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Creative child portraits on a budget

Creative child portraits on a budget - Ways to take photos of children without expensive lighting or flash cameras

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Category : Portraits and People
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Fed up with the standard school portrait? Here's a low cost technique that you can try at home to create something with a very different style and make your kid portraits stand out from the crowd.

words Peter Bargh of ePHOTOzine & photos by K

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, taking usually of passing moments as snaps for the family album. The more formal portrait is usually left to the school portrait photographer and out of sight you have no control of that uncontrollable quiff, chocolate on the side of face or tear filled eye. The photos are taken in quick succession and everyone has the same set of centre camera facing portraits with the same lighting and the same background. If you own a camera why not have a go at creating something a little more individual. One such example is an ePHOTOzine member who goes by the user name of "answersonapostcard" and signs off as K. She stumbled across ePHOTOzine several months ago as a bored single parent with a basic Fuji digital camera and a desire to take better pictures of her children. Her first snap shots got a few comments but it wasn't long before she was striving for better photos and started to push her camera to the limits. Her original Fuji FinePix F401 is a 2.1million pixel CCD camera with a 3x zoom lens. You can pick up one, or something similar, for around £250. She's since progressed to a larger zoom Olympus Camedia C-730 and now a more versatile Pentax *ist D.

There are a few things to consider when taking home portraits...lighting, exposure, pose and background.

We'll look at the lighting first. School and commercial photographers usually use some kind of flash. The photographer on a budget will use a flash mounted on the camera it will be further away than the built in flash you'd have on a basic point and shoot model and will give slightly better lighting, but will still be quite harsh. The more professional worker will have a studio light or two some use flash which ensures the child will be frozen in time others sue tungsten which is cheaper to kit out but does require a small amount of patience from the sitting child to keep still when the shot is taken.

K didn't have access to any of this, just the basic flash on the camera, so she had to be a bit more creative...and use ambient light. This means taking the shots using household lights which tend to get hot and uncomfortable if the children are sitting in front of them for any length of time. Or near a window using nature's light. In her dining room, where she takes the photos she has one full length patio window. Light also comes from a distant living room window, as the room is open plan.

Having tried various positions using the east facing patio window K found that photographs taken with the window to the side and using morning sunlight was the best. To prevent harshness she diffused the light using a voile curtain

.It didn't take her long to see that the results were not brilliant because she didn't have a background, so the wallpaper, although slightly out of focus, was distracting. Studio photographers use purpose made background rolls are frames on stands. K picked up an old projector screen from a car boot sale which was perfect for height and width but the white, was too bright and caused flash reflections. She draped an old black abeya/dress over it (you could use a sheet of black velvet picked up from a market stall) and the problem was solved. This black background also led to stronger tones when shooting her portraits.

Creative child portraits on a budget

With this type of set up the time of day and weather affects the light. K tried shooting at different times of the day and found out, through experimenting that afternoon light didn't bring enough light so camera shake was a problem. A budget tripod helped here but there was still the risk of the children moving and causing blurred results.

So with the background and lighting sorted all K has to do is consider the composition and ensure the camera exposes the photos correctly.
K found that the usual "say cheese" wasn't producing the results that she wanted. By positioning herself by the side of the camera and just talking to the children, often just about silly things, she found that the reactions of the children became unconventional and exciting. This was when the opportunity to produce something different came about.

And it's the composition that really stands out. K spent a lot of time trying different framing to get away from the school photo approach, were the pupil is always very much slap bang in the middle. By framing off centre she could emphasis the children against the black background and create a more striking portrait.

The Fuji camera's exposure system is automatic. Fortunately the balance of tones suits the metering system and full auto mode ensures the correct balance of highlights and shadows in most of her photos. If you try the same and the face is too washed out just look for the camera's manual mode and set a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture. If the detail is too dark set a slower shutter speed or wider aperture. If your camera has exposure compensation set it to -1 or -2 for washed out shots and +1or +2 for dark shots.

Taking the shot and producing an image are two different things, this is where the budget Photoshop Elements program came in. The various tools and image enhancing menus can seem daunting but the simplest of techniques were used to create these images. The dodge tool to brighten the whites and the burn tool (using a large soft brush) was used to enhance shadows on the face.

K also started to appreciate the effect of black & white photography and prefers that style so she shoots in colour mode but converts to black & white using the Hue/Saturation mode in Photoshop Elements. Then a dramatic crop and that's it!

Creative child portraits on a budget

Creative child portraits on a budget
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