I try and try, but at the end of the day, I am better at capturing the essence of a rusty guard rail than the euphoria of mother and child. Sigh.
A few days ago, I had the privilege of shooting the most adorable, sweet natured and beautiful baby one could ever hope to meet! She was smiley, quiet, and altogether a joy to be around. If only all babies were this easy!!! My goal was to try that bokeh background you see all over Pinterest. There’s nothing like Christmas for beautiful bokeh. It’s everywhere and I can’t get enough!
So I draped a cream bedspread over my backdrop stand and lavished it with with christmas lights. Then we placed the subject about seven feet in front of the backdrop, shot at a low aperture setting and fired away. As I do not have studio lights, I was hoping for some good natural light, and it turned out to be one of the darkest, dreary days on record. So I busted out the flash.
Lesson # 1. WHEN IN DOUBT, ADD LIGHT. Those of you who know me know I have a deep-seated, irrational fear of using my flash. Perhaps I have been traumatized by too many horrid flash-in-the-face nighttime bar scenes posted on Facebook. You know the ones, the bleached out faces, the red eyes, and the completely black background. When I think flash, that’s what I picture, and it’s NOT pretty! So my beautiful, amazing SB900 sits in its case most of the year. In fact, I’ve been known to go to GREAT LENGTHS to avoid using a flash, and I’ve mastered the art of making available objects into tripods. Fences, trash cans, cherry trees- you name it. But this shoot needed LIGHT, not slow shutter speeds. So I found a flash setting that seemed adequate in camera… that is, until I looked at everything in Photoshop. Here’s the original. I really don’t want to show you. But in all humbleness:
LESSON # 2 SLOW DOWN. We made a last minute addition of the lights in the foreground, but I failed to readjust my settings I had already painstakingly worked out BEFORE the new lights were added. Here’s where the emotion/ impulse part of me overpowers the method. She just looked so darn CUTE sitting on a cloud of fluff, surrounded by lights, I started shooting right away!!! But this set up was much trickier than it looks. The background bokeh is lovely, but the lights in her hand (close to me) are completely blown out. And of course the white balance is slightly too warm. It would have taken me a few minutes to try different exposures, but instead I got ahead of myself and fired away.
LESSON #3 SHOOT FAST! Like I said, I can hand hold slow shutter speeds like a champ. Countless are the number of nightscapes I’ve shot with near perfection with no tripod. But I failed to consider one vital thing- BABIES MOVE… ALOT. And their facial expressions change in an instant. In this setting, we moved to a natural light window, but like i said it was very dark and gray outside. Nevertheless, I decided to ditch my flash and “go natural.” With my ISO already cranked to 800, I didn’t want to sacrifice image quality by adding too much flash or too much grain. So I attempted to do the impossible, especially when it comes to children… I tried to shoot slower. In this frame she was giving a little kick, and because I was shooting so slow, I missed the shot! I threw away literally hundreds of blurry shots, many in which she was smiling delightfully, all because I tried to push the limits…
LESSON #4 PLAN AHEAD. With Babies, you truly never know how long they will last, when they will sleep, when they will cry, so each “pose” or studio set up needs to be situated well in advance. KNOW what you are going to do, have it ready, and know your light set up. Then you can move baby from one scene to the next fairly seamlessly. If you spend too much time stuffing baskets or rearranging scenery, you may have lost the moment. This sweet little thing had cooed and smiled for two hours while I fiddled with props and camera settings and set off flashes in her face. She was a CHAMP! Besides it was dinner time and we were ALL feeling tired and hungry! I know moms don’t always appreciate fussy- face photos, but they are actually my favorite! I love the wrinkled brow, the toothless mouth and the expression of pure fatigue. I love when babies cry because, while their angst is so earnest, their life is so tender, so sweet. Snuggled up to mama, rocked and kissed and soothed into a deep, satisfying slumber. It really doesn’t get any better than this!!!
So, here’s one edit I’ve managed to squeak out. I really wanted that light, airy, angelic effect. So I lightened the image considerably, lightened the shadows, decreased the saturation and cooled the tones. Of course, I applied a lavender haze because you know how I love purple
OK, one more just to satisfy your curiosity. I DID manage to get a sharp image, even at 40fps (I know, I know!) Isn’t she the cutest thing? She was this alert, awake and smiling for the entire session!