Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Road Map for Family Photographers

Last updated: Sept. 26, 2009.
To help family photographers, to help keep posts organized, and for me to keep track of areas where I need improvement, I put together a possible roadmap of skills for a family photographer.  The roadmap is not scientific – it’s based only on how I am gradually building upon my meager skills, and as I learn more, I'll continue to add to it.

Because of how it’s constructed, I’m hoping this roadmap is a more natural progression and helps filter what is most relevant to you based on your current development.  For example, if you’re still learning about exposure (Technique 1), explaining why smooth highlight roll-offs are important (Lighting 9) would be unhelpful and just potentially confusing.

For each skill, I categorized the skill as related to composition, lighting, postprocessing, or general technique.  I described the issue that usually leads to discovery of the missing skill.  I listed some resources for learning that skill.  Finally, I indicated what I think are the keys to improving that skill and tools that may help.   


I hope that if you reach a plateau in your development, you can use this roadmap to break through your rut by identifying areas where you may need improvement, finding the resources to improve, and putting what you learned into practice until it becomes a skill. And if you're aware of a skill, resource, tool, or key concept, pls. email or leave a comment so I can add it to this roadmap.

Category               Issue
Lighting 1               Unskilled use of popup flash results in deer-in-headlights look.
Composition 1        Boring pictures of subject.
Composition 2        Wanting portraits with “blurry backgrounds.”
Technique 1            Exposure - basics.
Lighting 2               Harsh and unflattering shadows on subjects.
Technique 2            Turning snapshots into photos.
Lighting 3               Direction of light - basics.
Postprocessing 1    Underexposed or overexposed photos, unnatural color casts, no opportunity to retake the shot.
Composition 3        Backgrounds.
Lighting 4               Desire to improve the lighting of subjects.
Lighting 5             Light quality, direction, color.
Technique 4            Sharpness
Lighting 6               Ratio of ambient and flash, controlling flash exposure.
Postprocessing 2    Polished, “professional-looking” photos
Lighting 7               Increase understanding and control of light on the subject.
Lighting 8               Search for photos with amazing natural-looking light.  Ambient light revisited.
Composition 4        Controlling color.
Lighting 9               Tonality, tonal range, dynamic range.
Technique 3            Capturing the moment.
Technique 4            Borrowing from other photographic genres (e.g., landscape)

Lighting 1
Issue: Unskilled use of popup flash results in deer-in-headlights look.
Keys: Turning off flash. Awareness of noise. Signal / noise ratio.

Composition 1
Issue: Boring pictures of subject.
Keys: Rule of thirds. Filling the frame. Perspective. Patterns. Leading lines. Appropriate use of focal length.

Composition 2
Issue: Wanting portraits with “blurry backgrounds.”
Resources: cambridgeincolour depth of field tutorial.
Key: Understanding factors in controlling depth of field (aperture, focal length, distance of camera to subject, sensor size)
Tools: Camera with controllable aperture, Lens with normal to tele focal length.

Technique 1
Exposure - basics.

Keys: Aperture x shutter speed x ISO = exposure. 18% grey. Exposure compensation. PASM. Understanding metering.
Tools: Search for a DSLR or camera with PASM.

Lighting 2
Issue: Harsh and unflattering shadows on subjects.
Resources: planetneil.com flash tutorial; Neil van Niekerk's On-Camera Flash
Keys: Understanding quality of light (hard vs. soft) is determined by apparent size of light vs. size of subject; bouncing flash.
Tools: External flash with bounce and swivel; light modifiers.

Technique 2
Issue: Turning snapshots into photos.
Resources: Ken Rockwell article on Artistic Synthesis
Keys: Previsualization. Taking a picture (passive) vs. making a photo (active).

Lighting 3
Direction of light - basics.
Resources: planetneil.com flash tutorial; Neil van Niekerk's On-Camera Flash
Keys: Awareness of and control of light direction (e.g. by correctly positioning subject and camera; bouncing flash from intended direction of light)
Tools: on-camera external flash with bounce and swivel.

Postprocessing 1
Issues: Underexposed or overexposed photos, unnatural color casts, no opportunity to retake the shot.
Keys: Adjust white balance, exposure, fill light, contrast, saturation, color temperature
Tools: postprocessing software such as Photoshop, Picnik.com, Picasa, Paintshop Pro

Composition 3
Backgrounds.
Key: Background and foreground elements (e.g., natural frames), eliminating distracting elements (e.g. removing trash or moving the subject to an area without trash).

Lighting 4
Issue: Desire to improve the lighting of subjects.
Resources: Allison Earnest’s Sculpting with Light
Keys: Roles of light in portraiture (key, fill, background, rim, hair); Portrait lighting styles (broad, short, Rembrandt, loop, butterfly)

Lighting 5
Light quality, direction, color.
Resources: Fil Hunter’s Light: Science and Magic.  Strobist.com Lighting 101, Lighting 102.
Keys: Shadows, chiaroscuro, family of angles.
Tools: Using flash off-camera, gobos, snoots, grids.  Studio equipment (lightstand, umbrellas, softboxes).

Technique 3
Sharpness
Resources: ?
Keys: appropriate shutter speeds, appropriate aperture, awareness of front and back focus
Tools: sharper lenses (see photozone.de lens reviews), lenses with VR, remote shutter, tripod, flash.

Lighting 6
Ratio of ambient and flash, controlling flash exposure.
Keys: Understanding how TTL and manual mode differ, how to control each.
Tools: external flash.

Postprocessing 2
Polished, “professional-looking” photos
Resources: ?
Keys: selective adjustment (e.g. with layers), retouching techniques? adjusting tone curve?
Tools: ?

Lighting 7
Increase understanding and control of light on the subject.
Resources: Dean Collins’ theory of 3d contrast.
Keys: Awareness of specular, specular-to-diffuse transfer, diffuse, diffuse-to-shadow transfer, shadow, and how each is controlled.

Lighting 8
Search for photos with amazing natural-looking light.  Ambient light revisited.
Resources: Bob Krist’s Secrets of lighting on location. James Beltz's video on seeing the light.
Keys: Noticing ambient light characteristics, supplementing or amplifying or simulating ambient light. Light motivation for flashes.

Composition 4
Controlling color.
Resources: ?
Keys: Postprocessing, proactive use of white balance, lens filters, flash gels, choice of film and film processing.  Use of color in composition.

Lighting 9
Tonality, tonal range, dynamic range.
Resources: ?
Keys: seeing in black and white? Dodging and burning.  Using a medium with smoother highlight roll-off.

Technique 4
Capturing the moment.
Resources: ?
Keys: Building rapport with, anticipating subjects?

Technique 5
Borrowing from other photographic genres (e.g., landscape)
Resources: ?
Keys: ?