Friday, February 15, 2013

Behind the scenes: A Valentine's Photo shoot

For me, there are three important steps to getting a fabulous photo. They are 1) Composition 2) Exposure and 3) Editing.

Here's a quick tutorial on how I used those three elements to get my Valentine's shot of Axton.

1) Composition
I already knew exactly what I wanted this shot to look like: White background with Valentine's decorations and a happy baby with kisses all over him. We live in a tiny apartment with way too much junk, so space is very limited. I have to get creative when I want to do a "studio"-like photo shoot. When it's warm out, I'll go out on our porch. This Valentine's Day it was too cold to be outside (especially when I wanted him to only be in a diaper!) So this is how I set things up:

A white sheet thumb-tacked to our wall, the bottom half spread out on the floor for Axton to sit on.

I made sure the sheet was facing one of our limited sources of natural light: our bedroom window.

And, after making a few easy decorations, I was ready for my subject.

This was the hard part.

I spent twenty minutes chasing after this kid, bribing him with cookies and things I wouldn't normally let him play with (like my bag of makeup that I left on the floor - if you look closely at the sheet, you can find make-up smudges all over it). He was always moving, facing the wrong direction, had a cookie in his mouth, not looking at boring Mommy making high-pitched sounds to get his attention, etc, etc, etc. I took over 100 shots, and finally I just gave up and told myself I'd have to be okay with either one of these, because they were the best I could get.

Sigh. One with that ugly green container and a mouthful of Puffs, or one where he's not even smiling.

Then. THEN. ......Then Daddy came home and he said, Let's try just one more time. I was sweaty and tired by that point, but I agreed. Less than one minute and 3 shots later, I got it. The "perfect" shot. Oh the difference Daddy can make to get this boy to smile!

2) Exposure
Okay, so let's back up a minute here and talk about the settings I used and why I did it that way. Exposure is the amount of light that's being let into the image sensor. There are three things involved in your exposure: Shutter speed, which is how long your lens stays open to allow light in; aperture, which is the size of the hole letting light in; and ISO, which is the sensitivity of your sensor to the light coming through.

The lighting was lacking in this room, so I had to make some sacrifices in order for my image to be properly exposed.

First, my shutter speed was set at 1/60. This means my lens was open for one-sixtieth of a second. This is actually quite slow, especially considering my subject was a very busy, very move-y baby. In fact, in the final image, you can see that Axton was waving his hands around, as they are blurry. That's one thing I don't like about this image, but was one of the sacrifices I was willing to make in order to get more light in.

Second, my aperture was set at 1.8. Since I still needed as much light as possible, I needed as big of an opening as possible. With aperture, the smaller the number = the bigger the hole (this is also called a "wide" aperture). 1.8 is the lowest (biggest) my lens could go, so I was allowing the maximum amount of light to come in. Another reason I chose to set my aperture at 1.8 is because the wider the aperture, the softer the background. I wanted Axton's face to be in focus, but the decorations that were just barely behind him to be softly out of focus. The only way I could do this was with a wide aperture.

So, even though I was keeping my lens open for as long as I could without allowing more blur from movement (my shutter speed) and even though my aperture was set to as wide as it could go (1.8), my images were still too dark. This meant I needed to adjust my ISO to 800. With ISO, the higher the number, the greater the sensitivity to light. The higher the number also means the greater amount of "noise" in your image. Noise affects the quality of your image, its colors, and its sharpness. An "ideal" ISO setting would be between 200-400. My camera only goes up to 3200 ISO, and I don't like using it that high because my images suffer. So an ISO of 800 was a good compromise.

So, there you go. My exposure: 1/60, 1.8, ISO 800.

3) Editing
Okay, last step. I shoot in RAW, so I need to edit my images in Photoshop and convert them to a jpg so I can post them online and view them on my computer without special software. In Photoshop, I take a white brush with the opacity very low and paint the background, so that the sheet looks nice and white and smooth. I also boost the contrast, sharpen the image, and resize it for posting online (for resizing and sharpening my images, I use Paint the Moon's action). Sometimes I use Coffeeshop's Perfect Portrait action (free), but this image didn't require much editing.

So there you have it, how this shot was made. Here are a few others, just for fun:

....and our attempt at a couple shot = fail.

I hope this was somewhat understandable and not just completely confusing. If you have questions or want to know more, leave a comment or shoot me an email!


  1. love it meghan! good to know that photographers don't get amazing shots right away. i'm sure it's even harder when it's your own. the final product is cute cute cute!!! and the three of you are too cute for words. :)

  2. Neato! (Yes, I really did just write "neato.") I've often thought, "Someday I'm going to learn about all those settings and take better pictures." Now I just got my first basic tutorial! :)