For two weekends in December I had the pleasure of photographing quite a few families at a Christmas tree farm. I got to meet some wonderful people and photograph some adorable kids. Those sessions were a few weeks before Christmas. A few weeks after Christmas I rented a local natural light studio for an afternoon and did some early Valentine’s Day sessions. Every time I do a shoot I learn new things. I’ve started keeping track of what I learn during each shoot so I hopefully can remember to apply what I’ve learned in the future. Here’s a (somewhat) quick summary of a few things I’ve been discovering.
Working with the Weather
It’s a little risky doing outdoor sessions in December since you never know how the weather will be. I ended up being able to do most of the sessions with only a couple that didn’t happen or were postponed because of the weather. The skies were gray and sometimes it was even raining a little during a session but the gray skies were nice because they gave an even light to the photos and I didn’t have to worry about harsh shadows even though I was often shooting during the middle of the day. Rain actually can help colors pop so I want to remember to not worry about a little rain. Of course, once it started raining hard enough to soak my equipment and props, we had to stop.
Don’t Be Afraid of a High ISO
Even though the skies were gray, I wanted to keep my ISO as low as possible to avoid grain in the pictures. I don’t think I went higher than an ISO of 400 for all of the Christmas tree farm sessions. When I was in the studio in January, it was a cloudy day AND I was inside so I ended up going quite a bit higher, especially when it got even darker later in the day. I’ve read that you shouldn’t be afraid of a high ISO and that that’s better than not having enough light in your images. Even though I’ve read that from multiple sources, I admit I was still afraid of a high ISO. In the studio I think I went as high as 3200. My camera can go quite a bit higher than that but I didn’t want to push it. Those pictures turned out fine and definitely much better than they would have if I hadn’t raised the ISO. So I think I’ve gained some confidence using a higher ISO, but I admit I’m still a little wary of it.
Pay Attention to That Little Voice
It’s so easy when I’m in the midst of a shoot, posing people and talking with them, to ignore the voice in my head that’s saying, “Something doesn’t feel right.” There’s usually a time crunch and I’m trying to get in all the shots that the family might want, so it takes discipline to slow down and evaluate what I’m feeling. It could be that there’s an object sticking out of someone’s head that will look weird later or somebody’s not in the same focal plane as the others and won’t be in focus or a little someone is moving so fast that my current shutter speed won’t catch them without a blur. I think this is something that I will continually need to remind myself of. Slow down. Breathe and think about how I can make the shot even better.
Working with Kids
I had the chance to work with quite a few different little ones during these sessions. The 2 and 3 year olds have proved to be the most challenging because they move so fast and pretty much do what they want to do. Parents often want shots of them looking at the camera and smiling and preferably with the rest of the family doing the same. Sometimes a toddler does not have the same goal. It seems that I get the best shots of them when they are allowed to be themselves, everyone stays relaxed and someone (either myself or someone behind me) talks with them or entertains them. This is not always easy to do but it’s great when that happens.
Finding my Focus
One of the biggest things I’ve been learning is how to work with the new Sony 50mm 1.8 portrait lens I got in November. It’s the first prime lens I’ve had so I’ve had to learn to work with just one focal length, but the toughest part about it has been figuring out how to work with the shallow depth of field and the admittedly much slower focusing ability of this lens. I do love the way the shallow depth of field can make a subject pop off the background. But, honestly, when I first started working with it, I called and visited my local camera store several times because I thought there might be something wrong with its focus. Apparently, this is not uncommon for people who’ve never used a 1.8 before. Even though the lens will open to 1.8, it’s not always advisable to use it that wide open. They say a lens often has a “sweet spot.” I think the sweet spot for this lens is somewhere around 2.8-3.2. When I shoot at those apertures, my subjects’ eyes and faces tend to be in focus. If I shoot at 1.8, usually when I aim for the eyes to be in focus they’re not, even though my focal point was right on the subject’s eye. The guy at the camera shop assured me that even when I shoot at a smaller aperture, like 3.2, the quality of the picture that this lens produces is better than a zoom lens shooting at that same aperture. I think he’s right and I do like the lens a lot. It’s just taken some adjustment to get used to it.
Here are a few of the photos from the sessions at the Christmas tree farm.
And some from the most recent Valentine’s Day sessions in the studio.
By the way, I LOVED working in the studio. The person who rents out this studio has all kinds of fabulous props and sets and will work with you to set up pretty much any kind of look you’re hoping to achieve. I look forward to shooting here again soon!