A Weekend Portrait Session

I took some photos of the boys over Mother’s Day weekend while Sally was in Florida. I thought it would make a nice surprise for the occasion and would give me a chance to practice my portrait skills.

I’m generally pretty terrible at portraits. I’m terrible at posing, I’m terrible at lighting, and I’m terrible at getting that beautiful background blur. I’ve got the equipment – the full frame DSLR, the reflector, the 85mm f/1.8 lens – I just don’t have the skills. Regardless of what I’ve done I spend much of my time in post trying to remove horrible shadows under eyes and wishing I had made better choices setting up my shots.

I’m trying to change that. Over the last year I’ve watched a lot of videos and even taken a course on lighting to make some improvements. I’m still not great at posing but I’ve been focusing on lighting and setup a lot. The first thing I tackled was background blur. It’s actually pretty easy when I am thinking about it: the further away, the blurrier the background. Even though my f/1.8 lens provides a lot of blur on its own, distance from the background is still very important. So it’s pretty simple: move the subject 10 or 20 or even more feet from the background to blur it out. Something with bright highlights, like sun shining through tree leaves, makes the blur look more interesting.

Another photo from last year – I posed Adam in absolutely the wrong direction, leaving shadows all over his face. It required a ton of work in post and looked very artificial at the end.

My next and more difficult task was lighting. After watching some videos and taking a course, I think I’m a bit better. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m seeing improvements. I’ve heard of “open shade” for many years but never really knew what it meant and certainly didn’t know how to use it. I also didn’t understand why I always had to correct shadows under the eyes in post and why they were always so deep that I could never really eliminate them.

So I took these learnings and applied them to a couple of small photo shoots with the boys. I dressed them up in matching shirts Saturday morning and took them out to the back yard with my Nikon D750 and my Sony a6100. The Nikon had my 70 – 200mm f/4, which can produce great background blur and very sharp images, and the Sony had a Samyang 75mm f/1.8, equivalent to a 112.5 mm lens.

It was late morning and the sun was already strong and moving high in the sky so I knew I was pushing it but I wanted to try anyway. It was windy and the boys were cold. We setup some shots in an area of the backyard and the side yard but it just wasn’t working. Adam’s hair was blowing all over the place, the sun was casting shadows under their eyes, and they were squinting. I had done the whole thing backwards and had them face the sun because I was trying to get right background. My D750 images came out terrible too – none of them were sharp because I had accidentally dialed in an unneeded focus micro adjustment for my lens.

The smartest thing I did that morning was stop shooting pretty quickly. We did about four poses and went back inside, but I promised the boys we’d try again later. Throughout the rest of the day I reflected on all of the mistakes I made – the angle of light was too high, it was too windy, I didn’t bring a reflector, and I broke the most obvious rule and faced the sun. I resolved to fix all that and checked the light at various parts of the day to settle on a time.

That time was about 6 PM and I was ready. I put the boys in sweatshirts so they wouldn’t be cold and could put the hoods up to keep Adam’s hair in place. The sun was now behind the background I wanted, which would create some nice highlights and keep shadows at bay. I brought a reflector in the form of a piece of white foam board to put on the ground and reflect clean light up to their faces. I brought two cameras –  the a6100 again, but swapped my high-resolution D800 in for my D750. It was a great opportunity to test the D800, and I paired it with my 85mm f/1.8 to see what it could do.

The results were much better. The boys were happier, the lighting was more balanced on their faces (not perfect, but better), the backgrounds were blurred nicely, and the images were sharp. My posing was basically non-existent, but the boys did a good enough job hugging each other that it wasn’t a big deal. The a6100’s fast and accurate Eye AF was great for last minute snaps as the boys were about to lose it and the Samyang 75mm f/1.8 delivers phenomenal photos. The D800 was awesome as well, delivering sharp, high-resolution photos with really nice color rendition. I used the D800’s colors as a reference point when adjusting the green cast out of my a6100 images.

All in all I was very happy that I took the opportunity to create a better gift for Sally. I still had to make some edits in post, but they weren’t nearly as dramatic as what I usually have to do. I’m nowhere near done learning, but I’m proud that I was able to create some portraits that are more advanced than what I’ve done before. It’s similar to the practice I put into really learning how to take macro photos of flowers in 2020 and bird photos in 2021. I’m not amazing at either of those still, but I am far better than I used to be because I practiced over and over. I plan to continue to practice with portraits to improve even more.

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