Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Birthday Party Pictures - Analysis

I had such high hopes for our toddler's birthday party photos.  The photos would look better than any of the events I had previously covered for us or for our friends.  Instead, those aspirations were run over by a freight train then processed through a meat grinder.

The day started well enough.  Then there was a delay from a vendor, followed by additional last minute errands.  By the time I finished handling those emergencies, guests had already started arriving and I was on the defensive.  My mind was tied up with a number of other things (including a new pair of !$%#@ Cole Haan shoes that literally began to fall apart!) and I was in survival mode.  My shots had zero creativity.

Some of the things I wish I had done better:

1. Was reactive instead of proactive.
Instead of trying to imagine shots and moving around as necessary to execute them, I just took shots wherever I happened to be standing.  I was passively taking pictures instead of actively creating photos.  A fundamental error.

2. Composition: Function vs. Aesthetics.
I was trying to record all the information rather than simply getting good photos.  For example, when I tried to take a photo of the cake, I struggled with the composition because I was trying to find a good angle that would capture the entire cake.  What for?  The shot would have looked better with a tight crop of only a portion of the cake.

3. Composition: Subject in the center.
For many of the shots, I used the center autofocus point for speed and flexibility (I wouldn't have to move the AF point around -- I have mixed feelings about the 51 AF points).  However, instead of re-composing after focusing, I was in a hurry to take the shot while the subjects were still in focus.  The result?  Yup.  Subjects in the center.  A newbie mistake.  Not surprisingly, many of the shots look like newbie snapshots.  :((

4. White balance.
The room was illuminated by intensely yellow lights.  I did not gel my flashes to try to match them, making white balance corrections in post processing a dilemma - either I would get the ambient right and the flash wrong or vice-versa, unless I spent a lot of time with layers and masks.  If I had gelled the flash with CTS or even CTO, the flash color would have been similar to ambient and I could have reduced the color cast to make it more neutral-looking.

5. Rear curtain sync = slow rear sync.
After I discovered that the YN-560 could sync with CLS but only in rear sync mode, I left the flash sync in rear sync mode all the time.  Much of the time, I shoot in manual exposure mode, so this is not a problem.  However, when I'm in a hurry, as I was during the party, sometimes I switch to aperture priority.  Midway through the party I did exactly that.  The problem is that in program or aperture priority, rear sync automatically converts to slow rear sync (because the camera assumes that you want a motion trail when you switch to rear sync).  As a result, there was too much ambient light in shots where I switched to aperture priority.  To compare, see the shots below which were taken in almost the same place, from a similar angle.

Shot with manual (ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/80, bounce flash):

Shot with aperture priority (ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/30, bounce flash)

I didn't have the presence of mind to detect what was going on.  It was for nothing too because I didn't even touch the YN-560.  ARGH.

6. Biggest error of them all: forgetting to reset my settings.
During the party, I thought the flash was behaving somewhat unpredictably.  Well, now I know why. I looked at the metadata and the slave flash was in MANUAL at 1/32 power.  Nooooooo....!!!  All the time I thought I was adjusting FEC (using the flash button + sub-command dial) I was only controlling the popup flash!  Without real control of flash intensity, I'm surprised the shots weren't worse than they were!  Geez!!!  This was on the TTL Troubleshooting list but I was too confused to notice.

If I had to pick the photos pictures to tell the story of the party I would probably pick these:


Things I will do next time:
  • Reset the settings - the night before or ideally after shooting.  I get confused by the different banks that the D300 has available - I seriously need to pin this down.
  • Research - in prior events (including our toddler's previous birthdays), I almost always visit the location for planning purposes.  I also looked for other people's photos at that location.  I didn't do any of that this time - I got cocky and lazy.  Next time I will do that, and will take test shots (to have idiot-proof settings to fallback on in case my brain is on vacation the day of shooting).
  • Warm up - in prior events, we always arrive early, which gives me a chance to warm up.  For me at least, I need warm up in order to perform at least at my own average.
  • Coordination with other photogs - my brother-in-law very kindly took photos a t the party, and one of my friends offered to take photos while I was talking to guests and managing our toddler.  I should have asked even before the party, coordinated who was taking what kinds of shots, so we wouldn't take redundant shots and wouldn't be in each others' way.
  • Wide angle - need practice.  I had been shooting with the Tamron 28-75 for about a year before switching to the Tamron 17-50.  I still need to learn the best angles for the 17-50.
  • Think first shoot later.  Except for required shots, I would rather have a few good shots rather than many poor shots.  For me, this means I should spend the few extra seconds to think about the shot before taking them.  I should also spend more time before the party to imagine and visualize more clearly the shots I wanted to take. Those could serve as fallback or warmup shots.
  • Consider: exchanging services with other photog-parents.  I think I was a decent father and host at the party.  I think most parents would prioritize that over having good photos.  To avoid compromising on the quality of the photos, I will look for photogs in our area to exchange services with.  That way we all get to focus on being a parent and host, and allow someone else to prioritize the photos.
The shots here should be good practice for post-processing (none yet except for cropping here and there).


  1. Thanks for sharing the pictures
    I’m happy you had a good time.
    Is not easy at all to shoot celebrations, I hope you’ll grab your camera and flashes in the next party .
    BTW what trigger you use ….RF602?

  2. Thanks, Robert_Pat. I most certainly won't give up. To trigger the SB800, I used the popup flash of the D300 in wireless commander mode.

  3. Hi, Thanks for the pictures and analysis, very useful tips. I want to use off camera wireless flash for birthday parties but how do I decide where to keep the flash? How did you manage the wireless flash placement for these shots when this time you were reactive rather than proactive? I would really appreciate few tips on this.

  4. Hi! I use the flash handheld. I imagine where I want the light to come from and that's where I aim the flash. I like taking the flash off-camera when I'm bouncing this way because I find it much easier than swiveling the flash if it's on-camera.


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