Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

November 25, 2018

Capturing Magic

From almost the moment I took my new camera out of the box, I noticed an immediate improvement in my photography. Since then my photography has continued to improve.

This evening, after the kids went to bed I set down at my computer to pull the images off my camera. I quickly called Domingo over, and spun my computer around to show him what I captured.

“Wow! I’m surprised you got that!” he said.

“To be honest, me too.”

His comment wasn’t a slight. The odds were stacked against us. It had been raining and gloomy all day. We decided to try for the photo towards the end of the day when we were about to lose what little light we had left. Alexis hadn’t napped, Dana was in need of hers. Both of the older girls were over excited, eagerly anticipating making gingerbread houses. On a normal Sunday I would have put my camera down and waited for a better day.

Today was also our last opportunity to take photos while my parents were visiting. When photographing a multiple kids at once, more hands are always helpful! I’ve found the faster you can get set up and everyone ready, the more likely you’ll have success. This is extra especially true on days you can expect the children’s patience to run even shorter than normal. So we decided to take a chance.

Then magic happened.

Our experience today nearly identically mirrored our experience last Sunday when we did a mini shoot for our Christmas card. That day it was smoke rather than rain clouds blocking the sun light. The kids were going completely stir crazy after being cooped up inside for three days. Naps failed. We were at the end of the day; thirty-seven minutes from sunset according to the time stamp on my camera. To say it was not an ideal time to be shooting indoors using only natural lighting would be putting it mildly. Even the photo set up was largely the same – just with Santa hats! The odds we’d get something usable seemed slim, yet we somehow managed to capture magic that time too. In fact, I was so pleased with the outcome I needed another non-Christmas photo to frame for my walls, hence today’s photo session.

I’ve been giving the new camera a lot of credit for the improvement in my photography. It’s true, our Christmas Card Photo would not have been possible with my old camera under those lighting conditions. The photo was shot at 1/250th a second on my D7500. The ISO limitations of my old camera would have required 1/50th a second, or a wider aperture. Either would have introduced the likelihood of unwanted blur.
(When photographing kids even 1/250th of a second is often too slow as holding a pose doesn’t exactly come naturally. I ended up with a few shots with motion blur, along with the keepers.)

At the same time, I don’t think my new camera deserves all the credit. The success of this week and last is partly due to a better intuitive feel for both the technical and non technical aspects of photography. I had a vision in my mind of the image I wanted to capture, and a good feel of how to execute that vision. I knew what camera settings I would need, and how to best get the expressions I was after from the kids. That means I’m more likely to get the shot I want the first time, when the kids are the most amenable to it. These days it’s rare that I don’t have at least one capture I’m proud of whenever I pick up my camera. I’m relying on luck less and less.

I guess it wasn’t more frames I needed when shooting my kids together, but another three and a half years of practice.

October 31, 2018

Little Jedi

I love, love, love how these turned out.

We took our annual family group costume photo this past weekend. As a treat, we let the girls run around with their light sabors at dusk, so they could see them all light up. Of course I followed the girls around with my camera because, why not? Since it was only dusk the glow wasn’t very pronounced in the pictures in the pictures. Nicole was disappointed her blue light saber wasn’t showing up as nicely as Alexis’ green saber. She wanted to take more photos (in her own words “a thousand photos”) were you could really see the saber too. An idea was born.

The initial plan was just photograph Nicole and Alexis in costume with their blue and green sabers. I hadn’t gotten a light saber for Dana, what with her being nine months old and all. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted a matching photo of her with a sabor as well. I wasn’t too enamored with her with Yoda custom (either the original or the one I hobbled together). She kind of looked like a green lamb in her headpiece. Having a “Jedi Dana” photo seemed like a good way to make up for that fact, and to ease the pain of way over spending on our costumes. Domingo thought she looked at bit like Anakin Skywalker in her tunic and pants. We had a Kylo Ren sword (free conference swag) and so “Darth Dana” was born.

