In my previous blog post I wrote about achieving great pictures of your kids by focusing on the right 20% in what you need on equipment, knowledge and post-processing of images. So let’s drill into this a bit further.

Equipment

What did I use to achieve Natalie’s portrait above?

First, you’ll notice this picture was taken in natural lighting. No flash was used, or harmed in the making of this picture. Lighting is extremely important in photography. Studios use more than one light source, often employing up to five. But studios are controlled environments. When you take impromptu pictures of your kids, capturing that Kodak moment is like catching flies with your bare hands. You need fast reflexes. And if you miss it, it’s gone, forever. In other words, forget about artificial lighting. You need a camera body with a sensor that can handle very low light setting.

The number one criteria for camera body selection in my humble opinion is the camera sensor’s ability to capture quality images in low light. Period.

So forget about flash. It takes too much time to set them up. You need special knowledge to use them effectively. Also the ones permanently attached to any camera body usually suck. SIMPLIFY your operation. Take flash out of the picture. Buy the right equipment and remove this from your thought process.

Second, is the concept of bokeh. Notice how Alyssa (pictured below) is sufficiently differentiated from the background. Everything behind and in front of her is creamy blur. This re-creates the same effect in how your eye focuses on an object. Try this. Extend your palm away from your face and then focus on it. Your palm is sharp and in focus but everything else behind it is blur – creamy blur. In photography speak, it’s called bokeh. This aesthetic quality of blur is what makes a portrait go from bleh to awesome. Smartphone apps like Instagram offer blur effects to recreate this. But you can detect them a mile away. They look cheap and fake.

NOTHING beats a good quality lens with awesome bokeh. If there’s one equipment you should spend good money on, it’s a good quality lens.

Notice how the creamy blur (bokeh) behind Alyssa draws your eye to her as the center of attention.

Notice how the creamy blur (bokeh) behind Alyssa draws your eye to her as the center of attention.

Knowledge

Assuming you have the right equipment, the only real thing you need to master is lens control. And in this arena, there’s only two things you need to learn: how big an opening in your lens to allow light through (aperture), and how much time to let the light in (shutter speed). That’s it! Everything else can be set to automatic. All you focus on is the balance between aperture and shutter speed. If only life itself were this simple!

In taking Alyssa’s picture, I focused on setting the right aperture to maximize bokeh but yet maintain enough shutter speed so the camera avoids recording motion blur. This is the essence of 80% in my decision making – keeping the subject in focus (depth-of-field) and keeping them sharp (sufficient shutter speed).

Next is composition. One of the most useful principles of good composition is the Rule of Thirds. In essence, if you divide an image in thirds (both horizontal and vertical) and then locate the intersection points – those points are super important. More on this topic later.

Post-Process Correction

Now comes the final part. Our brain does all sorts of interesting tricks to manipulate the perception of light and make us see images in a certain way. For example, the final image that lands on our retina is actually upside down. But our brain corrects it to be right-side up. Fluorescent light is actually greenish, but our brain corrects it to be white (also know as correcting white balance). Tungsten light (from light bulbs) is yellowish-orange but our brain corrects a significant portion of it so that “white” stays “white”.

Today’s digital cameras attempt to do the same as our brain does. It does a reasonably good job of detecting proper white balance but does not get it right 100%. That’s where post-process correction comes in. Here is Natalie’s picture before and after processing.

Natalie reading on the bed - original

Original image

Natalie reading on the bed - corrected

Post-processed for correct white balance

I used Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to correct white balance, increase contrast, sharpen the picture, and reduce noise (low light graininess) – it’s stuff your brain does for you but in photography today, modern cameras are not quite there yet. If there’s one area you need to spend more time in learning to improve your pictures, this is it. With the right software, you can post-process a bad picture into a semi-decent one. But all the best equipment and knowledge you have is limited if your post-processing skills are bad.

In upcoming postings, I will drill further into each of these areas in greater detail.