It’s the time of year where the proverbial family portrait needs to be taken in order to get out your holiday greeting cards. If you didn’t get your cards out in time this year because you didn’t get the right photo or didn’t hire a professional like myself, I’m going to share with you how I was able to tackle having my own family self portrait session. Mind you, photography is my profession and I have various photographic tools at my disposal for this type of work. Hopefully this can give you a bit of insight so that if you’d like to try something like this, you may do so at your leisure. If you don’t have the time or resources, please hire a professional and support your local photographer.
First and foremost, you will need a camera :-). Any camera will do really, but one that can be controlled manually, one with a self timer or the ability to be controlled remotely will be even better. In my example I’m using remotes which will give me much more freedom (more on that later). I also chose to photograph our portrait with film. Film you ask? Yes, I’m a photo nerd and I still love shooting film. For shooting people in an outdoor portrait environment, film rocks! “Isn’t digital better?” you may ask as well. This is my family portrait and I’m choosing film. Digital is great too and accounts for 90% of my professional work and in this case, I want to shoot film. Little secret about the film, it has a softer look and is great for skin. Pretty much like having Photoshop built into it. None to little corrections in post production ie. Photoshop. Also, Photoshop CANNOT fix everything. Garbage in = Garbage out so get it right in the camera. Either way, film or digital, it will get the job done. You’ll need a good sturdy tripod too to make sure that you’re photo is rock solid stable.
Next, find a nice location with nice even lighting and a pleasant background. You make the call it’s your portrait. When I say even lighting, this means shade or overcast skies. DO NOT put your family in direct sunlight! It is going to look like crap and everyone will be squinting with raccoon shadows under their eyes. It’s not a flattering look. Here’s the all the hardware I used to do this.
“Whats that grey thing to the left of your camera in the photo?” It’s called a light meter and it tells you what the optimal exposure is for your lighting situation. I set my exposure in manual mode from my light meter reading. Since I’m going to be a part of the photo I want complete control of my camera and do not want my setting to change. I photograph in Manual mode 98% of the time with all my cameras. I NEVER use the factory automatic modes. Automatic modes are the ones that have the pictograph icons.
If you’re using the automatic modes on a camera you spent some good coin for, you could have spent that money on something else. I cannot stress enough, be in control of your camera and not the camera in control of you! Read your camera manual or get a photography 101 book and get used to photographing your camera in the Manual mode. That way you can produce CONSISTENT results in which you can learn from. I see many high end DSLR cameras in the hands of guests at the weddings I service. From time to time they will ask why they’re photos look like garbage and I do try to help. I look at the mode their camera is in and see that it’s in the Auto modes. Enough of that soap box, and just learn to photograph in Manual period.
Now to the setup. Get all your tools for the job to the location. Set the camera up on the tripod and put your family in the area you want to photograph. Compose the photograph in the viewfinder and make sure to set your camera in MANUAL exposure mode & MANUAL Focus. Yes, focus manually too because once your camera is in position, you do not want the focus area to change with the auto focus feature. Now here is the tricky part, if you’re using the cameras built in timer, you will have to go back & forth to the camera every time you wish to take the photo. It will still work, however, using the remotes as I have will allow me to photograph my family in the moment. If I have to get up after every shot, it just isn’t as efficient and doesn’t make the experience fun for everyone. Those of you with little ones know that you need to keep it fun or else they will bail on the session and you may come away unsuccessful. I’ll make my family look at the camera for a few and then us just goofing off interacting.
If you notice the above photographs, you cannot see the remote trigger. I have strategically composed myself and the camera in a fashion that will not allow it to be seen in the photograph. When I anticipate the moment is right, I will depress the shutter via remote in order to create the photograph. Once we’re done, I send off the film to a lab and do all the other important tasks I need to do, like raise children and spend time with my family because that’s what I like to do! The images come back via FTP download into my computer and I’m all set for post production. I do a few minor tweaks in Lightroom or Photoshop but no more that 5-15 seconds an image. Like I said you can still do this in digital, but for my taste for this project, I preferred photographing this with film. I hope this helps & below I will give you some links to the gear used and my lab. If you have any questions at all or would like to know more, please drop me a line and I’ll be happy to help you out.
Camera: Canon EOS 3
Lens: Canon 50mm 1.4 EF
Tripod: Manfrotto 190 w RC Head
Film: Kodak Portra 400
Light Meter: Sekonic Flash Master L-358
Remote Triggers: Pocket Wizard
Remote Camera Cord: http://www.pocketwizard.com/products/cable_accessory/38/CM-N3/
Lab: A and I
Thanks for the helpful info, Eric! I’m always the “camera-happy” one milling around at events taking photos of unsuspecting family and friends…they hate it, but I love it. I have had my Canon T3i DSLR (w/ both 18-55 & 55-250mm lenses) for a year and have been using it in 100% manual mode for a few months and I can’t get enough! (I’m slowly learning photoshop, also.) I have noticed a huge change in the quality of the photos I take, especially when taken indoors…the flash makes skin look so pasty, yuck! Haven’t been getting out much to use the tele lens, life is busy busy busy… I think the next step for me is to get some gadgets. I “inherited” my Dad’s tripod (he got it in the early 70’s and it is great), but that’s the only thing I’ve got. I love the remote idea so I don’t have to run back and forth in family photos. And I know I need a tulip/flowery cap-thingy to diminish glare, but I’m not sure if the light meter would benefit someone at my level. Any suggestions? -Krista
Nice to see that you have seen the light. No pun intended, but photographing manually is the way you will ultimately learn. As far as getting a light meter, it isn’t all that necessary, but if you want to have exact light readings, then by all means get one. You can also use a Gray card. The gray card will give a more consistent reading. Camera’s cannot see color, only shades of gray. Your reflected camera meter will always try to render an 18% gray reading of all subjects no matter the conditions. You will have to know when to open up your lens or stop down your lens per given situation. Don’t worry about using zoom lenses and getting remotes right now, waste of money. I can only emphasize the need for practice on a standard lens then your confidence & knowledge will grow. The lens listed in my post the Canon 50 1.4 is my go to lens. I can almost photograph every type of subject you can imagine with it. A subsequent post will come on some of my ideal lens choices soon. Thanks for chiming in and feel free to drop me a line anytime!