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How To Shoot - Part 1 - The Basics

I have been asked a few times about how I shoot and how I edit. So I thought I would write about it! We will approach this from a beginners standpoint.

Let's talk about the basics.


Before we get into equipment, let's talk about the settings that matter.

F number: You will see this number show up on lenses, and if you've looked, you might notice that, in general, the lower the f number, the higher the price. But what is it? In the simplest words possible, you f number controls two things: the amount of light that gets let in (almost like squinting your eyes or opening them wide) and your depth of field (how deep of a section of you photo is in focus).

- The amount of light - the lower the f number, the more light gets let in, the brighter your photo.

- Depth of field - this is the, in my opinion, more important aspect of f number. If you've seen a photo with a beautiful blurred background or where a limited portion of the photo is in focus while the rest is not, that is a photo that was taken at a low f number, thus with a very shallow depth of field. It is kind of a prized characteristic in high end photography, especially wedding and portrait photography. When I go shopping for a lens, I aim to get a lens that is capable of f2.8 or lower. Why? 1. It helps in low light, indoor situations. 2. It really helps create the look and style that consistently shows in my work - I love the haze and blur of a shallow depth of field. It is great for creating a focus on small details.

Shutter speed: This control how long your shutter stays open and thus how might light is taken in. You will see this number in the form of fractions of a second: 1/125 or 1/2000 - 1/125 would yield a much bright photo, while 1/2000 would be darker. The other thing to take into account in shutter speed is your limitations. The longer your shutter is open, the more light but also the blurrier. Why? Because the longer your shutter stays open, the more change there is for your subject to move while the shutter stays open. As for me, when shooting at a reception, for example, I try not to go above 1/125 to keep my images from getting too blurry. Outside in the bright sun, however, I might be shooting as low at 1/2500 in full sun or maybe 1/400 on a cloudy day. (These numbers are on a full frame camera, which I will explain later).

ISO: Iso is essentially your camera's sensitivity to light - think of it like your eye's iris opening wide in dark situations and constricting in brighter environments. The higher the iso number, the lighter. This is where different camera bodies really dictate your limitations in low light. Why? The higher the iso, the lighter but also the more chance for grain. Different cameras can handle different iso numbers without getting an unacceptable amount of grain. We will discuss that in a minute.

How to set those settings: When I go about changing all these settings, I usually set my f number first. Why? Because I want to decided how much depth of field I need first. Obviously, your lens might limit you here, but in general, for portraits, I like to be at or around 2.8 and have a nice blurred background. For landscapes and large group photos, I will bump it up to 4 or higher. After setting the f number, I need to evaluate the light and what kind of exposure I want to get. I usually shoot slightly darker than I want my photo end product to be (this is because it is easier to recover a photo that is slightly darker than too bright - when a photo is too bright, details often get blown out and are impossible to recover). I usually set my iso next. I like to keep it relatively low as I find it helps me maintain nice contrast and darker darks - at the same time, keeping my shutter speed as low as possible help preserve the details of a shot. From there, it is about finding a balance that you like. Set your f number and then play with iso and shutter speed until you find what you like! For me, if I am shooting a close, intimate portrait of a couple outside in the shade or on a cloudy day (basically ideal), my settings might look something like this: F2.8, iso 250, shutter 1/400. Of course, that will depend on how dark or light it is outside, but that is an average. And my photo might look something like this:

P.S. ALWAYS shoot in RAW, not in JPG. The photo might look a little dull, but the amount of information that is contained in a RAW file is just insane compared to jpg. The amount of editing you can do is so far above and beyond jpg, and you will thank yourself later.


Now let's talk about equipment. The most obvious thing that will affect your photos is your camera body. While the idea that having a good camera is what makes a good picture irritates me, there is a certain amount of truth to it. Each camera body has a different level of functionality and ability to produce quality photos. Since I am a Canon girl, we will talk about Canon.

If you are just starting out but want to really get into photography maybe later in the future, get something from the Rebel series. This is basically Canon's bottom level dsrl, and you can't go wrong starting with one of these. You can buy one new with a lens or two for around $500 - or less if you search on Ebay.