Only problem was the free light saber was terrible. It had just two LEDs in the base of the sword where Nicole and Alexis’ had at least nine running down the length of it. Those two puny LEDs did not cast enough light for the camera to focus well, or to illuminate her face. Having already spend a ridiculous amount on costumes this year, buying another saber was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed to improvise. I shot Dana with the blue light saber and changed the hue in my poor man’s photoshop.

As for the pose, I just got lucky. She was looking down at a toy in her hands and I happened to snap the photo as she was raising her gaze to look at me. The framing isn’t perfect, but it’s one of those moments you can never manufacture.

Technical details: the kids are standing in front of a black backdrop which is probably not needed, but doesn’t hurt. I used full manual mode: small shutter (~F/7.1) and fast shutter (1/200s or faster) to reduce any chance of blur. The raw photos are very dark, so when I bumped up the histogram they’re a touch grainy. Personally I think it adds to the look.

When I explored the idealized vs authentic ditonomy previously, I was mainly thinking of photo editing, but the same principles apply to photo taking as well. An authentic style is one where the photographer plays the role of unobtrusive observer, capturing everything as it happens without interacting or influencing it. An idealized approach may interact with a scene to capture the feeling or emotion. It could be as simple as shoving background clutter out of frame, or as complicated as manufacturing a moment that mimics reality.

My preference, most definitely, fall on the idealized side of the scale.

Dana’s favorite past time is playing peek-a-boo. She’s quite apt at manipulating the blanket by herself and does it often, whether it’s the muslin swaddle blanket on the changing table, wash cloth in the bath, burp cloth on the play mat. Trouble is, it’s extremely difficult to capture in a photo since the blanket is either covering her, or off to the side. If I wanted to have a still photo keepsake to frame, I’d have to get creative.

The key thing I wanted to convey from my photo was the love she has for the game. I wanted big baby smiles and the blanket all in one shot. So rather than play peek-a-boo with the blanket between us, I put one edge behind her. Sometimes I’d drop my end in front of her, so she’d be my little blanket ghost and sometimes I’d drop it behind me so we’d both be under it. It was like a game of peek-a-boo and parachute all rolled into one. The little lady loved it!

Now that I had the smiles I wanted, I needed a way to capture them. With the camera in my right hand, I only had the left hand free to hold the blanket. However, if I held the blanket single handedly it would drape down in front of me, often blocking the shot entirely. Enter the clothes hanger. I used masking take to tape the edge of the blanket to an inverted clothes hanger. Now, when I raised the handle of the clothes hanger the blanket raised too. The hanger gave me a good 10 inches of taught blanket that wouldn’t drape in frame. (Well it sometimes still did during the course of playing, but didn’t block the frame completely… most of the time.)

It was a rather ridiculous site – me holding a clothes hanger taped to a blanket in one hand, camera in the other – but it worked and captured the feel of playing peek-a-boo all while making it a fun new game for Dana. When I say I take a idealized approach over an authentic approach this is what I mean – a highly orchestrated photo set up to mimic real life. The purest put there may not agree, but I have no regrets.

June 26, 2018

Perceived Importance

After five months of being firmly anti-binky, Dana did something unexpected yesterday. She was sleepy, but too full to nurse to sleep, so I did something I hadn’t done in weeks. I gave her a binky. She didn’t hate it! In fact, she went to right to sleep with it. Not knowing when or if it would happen again, I decided to take as much photographic evidence as possible. I have photos, videos, and even slow motion videos on my phone.

I am reminded of the faux fall photos we did with Nicole. I say faux fall because it was a super warm Thanksgiving day. We dressed her in a sweater jacket, found a sad little leaf pile and carefully took pictures reminiscent of the kinds I would expect growing up in the north east.

The photos of Dana with the binky were about as authentic as Nicole in the leaves. Yes, it really did happened, but the photo conveys something that isn’t really true. She still doesn’t really take the binky. I got her to do it again yesterday afternoon, but just once, and not at all today.

(Edited to add: She appears to be teething. In retrospect she appears to be chewing on the pacifier in some of the pictures, not sucking on the pacifier.)

