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Back To School Portraits On A Budget

Here's how you can take back to school photos of your children without expensive lighting and cameras.

| Portraits and People

Back To School Portraits On A Budget: Portrait

© answersonapostcard


It's that time of year when social media is flooded with kids in new school uniforms, captured by proud parents as their son/daughter starts the next stage of their school life. The images are great momentos but sometimes, they lack a little bit of finesse so here's a low-cost technique that you can try at home to create portraits that stand out from the crowd. 

Anyone with children will have no doubt taking photographs of them playing in parks, having fun at parties and on holiday. They are natural shots of families growing up, taken usually of passing moments as snaps for the family album. But for more formal shots, it's not always as easy to capture eye-catching images but with our guidance, we hope you can master this. 

First off, let's talk about kit as if you do happen to own an interchangeable lens camera that's great, but you can capture just as good portraits with a reasonably priced compact or bridge camera. Next, there are a few things to consider when taking portraits at home and this includes lighting, exposure, posing, and backgrounds. We'll take these in order, covering off the basics of each one at a time. 


Lighting - Natural Or Flash? 

When it comes to lighting, photographers on a budget won't have a flashgun to-hand. Instead, they've just got the flash mounted on the camera to work with which, if you've ever captured holiday snaps at night with, you'll know can be way too harsh. So what are your options? Well, the simple answer is to turn the camera's flash off and use ambient light. You can also use your household lights but you'll need to do a bit of playing around with the white balance and they can actually make your subject a little hot which will result in them wriggling so we recommend sticking with natural light

Any window can be used but the bigger it is, the more light will fall through it which makes patio doors perfect for this. If you have a room where light can also come in through a window on an opposite wall, even better. 

Morning light is actually really good for portraits as it's not as harsh and if you're capturing them on the first day of school, they'll already be dressed in their uniforms. If you can, set up your shoot so light falls from the side and you can use a voile curtain, or something similar, to diffuse the light further but do take down coloured curtains as they can create a colour cast in your photos. We don't say this very often but an overcast day is a perfect time to try this technique because, on overcast days, the light's naturally diffused and won't be too harsh. Later in the day, you may find there's not enough light so camera shake becomes an issue. A budget tripod can help here but if your child moves, you can still end up with blurry results. 


Back To School Portraits On A Budget: Jayden

Jayden © garymcparland


The closer your child is to the window the stronger the light will be that's on them. That's unless the sun's high in the sky as then the light won't be as direct. However, high sun may cause shadows to appear under the nose so either move your subject further into the room.

If you need to add a little more light to your shot, you can grab a piece of silver kitchen foil and use it as a reflector. You will need to pop your camera on a tripod and use the self-timer function so you can hold the foil but it's a good way to add extra light to the face. 


Remove Distracting Backgrounds 

Wallpaper, as nice as it is, can be incredibly distracting and so is clutter so if you have time, move any objects out of the way and find a plain background you can put behind your son/daughter. If you have a plain wall in a well-lit room, you may not need to introduce a background but if you do, muslin cloth is available in different colours or you can purchase purpose-made paper rolls. For a cheaper option, use a bed sheet or even a table cloth that's plain (black or white tend to be best). As for securing it, if you have a clothes rail you can secure it to that or get someone to hold it up for you but remember to adjust your framing so you don't see their hands in the shot. Alternatively, throw a sheet over a couple of high-back chairs. Brick walls can also work well, as too can wooden panels when you want to create something a bit more quirky. 

So with the background and lighting sorted, we now need to consider the composition and ensure the camera exposes the photos correctly.


Posing & Composition 

The 'say cheese' approach won't produce the results you're looking for. Instead, talk to your son and daughter about silly things as this will make them react in an unconventional and more interesting, but still natural way. As for posing, avoid putting them slap-bang in the middle of the shot. Instead, frame them off-center. Also, if you can persuade them to follow your guidance, ask them to stand or sit 45-degrees to the window then you can adjust for the light accordingly. However, as children tend to lose interest quite quickly and soon don't respond to instruction, it might actually be easier for you to move your feet when you want a slightly different angle rather than asking your child to tilt their head or adjust their pose. 

Most cameras have a really good auto or portrait mode that will ensure the correct balance of highlights and shadows appear in your shots but if you do have problems, you can switch to manual mode and set a faster/slower shutter speed or smaller/larger aperture (click 'aperture' and 'shutter speed' for more info on these subjects). If your camera has exposure compensation set it to -1 or -2 for washed out shots and +1 or +2 for dark shots.


Tweaking Images 

Once you have your shot, you may want to make some adjustments to it on your computer. Various photo editing programs are available but two of the easiest to use are Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel PaintShop Pro.


Back To School Portraits On A Budget: Photoshop Elements


There are automated tools that make adjustments for you or you can get a bit more hands-on with your edits. Try adding frames, brightening the photo, creating vignettes... the list is almost endless. If you simply want to make your whites whiter and shadows darker, the dodge and burn tools are two really easy tools to work with. The dodge tool will brighten the whites and the burn tool (using a large soft brush) can be used to enhance shadows. You can also convert your image to black & white, something you won't see many other parents doing who share their children's new school term snaps and do have a play around with the crop tool, too, to see what effect removing some of the background has on your shot. 

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