Behind the Scenes: Episode 5: My First Portrait Session

Camera: Sony a6000  |  Lens: Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS Prime Lens  |  Accessories: None  |  Lighting: Natural, cloudy. No flash.  | Post-production: Lightroom and Photoshop

In case you missed it, I recently diversified my photography practice to include people and took family photos for my sister, Candi, and her sister-in-law, Mandy. Things were a little touch-and-go for a while (i.e., before we even got out of the house), but the session and final products actually turned out pretty great.

In Episode 5, I talk about how I managed (and simply enjoyed) the people side of things. In this “behind the scenes” feature, we’ll take a look at how I managed my camera, along with a few other technical details.

For anyone who’s just getting started in photography, thinking of dipping their toes in, or is just vaguely interested in what I do when I do photography, this one’s for you.

(And if you’re one of my faithful readers who’s here just because you like me, that’s great, too! There’s some jargon in here, but I try to keep things pretty understandable. You can skip anything you don’t understand/care about (isn’t that how we all read things on the Internet anyway?), and I’ve included some definitions of the main terms I use at the bottom!)

Playing on easy-mode (aka aperture priority)

Before we even set out for our shoot location, I double checked all of my camera settings and made sure I didn’t have anything weird turned on from previous use, like exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, metering, etc.

I had done some homework on natural light portraiture, how to deal with sun and shade and avoid harsh lights and shadows—all the little things that can ruin a picture—but we ended up with a cloudy afternoon, giving me very beginner-friendly, diffuse lighting to work with.

In other words, I didn’t have to think about lighting issues really at all. On the downside, we didn’t get any lovely sunsets breaking through with romantic, mystical effects, but trying to get all three kids (and parents) looking and smiling at the same time can be challenging enough without having to battle the sun, too.

To make things even easier and cut down on the moment-to-moment decision-making I’d have to do, I stuck to aperture priority mode, so the only thing I’d really have to think about was depth-of-field (for example, do I want a soft, blurred background to highlight faces (shallow depth-of-field, wide aperture), or do I need more depth to make sure the whole family is in focus?).

To start out, I had my aperture set around f/5 and adjusted from there. When I was focusing on just one person, I’d go lower—as far as f/2 for close-up portraits. My lens can go to f/1.8, but as you can see in Lenna’s picture below, even ears and hairs can start getting soft around f/2 if you’re situated close to your subject.

Pro-tip: The closer you are to your subject (both physically and via your camera’s focal length), the shallower your depth of field becomes. For example, in the pictures below, the background of Candi’s whole family, shot at f/3.5, is still pretty sharp because I was a ways in front of them, whereas in the next photo of Landen shot at f/5, our background is a little more blurry because I was closer to him.

f/2.5, 1/500s, ISO 100
f/3.5, 1/200s, ISO 100
f/5.0, 1/200s, ISO 200

What I definitely wanted to avoid was capturing a beautiful candid moment, only to discover that my subjects weren’t all in focus—like in the picture below. It would have been a perfect shot, but my aperture wasn’t high enough to get both Lenna and Jeremy in focus. Lenna’s adorable smile is crisp and sharp, but Jeremy’s face is soft and blurred.

Lesson learned—it really hurt to put this one in the discard pile.

f/2.8, 1/500s, 200 ISO

 

Composition—Arranging & Working the Scene

Unfortunately, there is no easy-mode for composition, the mystical art of arranging elements within the frame of your photograph, including subjects, foregrounds, and backgrounds, by controlling camera position and angle, using lights and shadows, and—especially when working with people—actually moving your subjects around.

I did my best to prepare. I had printed off several Pinterest ideas, sketched out some ideas of my own, and kept them in my back pocket during the shoot. (P.S. If you want to see my inspiration, follow Backroads Brummer on Pinterest!)

These planned poses made for a great starting point—I was able to take charge of the photo shoot right off the bat with some good arrangements. We ventured into improv territory soon enough, though, with Candi and Mandy lending their ideas as well.

This worked out great for getting some good creative shots and making sure both families were getting the pictures they wanted—but only after I knew I already had some good usable photos. Everything else was icing on the cake (which is, obviously, the best part).

Still, I think composition was the trickiest part of the shoot for me—not so much the planning poses or finding good angles, but actually being aware of the whole picture as I was shooting. Going through the pictures afterward, I realized that I was so focused on faces that I missed the fact that I was cutting off Landen’s arm or Laityn’s feet, or that the family arrangement would work better if we moved this person to the other side.

Of course, arranging people is only half of the equation. I also had to arrange myself (so to speak). Because I used a prime lens (no zooming in or out capabilities), I was moving a lot—but I also didn’t have a tripod to move and set up for every new angle I wanted to capture, so that wasn’t really an issue.

The biggest problem I had was that the 50mm lens (equivalent to a 75mm ‘zoom’ on my camera, which has a cropped sensor) sometimes put me too close to my subjects, so the direction of my movement was often backward.

