Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sophia's Birthday

We recently celebrated our daughter's 2nd birthday.  For events I typically use a combination of a standard zoom (24-70 equivalent) and a telephoto zoom (70-200 equivalent).  On this occasion, her birthday was being held at a play center, which to me is a nice place but nothing distinctive from a photographic perspective.  Since the place wasn't of particular significance, and because it would have enough space for me to maneuver, I decided to use the Sigma 50 1.4 instead of the Nikon 24-70 on a Nikon D600.  For  telephoto, I used the Sigma 50-150 2.8 (non-OS) with the Nikon D90.  I used a flash with both cameras.

Here are a few shots from the party, and how I mixed ambient and flash.

The light levels were not too low, so I decided to make the ambient light dominant.  
ISO: With the D600, I used Auto ISO and allowed it to go as high as 12,800 ISO.  Although a higher ISO has more noise, using a high ISO has several benefits: first, it is easier to get enough ambient in the shot and the greater the proportion of ambient vs. flash in the shot, the more the shot looks natural to me.  Second, a higher ISO allows me to use a higher shutter speed.  When flash is the only thing that's lighting a scene, a high shutter speed is not necessary because the flash duration will freeze the action.  However, when ambient is dominant or when I'm mixing flash and ambient and the ambient is not completely gone, a high shutter speed helps increase the chance of a sharper shot (by minimizing camera shake and subject movement).  Third, a high ISO gives me greater latitude in deciding where to bounce the flash (I can choose to bounce from a far wall if needed).  Finally, a high ISO makes the flash work less, and recycle faster.
Shutter speed:  Because I knew the ISO would go as high as 12,800 ISO, I was able to choose a high shutter speed while still allowing ambient to be dominant.  I chose 1/200 (which is incidentally the sync speed), which is 2 stops above the 1/focal length rule (for camera shake) and fast enough for action shots of these kids (to minimize blur from subject movement).  I didn't want to go higher than sync speed because that would have reduced the power of the flash by at least 2 stops.

As with the D600, I decided the ambient would be dominant.  
Exposure mode: I shot in aperture priority and adjusted the exposure as needed using exposure compensation.  
ISO: I selected the highest ISO that I am comfortable with on the D90, which was 1600 ISO.
Shutter speed:  Like many DSLRs, the D90 allows me to specify the slowest shutter speed when using flash. I chose 1/60, which isn't fast at all, but would be ok for stationary shots.  I didn't want to select a higher shutter speed because doing so would have reduced the amount of ambient in the shot, making the light look more artificial.
Flash exposure compensation:  I reduced the flash exposure compensation as needed in order to achieve the exposure I wanted.  For most of the shots I reduced the FEC to around -0.7 FEC to -2.3 FEC because the flash was acting as fill, and I wanted the ambient to be dominant.

Here are some shots from the D90 and Sigma 50-150.  I found that the combination worked well in terms of focal length, but my D90 and Sigma 50-150 tended to backfocus.  I've noticed that my D90 and Nikon 24-70 also tends to backfocus, so I may have to send my D90 for adjustment (it doesn't have AF fine-tuning).

In post, I tweaked the exposures and adjusted the white balance.  I took the shots in raw and I could have completely neutralized the color temperature.  However, the actual light was quite yellowish, and I wanted to preserve some of that warmth, so I intentionally increased the color temperature slightly above neutral.

One issue I encountered was that on the D600, the reds tended to be exaggerated.  The tricky part was that in the shadows, the reds looked ok.  But with highlights or brighter midtones the reds looked wildly saturated.  
Default colors - reds too saturated
I first tried to reduce the red saturation in the HSL panel of Lightroom but found that the reds in the shadows and darker midtones suffered.  I tried adjusting the camera profile, and got a similar result.  
Brighter reds look better but darker reds such as the lips look too dark/purplish

In the end, what I did was to desaturate the images then increase the vibrance.  What vibrance does is to increase the 'saturation' but only of colors that are less saturated.  Vibrance also has a decreased effect on skin colors.

