Getting A Good Holiday Portrait

Now that Thanksgiving is over and you've started to deflate back to your normal size it's officially festive season. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa chances are you'll be wanting a nice family portrait to send out to relatives and friends. If you're planning to take this most important of photographs yourself here are a few tips to help you out:

1. Give it a little forethought. Like many things involving this festive time of year this a task that requires a little bit of thinking ahead. If you just grab the family without any warning, tell them to "say cheese!", and press the shutter chances are you won't get the portrait you're after. Choose a time when everyone has at least an hour or so to spare and consider getting your subjects to wear similar coloured clothing, or bring some reindeer antlers or Santa hats along for them all to wear. Have at least a vague idea of where you want to put your subjects to pose and what kind of shots you want to get. Don't over plan though or you'll end up barking orders and stressing over the details and no one will have any fun.

2. Use the right equipment. If you're going to take the portrait inside turn on the red-eye reduction feature of your camera and, if you can, set up the flash to bounce by angling it so it's aimed at a white wall or ceiling that won't included be in the frame of your shots. Alternatively you can diffuse the flash by taping wax paper over the bulb. A mid-range telephoto lens (anywhere between 85mm and 135mm) is probably the best bet for a small group portrait but for larger groups a wider angle lens is likely to be needed. Fish eye lenses can create a cool effect and add a little creativity to your portrait but make sure you distort the background rather than the people on the edges of the group or they likely won't be happy with the photo!

3. Thing about the arrangement of your subjects. Standing several people of the same height in a straight line doesn't tend to look great. Try to vary the height of your subjects by having some stand and some sit on a stool or some kneel and some sit. Another idea for larger groups is to have half the group angle themselves so their right shoulder is toward the camera and the other half angle so their left shoulder is toward the camera. This has the added bonus of being slimming for your subjects! Try and avoid empty spaces between your subjects, it makes them look a bit like they don't really like each other!

4. Don't forget to include yourself! A tripod and a self timer are all you need to get in the shot (and you can even make do without the tripod) so don't be left out!

5. Keep it fun. You want happy looking people in your shots so keep them happy while you're shooting. Don't boss them around too much, let them try out their own poses (if you're using a digital camera you can delete any terrible shots later anyway) and don't ask them to stand in one position for too long. Remember kids will likely get bored of posing quite quickly so do any poses you really want first and then be willing to go along with what they want to do. Give them some say in what they wear and if they're particularly reluctant to join in try inviting a beloved doll or teddy to be in the photo too. If you know you're child isn't a fan of the camera choose one of their favourite places as the location for the shoot so they'll at least be comfortable with where they are.

6.Take lots of photos and choose the best later. There will always be someone who blinks or makes rabbit ears behind their neighbour's head. Take several shots in each pose and make it the aim of your shoot to get lots and lots of photos. The more you take the better the chance you'll get one where everyone looks good. Try several different poses and angles and include candid shots of your subject between poses. You might not want to use the candids as the family Christmas card but they may well be the photos you like the most when you're looking back on them in a few years time.

7. Don't leave it until the day before the Post Office deadline for Christmas post. Give yourself time to do any post processing and get the photos printed. Check USPS, Canada Post, Royal Mail, or your country's postal service for mailing deadlines. And remember international mail deadlines are coming up soon!

If you have any holiday portrait tips let us know in the comments.

Thanksgiving weekend photo tips

Thanksgiving is upon us once again. Like many of you, I will be spending time with my extended family, feasting, and of course taking photos. My plan of attack, photo-wise, is to skip posed shots and go light and go candid. That is, I'm bringing only one lens (the 18-105 VR kit) and a flash and I'm going to shoot lots of portraits of people doing things other than posing for photos.

I think a set of candid photographs is a much better way to capture the true spirit of a gathering than individual and group poses. But that's me. Your mileage may vary.