The experience has me thinking about the perceived importance of moments, and which moments we choose to photograph and remember. This moment felt extraordinary because it was rare. Ironically, it would have been a more meaningful moment to capture if it was more representative of our experience, yet I may not think to pick up the camera in that case. This realization has been weighing on me lately. I pick up my camera often with Dana, capturing both the every day and the extraordinary alike since we spend so much time together, but the older two? I keep meaning to take more photos each weekend, but the weekends are so busy we rarely have time to follow through. The last photos I took of the girls? I can’t remember. It feels like ages.

Things will settle down. I will find a way to make more time for photography. It is my life blood, after all.

One month before birth, one month after

It wasn’t looking promising, but somehow Dana and I managed to capture the majority of her newborn photos just as the newborn phase was ending. It feels like a pretty amazing feet considering all that was stacked against: baby colds, and lack of mobility. The better camera helped. I didn’t need so many practice shots, or blury shots necessitating redos.

Where we’re lacking still is sleeping baby photos. Dana has an amazing ability to resist naps in general, and naps on set especially. I’d set the thermostat high to get that toasty, naked baby approved temperature. Place a heating pad on set to make it extra cozy. Fill the tummy, rocked to sleep, place her down, pick up the camera and it’s “Good morning, Mommy!” Normally I would have continued well into the second month, but Dana isn’t having it and I don’t want to torture her.

Of course that means the photos were not lacking in are alert baby with beautiful eye contact!

I have now also learned why my 1-month-olds tend to look younger in photographs than my newborns. At least to my eye. When they’re first born they tend to be leaner. When there’s not an object in frame for comparison leaner translates to longer, which can make them seem older. By one month they’ve put on some chub before having a chance to really start growing. In photographs they seem smaller. It seems so obvious in retrospect. The classic newborn pose, resting in a slight dip, also helps them look more squished and smaller.

While I was happy with the newborn photos, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the lack of maternity photos this time around. I really only took three styles: low-key, by the tree and the one above. I regret not powering through when I was feeling uncomfortable and at least taking some with the girls and I together, but I cannot go back in time. Since I was so lacking in maternity photos, and Dana was not too keen on sleeping for more newborn photos, I thought I’d do one of those before & after comparisons.

These were surprisingly difficult to do by myself. I am self conscious about my postpartum body, so I’m holding Dana on my left side rather than directly center in order to hide some of my tummy. It’s causing a bit of torque, which is putting pressure in places I don’t need pressure. With the added stress of juggling the remote I was feeling sore for a few days.

Worth it.

I know a lot of other people would disagree, but the pain is only temporary. The photos will keep forever.

February 15, 2018

A Bone to Pick

I have a bone to pick with my new camera. It’s too good. I can’t blame the camera for my mistakes any more!

I was comfortable shooting at a wider aperture because the old camera had a bit of a soft focus problem. Those itty bitty baby lashes didn’t look sharp on either side of the face. That made small issues with camera shake, depth of field or motion blur virtually undetectable. With my new camera they’re detectable! Nevermind that the image looks great for most standard printing sizes, if I can zoom in on her face enough to see the pores on her left check, I want to see them on the right as well! My new camera is rubbing it in my face that I don’t have as intuitive a sense of the depth of field as I think I do!

Kidding aside, I’ve noticed a huge jump in the quality of my photos thanks to my new camera. The Nikon D7500 has a much better performance in low light. I can bump up the ISO easily 5x what I would set it to with my 5100 without fear of noticiable noise. That means I can use a faster shutter speed, and narrow aparture which cuts down on motion blur and camera shake. The cameras internal logic is amazing. If I frame the image right, 9 times out of ten the end product is going to be great. I don’t find myself adjusting the exposure as much, but when I need to the exposure compensation button makes it a snap. I can do it with just my right hand, while still looking through the viewfinder rather than the LCD screen. That means less time away from the “action”, and better focus. I’m taking fewer pictures each burst, fewer frames in general, and still happy with the outcome. Aside for that depth of field ‘issue’ mentioned above.

They say it’s the photographer, not the camera. That’s true to an extent, clearly. A good photographer can overcome many of the limitations of a bad camera, but not all. Shoot in lower light than your camera can handle and your choice is motion blur or noise. (Or bring additional lights and equipment.) Shooting a faster subject than you’re camera can handle? Need a greater dynamic range? Your out of luck, Chuck. A good photographer can likely get an interesting shot with any camera, but certain shots require certain equipment.

