Are you the Family Photographer?
If you love photography, and most likely you wouldn’t be here if you don’t, you may be the family photographer, like I am. It’s not an easy job, getting people to smile, organizing the group, having to shoot when everybody is just relaxing and having fun. But it’s an important task, one that almost none of your family appreciates until many, many years later. But I guarantee you, the appreciation eventually does come.
In this initial post of The Family Photographer I want to share with you a specific event I recently covered in my family that you may be able to learn from for your own family events. We’ll discuss the technical details, the basic equipment, and other things that may help you do a quality job when documenting things that are important in your family’s lives.
To properly set the scene I should explain; the event I recently shot was my niece Olivia’s starring role as the female lead, Maria, in a production of West Side Story.
The play was held at the Village Seven Presbyterian Church and to attend I had to travel from Montana to Colorado. Most of you know I travel for a living and with so many miles under my belt, carrying cameras for my day job, I really didn’t want to haul my entire collection of normal camera gear. To lighten my load I decided on only one camera and one lens.
For this shoot I chose to use the new Lumix G7. It’s light, has lots of the features I love like the touchscreen LCD, burst mode of 12 FPS in single AF, does relatively well in low light, and has excellent AF capabilities in dark situations.
The lens of choice was the Lumix Vario 14-140mm that has a range of 28-280mm due to the Lumix being a Micro Four Thirds camera. That’s a great range for shooting a stage production. The only downside is its lack of speed. It’s not the fastest of lenses for the Lumix system, and in fact if I had I to do it again I probably would have brought the Lumix Vario 35-100mm F/2.8.
The F/2.8 lens would have allowed much more light to enter the camera due to it’s much faster maximum aperture of F/2.8. Even so, the 14-140mm did an excellent job. It’s extremely sharp and I was able to get fast enough shutter speeds to handhold it for most situations. However, being a fairly slow lens I had to up the ISO which we will talk about next.
With stage lighting you almost always have to increase your ISO settings to get a fast enough shutter speed to stop action on the stage. Unfortunately, with the maximum aperture of the 14-140mm zoom I had to choose ISO settings between 800 and 2000.
In all situations I would base the ISO on how much action was taking place and how much light was bathing the stage. A general rule of thumb for action is to shoot a shutter speed equal to or faster than the lens you are using. With that in mind, depending on what the focal length the lens was set at, like the above image of 83mm, I determined the ISO setting. At ISO 2000 I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/160th of a second which was able to stop the action of some of the dancing on stage. I had to shoot many frames to get a couple of really sharp images however.
For the entire shoot I shot the G7 on Auto WB. In all most every frame the camera did a great job with getting the colors just right, even though stage lighting can be a challenge for any camera. There were a couple of situations where I tweaked the WB settings in Lightroom but overall the WB the camera chose was good to excellent.
RAW or JPEG
Everything I shoot is captured in the RAW format. Why? Because you have much more latitude for fixing mistakes in RAW. Theater can be especially difficult due to the very dark and bright spots on stage. When shooting RAW you have the ability to correct exposures that may not be just perfect.
RAW offers tremendous advantages specifically for reducing the highlights which, as you can see in these images, are quite intense. If those highlights get blown out and you have nothing but a JPEG, there is no getting them back. With RAW you can often times easily reclaim the highlights.
Preparing to Shoot
One of great tools offered on the Lumix G7 is a feature known as Silent Mode. To access it you have to go through the main menu. Silent mode, as the name implies, is a way to completely make the camera silent as well as remove any AF lights and keep your flash from popping up.
This is a great tool for theatre since camera noise or lights won’t distract from the show and will keep you from being thrown out. So before the play began I set my camera to Silent Mode.
Having the option for a wide view at 14mm allowed me to pull the zoom back and take in the whole set. The telephoto end of the lens let me come in tight on specific individuals.