Here are some tips for candid photography that you might want to try this weekend:

  • Choose a medium to wide zoom lens. That will give you the most versatility moving between the action outdoors and the action in the kitchen. Fast glass is preferable, of course, but bring what you can.
  • Use your auto-ISO setting to give you faster shutter speeds when you need it. You're likely to be shooting indoors a lot of the time. Modern DSLRs can easily handle 800 or even 1600 ISO with acceptable noise levels. Enabling auto-ISO will also save you from shooting high ISO images when you head outside.
  • But don't be afraid of the flash either. Flash photography in itself isn't a bad thing and it's certainly much better than the alternative: a blurry mess.
  • If you're using the popup flash and a zoom lens, remove the lens hood so you don't get a shadow at the bottom of your frame.
  • Keep a respectful distance and be unobtrusive. If you're getting in everyone's face and flashing every two seconds you're going to get a memory card full of annoyed faces.
  • Be observant. Wait for moments to happen. Even seemingly random, special moments can often be predicted by a few seconds if you're paying attention. Keep your camera ready at all times.
  • Don't just shoot the final product. Get into the kitchen. Take shots of the preparations. Cooks in action. The final touches being put on the pumpkin pies. The table being set for dinner. Children rushing inside at the sound of the dinner bell.
  • Go wide. Don't only shoot close-up portraits. Include some of the surroundings so that when you look at the photo later you can tell where and when it was taken without checking the date. It will be more meaningful to you. Bonus: the wider the lens angle, the slower your shutter speed can be and still get away with sharp photos.
  • Don't shoot people while they're eating. Especially if they are lifting a fork or have food in their mouth. It's never flattering, no one likes it, and you'll lose the trust of your subjects.
  • Let the kids take some photos. You may be pleasantly surprised.
  • Relax. Don't worry about missing something. It's often better to be in the moment than to see it through a viewfinder.

Taking pictures this weekend? Got any good tips I didn't mention? Please share them in the comments.

Photo by: basykes (License: CC-BY)

Patience, a photographer’s ally

I went to the beach on Sunday evening to try for some nice shots of the Huntington Beach pier at sunset. Shooting sunsets is always a hit or miss proposition. Sometimes you get beautiful, jaw-dropping colors and patterns in the sky. And sometimes it just gets dark. Around here this time of year it's especially random because of the change in the weather. So I packed my D90 and tripod and took my chances.

Approaching the shore I could tell it was going to be a difficult day. The fog was rolling in and it was so thick I could barely see the water from Pacific Coast Highway. I almost turned around and headed home. It was disappointing. But I was already there and I know some good spots for free parking. I decided to walk down and see what I could see. I'd arrived about 45 minutes ahead of the sunset so I had some time to scope out possible compositions and exposure settings. I went through the motions.

I saw at least four groups shooting family photos that day. Two groups were doing the "white shirt and blue jeans" thing. It was so dark, every photographer was flashing like crazy. At least, I thought, I didn't pay to have my photo taken on a day like today. I'd been reading Practical HDRI by Jack Howard that morning and I'd planned to try my hand at capturing some HDR images anyway. Fog or no fog, at least it would be good practice. Couples and families were packing their towels and chairs and toys to go home as I worked.

But I kept glancing at the sky, hoping for a change, and I noticed a funny thing. Every once in a while, a hole in the cloud cover would float by. As it got darker, I'd see brief flashes of color reflecting on the clouds. The sunset was still happening out there beyond the fog. Maybe if I got lucky, a hole would drift by in the right spot at the right time... I quickly moved to the spot I'd scoped out earlier for my sunset shot and set up. It was cold and getting dark fast.

The families taking photos on the beach were winding down and leaving. I caught the eye of one of the photographers walking off the beach. She shrugged and smiled. And I stood alone on the beach, pointing my camera at the horizon, hands in my pockets, checking and re-checking exposure settings, hoping for light. And then...

Holes in the cloud cover drifted by slowly. I shot 52 photos before the sun disappeared for the night. But this was the keeper. It wasn't the sunset I was expecting, but then, it never is. My spirits lifted, I decided to stay and wait for the lamps to come on and got another nice shot of the pier at night.

All in all, it turned out to be a pretty good day. I'm tempted to think I was just lucky. Maybe luck had something to do with it. But I also know that the harder I try, the luckier I am. Patience was a key factor that day. I didn't go hunting for these shots... I waited for them to come to me. And those HDR shots? They turned out alright, too.

