My First Real Photo-shoot and What I Learned – the Hard Way

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About one month ago I was asked if I would take some family photos for a friend. Normally I shoot nature, but I said yes and figured I knew enough to get me through it and thought there was a good chance of ending-up with some usable photos.

Composition and lighting are things I'm familiar with because of my fine art background; however, I have no formal training in photography and I'm self-taught with only a few years of experience. I guess my lack of knowledge and my preference for taking nature and artsy type photos meant I would have difficulty with this project and learn some stuff the hard way. I know about the four attributes of photo taking: subject, composition, light, and exposure, yet there's a whole lot more that truly separates the novice from professional.

My subjects were to be a mom and her two young boys. The place was a local beach area; and the time was to be noon. I knew that the noontime sun could cast some hard light and shadows, but I thought that I could handle it.

Camera and lens choices consisted of my Nikon D7100 with a 17-55mm f/2.8 zoom and my Canon EOS-1DS with an 85mm f/1.8. I figured that the Nikon would be good for wider-angle shots and the 1DS/85mm combo for nicely isolated portraits. I don't have the latest and greatest and assumed I could make due with what I have.

NOTE: Photos have been resized but otherwise as they were straight out of the camera.

Dealing with the Sun

overexposed photo example

I found that the noontime sun on this clear day was not too bad. The trick was getting my subjects positioned so that the bright sunlight was not making them squint. I could also see there were strong shadows under their facial features and I wanted to eliminate some or most of that. At first I thought maybe I could use my D7100's built-in flash as a fill light to better reveal some of the shadowy areas of the face. I fumbled to set the camera properly so it wouldn't over expose (which it did) and nervously gave-up after a minute or two. My few test shots were blown-out in a big way and I knew I was exceeding the flash sync shutter speed even-though I stopped the aperture way down; then I said screw-it and moved to plan "B" – a disc type reflector.

I remembered seeing stuff on reflectors in magazines and on Youtube for similar situations and thought one might come in handy. I had never used my reflector before but knew it was for directing light where needed. It worked pretty well. With my girlfriend's help, we positioned the reflector and got some ok shots without the strong shadows in the subject's faces.

That was just the first of several challenges that day; most of which didn't get handled nearly as well.

Lesson 1: Portraits Should Fill the Frame

failed to fill frame but used reflector

(About image: I used a reflector but failed to fill more of the frame.)

This is where I started making seriously stupid mistakes. For some reason, I was not filling the picture frame with the subjects when taking portrait type photos. I only realized this afterwards, but I was leaving in way too much negative space which meant I had to crop the photos a lot just to make them look right. Even the shots where more foreground and background would have been ok had too much wasted space in them (mostly empty sky). Subconsciously, maybe I was afraid to get closer – I have no idea.

My first lesson learned was to fill the frame when taking portraits unless there's a good reason not to!

Lesson 2: Change Camera Orientation

failed to rotate camera example

(About image: should have rotated camera & got closer to fill frame.)

The next odd thing I found myself doing was keeping the camera in a horizontal position throughout the whole shoot. Even with full-figure shots, I neglected to turn the camera. At times I remember seeing the subject's feet cut off in the frame and I just ignored it! Again, I have no idea why I was doing this, but it made for a lot of bad shots. Chock it up to nervousness or plain old bone-headedness. What I learned though was that I need to loosen-up and think about the shot more. Rotate the camera and think about whether a photo needs to be a landscape or portrait type orientation.

Lesson 3: Pay Attention to Details

During post-processing in Lightroom my girlfriend and I were noticing little details that detracted from some of the shots. It was things like a crooked necklace or a piece of clothing that was out of place; never-the-less, these things would have been simple to correct had I been paying more attention during the photo session.

Details are important in art and photography and it's the attention to detail that can make a big difference in the quality of your work. Even-though I knew this, it didn't cross my mind at the time and my photos suffered.

Lesson 4: Think About Depth-of-Field

Depth-of-field is something that I'm familiar with and I do understand the basics. I always use aperture priority mode on my cameras and I'm usually aware of the effect of a small aperture versus a wide-open one. What happens though when you're not paying attention and shooting a group of people at f/1.8? Well, unless you can get them all on the same plane, someone is going to be slightly out of focus. That's what happened to me. Sometimes the mom and her kids were positioned on slightly different planes and I left the aperture on the 85mm wide-open like a dummy. I remember that I was more concerned with the camera's focus points which had nothing to do with this problem; should I use a few focus points or just one? Anyway, it's clear now that I was a bit overwhelmed and was getting myself confused over something that should have been simple as hell (Uugh!).

Lesson 5: Don't Feel Rushed

Some of the mistakes that I made that day probably could have been avoided had I slowed down and been more mentally focused. Maybe it was the excitement or my own anxiety that made me feel as though I had to hurry for each shot. What I should have done is take more control of the situation while I made camera adjustments and/or assessed the overall composition. Then, when I was ready I should have asked them to pose for the photo.


example of photography mistakes

(About image: should have got closer to fill frame & got entire figure also.)

This was definitely a humbling experience. What I thought was going to be not too different from taking photos of nature turned out to be a bit of a challenge. It made me realize that professionals have to really understand their equipment and have many details to consider during a photo shoot. Luckily, my client understood my level of expertise going into this and the handful of usable photos that we ended-up with were given to her free of charge.

As frustrated as I was afterwards, I realized that this was all part of the learning process. I decided that I should not give up. Now that I understand my mistakes, I'll do better and I'll be up to the task!

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