Sometimes you do need better equipment to realize your limitations in order to grow.

December 6, 2017

First Time Charm

My best photo shoot is usually my third. Unless it’s something I’m shooting on a regular basis, I usually take a few iterations to figure out the best settings to lessen the chances of unintentional blur (both depth of field related, camera shake and motion). So when I decided to try a modified low key maternity photo in front of the Christmas tree, I was pretty stoked to get this on my first attempt.

ISO 5000
F/36 (to produce the star light effect)
2 Second Shutter Speed

It was a difficult shot. I’m kneeling so my bump is against to the widest part of the tree (you can see the floor in the background to the right.) I had troubles sitting still for so long, and ended up leaning against Alexis’ training potty so I could hold my position better. Even still there’s a bit of noise, but it’s not horrible. Given the difficulty of the shot, I think the end result was rather impressive. I was using normal noise reduction, and could experiment with pushing it to the max. If I used a star filter (something I didn’t yet own) I could create the stars with a wider aperture and not rely on such a high ISO setting or long shutter speed. If this is what I got when I didn’t quite know what I was doing, imagine what I could get with a little work!

All other attempts have been flops.

The stars created with a small aperture are small and dense with 14 rays that don’t stretch very far from the point light. The star filter set I purchased produce a maximum 10 rays. I was hoping there wouldn’t be much of a difference between 10 and 14 rays, but the 10 rays looked mighty thin compared to the 14 rays. Adding insult to injury, the greater the difference in contrast between point light to the rest of the photo, the longer the rays. The end result? Long streaks of light that didn’t really look like stars stretching across most of the photo. The darker the photo, like these low key setups, the worse the filter stars looked.

With star filter

Results with increased noise reduction were ok, but not remarkably better.

Sadly for me and my perfectionist tendencies, the further along I get in this pregnancy the less energy I have to try for better photos. I’m also getting impatient with the still yet untrimmed tree (I worry the ornaments will detract from the photo) so I decided to declare this photo attempt done after five tries. I did take a back up shot with an increased the aperture (bye bye pretty point light stars) which at least doesn’t suffer from noise or blur. I’m convinced that somewhere out there is a program that can add stars to point lights after the fact. If it doesn’t exist now, I’m sure it will at some point.

In the mean time, I ran my best photo (above) through every single photo manipulation app on my phone. Here are my two favorite results.

The first is from an app called Camera+ using the faded filter. I love the nearly black and white look with the stars supplying little bursts of color. The color tone is a nice touch as well.

Next up is Prism with the Curly Hair style. It’s another mostly black and white image, this one looks almost like a drawing.

Tomorrow while the kids are at school I plan to trim the tree while blasting Christmas music. My goal: be done with my to-do list early enough that I can relax the week leading up to Christmas and get plenty of sleep before the chaos that is Christmas morning. I did it before, I can do it again!

November 16, 2017

New Baby

NikonUSA finally released their black friday ad this past Monday and, sadly, there was no deal on the d7500 body only. All the deals were on kits that came with lenses I don’t need since my lens collection meets my current needs perfectly. Of course, no black friday sale means no reason to wait until black friday!

I am amazed at the difference in image quality. My previous camera body, the 5100, is several models out of date, and was an entry model where the 7500 is considered a mid-range. I was expecting significantly better low light capabilities, and was still blown away by the difference when I redid the low-key maternity photos. I bumped up the ISO to 1000 without noticeable noise, whereas with my old 5100 the noise was extremely pronounced at ISO 800. The other advantage was the 7500 was able to autofocus much better in the dark than the 5100. I took roughly half the number of exposures and felt confident I had gotten “the shot.”

I’m super excited to test out the new camera on the kids on the weekend. I’ve been frustrated lately by the 5100’s soft focus like appearance in the face. I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. I never remember having this issue when the camera was new. It was particularly pronounced doing Nicole’s “1st day of Kindergarten” photos, which is part of the reason why I’m pining for AI photo enhancing. Ah well, some day.