Post production (aka playtime)

When the shoot was done and all the pictures taken, I settled back into territory I’m much more familiar with: editing. While I haven’t done a lot of photo editing, especially not with human subjects, I have worked pretty extensively with Adobe’s line of creative software since minoring in multimedia in college.

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are the industry standard software for photo editing. While Photoshop has a pretty steep learning curve, Lightroom is actually quite intuitive—not to mention powerful. It serves as both a catalog/database for your pictures and editing software.  It’s especially great for editing RAW photos, which is what I shoot in 99 percent of the time. Most of my editing time was in Lightroom.

With these tools, though, the creative possibilities were a bit overwhelming. A lot of photographers will develop a signature style or look, but I’m pretty much a blank canvas at this point.

To help narrow down my options, I kind of cheated. Instead of forging my own style from scratch, I turned to Lightroom presets I had downloaded when they were offered as freebies on CreativeMarket.com (they have new giveaways every week—everything from fonts, graphics, stock photos, and software add-ons like these presets. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in that kind of thing).

I tried a few of the presets and sent samples off to my sister. She and Mandy picked out the style they preferred, I added some of my own touches, lightening and saturating things up a bit from the “Lovely 02” preset style that you can see below.

With a few clicks in Lightroom, I was able to apply the same style to all of my photos, creating a uniform look and giving me a solid starting point for the rest of my editing process.

Lovely 02 "The Luxe" Preset from EstellaPhoto

  • My own hybrid preset

From there, I perfected each individual photo, adjusting the lighting and color and doing a few local adjustments in Lightroom, and then softening wrinkles and blemishes in Photoshop. I even managed to pull off a few seamless face/body swaps, which I had never done before. I was pretty jazzed about that.

Successful body swap
Picture #1 is almost perfect, except that Lenna is chewing on her finger. Picture #2 is also almost perfect, except that Landen isn’t looking. Paste Landen #1 onto Picture #2, and voila! Everyone looks great all at the same time.

The whole editing process took, well, a very long time. Probably much longer than it needed to, but I like my behind-the-scenes work.


DEFINITIONS

APERTURE PRIORITY MODE

This is marked by the A or Av on your camera’s dial, where you set the aperture and your camera adjusts the shutter speed to make sure you get the right exposure. Other settings, including ISO and exposure compensation, can still be manually adjusted.

APERTURE

Aperture is basically the size of the hole in your camera’s lens that’s letting in light. Aperture values are often referred to in terms of f-stops. Smaller numbers (f/1.8) = bigger hole = more light getting into your lens more quickly.

When it comes to creative control, aperture determines your depth-of-field, or how much of an area is in focus (this is strictly in terms of distance from your camera, not side-to-side area). Low numbers give you a shallow depth-of-field and blurry backgrounds, while higher numbers have a larger area of focus and sharper backgrounds.

FOCAL LENGTH (ZOOM)(CROP FACTOR)

The focal length of your camera’s lens, defined in terms of millimeters, essentially determines how far your camera is “zoomed” in. The “normal” focal length—what is generally considered to give you the same field of view as your eyes—is 35mm. Anything less than that is considered “wide-angle.” Anything higher is considered “telephoto.”

This is further complicated by your camera. For cameras with a full-frame image sensor (that’s the electronic component where your image is digitally captured inside your camera), the focal length is exactly what it says. 50mm is 50mm. On cameras like mine that have a cropped image sensor, you have to do some math to figure out the actual focal length. My Sony a6000 has a crop factor of 1.5, which means the effective field of view of my 50mm lens is equivalent to that of a 75mm lens on a full-frame camera (50 x 1.5 = 75). I’m still zooming in the same amount, but my camera is cropping things a little tighter, making my end product look like it’s zoomed in farther than it is.

If you’d like a better explanation of this, I recommend this article on “Understanding Crop Factor”.

RAW PHOTO FILES

RAW photo files are, well, raw. You’re probably better off Googling this one if you want all the gritty details, but here’s my metaphorical definition for you, if you just want the basics.

Your standard JPEG image is like a meal you order at a restaurant. It’s all cooked and served up nice and fancy on a white plate. The chef (aka your camera) has already compressed the image’s data, made color and contrast adjustments and sharpened things up so it looks nice.

A RAW image is the same meal, except that it’s delivered to you by Blue Apron (or any one of the several thousand subscription meal-prep services out there—take your pick). You get all the ingredients, but you have to do the cooking unless you want to get food poisoning and die.

Alright, it’s not quite that dire, but that’s the gist. RAW images are pure data, and you need a special program like Lightroom to view and process them. A few of the benefits, though, include more creative control over your pictures and minimized data and quality lost to file compression, among other things.

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2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: Episode 5: My First Portrait Session

  1. Sue Sealy

    I’m so glad you are doing this blog, Lacey! Your explanations and photo examples make learning photography from you fun and exciting! Thank you!

    Reply

    1. lacey

      Thank you so much, Sue, that’s really good to hear!

      P.S. If you have any particular photography questions or challenges you’d like to hear about, let me know – I’m always looking for new things to try! 🙂

      Reply

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