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.


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.


Miroku Asakura said...

Great tips =D now i have some ideas for portraits photos

And dude, your daughter is all your face!

Unknown said...

Jeff thank you so much for your tips !!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the lens choice. Can you explain why you would use a 70-200mm over something wider? Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Great Blog post. Thanks for the mini tutorial & advice.

JL said...

I'll let Jeff give his own answer but I'd say a tele lens gives better results as the face proportions are less distorted than what a wide angle would do (tele lenses flatten the subject).

I'm curious what kind of diffuser you used... or was it direct flash?... on the hot shoe?

Unknown said...

Thank you for taking the time, as always, to help fellow photographers. Your daughter's dress is BEAUTIFUL and so is she!

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

I choose to use the 70-200 lens for a couple of reasons:

* I love the sharpness of the lens
* I like the fact that it does not distort like a wide angle lens
* With the 70-200mm I can shoot in tight but also move back and get a wide shot
* The longer lens tends to make people look better.
* Did I mention the sharpness of this lens? :)

And I used an on-camera flash mounted on the hot shoe.


GNB said...

On what did you base your exposure of f2.8, 1/250 sec at ISO 200? Was it the ambient light in the shade? Then how did you base your flash power value?

Thanks for your help and willingness to teach.

KK said...

Great tips and it's good to have examples with them. Thanks.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Great tips I'm taking prom pics of my neice and her friends tonight and Thursday yea she's going to 2 one with a friend from other school and the other at the friends school with mutual friends. The closes I have to a 70/300 is a 100 /300 the others are 30/100 and 14 /140. I never thought about using a flash at 4 or 5 in the afternoon in the summer thanks fir that.