16 Jun 2013

First communion session: part 2 - taking pictures

After some preparations the actual session finally took place on a sunny and windy afternoon in one of the parks in The Hague. I will not write in this post about all technical aspects of the shooting, because there are people who already did it and they did it, in my opinion, very well (Photography Life, Cliff Mautner, just to mention some of my inspiration sources). Instead I'd like to share some observations that are rather specific to the interaction with other people (especially children) during the session.

Avoid "programmed smile mode"

Children (and adults, by the way too) are nowadays trained to smile as soon as they see a camera pointing at them. Smiling is of course a very nice and desired gesture, but sometimes it takes kind of a programmed form, which makes the portrait looking not so natural. Two pictures below illustrate this.

On the first photo the girl took the 'directed' smile. Cute, but it is not her gesture. 2nd photo looks much more better because of her smile is just natural. 
How to avoid this phenomenon? I don't have enough experience to give here a generic advice, but during this session I applied a few things:
  • I gave the children (and their family) some time to get familiar with the fact that I was in front of them, pointing with a big lens. After a quarter or so they paid less attention to me, giving me the chance to take natural-looking shots,
  • I was joking a lot. It helped,
  • During the session I gave children some simple assignments, so they could focus on something else than posing only. For example, I have asked the little brother to find a flower for her sister (more on that later).

Stick to the plan but be ready for unexpected all the time

During preparations I have assumed 5-6 different locations and several different configurations of photographed people. In any case to have enough material to create a paper album which would be appealing and interesting for the readers.
So the plan consisted of:

  • Portraits of the girl (alone)
  • Portraits of the girl (with her brother, mother, father),
  • Family portrait (with parents and grand parents),
  • Photos with sacral attributes associated with first communion
Since I had just one hour, I had to watch the time and operate sometimes rather quickly. Nevertheless taking pictures was not continuous. We moved from place to place, I discussed the ideas with participants, etc. And many interesting photos I took exactly during such break. There were moments that children start to play with each other, but also the parents didn't pay much attention to me behaving more natural:

Direct the show but let participants play

As I predicted, the participants expected from me that I would direct them during the session and tell what they have to do, how to pose and what will be the next steps. Which is fine, but on the other hand I think it is important not to 'over direct' everything, since at the end everyone wants to look natural on the photo. In this case the task was easy, since children were involved. And they don't let anybody to direct their behavior (at least not for the long time). So I was able to get some pictures expressing true emotions. For instance, I asked little brother of the girl to give her a flower. He actually liked the idea very much and long after the 'flower scene' was finished, he was bringing her other stuff as well, giving everyone a lot of fun:

Observe interactions, make use of it

During the session I have discovered that the girl likes her cousin very much. They apparently had a good time playing together. So I decided to take an additional session with those two children.  Whether they will be chosen to the album, I don't know, but to me they are my favourite shots of the session:

7 Jun 2013

First communion session: part 1. The preparations.

Couple of weeks ago I was flattered by a request of my acquaintance who asked me to take 'a few' pictures of her daughter, who would receive her first communion these days. The euphoria however was diminished quite quickly, as soon as I realized how serious the assignment actually would be. First communion in the catholic church is one of the most important sacraments and in some countries (like Poland) it is a big celebration for a child and his/her family. So I need to do a good job as photographer.
Another issue for me is that I am not so acquainted with all the nuances behind this ceremony and the day of communion. Sure, it takes place in church, children are dressed nice and tidy, but what are the sacral attributes used nowadays during the ceremony? What is important for parents?
Finally I took the request, but I knew that I had to make quite some preparations and precautions to make the session a success.

Talk to parents, discuss the expectations

This is actually most important part of the preparation. I have talked to the mother several times to discuss the time of shooting, expectations (of her and of mine), to share initial ideas.
I believe it helps both sides. Her, because she can do some preparations and me because I can shape the expectations to some extent and check whether my ideas would match hers.
For example, I discussed already my initial plan of the session:
- Duration of 1 hour,
- Start at 7:00 p.m.
- Four parts: portraits of a girl, session with parents, session with the rest of family, session with sacral attributes.

Get inspired - look at others' work

However it may sound lame (we photographers are creative people, aren't we?) looking at the portfolios of people making money by taking photos helped me a lot. As I stated already, in Poland the first communion is a big thing, hence big business. So there was enough blogs and websites to go through and see what people actually sell to their customers. Next to getting some ideas it is good to check what are the trends and what the customers perceive as appealing.
Other quite good source of good photos was 500px.com.
And for gathering the shots that were interesting to me I have used a Pinterest page.

