Photography Discussion: A few Basic Tips

I am SO pleased that so many of who requested photography posts have access to Photoshop! As you will see as we get further into these posts, the post processing of the photo is where much of the magic happens.

But of course it all starts with the photo itself, so we will start with a few tips on how to take the best shot you can with the equipment you have.

My number on commandment when it comes to amateur photography (which is what I am assuming most of us are – myself included) is THOU SHALT NOT USE FLASH. If you ever hope to produce a photo that looks anything more than a snapshot only a grandmother could love, find the setting on your camera that turns off the flash and do so. This goes for point and shoots as well as DSLRs.

Now I’m not saying fabulous things cannot be done with flash photography. Obviously they can, but it requires a skill level and equipment investment well beyond what most of us can afford budget and time wise.  Yes, some of your indoor pictures will be too dark without a flash, but if you have Photoshop you can work wonders with  with fairly simple manipulations.  If you use the flash there is almost nothing you can do to take away that “snapshot” look.

Here is an example.

Christmas eve at Jeff’s cousin’s house, we decided to take some pictures by the tree. Jeff took this photo of us with my Canon Digital Rebel Xsi on the automatic setting (which almost always uses flash!):

Cute photo, but totally snapshotty.

Now here is the photo that I took of Jeff & Jasper in front of the same tree in the same lighting situation but with the flash turned off:

Notice that it is too dark and waaaay too red! That happens in indoor Tungsten or fluorescent light situations.. your pictures will have an obvious color cast to them.

But this is no problem, particularly if you shoot in RAW format because you can correct the color so easily and end up with something like this, which is now one of my favorite photos of Jeff & Jasper!

We will get to color correcting in the first actual Photoshop tutorial, for now I just want to continue with how to set up the best shots.

So now that you have your flash turned off, you obviously need to maximize the light that you do have.  Find the room with the most windows in your house and do some test shots there. If you have a choice, the north facing side of the house has the best/softest light. Also morning light will tend to come into the house at an angle that is most flattering without harsh shadows.

To do portraits, its best to have a non distracting background. Get creative! For these photos I laid Jasper on a black velvet curtain I picked up from National Wholesale Liquidators for about $12:

But it doesn’t have to be set up like a studio picture to still be great.. In the next picture, we were visiting my grandmother and she had a bright orange blanket. I pulled it close to the sliding glass door to let in as much light as possible and voila:

Well, actually, voila:

The second picture is the way that the shot came out SOOC (straight out of camera) from my Rebel XSi.  Too dark and needs some Photoshop spiffing up, but its a good canvas to work with.  So you see, even a good prosumer DSLR camera will only get you so far! The post processing in Photoshop is an essential part of the process.

Another word about using no flash: Your camera will blink or beep or otherwise try to alert you to the fact that there is not enough light to take this picture! Just ignore it. Yes, you will probably lose some shots to camera shake from you moving, or from motion blur from baby moving, but you will capture at least a few good ones to work with in Photoshop whereas if you had used flash you would just have a nice in focus snapshot.  (You will get a higher ratio of usable shots the more natural light you have.)

Room light is only one variable, the other is the lens itself.

One of the major advantages to a DSLR over a point and shoot is the ability to use different lenses for different purposes.  For most of my portraits of Jasper I use a 50mm 1.8 prime lens that lets in a lot of light (i.e is “fast”) compared to the kit lens that came with the Digital Rebel.  The 1.8 means that the the aperture can open wider creating that nice blurred background (called “bokeh).”  This type of control over your photos is much harder if not impossible in a point and shoot.

If a DSLR is not in your budget keep in mind all point and shoots are not created equal. For example, the Panasonic Lumix (the camera I keep in my diaper bag at all times) is universally lauded for their amazing Leica lenses.  For the price (currently, you cannot get a better quality point and shoot camera.  Read the amazon reviews if you don’t believe me!

Ok, now that you hopefully have a few good shots to work with we can move on to the next post which will be a before and after demo using one of your photos as an example!

