Lesson Of The Month
Shooting Your Own Family Portrait


If you're like most photographers, you probably prefer to spend most of your time behind the camera rather than in front of it. I am no exception. Inevitably, however, there are times when smiling for the camera is unavoidable. For instance, my wife and I recently had our first child, and ever since, our family and friends have been clamoring for a family portrait. Now you do have the option of paying someone else to take your family portrait, but again, if you're like most photographers, you'll probably opt to do it yourself.

Now here is where the real challenge presents itself. If you've ever tried to divert an infant from feeding, sleeping, or crying for a moment so that you can get him or her to look into the lens of a camera for more than a nanosecond, you know what you're up against when it comes to shooting your own family portrait.
As difficult as it may seem, however, there are some modern day photography and lighting techniques that will make your job as photographer, subject, and even parent, a whole lot easier during your much-anticipated portrait session.

Make The Time
The first thing I would recommend is to schedule plenty of time for your family portrait. It can be challenging simply getting everyone to your set, and the last thing you want is to be anxious about how much time the whole ordeal is taking. If you are rushing around, it will most likely affect the rest of your group. Relax, take your time, and try not to force the shot.

In order to prevent others from getting restless, it is important to prepare your set as much as you can before you even get them in the room. Ideally, you will want to have everything in place so that once the rest of your group is on the set, you can start taking pictures right away.

Background Considerations
In planning for this shot, I first thought about what kind of background I wanted to use. After considering an area of the living room, a colored wall, and some locations outside, I finally decided on standing in front of a quilt that a friend of ours made for us as a wedding gift. Since I didn't know exactly where I needed to have it positioned, I decided to clamp it to a Photoflex Lite Disc Holder and LiteStand so that I could easily move it side to side or up or down at the last minute.

I then positioned it against the back wall of my office, where I have a section cleared for shooting space. This room isn't very big (12x12 ft with an 8-foot ceiling), but the space is more than adequate for many of
my photo-shoot needs. The entire set ultimately took up less than 8x6 ft, which goes to show you can set up a shooting space just about anywhere (#1).


Next came the decision on what type of lighting to use. I wanted to keep the lighting simple and natural looking, but mostly I wanted to make sure that our son, Aidan, would be okay with the lights. Had I decided to use a flash system, he (as with most children) would most likely have been overwhelmed with the strong bursts of light, causing the photo shoot to end abruptly. Instead, I decided to use a Photoflex Medium Starlite Kit mainly because it is a continuous light source--no flashes to contend with.

I positioned the light about 6 ft away from the background, raised the softbox up about 7 ft and angled it down 45Þ and facing slightly to the right. I wanted the light to be soft, but for it to have a slight sense of direction from left to right (#2).


I set an Olympus E-20N digital camera on a tripod set to eye level and filled the frame with the quilted background. I then set the exposure and focus modes to manual, set the ISO to its lowest setting (80), set the resolution to TIFF, and finally created a custom white balance setting to match the color temperature of the Starlite Kit (3200K). Since I wanted the background to be slightly out of focus, I set the aperture to f/2.0 to create a limited depth of field and set the shutter speed to 1/80 sec to compensate for exposure.


Once everything was set, I asked my wife, Heather, to bring in Aidan so that they could both stand in for a test shot. I had Heather stand about a foot and a half from the face of the softbox so that when she held Aidan in the crook of her arm, they were both in the frame. Since he was a little sleepy, I just took a couple of test shots and then Heather carried him back to his crib so that he could get back to important business: sleep (#3 & #4).


I checked the results in the camera and was happy with the positioning, lighting, and exposure. Before they left, I noted where Heather was standing and marked the spot on the floor with black masking tape. For the next shot, I wanted to have all three of us be in the frame, and since I wouldn't be looking through the camera, I wanted to make sure that everyone would be in focus. To double-check the focus point, I placed a LiteStand over the "X" and raised it to eye level (#5).


Next, I set the camera so that I could release the shutter with the remote control unit (included with the camera). To set the E-20N to remote capture, first press and hold down the Drive button and turn the Sub dial until the remote control icon appears in the control panel. This may work in similar fashion with your camera, but check your instruction book for details. When you want to take a picture, point the remote at the front of the camera and you will see a red light below the shutter button start to blink red. The shutter will then release after 2 seconds (#6).


I was all set to take our portrait remotely. Now all we needed was a small window of opportunity with the little one. And so, after his nap, a feeding, and a diaper change, Aidan was ready for pictures. We brought him in, stood over the "X" on the floor, and I took several shots of us looking into the camera. And even though Aidan never once looked into the lens of the camera, he was captivated by the continuous, warm light of the softbox just above the camera. Here is our favorite take of the bunch (#7).


Afterward, I opened the image up in Adobe Photoshop and applied a traditional "burning" technique to the image. I'm particularly taken with portraits where the edges of the frame have been darkened, or "burned in," as it often helps to bring the subjects forward from the background. It can also help to give the shot a little more dimension. Using a soft-edged brush, I painted over the perimeter of the frame with the Burn tool set to the Midtones range at 20 percent until the effect was where I wanted it (#8).


Of course, later in the afternoon, while Heather was out running an errand, Aidan awoke from another nap and was particularly wide-eyed and alert. Since the set was still up, I slowly picked him up and brought him back into the shooting space. I powered up the camera, grabbed the remote unit and discreetly took a few more shots(#9).

Okay, now I can go back to spending time behind the camera!

If you would like to continue your digital step by step education lessons on editing, printing, and e-mailing your photos it will be on the private section of the Web Photo School. To enroll for WPS just go to www.shutterbug.net and click on WPS Free Lessons.