Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It's Prom Time - How to get the best photos of your kids before Prom!

Saturday was my daughter's junior Prom, and as always I was the designated photographer for her and her friends. Since they were meeting late in the afternoon and heading to dinner and the Prom, this meant that we were shooting photos at 4:30pm when the sun was still high. Not the best shooting conditions, but, as I always say, a good photographer can find a suitable location almost anywhere at any time.

I posted some of the photos on my Facebook page, and many people have posted questions on the page and emailed me asking for camera settings and advice. So I thought I would write a blog to share my advice with all of you.

Since I already mentioned the time of our shoot, let's start with that. The best time to take portraits is early in the morning or before sunset, but this is not an option for kids going to Prom and needing their photos in a less ideal time.

Your best bet is to find a location which has good even shade.


I took this first photo under tree cover. This gave me good even light across everyone's faces. I was shooting with my Canon 1DX, using the 70-200mm 2.8 lens and the 600 EX-RT flash. I turned the flash power down by 1 stop (check your flash manual to see how to do this - it isn't hard) and added just a touch of flash. That little bit of flash helps to brighten up the girls, and also adds "catch light to their eyes. The catch light is that little sparkle of light right in their pupils, which adds more life to their eyes. (Camera settings: ISO 200, f/2,8, 1/250 sec)


The second photo is one that I took a couple of years ago to show how not to take a portrait. There are two big mistakes here. The biggest mistake is the mix of direct sunlight and shade in the photo, even worse when the mixture of light is right on the subject, like you see above. I can't tell you how many Prom photos I see with this bad light on the kids. Do your best to find all sun (turning your subject away from the sun and using a flash to light them) or all shade, not a mixture of both!

The second worst mistake is the choice of background, in this case with a bunch of cars behind the girl. Make sure to find a pleasing background that is evenly lit and not too distracting from your real subject, the kids.

In our area, there is a location called "The Rose Garden" and most people head there to take their Prom photos. But I have yet to see any good photos from this location, since the lighting is not great and there are countless people there attempting to take photos, which means that they are all in each other's shots. I have avoided this location exactly for those reasons. But every year, I have parents suggesting The Rose Garden for the shoot.


This year, I took the photos at a local park. I did this for two reasons, firstly because I had such limited time before heading off to photograph an event for a client, so I needed to stay close to home. And secondly, because I knew that we would have a shaded area and it would not be crowded with other Prom goers. This photo is of my daughter, Ali, and her boyfriend, Marc. I shot this at f/2.8 to have the focus on them and separate them from the background. If your camera or lens does not let you shoot at f/2.8, just set the aperture for the lowest number possible, which might be f/3.5 or f/4.  You will notice that there is a tiny bit of sunlight on Marc's shoulder, but since it is behind him and not on his face, I was OK with this. Having that little bit of sunlight coming from behind Marc also added "hair light" which helps separate the top of his head from the dark tree behind him.


When you are taking the photos, make sure to get individual shots as well as couple and group shots. I asked each girl and guy to come under the trees for their individual portrait and then repeated this process for each couple.


My daughter really wanted a photo with her best friend, Paige, so we captured that as well. I am always open to suggestions, and willing to photograph any groupings that the kids wanted (as long as I was out of there in time for my other obligation). You may have some idea for groupings, but let the kids suggest what they want as well. It is their Prom after all.


One of the hardest photos for people to take correctly is the dreaded group shot. Once again, the key is to have even light across everyone. It never looks good when half of your group is in the shade and the other half is bathed in harsh sunlight. I took this photo at f/2.8, which always leads to questions about focus. With this narrow depth of field, people assume that some of the people will be out of focus. But, since everyone is at the same distance from me, and I am standing pretty far back (shooting at 88mm), this is not a problem.

Posing is also important for all of these photos. Make sure to have everyone pose naturally, and encourage nice REAL smiles. For the group shot, try to get everyone in a similar pose. My wife did a great job of fixing the girl's dresses and making sure that they were all posed nicely.

I did have a couple or challenges with this group shot. For one, there is not a whole lot of shaded area in this park, so I had to move everyone into this one location. Unfortunately, there was a sign with the park's name to the left of the frame. I removed that in Adobe Photoshop afterwards. The other challenge I faced was the weather. We have had pretty windy conditions here for the last couple of days. For this shot, we waited for the wind to calm down and I took many photos. I then had to go into Photoshop and remove all the "fly away" hairs from the girls.