That said, there are some things I do miss about the 5100. The 5100 has a rotatable LCD back screen that has been described as “selfie friendly.” I hate that term, but it was useful for taking maternity photos. I guess technically they’re “selfies.” The 7500 can tilt, but not rotate. The new camera is also noticeably heavier than the old one. But these are very minor concerns, especially when you consider all the benefits the new camera is bringing.

November 10, 2017

Low Key Maternity Photography

How can I possibly be 32 weeks already? It suddenly dawned on me that despite approaching the midway point in the third trimester, the only “bump” photos I have are a handful of bathroom selfies at 8 weeks when I couldn’t believe I was already showing. I needed to fix that, and I waned to challenge myself to try at something different.

Low key photos are low light, mostly dark photos that emphasize shadow and shape. I tried to do low-key bump portraits while pregnant with Alexis, but couldn’t master the light. I’ve experimented with dark background, spotlight photos before using a desk/craft light, but the craft light wasn’t strong enough to take photos of a larger subject (like my bump.)

This time around I decided to get a long, skinny adjustable craft light since I can almost always use more high quality desk lamps. I settled on TaoTronics LED Desk Lamp since it allowed me to adjust both brightness & color temperature. As an added bonus, TaoTronics had a newer model so the one I purchased was on the cheaper side. As long as it’s a bright white light and the right narrow shape, any lamp will do. To further control the light I cut up the Amazon box it shipped in and made cardboard flaps. I taped a flap to each side of the lamp, to focus the light so it wouldn’t illuminate the wall behind me.

As a general rule of thumb the darker the photo, the more visible the ISO noise. To make this photo work I had to shot at a very low ISO setting, which means a longer exposure time. Unfortunately, unlike my previous spotlight attempts I needed to shot with the room dark. The larger the subject, the further back the craft light needs to be. The further back the craft light, the less bright the light is when it reaches the subject. I shot the above photo ISO 100, f/5, 1/13 a second. Normally I’m comfortable shooting at ISO 1000, but it was just too much noise.
The above photo is pushing the boundaries of what my 5 year old camera can do.

If you want to attempt a similar photo, here are my tips:
– Where light color, possibly skin toned clothes. I tried this in a dark sweater and everything other than my hands all but disappeared.
– Use a Lower ISO settings to avoid noise. I know I said that before, but this is one instance where a little noise can really ruin your photo.
– Adjust the cardboard flaps (you can use masking tape at the tops and the bottoms) to control how narrow or wide the light beam is.

I kick myself every time I mess up the settings on my camera. On Nicole’s first day of school I mistakenly left my camera in full manual mode, with the shutter speed set for indoor photography of stationary objects. The photo on the left is my favorite pose wise. Nicole is so happy. But the photo is so over exposed with a slight motion blur given the slow shutter speed. Fortunately I realized my mistake, adjusted my settings and was able to also capture the photo on the right.

Current state of the art photo editing techniques cannot save the photo on the left. The skin on the left side of her face is so over exposed the sRGB value is pure white. The computer simply has no way to figure out what color was supposed to be there, so there’s no way to automatically fix the white patch. Nicole could have cyan colored skin for all the computer knows. Or checker pattern skin, for that matter.

As an machine learning person, I find this limitation incredibly irritating. Chances are, when you, a human, first looked at the image on the left Nicole’s skin did not appear pure white to you. Your brain filled in a likely color based on the right side of the photo where her skin isn’t as badly over exposed and what you know of human skin tones. With the two photos side by side you can easily imagine a combined photo with the pose from the left and the coloring on the right.

Current state of the art image recognition can recognize faces. It should be able to map point for point the location of the eyes, mouth, nose, hands, etc between the two photos. Given that, it seems plausible for a AI enabled photo editing software to merge the two photos and create the ideal image.

Even without the image on the right, a sufficiently advanced AI based system should be able to recognize the subject matter much the way a human would. The system should then be able to generate a hyper realistic plausible image. It might not be the “correct” image, the image that would have been created if my settings were correct in the first place. I doubt for most people that would matter. A realistic enough resulting image that was plausibly correct would likely be sufficient for most momtographers like me.

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