Here are some more shots from the party.

Blow the candle, Sophia!


  1. Nice photos of your adorable daughter and her friends!

    Just a friendly reminder as a parent of a girl and boy, now aged 30 and 32. Sometimes it's best to just have fun with your children instead of taking photos! Maybe take a group shot or two, or when the cake is presented. I'm not saying that you are overdoing it, because I wasn't there, but often I often see parents -- mostly the Dad -- spending much, if not most of the time, at these special events trying to document them instead of enjoying the one-time experiences that each represent. In some of those shots your precious daughter almost seems to be saying, "Dad, please put that camera down and pay attention to me!"

    I used to carry up to 20 lbs. of camera gear when my children were as young as yours. I also had an 8mm video camera when they first came out in the 80's. (Do people ever watch the hours of video they capture?)

    I eventually had a change of heart, not to mention a drooping shoulder, and began to use a P&S, back then the Nikon L35, Canon ZoomXL, Olympus XA, then two APS film cameras, then two digital P&S. (I replaced them when they were lost or broke.) SLR film use ended around 1998 with the Canon Elan IIe.

    The use of P&S instead of more bulky SLRs freed me up to pay more attention to my kids -- and also gave my wife a photographic tool that she was more comfortable with so I might actually appear in a photo or two! Some of the photos taken with these simpler cameras are quite good, technically and aesthetically.

    The name of this website is "Better Family Photos." This begs the question, "When should I take family photos, and what are WE AS A FAMLY gaining or losing by my doing so?"

    Today, I think that my kids appreciate the nice shots they have of themselves when they were younger, but I wonder if I might not have been a better father if I had spent less time taking their pictures? They turned out OK, I would say even GREAT, so who knows?

    Anyway, I appreciate all that you do in creating and maintaining this site.


    1. Hi Ken. Thank you very much for your sincere and thoughtful advice. Indeed, I have also received this advice from another reader with a son of similar age as yours. I absolutely agree, and I know I am prone to this mistake. Believe it or not, I was even worse when my son was a baby :)

      In the last year or so, I've thought more about how I am taking photos. As you said, these are supposed to be family photos. And when I take photos, my purpose is not to win prizes or impress people. It's to preserve memories of the fun we had together as a family. But the irony is that if I spend more time taking photos, there is less of that fun to be preserved as a memory, which defeats the purpose.

      So, recently, I have tried to tone it down. At this party, my priority was to be the dad, and not the photographer. So, I was doing glitter tattoos for the kids, playing with the kids (ours and our friends'), joining in the games, talking to the guests. But without doubt, I was still spending too much time taking photos (compared to most parents) and I most definitely could have been more involved if I weren't the one taking photos.

      That's why I had been thinking -- perhaps we should maintain a list of parents here who would be interested in taking photos for other parents on the list during birthdays and such. That way, everyone gets quality time AND quality photos. I'll have to think about how to organize that. hmmm.

      Thanks again, Ken. Your advice is always welcome!

      Best regards,

    2. That's an interesting discussion that I thought to post about more than once.

      I started taking photography seriously (started with technique) a while after my first daughter was born, I wasn't able to get as good photos of her as I wanted, and now I regret that I didn't learn photography earlier to take better photos of her when she was a new born.

      I rarely take my camera with me when we're visiting families, there are a few yearly events and certain outings where I take my camera to save memories of my family, and I know I'd be using the camera for a very little while, I hate taking photos of the same subject with a zillion different backgrounds, I usually want 2 to 3 photos of each family member and group photos if possible, and that's how I do it, only favorite photos stay, all others are either not shot, or deleted at home.

      Other situations include taking out the camera when I see one of the girls wearing a new dress that I like, a new hair cut, etc...

      But I agree to the concept of sharing the time with your families (whether this will make them better or not) instead of playing with the camera all the time or looking at the phone all of the time. Some times I wish time would turn back and we'd all get rid of the damned smart phones and the 24/7 online presence and social networks.


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