View Full Version : Taking reference photos

Laura Shelley
05-06-2004, 04:13 PM
Can anyone provide me with some photography tips? I need some help to succeed in taking good reference photos with predictable results for portrait commissions.

I've got a 20-year-old Canon A1 equipped with a 35-105 zoom and a couple of other lenses. Although I took photography classes years ago and know a little about f-stops and so on, I don't have much experience, and not much luck overall. If this camera doesn't work out for me (it was a gift from the original owner) then I may have to spend some bucks on a digital SLR and a portrait lens. I am short on bucks, so I want to give this camera a good try first.

I do not own photo lights, nor do I know much about using them. Therefore, I would like to shoot under natural light. I was planning to shoot indoors by a window or in outdoor shade, with a piece of white foamcore to bounce light into the shadows if necessary. Does this sound reasonable? I don't have a bounce flash, but could possibly get one if necessary.

05-06-2004, 04:33 PM
Your plan sounds good to me. (I miss my SLR!) Just remember to bracket, take lots of pics and I'm sure you will end up with something you can use for a reference. :)

05-06-2004, 04:56 PM
I wish I knew the trics. For my last commission I took my digital camera and took almost 200 pictures while chatting to the children I was photographing. There were 150 pictures of kids pulling faces, 45 pictures that were blurry and 5 that were good to work from......:D.......ok, so I am a bad photographer....
Next weekend I have to photograph a 3 year old and a 9 year old............god help me. Haven't got a clue how - will probably end up photographing them seperately again as they will never sit still at the same time.

Laura Shelley
05-06-2004, 05:48 PM
I've been researching my head off on photographing children! I've heard a couple of tricks that sound reasonable.

Have the mother sit behind you and read a book to them to keep them interested and looking up. Lie on your stomach or sit on the floor to get down to eye level with children. Get them involved with a toy or some play activity to get natural poses and expressions.

Well, I'm going to see if I can find a good book on the subject! ;)

05-06-2004, 07:03 PM
I was a portrait photographer for ten years and mostly worked with children. The trick is to let the children do what comes natural to them. Never use the "S" (smile) word unless you want the teeth clinched together looking somewhat like this smiley :D . Anything that requires concentration on their part always produces a classic portrait. Examples: reading a book, putting pennies in a classy looking penny bank, pulling a petal (one at a time) off a flower, asking them to smell a flower, you get the idea. Make sure you use timeless props... a classic teddy bear beats a Barney everythime. Allow yourself to accept interactive shots making sure that you capture the mask of the face. A child doesn't have to be looking at the camera grinning to get positive results. If the parent wants the child interacting with (looking at) the camera simply let them do their thing as mentioned and clamly call their name... they'll look everytime. If you want a smile as they look... fake a sneeze or come up with something that works for you. ;)

When it comes to taking good reference photos there are several do's and don'ts.

DON'T: use an on camera flash (washes out and flattens subject... not to mention those black outline shadows)
DON'T: ask them to smile
DON'T: shot with a wide angle lens (wide angle lens distort the subject)(50 mm is close to what our eye sees in 35mm format)

DO: use natural light whenever possible (Window light is great)
DO: use a reflector (can be a piece of white cardboard) when using window light (or one modeling light) to kick reflected light in on shadow side of subject.
DO: when using a modeling light (can be a flash) make sure it is above the subject and usually at about a 45 degree angle from the subject (there are many lighting diagrams that would produce some great results but I wanted to keep it simple at this point).
DO: use the appropriate focal length lens (80-135mm is best for portraits)
DO: (when shooting outdoors in natural light) make sure you shoot in even light making sure there is not a mix of hot light and shadows on the face. A great portrait trick outdoors is to place the subject in a shaded area and reflect light in (from sunlight) on the subject with a piece of cardboard covered with aluminum foil... creates great directional lighting.
DO: take more photos than you think you need... different angles and distances

Here's a thread I started in the figure forum that might prove helpful...
Tips for working from photos. (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=184163) (Contains Nudity)

I know I'll think of some more tips as soon as I hit the submit this button :D ...


05-06-2004, 07:12 PM
Rosic!! This is SOOO helpful. I am dreading my weekend photoshoot a bit and will try to learn this by heart ......:D.......(sorry no teethy smile ;))
Oh, I hope those kids will interact.......you never know. With my last commission none of the photos of the kids together were good, so I chose two photos of them seperately and joined them in the portrait. It's a compromise, but better than nothing.