So what is it? I started with a Rebel and actually shot my first two weddings with one! I don't recommend that...but it worked for me. A Rebel can be shot in manual with most, if not all, of the same settings and control as the more pricey camera bodies. One of the biggest and most important differences between a Rebel and the bigger more expensive camera bodies is that is has a cropped sensor/isn't full frame. What does that mean? Essentially, your sensor is cropped, giving you a slightly zoomed in view, and you can't take in nearly the amount of light that a full frame body can. This becomes a huge deal when shooting in low light situations - such as a wedding reception. Low light environments are really where the Rebel line of camera bodies fall short when compared to the higher priced competitors.

If you have been shooting for longer and want to shoot weddings or things professionally or have the budget, get a Canon 6D. The above photo was shot with my 6D. It is a full frame camera and has great high iso capabilities, which makes it great for low light situations. While a Rebel might start to produce an unacceptable amount of grain around iso 1600, I can comfortably shoot up to around 2500-3200. One other bit of information - when switching to a full frame camera body, you cannot use Ef-S lenses - only use EF lenses! It will break your camera. No joke. With a cropped sensor, like a Rebel, you can use whatever you want.

If you want to go all the way high end, you can look into the Canon 5d Mark iv or the 1D, but if you are in the market for one of those, you probably aren't reading this article. ;)

Lenses: Lenses will make or break your photos. Seriously. I covered this a bit when talking about the settings, but when I shop for lenses, I first consider the focal length that I need and then look for the lowest f number possible, at least a 2.8. Usually I shoot with the 24-70 f2.8 L. It gives me great flexibility during wedding to shoot up close and personal and also a little further back and is also part of Canon's high end line (their L series lenses). Many photographers prefer to shoot with prime lenses (35mm, 50mm, 85mm for example) as they are statistically sharper, but to each his own. For a beginner, I highly recommend purchasing the 50mm 1.8. It's in the $100 price range, and you can't go wrong with that lens for portraits. I still use mine! I could write a whole blog post on lenses alone, so I won't cover a whole lot here, but basically - do research on a particular lens before buying. See what people have to say. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses?

Posing: If you are an introvert like me, this will be the most intimidating part of taking photos for you. It was for me. So how do you pose people and make it look natural? Well, there's no one secret to doing this and no one right way. But here's what I do. Since I have been doing this for a few years now, I have a list (not literal, but a mental one) of poses that I know work well for just about everyone. Usually, I start with one of those. It might be a pretty standard, regular kind of pose - "Okay, I want you to stand next to each other and put your arms around each other and just smile at me for a second. We'll get that one for your parents out of the way and then move on to the more artsy photos." They usually laugh at this, and then I will move them around. One of my favorite go-to's is to having my couple tie themselves in a knot. This sounds weird. It is weird. Let me explain. You remember the unedited photo that I posted above? It's that pose. Have one of them stand behind but a little to the side of the other one (in the case above, it was the bride). Have the one behind wrap his/her arms around the other. Have them find each other's hands and then tell them to kind of tie themselves in a knot. Hold each other tightly. Embrace, move them if it doesn't quite look right. I usually have to adjust them slightly and tell them to loosen up enough so that they can look at each other and kiss. Let's see that photo again, but this time edited. (A little further down, I will go through step by step how I edited this photo).

and here's the unedited one more time:

A couple other important things to realize about posing: You can get more than one photo out of a pose. Move around. Zoom in and out. Try different angles. Have them kiss and then pull back. Have them look at each other and then away from each other. Have him whisper something in her ear. Change it up. You will be amazed at how quickly you will take 100 photos. Take a look at these photo below. All the same pose. No joke.

Also all of these:

One last secret: Shoot from above. It is almost always flattering, and it is cool and awesome. It also is a way to change up the shot and get the most of out one pose.