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Sara says:

the picture of jeff and jasper are adorable. could you do a photoshop tutorial on how you would edit that? please, it would help tons!

Sara says:

could you please do a photoshop tutorial on the christmas picture please? :)

kristie says:

I remembered another question I wanted to ask.. do you have mommy brain like this?? Ever since I had this baby, it’s like I just can’t get it all together.. not always, but when it hits, it hits.. I hear you are suppposed to be like that pregnant, but after you have the baby, your body’s natural instincts kick in and you get sharper than before.. maybe I’m the exception.

I was wanting to ask if I could share a few photos as examples and get your input/criticism … that might help a lot!!

kristie says:

And, how do I get a sharper image like your pictures? is it all my lens or something to do with my settings also?
Ever since I found you, I’ve been reading non stop…..Love love love your pics.. makes me feel like I’ve got to get back to the drawing board….

kristie says:

I have known for a long time that I needed a better flash and a better lens. I did always try to take pics without the flash, but the problem I get when doing so is that the pics look grainy. Usually, what I do is lower my shutter to 1/60 or maybe 1/30 in a lower movement situation. I find that sometimes my aperature is not set properly. I’ll open it all the way up or close it all the way and some in between, but I still don’t get a good exposure. I’ll keep working on it.

ariana says:

Hi kristie,
I wrote this post a while ago.. since then I’ve bought and learned to use a speedlite which is what i would do now. Then, I would have just underexposed and lightened it up in post processing like I did with the xmas picture!

I think in a situation like this exact setting isn’t as important as just gathering as much light as you can, which means open the aperture as wide as possible and lower your shutterspeed to something along the lines of 1/60th.. but yes, Jasper wasn’t a toddler then and wasn’t moving as much as he does now! Now I try not to shoot lower than 1/85th and like I said I use a speedlite which unlike the camera’s built in flash allows you to take natural looking flash images.

Hope that helps!

kristie says:

I am curious what settings you ended up with when you took the xmas pic? looks good. how do you avoid flash with a 1 yr old? can’t keep up!!I’m no good at adjusting the settings manually-although I was when I was shooting 35mm-I didn’t even have a flash so the option wasn’t there…??? any pointers on good settings?
thanks-very well spoken by the way-I’ve taken several photo classes in college and shoot quite a bit and just got in a bad rut and have forgotten lots from class……glad I found this it helps and is inspiring!!

Stacy says:

Wow, I am so excited to have found your site. I remember seeing your nursery before Jasper was born and LOVING it but you have taken my admiration to a whole new level.

I love photographing my kids but am clueless on how to get the cute fuzzy backgrounds , which I now know are “bokeh” and the angelic faces.

Hopefully with a little help from your site I’ll be faking it like a pro in no time. My third child is due in April so as many tips as you can throw at us would be greatly appreciated. I’d love to get some high quality photos of the kids when #3 gets here.

I’m subscribing as I type and hope you ask for some reader photos again. I’d love to see what you can do with some of my pics.

One Q? How do I shoot a RAW photo using my Rebel??

Clueless & Preggers

shortcake says:

lovely post! I’m forwarding it to my sister, who is now the proud possessor of my lumix fz18 after I got my canon eos 5D! Your son is adorable!

Molly says:

I am anxiously awaiting your next photography post. I just got my first DSLR for Christmas. I was so excited but am pretty overwhelmed as I have NO idea how to take good pictures with it. It is currently on auto setting and uses the flash with every picture I take. I didn’t know not to use the flash. I also have photoshop so I’m excited to see before and afters!

kellyf says:

love love love your blogs, and love love love these posts! as a mommy to be with my first little one coming this summer, i am excited to learn how to make my photos (exactly how you perfectly phrased it) less snapshotty. can’t wait for the next posts! thank you in advance!!!

Katie says:

This helps so much! Who would have thought turning off the flash would make a difference. Also I think there has to be some talent behind the camera too! Which you have! On a side note my little one has the same giraffe!

ariana says:

Hi Rachel, no, with the lumix I just bought it as is. I don’t think I mentioned a cary case did I? It comes with a soft case that I’ve found to be fine. It comes with a 1GB card, which isn’t huge, but is fine for normal use. If you go on a long vacation maybe you’d want to get a bigger card, but really I’d just see how it goes. The rechargeable battery it comes with lasts a pretty long time, I don’t see the need for an extra. Enjoy it!

