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If you're familiar with the portrait lessons on the Web Photo School site, you'll see that this lesson follows and builds upon two lessons in particular:

Each of these lessons demonstrate simple, effective methods that anyone can use to create professional-looking indoor portraits.

While this lesson uses lighting techniques similar to the ones demonstrated in the lessons listed above, it also covers new digital SLR techniques for child portraiture with an Olympus EVOLT E-330, affordable lighting set-ups, and strategies to use to get your young, restless subject to interact naturally with the camera.



(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • The Typical Snapshot
  • Shooting In Available Light
  • Camera Angle
  • Bouncing Sunlight
  • Interaction With Your Subject
  • Shoe Mount Flash Lighting
  • Bouncing Light Off The Ceiling
  • Modifying Your Flash For Natural Results

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.



The Typical Snapshot
Web Photo School enthusiasts are well familiar with the "before" shots shown in many of the lessons on the site. We take these to illustrate how most people go about taking pictures, to point out the downfalls of these techniques (or lack thereof) and to compare against shots taken with a little bit of know-how.

This snapshot was taken with a point-and-shoot digital camera with the built-in flash enabled. Although this picture captures our subject in between dizzying spins on his kitchen floor, it mainly reveals drawbacks that professional photographers tend to avoid (figure 1).



Figure 1

 

First, the composition is fairly uninteresting. When taking a portrait, it is important to consider every element of the frame -- the background, the foreground, the distance from the subject, the balance and feel of the entire image -- not just the person being photographed. Second, this type of overhead perspective creates distance from your subject, as you are literally looking down at them. And of course third, the unnatural quality of the built-in flash lighting makes the scene look dimensionally flat and uninteresting.

 



Figure 2

Anyone who's spent even a little bit of time with a three-year-old knows that it's almost impossible to keep them still in one spot for very long. We find that some of the best opportunities for photographing children are when they're able to stay in one spot. In this case, our energetic subject was confined to limited quarters of his high chair.

For this photo-shoot, we decided to shoot in an East-facing room where the morning sunlight would come streaming in, providing a nice back light for our subject figure 2).

Shooting In Available Light
For this first shot, we adjusted the following camera settings in the Olympus EVOLT E-330 to render a natural look:

  • The White Balance was set to the sunlight icon to match the color temperature of the sunlight coming through the window (around 5300K)
  • The ISO was set to 100 for optimum image quality and to prevent any noise that sometimes occurs at higher ISO settings
  • The Resolution to RAW to obtain the best possible image quality
  • The Exposure mode was set to M (Manual) in order to adjust the aperture and shutter speed manually
  • The Focus was set to S-AF (Single-Auto Focus). Note that this setting works well when your subject is in the middle of your frame.



Figure 3

 

Since we wanted a relatively short depth of field so that the background would be mostly out of focus, we set the aperture to f/3.5 and then first tried a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second. We positioned the camera at the other end of the table and took a shot similar to how most people would go about taking such a shot (figures 4 & 5).

 

 

The result illustrates a few problems. First, the camera angle is still a bit too high. Remember that it's better to get down to the same level as your subject to create a more intimate feel to the shot.

And while the sunlight is backlighting our subject nicely, there is not much separation from the background due to the fact that the light-toned window is directly behind him. The other problem is more obvious, which is that the contrast is much too high for the camera to expose well. Although the sunlight is illuminating his outline well enough (and a little too much on the hair), it nevertheless casts his face in dark shadow (figure 5).

 

 

Camera Angle
The first thing we decided to do was alter the camera angle. For this type of shooting, we opted to use the Olympus E-330 in part for its unique pop-out LCD screen. This is the only digital SLR to date that has an adjustable LCD screen. And as you can see, it allows you to shoot from low angles without having to crouch down low -- perfect for child portraiture.

To adjust the position of the LCD screen, simply pull the screen out from the sides and then angle it upward. To activate the screen, press the LCD button to the right of the LIVE VIEW button on the back of the camera (figures 6 & 7).

 

 

Once we had the LCD activated, we came in a little tighter on our subject and oriented the camera so that the wall fell directly behind him and not the window as in the previous shot. Once the overall frame looked good, we took another shot at the same camera settings (figures 8 & 9).

 

Bouncing Sunlight
While the result is still too dark in the facial areas, the rim light effect of the sun is much more apparent with the dark wall behind him.

To resolve the dark tone of the face, we decided to bounce some of the sunlight into the shadow areas with the Soft Gold side of a 32" Photoflex MultiDisc reflector. We attached the MultiDisc to a Photoflex LiteDisc Holder and then attached the LiteDisc Holder to a Photoflex LiteStand and positioned it to the left of our subject (figure 10).



Figure 10



Figure 11

At this point, our subject was getting a little restless in his chair and, as you can see from the next shot, we had captured him in mid-squirm.

One of the downsides to shooting indoors with available light is that you are often limited to a relatively slow shutter speed. Any fast or sudden motion will most likely cause motion blur, as is evident here. Note, however, that our lighting ratios have improved dramatically with the MultiDisc in place (figure 11).

 

Interaction With Your Subject
One of the most important factors in achieving good portrait results lies in your interaction with your subject. This is true no matter who you are photographing. Whether you are photographing a three-year-old child or a top-level fashion model, the rapport you establish with your subject is paramount to having them feel comfortable and expressive in front of the camera.

For children, this often means engaging them in stimulating conversation. If you can draw their attention away from the process of taking pictures, you'll have a better chance of capturing natural facial expressions.