To recap, here are my tips for taking good Prom photos:

* Find a location with good light.
* Be aware of your background.
* Shoot at a large aperture (lower number like f/3.5) to separate your subjects from the background.
* Add a little bit of flash (not full power) to brighten your subjects and add catch light to their eyes.
* Take individual, couples and group photos.
* Make sure that your poses are pleasing, but also natural.

I hope this helps everyone with their Prom photos this year and for years to come.

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If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. I would really appreciate that.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

My first flights of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision +

Last Friday I got my hands on the new DJI Phantom 2 Vision + quadcopter, and I could not wait to get home, charge it up and take it for a spin.


For those of you who have not seen or heard about these, you need to check this out. These drones have the ability to take our photography to new heights (yes - the pun is intended). This particular model has a 14MP camera attached to a gimble under the copter, allowing me to capture stills and video from places that previously were impossible.

Now, let me say this right up front, I am still learning how to fly this thing, and have made a couple of mistakes, but overall, this is very easy to control. I love that I can see what the camera sees in realtime, using the wireless connection to my iPhone. This not only lets me fly easier, but also gives me the ability to start and stop the camera and video from the ground.

Below is a one minute sample of video captured from my first couple of flights. I was shooting portraits in Half Moon Bay and, afterwards, took the risk of sending the Phantom 2 out over the marina. This was really nerve wracking, since it was a pretty good distance of travel away from me, and over water. I could not afford to make any mistakes and lose this $1400 piece of equipment in the ocean. By the time I landed it safely, I was literally shaking. I don't think I will try this again for a while. The second part of the video shows my neighborhood, with me sending the Phantom up to a 300 foot altitude and looking down and across Saratoga, CA.

BTW - You can see this larger if you view this directly on YouTube.

As I get better at using this, I hope to post more polished video for you all to see. My son, Connor, was nice enough to edit this for me in Final Cut Pro. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How I photographed and created the composite of the "blood moon"

As many of you know, last night I photographed the "blood moon". I thought that I would go outside my house, shoot some photos for 15 minutes and then go to sleep. But that did not happen, as I continued to watch the moon transition from a full moon to a red moon.

For this shoot, I used a Canon 5D Mark III and the Canon 100-400mm lens with the Canon 1.4x extender. I mounted all this on my Gitzo tripod, using my new Acratech ballhead (which I love). I used a cable release to take the photos, so that I did not have any camera movement during the exposures.

I used the live view mode of the Canon 5D Mark III to manually focus on the moon. I love going to live view and then using the 10x magnification to see the fine details. This makes the focusing that much easier.



I started by shooting the beginning stages of the lunar eclipse. As I watched the moon cruising across the LCD of my camera, I saw an opportunity to shoot many photos and then combine them. I watched the movement and determined that one photo every minute and 45 seconds should work well. So...for the next hour and a half, I sat outside and shot photos at this interval. Every 8 or 10 shots, I would have to reposition the camera, since I was shooting at a focal length of approximately 600mm and the moon would go out of my frame.


After shooting all the photos, I loaded them into separate layers in Adobe Photoshop. The easiest and fastest way to do this, was to go to "File" and then choose "Scripts" and then "Load Files Into Stacks". This would bring a group of photos into layers automatically. I loaded groups of 8 or 10 at a time, just like I shot them.


I then created a layer mask for each layer, and used my Wacom pen tablet to paint in each phase of the moon as it moved across the sky. The image above shows the first sequence that I put together.


This photo shows the last 6 photos that I added to the composited image.


Once I had created each of the groupings, I then had to combine all of them into on large (500MB) image. I used the natural path of the moon to determine where the next group would line up.


Here is the final image showing the full eclipse of the moon, and the transition to the blood moon.

Not only was it well worth the time, and staying up late, but something really amazing happened last night as I sat outside and shot the photos. One might think that I was all alone, sitting in my driveway at 1am, but I was actually shooting with hundreds of friends. In between each frame, I would get on my iPhone and share my settings, see everyone else's comments, and see what other people were capturing. It was truly amazing to see the power of social media, as so many people from around the world were sharing with each other. Yeah, the moon was really beautiful, but the camaraderie and shared passion for photography was even better. For those of you who were there with me last night, thanks for keeping me company!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Photographing the "Blood moon" tonight


I am not sure if I will be able to photograph the "blood moon" tonight (since the weather may not cooperate), but I thought I would give some ideas and tips for those of you wanting to shoot this tonight.