Photography TED Talks

You've probably heard of TED, the website designed to spread ideas by publishing 20-minute talks by "the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers." I love TEDTalks and often download eight or ten of them onto iTunes and then watch them on long train journeys. In the last couple of months I come across some great photography themed TEDTalks which you can watch below. If you haven't seen it be sure to check out the TED website too.

David Griffin on how photography connects us

Blaise Ahuera y Arcos demonstrating Photosynth

Phil Borged on documenting endangered cultures

Rick Smolan tells the story of an adoption through his photography

Frans Lanting displays his lyrical nature photographs

Review: The Flip Mino HD Video Camera

I really like the Flip video cameras. I reviewed the original Flip Mino back in June and recommended it for anyone who wanted to shoot more than a couple of minutes of video at a time or who wanted to reserve the space on their camera's memory card just for pictures. The Flip Mino is a handy, compact, easy to use video recorder. And the Flip Mino HD (Amazon) is virtually identical in every way except one---it records 720p HD video.

Everything I liked about the Flip Mino I like about the Flip Mino HD. The body and controls are identical. You can't even tell them apart visually except for the "HD" logo on the back. They operate exactly the same and feel exactly the same in my hand. Everything I wrote in my earlier review about the Flip Mino applies to the HD version. So let's get on to video quality.

The video and sound quality are quite good. Video is recorded in H.264 format at 30 frames per second. Audio is recorded in AAC format at 44.1 kHz. The average bitrate is about 9 Mbps which lets the Flip store about 60 minutes of video on its internal 4 GB memory. Previous Flip models recorded MPEG4 AVI files. The Flip HD records H.264 MP4 files.

Like the previous models, although the video quality and sound are good, it's hampered by a cheap fixed-focus lens. Images aren't incredibly sharp or vivid, but honestly, I think it does what anyone should expect from such a low-cost device. Video from this camera is easy to watch full-screen on a 21" LCD monitor or TV. But really, like previous models, the videos from this camera are designed to be uploaded to YouTube or other video sharing sites.

One problem I noticed with the Flip was a weird visual artifact caused by shaking of the camera itself. You can see it clearly in the second video below in tall vertical lines like the street lamps and trees. When the camera shakes quickly they go all wobbly. I think this is an artifact of the underlying hardware and how the data is read off the sensor. There's probably a name for it but I don't know what it is or exactly what causes it. Any AV experts out there please weigh in in the comments. It should be noted that under normal circumstances this effect isn't a problem at all.

Having just bought a Nikon D90 I wanted to compare the video quality between the two cameras. They both record 1280x720 video. I give the edge in video quality to the D90 because it gives you much more creative control over the video and the lens is always going to be better. Beyond that, the D90 is a big black camera and the Flip is, well, a tiny black camera. The D90 can only record HD video in 5 minute clips. The Flip can record for up to 60 minutes all at once. The D90 uses removable storage media but with the Flip you're stuck with its 60 minute internal memory. The Flip has a fixed lens and the D90 is a digital SLR with interchangeable lenses. The Flip HD is a little over $200. The D90 kit is over $1,100.

So which is better? As you can see, they are really completely different animals. The Flip is a dedicated video machine that can record high quality video for long periods of time. It's a nice companion to any still camera, even to the D90 which can shoot video itself. I found that it's ease of use was perfect for situations where I didn't really care about getting "creative" and just wanted to record something quickly and easily. And when you've got to record something between 5 and 60 minutes, it wins hands down.

The Flip HD is a nice camera. If you have an original Flip but you want higher resolution video, this is a worthy upgrade. For those looking for a new digital video recorder, start here.

Sample Video

Below I've got two full-resolution sample videos. I shot the first indoors under fluorescent lighting in a typical usage scenario. The second is slightly less typical... I clamped the Flip to the bars of my scooter and went for a totally legal ride (in which no traffic or safety laws were broken for the entire 40 second clip).

Click the link beneath each one to download the original MP4 file (warning: they're big). Don't judge the video quality based on the re-encoded flash video below. The originals are much nicer and smoother. Download the full-resolution original videos to get a real measure of their quality (courtesy of blip.tv).

Click to download sample 1 original (1280x720)

Click to download sample 2 original (1280x720)

Buy the Flip Mino HD from Amazon.com →

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