In this situation, we first tried a little trick. Our subject, like many other boys his age, is obsessed with trains, and there just happens to be a train track right near his house where we were shooting. Whenever he hears a train approaching, he stops whatever he's doing and freezes with a look of utter excitement. Looking to capture that expression, we said, "Hey, do you hear that? It sounds like a train is coming!" But of course, rather than look our way, he turned toward the window to better make out the familiar sound (figure 12).

And then, when he realized he'd been duped and that there was no train, he gave us a scrunched up face and said sourly, "No, it's not." (figure 13)

Okay, on to better strategies....

 

 

This next method we often use can be effective for persons of every age, not just children. It's easy for people to get tense or self-aware, particularly when a camera has been trained on them for several minutes, and it can greatly affect their facial expressions.

When you sense that your subject is tensing up or uncomfortable, ask them to simply close their eyes and relax their face. Tell them that you're going to wait a few moments and then ask them to open their eyes. And that when they do, to just look straight into the camera lens. You'll most likely be amazed with the results. The majority of the time, you'll capture these fresh, relaxed expressions, as though you've just come upon them that very moment (figures 14 & 15).

 

 

And back to our lighting, notice how well the MultiDisc fills in the shadows of our subject's face with soft, warm light. With just a simple reflector, we were able to create a nicely backlit portrait in just a few minutes.

---------------------------------

 

 

Shoe Mount Flash Lighting
As we've illustrated earlier, the main limitation to shooting with natural light indoors is that you are confined to a relatively slow shutter speed. It is important to note, however, that by increasing your ISO setting, you can speed up your shutter speed significantly as well, and cut down on potential motion blur. However, you also risk compromising the image quality with higher "grain", or noise levels. If you prefer to not have these noise levels and increase your shutter speed, then you need to add strobe or flash lighting to the mix.

For the next series of shots, we removed the MultiDisc setup and attached an Olympus FL-36 shoe mount flash to the camera. Once it was powered up, we pressed the Mode button on the flash to select TTL AUTO (Through-The-Lens Auto), which enables the camera to read and determine the amount of flash power needed to properly expose your subject (figures 16-19).

 

 

Before taking more shots of our subject, we knew we had to occupy him with an enjoyable distraction if we hoped to keep him in his chair any longer. So we set up a laptop and put in one of his favorite DVDs for him to watch. Again, this is another method you can use to distract your young subject from the boring process of setting up lights and configuring your camera.

Once the movie was going and the flash was powered up, we took another shot at the same camera settings, but didn't really worry about his facial expressions, as we knew that it would take us a little time to develop the lighting set-up (figures 20 and 21).

 

 

As you can see, the result is typical for this type of lighting arrangement. Because the light from the flash is traveling in approximately the same direction as the lens, it tends to flatten out the elements of the shot and it is difficult to get an accurate sense of shape or dimension. The reflections in the eyes are tiny and unnaturally centered, something you would never find in natural lighting conditions, and the shadow cast from the chin is sharp and equally unnatural-looking. Unfortunately, this type of result is unavoidable with this type of lighting.

Bouncing Light Off The Ceiling
One alternative to this type of lighting is to redirect the flash upwards so that it illuminates the ceiling and renders a more natural-looking result. Note that white ceilings that are not too high will yield the best results. After repositioning the flash, we took another shot (figures 22 & 23).

 

 

The result shows a big improvement with the quality of light. Because the light is now bouncing off the ceiling and then downward, it has been diffused greatly. Notice that there are no more hard shadows cast and that the tonal transition in the face is much smoother.

Still, there are a few limitations to this type of lighting. First, the light is relatively flat since it is bouncing off the ceiling, and does not provide a real sense of direction, as you find in soft box or window lighting. Second, because of the downward direction of the light, there is significant falloff toward the bottom of the face. Notice how the tonal value in the face moves from light to dark vertically. Finally, there is not much improvement in catch-light of the eyes, which are also relatively dark overall.

 

Modifying Your Flash For Natural Results
With some accessory hardware and an extra small soft box, you can modify the light of your flash to create much more natural results. Here, we took the EVOLT E-330, the FL-36 flash, a Photoflex Extra Small LiteDome soft box, some accessory hardware, and mounted it all to an Olympus Flash Bracket (figure 24).

To see this lighting set-up in more detail, check out the extended version of this lesson on Web Photo School.



Figure 24

 

Fortunately, by the time we configured the camera with the flash and soft box, our subject was still content watching his movie, which allowed us to take just a few more shots in this same spot. We moved in close with the soft box, waited for a moment in the movie that made him smile and then took a shot (figures 25 & 26).

 

 

After reviewing the image, we were very happy with the overall lighting. There was a nice rim light around his hair, the light illuminating his face was both soft and directional, and the eyes were much brighter than in the previous strobe shots. We also liked that the room was illuminated a little more than with the MultiDisc fill.

However, now we wanted him to look into the lens and to not be gazing into the laptop. You really only have a small window before the excitement in the eyes of a child watching a movie turns into a glossy stare.

We shut the laptop, talked about some funny parts of the movie, and took a moment to smooth out his rumpled hair a little bit. Then we asked him to close his eyes and think about a scene he had just watched in the movie. We moved in a little tighter, and when he opened his eyes, we took our final shot (figure 27).

 



Figure 27

 

If you're planning on doing a child portrait in the near future, remember to consider your location and time of day, get comfortable with your camera and lighting gear, keep an ongoing rapport with your subject while you are shooting, and most of all, have fun!

 


Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.

Recommended Links

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  • For more tips and techniques on lighting and cameras, visit www.webphotoschool.com
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