I’m not ready to call myself a great photographer, but I think I am ready to call myself a photographer – something I didn’t think was possible less than a year ago. I know enough about my camera now to make it do what I want 90% of the time and enough about photography and editing to feel confident taking photos for other people.
I’m still not willing to charge money for my time or work. Even looking back at these sessions - which were only a few weeks ago – I think “Ugh! The color is so wrong. Why did I edit them like that?! Why isn’t the focus sharper?? Why did I think these were good???” I have so so so very much to learn I don’t know if I’ll ever actually be good at photography.
I also think pictures of my own kids are easier (MOST of the time). I have more flexibility to say “Oh, look at the light! Quick, everyone put on your shoes, we’re going out to do photos!” Plus I can boss them around, predict their smiles, and bribe the crap out of them with lollipops.
But since I’ve been asked recently what camera and lens I use, what my settings are and other general stuff about photography I thought it might be worth writing this post. It is a weird mix of technical and non-technical stuff/terms because that’s how my brain works. Let me know if I’ve got anything totally wrong or explained it really really badly and I can try to fix it.
I do shoot in Manual mode, which is not the same as manual focus. Manual on the camera just means I control the aperture and shutter speed. I also set my own ISO but I usually let the camera choose the white balance. I’m not going to explain what all of those things are in detail since there are a billion blog posts about that already (see the link to Chookooloonks below, her summary is great) but I’ll explain what I do.
Basic info: My camera is a Nikon D7000 (excellent review & info here), which is a step up from my Nikon D90 but is still a crop-sensor camera. Basically that means on my camera an 85mm lens actually shoots at the distance of a 50mm on a full-frame camera. That “crop” applies to all the different lens lengths. The full-frame cameras are significantly more expensive and although I’d love to upgrade I can’t see myself spending that kind of money anytime in the near future.
Important note! If you’re struggling and not getting the results you expect, make sure your camera WORKS CORRECTLY. When I was super frustrated with my camera last Christmas it was because my camera was broken, not because I was an idiot.
A much-too-long explanation of how I take pictures:
After I grab the camera (about 50% of the time the battery is dead, so that’s the end of the picture taking) the first thing I choose is my ISO.
(ISO was the very last thing I figured out, so I’ll elaborate a little. I read a post by Chookooloonks a long time ago (found it!) about ISO and her explanation has stuck with me better than any other – think of the ISO number as light catchers. The higher the ISO, the more light catchers you get so you can shoot in darker conditions. On a super sunny day you don’t need many light catchers but in a dark room you need a lot. And when you have a lot of light catchers they show up in your photo as “grain”. With a low ISO you need to get the light into the picture another way, either through a longer shutter speed or a wider aperture.)
I like to keep it around 200 outside and around 1000 in the house, but it’s easy to change by intervals of 100 if my photos aren’t coming out.
Second I choose my aperture, or f-stop. That’s what makes the background fuzzy or not fuzzy. A low number means less of the photo is in focus. A big number means more is in focus. Up until I got my new 35mm lens* I liked to keep the f-stop around 3 or 3.5 (5 on my kit lens/macro, since that’s as low as those go) but on the 35mm I keep it around 2 or 2.5. A small number means I’m letting lots of light into the camera so I can keep my shutter speed low, plus it gives me that nice blurry background I think of as the hallmark of fancy photos.
Ok, so my ISO and f-stop are set based on where I’m shooting. That brings me to the part I’m embarrassed about: I cannot keep track of my shutter speed. I never remember what the fractions mean. Never. Instead of choosing a shutter speed I rely on my light meter in the camera, which I have set on spot metering (Wikipedia link for technical stuff). I just spin the shutter speed dial until I hit the center mark on the meter in the viewfinder and I’m good. If it’s a really bright day or strong light I might intentionally underexpose by a stop or vice versa, but mostly I try to hit dead center.
After I think my settings look good, I focus the camera on my subject. I have my camera set on single-point focus, where I choose one of the 13 focal points manually using the little dial on the back of the camera. My camera actually has 39 possible points, but I found scrolling through all of them took too long. Choosing my focal point lets me compose the photos off-center, another thing I think makes photos feel fancy. I get my one focal point right over the most important part of the picture and then I shoot. BAM! Photo taken!
The really fancy photographers are so confident in their technical abilities that they don’t look at the screen on the back of the camera to make sure they aren’t totally screwing everything up. I am not fancy. I definitely check. As I follow the kids or my subject around I adjust my settings (most often my shutter speed, then my ISO, then my f-stop) and I’ll check the screen again, but if we’re staying in one place I just click click click until I’m sure I have a shot with everyone looking/smiling/doing something cute/whatever.
During a session I usually take around 400 photos. That’s a lot. Way too many. Especially if the session is just my own kids hanging out in a park again. It’s a bad habit but since the photos are digital I figure I can always delete them once I get them on the computer.
Once I get home I almost always immediately move the photos to my computer. Then I edit. I shoot in RAW, which means I have to at least convert the photos to JPGs before I post them anywhere. I open my photos in Lightroom, mark the ones I think are worth converting, and then adjust for things like exposure and white balance. Since I don’t adjust white balance in-camera most of the time that’s my most frequent edit. I’ve started doing some creative editing in Lightroom too, sometimes using presets from Clickin Moms or MCP Actions. Lightroom itself comes with some really nice black and white presets and I like the way RAW files convert to b&w better than the JPGs. I’ve never taken a class or read the manual so what I know about Lightroom comes from just messing around with it.
After I like the basic look of the photos I use the export function to convert the photos to JPG and automatically open them in Photoshop. In PS I do more creative editing (sometimes very, very badly – I really need to take a class). I have a lot of Photoshop Actions and I go through phases where I LOVE some of them and then HATE some of them and then LOVE some of them again. The most useful one is a web-sharpen/resize action that I got through a Clickin Moms class I took, but for creative actions the ones I won from a Marissa Gifford giveaway can’t be beat. I don’t do skin-smoothing or eye-brightening or head-swapping or anything fancier than maybe some pimple-removal, although I’m pretty decent at cloning out stains and crumbs on the kids.
My final step is saving all the files, first as a full size photo then resizing and sharpening for the web and saving again. I recorded an action that does all of that for me so it doesn’t take very long (God bless Google for showing me how to do that!) and I usually just leave the computer to do it when I go to bed at night. Very last of all I upload web-sized photos to Flikr (if they’re my photos) or Facebook and Dropbox (if they’re for a friend). I usually get the whole process done in a day, although the bridal portraits took me a whole weekend because there were SO MANY – I shot the location, the bride, her family and the bridal shower all at once.
WHEW. If you read all of that, you’re amazing. And probably confused, since it’s obvious I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I think my biggest challenge right now is finding my own style – I tend to fall in love with a new photographer every day so sometimes I want all my photos to look faded and dreamy and sometimes I want them all to be tack-sharp and brightly colored. I’m an over-editor. But like I’ve said before, I’m trying to learn and the best way to do that is practice…so if anyone wants to act as my guinea pigs let me know and I’ll drag you out to run around in an orchard for two hours and you’ll get a couple dozen photos. I’ll even bring lollipops.
Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX
Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF
Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 SLD DG Macro Lens
Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX
I also rented a fancy 85mm f/1.4 for the bridal portraits but didn’t love it.
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