Light: This is super important and has a huge effect on your photos. Obviously. As a natural light photographer, I don't use a flash unless I have to. The above indoor photos were entirely lit by a window to the right. It helps a lot that this room was white (no weird color casts from sunlit grass or weird colored walls or clothes), but I love the dramatic look of window light. It is my favorite. Learn how to use available light to your advantage. Don't be afraid to move your subjects and yourself until you find that sweet spot. If you are using a flash - don't point it directly at them. Bounce it! Usually, I try to point my flash at the ceiling or a wall. It then bounces off of whatever and creates a more natural and less shiny looking illumination on my couple (or whatever it is that I am shooting).

Editing: The final touches can often make the biggest difference. And there isn't really any one right answer here, but since this is my blog, I will talk about how I do it and how I learned.

1. You have to shoot knowing how you will want to edit it and how you want to final result to look. If you want it bright, shoot a little bright. If you want it dark, shoot a little dark. (In general - I always try to shoot just slightly darker than I want the end result to be. Why? Because it is easier to bring a photo up a little and keep details than to bring it down. Once a photo is blown out and overexposed, that information is gone.) I edit in Lightroom and touch things up a bit in Photoshop if the need be. It will seem a little overwhelming at first...both programs are huge. Here is my suggestion: 1. Play around. See what does what. See what you like.

2. Calibrate your monitor. This might be the most important thing. If you can't truly see what your photos look have no idea how you are even editing! There are some great devices and programs out there that will do this for you. I use the Spyder5 and downloaded DisplayCal to go with it. Then I ordered test prints to ensure that it worked.

3. Get some presets. Even if they are just free ones, find some presets that you like a little, and use them. When you click on one and then another, see what changes, both in the photo and on the sliders on the side. See how different aspects of the image change as you switch presets and the various settings change. This is basically how I learned quickly to use Lightroom. Here is a quick rundown on one image. You'll recognize it from above.

So where do you begin? For me - I have a group of favorite presets that I have made (in Lightroom). I usually go through those and find one that I like and then edit from there - but if I can't find one that I like, I start from scratch. Usually I had a end product vision of the photo from the moment I set up the pose, and every step I take from seeing the couple until I finish editing is another step toward creating that final image. I also have a pretty specific and consistent style that I try to maintain through my portfolio. All of those things help to make editing a little easier for me. In general though, I start by envisioning where I want to take the image and find what I don't like about it. For this photo, I don't like the lack of contrast, the color of the greens, the skin tones, and how flat it looks. So let's start at the top. First, I messed with the white balance until it looked how I wanted it. This photo was pretty close already, but I moved the tint slider just a little toward the green side. Next, I mess with the exposure, highlights, shadows, etc. until it looks how I want it to. In general, I like my whites down and contrast up a little. Next, is curves. A lot of beginners will neglect curves because they look new and intimidating. Don't. Play with it! See what does what. Put a point on there and drag it around. You'll get the hang of it and really take your images to the next level. There are tons of YouTube videos about editing and curves and all that. Look some up! Explore. Have fun.

Next, I messed with the hsl sliders. Here, you can control the saturation, hue, and luminance of each color individually. This is where you can tone down one color and saturate another. It also is how you can really refine skin tones to get them just how you want. Again, play around with these and see what does what and what you like. After that, I usually like to add a little grain. At the bottom, you will find another set of color sliders under camera calibration. Learning how to use these was life changing for me. Play around, and you will have a whole new level of control with colors - especially with skin tones. Lastly, I crop my image (or I might have done that first) - a good rule is to make sure that your horizon lines are straight and the composition makes sense. Research a little on the rule of thirds to learn about that. Often, I like my symmetry and crop my images to make sure my subjects are perfectly centered. I also used the adjustment brush to smooth out some skin, bring out the lilacs a little, eliminate some cold purple hands, and reduce some tan lines.

After all that, we have arrived here:

For a few finishing touches, I opened it in Photoshop and did a little frequency separation (look it up on Youtube - it's awesome) and highlighted the highlights and darkened the shadows (dodge and burn - look that up too) and decided to tone down the red a little bit.

There you go. If you have any questions about any of this (I know it was a ton of information), just shoot me an email and comment on this post! I am always happy to help. :)

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