If you have more............why not write an article? Or just post it here - I am an eager listener.

05-06-2004, 07:24 PM
Rosic!! This is SOOO helpful. I am dreading my weekend photoshoot a bit and will try to learn this by heart ......:D.......(sorry no teethy smile ;))

If you have more............why not write an article? Or just post it here - I am an eager listener.
I am planning to put together an article on something like this soon. Tips for taking photos and tips on working from photos. Just need the time :rolleyes: !

Sophie... Don't hesitate to PM me when you are doing one of these photo sessions and I'd be more than happy to share some ideas for you. I think the main thing I miss about my photography business is the kids.

05-06-2004, 08:44 PM
Rosic, those are absolutely wonderful tips! Thanks so much for taking the time! I hope you have time to put that article together. I know I'll learn a lot from it.

Laura Shelley
05-06-2004, 10:40 PM
Excellent! What great ideas these are, Rosic--thank you for posting them. I'm feeling more confident already. :)

05-07-2004, 06:54 AM
thank you Rosic for the great tips, I'll definetely try the foil
From my own experience: I try to make the child pose as if he was posing for me painting. I wait for him/her to settle in the pose, get that slightly bored look, or meditative, or cheeky (maybe I take some photos at this stage but just to adjust the camera sttings) then take the real reference photos! And only a few: if my mind is set before I take the pictures then it's me leading the portrait and making decision rather than the fate...
I like to paint a portrait rather than copying a casual snapshot.
For this more formal approach I recently started using a tripod, which allows me less freedom but I can look directly at the subject and not only through the lens. I do not always succeed in my purposes but since I started sticking to this approach my portraits got better.
And no teeths! The hardest part is to convince the parents that if the child doesn't smile in the portrait it doesn't mean that they are not happy children therefore they are not good parents...
Good luck to all

05-07-2004, 08:54 AM
Just thought of something guys...
You know those windshield sun reflectors that you put in your car to help keep it cooler in the summer... they make great reflectors for your photos and they fold up easily. All you need is a clamp and tripod (if you don't have a helper) to kick in the beautiful light. :cool:

05-07-2004, 10:33 AM
Great advise Rosic! I too used to make my living as a photog...
Without being to technical, their is one thing I'd like to ad that may help someone avoid a pitfall...

When taking pictures in low light situations it is critical to understand "depth-of_field" and "shutter speed". Take the window lighting situation for example... unless it is fairly bright window light, you will be forced to "open your lens" or use a slow shutter speed in order to obtain a correct exposure.

When you open your lens, what you are doing is changing your cameras f-stop setting to a smaller number to allow more light to pass through the opening (iris) in the lens. This action makes the lens opening larger. The trade off here is that your "depth of field" will be reduced... which means the plane of focus becomes shallow. This becomes especially critical if you're photographing two or more subjects... One subject might be in focus and the other, out of focus. Depending on how low the lighting situation this can ruin a single subject as well... it's possible for his/her face plane to be focused and her ears and clothing to be out of focus.

This brings me to my next point... "shutter speed". To compensate for low lighting one might also choose to use a slow shutter speed to obtain a correct exposure. One of the pitfalls with this situation is that when photographing children they tend to move alot, which will result in a blurred subject... even if you use a tripod. The photographer has to be steady and the subject relatively still.

When using a camera on auto, the camera makes these two critical decisions for you, and you might not even be aware that the camera is struggling to compensate for low light and the result could be blurry images.

Sorry to sound so technical, but I don't know how else to explain my point. The bottom line is to shoot in "bright" shade or fairly bright window light if you are not using strobes or bright artificial lighting. If you have a choice shoot in the brighter (not harsh) areas.

In ideal situations, you'll normally want your shutter speed at a 60th of a second or faster. Also, try to keep your f-stop at f8 or higher.

Just to add a technique to the discussion... If you find yourself with only bright sunlight, have someone hold a white sheet between the sun and your subject... the diffused lighting from this situation is very pleasing. Their is professional diffusion material that you can buy, but a sheet works just as well. :)

Sorry to put you all to sleep. ;)

Marcy Perrier
05-07-2004, 11:00 AM
Rosic and JCoop, you are both to be thanked by us all in your excellent advise. I will add this to my own methods (which I thought were good until I read yours LOL) Thanks a million for your time spent to help us all.

