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Photographing Children: Lighting and Processing

Shooting Outdoors:

One of the most important thing about making good photos is having good lighting. This doesn't just mean having enough light to see your subject clearly and get an exposure -- for example direct sunlight right on the child. In fact, I'd say that's arguably an example of BAD lighting: You'll get squinty eyes, harsh shadows, bright highlights and odd colors. When I look for 'good' light for portrait photography, I tend to look for soft, shielded, indirect light with a big source. This is to say, I point my subjects toward the open sky, but I make sure to place them in the shade and under something (usually a tree). This makes for a flat/even, pleasing light on the skin, but also for big catchlights or reflections in the bright eyes. I prefer catchlights to be big, about 1/4th to 1/3rd of the iris. When they're smaller, they look too much like I used a pop-up flash, which lends a 'snapshot' looks to them.

Shooting Indoors (with Available Light):

I live in a tiny apartment and I also often photograph inside client's homes. Sometimes my clients have huge windows, but sometimes they don't. The light inside of a building can sometimes be hard to find. One of the places for the best light in a house is oddly enough, usually the bathroom. The walls are small enough that the light bounces back around the room, especially if there's a bright window in the bathroom. If you have no nice bathrooms or no windows in your bathroom (like me), the next best place is a bright white room or anywhere next to a window that had indirect light coming in it. The further the subject is from the window, the less light will reach them. Since the light comes from only one direction in front of a window, choose a room with more than one window if possible, or use a reflector to bounce some more light back onto your subject.

Sometimes you just can't get away with a window alone and you have to use an additional light source -- this is where good flash is a great tool (alternately, you could raise the ISO and still rely on ambient light, but I prefer to keep the digital photo noise to a minimum and have more control over the lighting).The only way I like to use an on-camera flash for portraits is to bounce it. That means pointing the flash up into a white ceiling or over to a white wall so that it bounces off the large surface area and back on the subject, making for much softer and more diffuse lighting. If the room is small, I point the flash up and let it bounce off the ceiling and around the whole room. If it's a large room, I point the flash to a wall on my right side and let it bounce back from there. It's important that the bounce surface be white, or close to white, because the reflected light will pick up the wall color, which may cause a problem with skin tones. I use the Speedlite 430EX, with a Gary Fong Lightsphere accessory (it looks like a Tupperware bowl, but I promise, it works!) for when I need additional light in an indoor location.

Tip #1: If your flash doesn't rotate for bouncing, or if you don't own a Speedlite-capable camera (with a hotshoe), simply put a piece of frosted tape, tissue paper, or 1/2 of a ping pong ball over your pop up flash to soften/diffuse it.

Tip #2: Make sure to warn anyone standing behind or to the side of you while using a flash, or you may blind several unsuspecting spectators!

Studio Lighting:

There are tons of books and tutorials about how to achieve a stylized or dramatic look with studio lights. However, I prefer softer and more natural lighting, so that's what I'll focus on here:

Imagine a square. That's your shooting area. The backdrop is the back of the square; you position yourself at the front side of the square. Your light source goes either to your right or left at the front corner of the square. I prefer to my right, but that's personal preference. At the opposite side, you put a big reflector to bounce the light back to the subject. I use a Alien Bee strobe with a large Larson 4x6 softbox -- because I like the big catchlights that such a huge softbox makes. For a more even/flater lighting look, put the reflector in the corner just next to the light. For slightly more deep shadows, put the reflector on the flat side of the square opposite the light. Get the reflector as close to your subject as you can without getting it into the camera view. You can achieve the same, or a similar, look with two lights (instead of a light and a reflector), and if you would rather use umbrellas instead of a softbox, you'll get a slightly harsher light and deeper shadows.

Final Thoughts

That wraps up all three parts of this tip series! Now you know how I work with children, how I use my gear, and how I light my photographs. I hope you've enjoyed reading about all the silly things I do to get good expressions and I also hope I've given you a few ideas you can take and expand on.

Do remember that these tips reflect the way that I work, and techniques I've found to be effective. Every photographer works in different ways and has different equipment, so it's important to practice and experiment to find out what you like and what techniques are most effective for you. A final tip: To make sure I don't get into a professional rut, I love carrying around my PowerShot camera. It challenges me to be more creative in finding new ways of 'seeing' compositions, lighting, exposures, colors, etc -- which, in turn, helps me with my clients when it really matters.

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