Shooting Different Angles
My planning began right from the minute I arrived at the church. Thankfully, I was offered the very front row due to us being so called VIP’s as Olivia’s relatives. That was a great spot for photo opportunities up close and personal. But pictures all from one spot can get stale.
With variety in mind, during intermission, I left my seat and spent the second part of the show in the balcony. Being further back and above gave me an entirely different perspective.
Don’t Forget Verticals
Being in the front row I had to be careful not to raise my elbow up into the view of others behind me when shooting vertical. But don’t let that stop you. Just be considerate and pull your elbow down and towards the camera as you raise you arm to shoot.
So few people think about shooting vertical, yet a vertical image can be very effective. In a theater situation there can be lots of black on each side of the actors when you are shooting individuals. Vertical helps eliminate undated dead space that provides no interest.
Watch Your Histogram
When shooting onto a stage you will often have lots of black, empty space. The idea of good theater is to highlight the subjects, so most often it’s the actors that are well lit. That can create lots of problems for even today’s modern cameras with their high tech meters.
All of the images you see in this Blog were shot on Program but most I have dialed in a -1 or even more Exposure Compensation via the +/- EV button. One of the tools I absolutely love about all Lumix cameras is their ability to show the histogram 100% of the time BEFORE you take the picture. You can set your camera to show the histogram on the back LCD or in the cameras viewfinder.
In theater photography, all that black, empty background can fool the cameras meter, creating overexposure due to the meter thinking the excessive black is important. When it exposes too much for those dark shadows, the actor’s faces end up going off the right side of the histogram which means they are overexposed. Watching my histogram allows me to quickly change when needed, fine tuning the exposure for the important part, the actor’s faces.
I’ve talked about this before but it’s worth repeating. A histogram represents all the tones in a photograph from absolute black to absolute white. The two ends of the histogram are what I call the goal posts. All tones in the image show up as peaks and valleys between the two goal posts with the blacks represented on the left and all whites showing up on the right.
If any of the peaks start to climb the right goal post, you are losing detail in the whites. If a peak climbs to the left goal post, your blacks are being underexposed and will have no detail. The goal is to get all light tones showing up just to the left of the right goal post and all the dark tones showing up just to the right of the left goal post.
Many who are competent photographers will shoot scenes like this in manual mode, metering off something in the scene that is a neutral gray.
That’s a good way to do it but takes considerably more time and you have to have something to meter off of that is a neutral gray. Watching your histogram and taking over from the camera by using the +/- EV compensation is just as effective and much quicker.
And, you are every bit as competent as a photographer by watching your histogram and changing when needed as anybody who shoots fully manual. The histogram is one of the most powerful tools digital photography has given us, the ability to see what a perfect exposure is at any time, before you take the picture.
Don’t Forget the Details
Remember to look for details that help tell the story. The program is a good start.
I also collected some images that were part of a presentation people had a chance to see before entering the theater. It was an informal but lovely way to tell who the actors where and other details.
For the next image I came in close to pick out Olivia exclusively.
Archiving Your Photos
Whenever I shoot family pictures I like to make sure I keyword them so I can easily go to family photos when I have a need. Using Lightroom I will often add the keywords after importing them to the Lightroom catalog.
If they are all family pictures you can easily add the keyword on Import. To add keywords on Import, make sure you select the Keyword option in the right side panel of the Import window. It’s just under the Apply During Import section.
Type the word Family in this box and Lightroom will label all your images with this keyword. It’s as easy as that. Just make sure you don’t have other subjects on that particular card.
If you do, all your other images will get the word Family attached to them, and you’ll end up with lots of strange family members such as salmon, brown bears, and the like. You get the picture 🙂 I’m on my way to Alaska and if I did a bulk Import with Family on Import it would label things inappropriately.
So that’s the first post of what I will be calling The Family Photographer. I hope you’ve learned something that you can apply to your own family gatherings. Stay tuned for other events you may enjoy and learn how to document your family before they are all grown and gone. The appreciation may not come for years but it will happen.