Taking Photos

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.

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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.

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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.

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*My Lenses:
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.

There are no affiliate links in this post, so everything I recommend I can honestly say I truly recommend.

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18 Responses to “Taking Photos”

  1. I am STILL learning manual on my camera. What settings to use where, and I always always check. I don’t know if I will ever just “know” the sweet spot–but it’s fun to play around!

  2. Erin says:

    Loved the post. I think you are turning into a great photographer at lightening speed!

  3. Audrey says:

    Excellently put! Funnily white balance is the very first thing I set when i turn on my camera. :) I used my 85 mm this weekend and got a photo that looks like i applied an Instagram filter to it, it has lots of blue overtones and makes for a really interesting piece. But in general i hate lenses that make me have to be further than 5 feet from a portrait subject…it’s my quirk. I like to get right up in there.

    • bebehblog says:

      I think if I had the 85mm all the time I’d get used to it and I’d like it a lot more but it wasn’t the right thing for the space I was shooting in (inside a low ceiling-ed 1700’s home, lots of group & full length shots). I’ve done a lot of reading on manually setting my kelvin white balance but my brain keeps rejecting my attempts to memorize the numbers.

  4. Well, I, as a total non-expert and simply a *consumer* of photography, think they look beautiful. If I were to hire you, I would have been more than satisfied with the results!

  5. Joanna says:

    you take beautiful pictures!

  6. Fionnuala says:

    Oh a fixed lens is really tricky to get use to. Don’t give up on it yet! Rent it again when you have something way less stressful to shot than a wedding! (Worst photography job ever, in my opinion. Excellent $, and great experience, but so much work, and such high stakes.)

    I use to teach intro to photo, and I would say you are on the right track! Keep it up, and take 400 photos it is the only way you learn!

    TRCC has a great course in intro to digital photography, I really recommend it. They also have a fun one in PS. Treat yourself, it will be worth it.

    When you look at the screen after every shot it is called “chimping”. Try not to! Seriously, you will learn your camera even faster. Way back in the day (aging myself here) I learned on film, and as a result probably don’t look at my photos enough. I always found that students picked up concepts and settings faster when I turned the screen off on the back of their camera.

    Good luck!

  7. jen_schoeph says:

    i love seeing the journey of photography.

    i am forever thankful for forums like clickinmoms as well as blogs to see style, ideas and inspiration. i love shooting, and while i love post processing life as of late has made it near impossible to sit down and edit! must change!

    keep on truckin’ everything looks beautiful!

  8. Denae says:

    Rambling and yet makes sense mostly. =P I love your photos. Technical can be learned but seeing something worth capturing is an art I think you have.

  9. I truly believe you should be paid for your photos. You have a true talent, and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.

    Also, I love reading your descriptions and steps to your processes. I have been trying to learn more about shooting in manual and your description (esp. for ISO) really helped me. And I am trying to get better about saving for the web. I’ve been thinking of getting Lightroom for the ability to make bulk edits.

    Anyhoo, I’m Pinning this.

  10. irene says:

    delurking to say: great post, and i think your pictures are fabulous! i’m hoping to be as good as you one day…

  11. Alena says:

    I love this! You’ve come so far as a photographer!!!

  12. Stephanie says:

    I’m glad You were the first one I came across when I googled how to make a tutu. After reading your blog on the tutu, I couldn’t just stop there. lol. About 6 months ago a friend came to me at a football game and asked me to take family photos for her. I just looked at like she was crazy because I had never done anything like that. Two months prior I bought a used Canon Rebel xt, (which I had been asking for for 3 yrs), so I could take sports and band competitions of my children. Once I took my first picture I was hooked on taking them at every event, not only of my children but pretty much every child of everyone I knew. But when my friend asked me about family photos, I got was scared and told her I would try but couldn’t guarantee they would turn out. To cut the story short, I have done approx. 6 more sessions since then ranging from maternity, engagement, and senior portrait. I have learned alot along the way and could have kicked myself in the tail when I realized the first 4 session that I should have been shooting in RAW. lol Anyhoo I have the photo bug. I’m hooked and can’t wait to take photography classes and upgrade my camera and who know what will happen. It’s like a drug for me, but I promised myself no matter how good I get, I will always be a low priced photographer for people (like myself) that can’t afford to pay a gazillion dollars for pictures. I enjoyed looking at yours and will continue to look for you to post new ones. Thanks for all your blogs and ideas and help.

  13. Stephanie says:

    Oh and ps. when I bought the used camera I was never told there was an issue with the manual mode. The shutter sticks in manual so I haven’t been able to work in manual at all, But when I get the Nikon D5200 or D7000 that I’m wanting, my husband will probably never see me. lol

  14. Stephanie says:

    Just to clarify my last post, I can’t SHOOT in manual mode. I Do however set my own arperture and shutter speed, but like you am always second guessing why I did things a certain way. Your photos are wonderful and I’m glad to see that someone else goes through the same ocd that I do lol.

  15. Stephanie says:

    Just when you thought you were done reading my crap, I once again feel like I need to post something else. lol Sorry but reading your blog reminds me of myself and you don’t know how much that excites me because you not only are you using language that I can understand but alot of the things you have said about what you have gone through and are going through now makes me feel as if I”M writing this blog myself all the way to wanting guinea pigs because every free minute I’m trying to find something to photograph. LOVE YOUR BLOG!!

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