Find the patterns, learn from them

Knowing what the event is about and how people act during such day (e.g. how are they dressed) makes possible to start searching for something similar and again learn from those experiences. To me first communion event resembles in many aspects the wedding ceremony:
- there is a strong emphasize on a main person being dressed like little bride,
- there is a compulsory shooting part involving the family (parents, grandparents, pete parents, etc.),
Obviously there are differences as well. Most apparently, the attention is directed to a child most of the time.
So the pattern to look for would be something between wedding photography and children and family portraiture.
So it is worth some exploration of techniques that can be used in such situations. Therefore I use materials on kelbytraining.com  and discussion forums on nikonians.org. Kelbytraining is a collection of video courses showing different kinds of techniques, tricks and tips used by different (very good) photographers. It is not free but it is worth money you spent in my opinion.

Choose and scout the location

Since there will be several people involved, there should be kind of direction given to them during the session. And the director will be in this case, well, me. So having a location explored a bit in advance helps. I want to avoid the moments of hesitation where nobody knows what to do next and where to walk. For sure those moments will probably come (I don't want and cannot plan everything), but I would like to minimize them and let them, especially in the beginning of the shooting.

Get acquainted with the people being photographed

Here I was lucky twice: I know the girl and her parents and I was able to see some photos of the family on Facebook. This gave my basic idea (or sometimes a couple of questions) about the personalities of people. For example I noticed that the little brother of a girl was not present on the photos published. Doesn't he like to be photographed? Or had just not a good day? After some talk to the mother I know that he was just not in the mood on this day but he loves to pose for the photos. Another example: I saw that the grandfather of the girl looks very seriously on all pictures. So it will be a challenge to cheer him up a bit during the session. Whether I will succeed I don't know, but at least I am aware of the challenge.

4 Jun 2013

A simple tip that may help to get sharper photos (applicable for at least some Nikon cameras)

I was looking for a while for the technique that would make my photos sharper. Since I have switched my gear to Nikon D800E I have noticed that in some situations the sharpness of my pictures was not satisfactory. Initially it could be explained (in some cases) by left focus point issue, but after readjusting of the autofocus system by the Nikon service, I was still sometimes struggling with getting sharp pictures, especially in the AF-C autofocus mode.
I started analysing the possible reasons of the problem. One of the things that came to my mind was the technique that I use quite often, namely locking of the autofocus and recomposing the picture. In the AF-S mode the behavior of camera is simple: it focuses, lock the focus while the shutter release button is pressed half-way and then one can recompose the picture by moving the camera.
In AF-C the situation is slightly different. The D800E manual states on p. 91 that in AF-C mode camera focuses continuously while shutter release button is pressed half way. So simple half-press shutter release and recompose technique will not work (when one moves the camera to recompose, the gear will adjust the focus to a new situation).
To lock the focus in this mode one needs to press and hold the AE-L/AF-L button. I have tried it but found not very comfortable and convenient.
It is more convenient method to lock the focus in the AF-C (and in AF-S) mode. Use the AF-ON button to lock the focus instead of pressing the shutter release button half way.
How does it work? Quite simple, actually. To focus, press the AF-ON button. Camera and the lens will set up the focus to get the image sharp. If you release the AF-ON button, the focus will remain locked on the position where the focus was gained. So using this button decouples the autofocus action from the shutter release button. While for the AF-S mode it does not matter so much, for AF-C it allows to lock the focus just by using single button (AF-ON), instead AE-L/AF-L and shutter release.
When I started using this technique I was a bit skeptical since I was worried about learning a new habit to lock the focus by pressing something different than shutter release button. But it turned to be an easy and quick adaptation and now I get completely used to use it.
How does it help to get the sharper pictures? First of all, while recomposing in the AF-C mode the sequence of buttons to press is simpler: AF-ON press, AF-ON release, (recompose), shutter release.
Second (this may be my subjective feeling), I think that by using a thumb to press AF-ON button, I enforce more stable camera holding. So even if I track the objects photographed in the AF-C mode to have them constantly in focus, by using the AF-ON button I embrace the camera with my right hand in such way that it remains more steady.

To set up the AF-ON button for locking the focus, some settings need  to be adjusted.

Technicalities - how to setup AF-ON to lock the focus.

Initially the D800E is set in such a way that the AF-ON button locks the focus exactly the same as pressing the shutter release button half-way. To achieve the behavior described above one need to block the focus lock by sutter release button.
To do so set the Autofocus->AF activation option (a4) to AF-ON only (OFF) in the Custom Setting Menu.
In my menu navigation notation:

MENU, ,,, 3x,, AF-ON Only, Ok

 If you have the Nikon MB-D12 battery grip and want to setup the AF-ON button to lock focus, use the option Controls->Assign MB-D12 AF-ON option (f13) to AF-ON in the Custom Setting Menu:
MENU, ,,, 5AF-ON, Ok

Don't forget to set those settings for all custom menus where you plan to use them.

The updated version of the D800 settings cheat sheet can be found here.

Note that AF-ON button is available on the other Nikon cameras as well so this technique does not apply only for D800. Check your manual for the details on how to set it up in case of your camera.