Rachel says:

Do you recommend getting extra gear with the lumix? Does it need extra batteries? I guess you mentioned a carrying case as well. I’m thinking of getting one!

S says:

Thank you so much for starting this tutorial! I’ve been trying to take more pics without the flash, as I love that look too. But I’m having a bit of problem with blury pics. Is it just me or should I be trying to adjust the shutter speed and such to accommodate for that? Looking forward to your PS tips!

Amanda says:

Thanks so much for taking this project on – I am so excited for the Photoshop tips. We’ve had Photoshop for a while but I’ve never tried it out. Hopefully your tutorial will make it a little less scary!

ariana says:

Absolutely! That’s exactly what I’d recommend it for. I’ve had TWO canon powershots and the lumix is light years better. Yes, it’s not the slimmest camera on the market, but it’s totally portable.. I cary it all the time in my diaper bag :)

Rachel says:

Question about the Panasonic Lumex– would you recommend it for someone looking to get a new point-and-shoot? I used to have a Nikon N65 and did a lot of 35 mm photography but someone gave me a Canon PowerShot several years ago and I dropped the hobby and just started using the power shot. But– it somehow took better pictures than later versions of the PowerShot I’ve seen, plus it has a little viewfinder and not just the big square window. I still want something fairly compact. I read the reviews on Amazon & it looks great, but I wondered if it was a little on the big side…

Alicia says:

I totally agree with Emily – Thanks for the tips! Your pics are awesome!

Lindsey says:

DSLR. I have the Rebel Xi. I’m talking about the settings like TV, Av, P, etc. Thanks!

ariana says:

Lindsey, are you talking about a DSLR i.e what aperture and shutterspeed to use? Or when you say creative settings do you mean the little scene things you can choose on a point and shoot?

Lindsey says:

Great tips! What setting do you usually shoot with. I’m still trying to get used to using my creative settings and figuring out the best aperture, etc. Is there one setting that is best to work with first?

Jen says:

What a great post! Your tips are so simple and easy to follow, yet make a huge impact on the result of the pictures. I can’t wait to read the Photoshop tutorial!

I have that exact same white H&M sweater! Great pix…

I’m trying to learn how to use Lightroom (once I heard that is what my wedding photographers used), but I can barely do much with it yet. I did get that lens though, per your recommendation, and I can’t wait to take some great shots (hopefully!) of the baby with it!

morgan says:

these are great! Im so excited to keep going!

TheRightWife says:

Thank you so much for the great pointers! I’ve tried a couple practice shots and I need to find a spot in the house with more light (and I need to wait for the baby to wake up… don’t want to wake him up so I can practice taking better pictures, lol).

Can’t wait for the Photoshop tutorial!

emily says:

Oh man thank you so much for this post! I have been drooling over your photographs for awhile now. You’re a great teacher! I’m going to go pull out my Olympus right now.

ariana says:

Thanks Lindsay! Let us know how it goes :)

Jennifer, great question. The truth is: I don’t know because I’ve never used PS elements! Because several people said they had it when I aked I plan on taking a look at it.. I *think* it came with my home computer but I just never opened it. If I can get in to take a look around I can let you know what I think!

If anyone else has or has seen both, please chime in!

Jennifer Pritchard says:

Totally enjoyed your post! Just bought a Cannon EOS 40D for Christmas We’re expecting a little girl in May so I thought it would be good to upgrade from my lame little point and shoot digital. My question to you is do you do the “full hog” photoshop or Photoshop Elements? I’m thinking about trying Elements as I’m not sure I’m ready to invest the $500 for the full version. Just curious. Thx! Jen

Lindsay says:

Thank you for sharing your knowledge on photography! I have been following your blog and admiring the photos and maybe now I might actually be able to take beautiful pictures.