Here are my tips for you:

* Use the longest lens that you have. Preferably something in the 300-600mm range.
* Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod.
* Switch your camera to manual focus and focus on the moon.
* If you have live view on your camera, use this to lock the mirror and zoom in to fine focus.
* Set your camera to an ISO of 1600 (depending how dark the moon gets - you might go lower)
* Unless you have very expensive lenses, you will likely have an aperture of f8 (or smaller).
* Set your camera in Aperture Priority and shoot one photo. This will be your starting point for the rest of the shots. Switch to manual mode and keep the same aperture as you had in AV mode. , If the moon was blown out (too bright) in the AV shot, use a faster shutter speed than the camera used in AV mode.  If the moon if too dark, use a slower shutter speed than the camera used in AV mode. You can try different shutter speeds to get the best possible exposure.
* Make sure you have a decent shutter to avoid motion blur. Yes, the earth is spinning and any shutter speed more than a couple of seconds will create a blurry image.
* Have your "blinkies" turned on to show if you are blowing out any part of the photo.
* Use a cable release or the timer mode of the camera to avoid any shaking of the camera from your hand.
* Have fun and share what you get!

I know that it this will happen late tonight (in the U.S.), but hey, any good photo is worth it!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My friends at Photodex made this cool Olympic video using my photos

My friends at Photodex asked me if I was going to create a video of my favorite photos from the latest Winter Olympic. I really wanted to do it, but just have not had time! Then they offered to build the video for me. I uploaded the files to them using Dropbox, and they put together this awesome video showcasing some of my favorite shots from the Sochi Olympics. I really love the way the music and effects add to the my photos!


Video re-caps like this are such a cool way of showcasing a series of images in a new and exciting way. The video was made using their ProShow Web video slideshow tool. Give it a watch, feel free to share with others, and let me know what you think in the comments!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Photographing Motorcross for the first time - so much fun!

A couple of weeks ago, I went with my family as they did a walk for charity. We got to the fairgrounds (where the walk was located) about an hour before the start time. They were content to hang out by the starting line, but when we arrived, I saw these motorcycles racing out in the distance and I just could not help myself. I had my Canon 5D Mark III and 28-300mm lens ready to go, so I broke away for 45 minutes and had a field day shooting photos of these guys.


I have never photographed motorcycle racing and I am no expert in this sport. But, I always say that a good photographer should be able to shoot interesting photos of almost anything, if they know how to control the camera and know how to frame a shot. So...I set the camera to get me a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second and walked to a position where I would have a good background. I walked to the edge of this one turn and waited for a rider to come by. Since there were a lot of distractions behind the pile of dirt, I got down low and tried to avoid all of that in the frame.


I would watch the riders coming around the track and try to key in on the riders that were fast and aggressive.


I made sure to stand in the same direction as the sun so that I would not get shadows on the rider's faces. I laughed when I saw this photo, because the rider was looking directly at me instead of the course. I know that if I were on that bike, I would be looking ahead!


After shooting many photos with the subject centered, I moved the focal point to the far left of the camera so that I could frame the photo like this. I have the rider off to the left with the trail of dirt coming off the rear tire to the right. For those of you wondering, I shot all these photos in servo focus mode since the riders were at varying speeds and distances from me, and I kept the focal point on the rider.


I walked around the track photographing the big guys, and then came across this little track for the beginner riders. I saw this little guy, who couldn't have been older than 6 years old, who was cruising around the track and I just had to get a shot!


The older riders had completed their race and it was time for the younger kids to have a go at the big track. I was amazed at how good these kids were.


They could get a lot of air even on these smaller bikes!



In this photo you can see all the background distractions I was talking about at the beginning of this blog. It was almost impossible to shoot wide shots without seeing all these power poles and power lines. Not the best background, but this photo does show the height of this kid's jump.


For these shots, I moved the focal point to the far right, so that my subject would be heading out of the frame.


I then returned to the same turn where I started shooting and grabbed some photos of the younger kids coming through. I picked these photos since they show action. The front tires are off the dirt and there is debris flying from the back of the motorcycles. The challenge with shooting any motor sport, is that, by freezing the action, it might look like the rider is just stationary on the bike. For this reason, it is imperative to have the rider leaning into a turn or showing the bike in motion. This tells the viewer that the rider is moving and not posing on the track.



Another rider checking me out from high in the air. :)


After catching many photos from the side of the jumps, I moved to a position where I could shoot photos of the riders straight on. I zoomed the lens to 300mm and shot photos of these guys at the height of their jumps.

If you know me, you know that I love shooting anything new. And I really had a great time photographing these riders. I hope to head back to this local track during the summer to get some more photos. Next time I will bring the Canon 1DX and an even longer lens. I may even bring a remote camera with a 16-35mm wide angle lens to position on the track. So many photo opportunities and so little time to get them!