05-07-2004, 12:07 PM
Joel... Excellent points and you explained them so they are easily understandable. :clap:

05-07-2004, 01:31 PM
Thanks for the additional advice Rosic and Joel! I for one used to love my old (30 year or so :D) SLR camera but ever since I got myself a digital camera (Canon A70) I don't use the old one anymore. As long as I don't use the flash (hate the effects) and set my camera to semi-auto/manual (I can set for the light situations and the camera adapts) the results are fine. The good thing with a digi cam is that you have a little 'what you see is what you get' screen. Whenever the photos have too much dark shadows or lack contrast, I just adapt in Photoshop. After all, I'll paint from then, so the photos don't have to be perfect. All I need is sharp pictures, and most difficult of all........good poses and expressions.

Laura Shelley
05-07-2004, 08:38 PM
I think this thread should be rated, so I just rated it. And I'm going to print it out. Took a bunch of pics today and dropped them off at the store to develop, so we'll see if I've absorbed any of this good advice yet. :)

05-09-2004, 05:08 PM
One technique that I've found useful with children (and some adults) is to take pictures without looking through the viewfinder. You can use a tripod and have the subject already framed, or you can hold the camera at chest level and estimate the correct angle for the shot (this takes practice).

This works well with subjects who freeze up or put on the phoney smile described by Rosic when they see you looking through the viewfinder; it helps in capturing an 'unposed' look.


05-10-2004, 02:13 AM
Well, I've made some photos of the kids for a new commission, and I found it difficult. The three year old did not sit still so I just kept on clicking away, while she was moving about on her chair, on her hobby horse etc. The 9 year old boy did not like his photo taken, so was obviously looking uncomfortable. Again, I just kept on shooting with my digi cam and will have to see what I've got later. I do find it the most difficult part of portrait commissions.

05-10-2004, 08:57 AM
Sophie... sorry to hear about the sitting. Makes me not miss portrait photography :D ... brings back memories of the same treatment. Do you have a program on your PC where you can lay down several photos in a slide show format and lay down a song track then burn to a video CD? If you do I thought you may be able to make some extra $$$ by making a slide-show of all the photos you took or maybe a slide-show of a WIP of their portrait. Just an idea to generate two sources of income from one customer.

05-10-2004, 09:40 AM
Sophie, sounds like a rough crowd! Next time you're preparing to take photos for a commission you might try asking the parents if you could show up a little early and just hang out with the family... find out what the kids like to do and engage them in it. Maybe a video game or a favorite toy or activity.

I know this sounds like going above and beyond the call of duty, but it will save you so much time later when you have to deal with fixing references of kids who were not really into you and couldn't care less. Most parents will understand this approach and welcome it.

I used to photograph children on a daily basis. When time allowed, I always started the sessions without my camera... just being friendly.

I hope you captured something you can use.

05-10-2004, 10:27 AM
if you could show up a little early and just hang out with the family... find out what the kids like to do and engage them in it. Maybe a video game or a favorite toy or activity.

Joel... this is excellent advice.
We used to have a consultation first where we meet the kids and parents (most cases mom only) and talked over clothing/prop choices... most importantly, it got the kids used to us.

This thread is just snowballing with great ideas from everyone! :clap:


Allen Carter
05-11-2004, 01:17 PM
Hello there,

I have to put in my 2 cents. Never give children Oreos or red punch before taking photos. Oreos will blacken their teeth and red punch ends up on their pretty white dress. Talk to babies. No one really talks to them and they want to know what you are doing. If you explain to them, they will pay attention to you. Make some photos before you use props. Ask them to hold something for you. They will beam if you think they are big enough. Small children are fun to work with. Teenagers can be tough. I usualy say "If you smile for a nice picture for Mom, then I'll make a few just for you with your sunglasses".


05-13-2004, 01:18 PM
This piece of advice comes from directing (stage), but I think it should translate: Give the child some "business." The plain-English translation is something to do; it makes actors less self-conscious to be they're focused on doing something.

So, perhaps take along something like a chess set, and once everyone is introduced, ask child or children to set it up? That should result in natural interactions at an angle conducive to taking a few candid shots. If they need help (or even if they don't!), explain which square the queen goes on -- they're likely to look up at you as you explain it.

05-13-2004, 02:45 PM
Thank you for starting this thread. Lots of great info here for portrait artists who work from their own reference images.
Bernie, thank you so much for adding some great info based on your experience and background!
I won't add anythign as I don't have much technical info to add.
Just, wanted to add, digital cameras (mine anyway) are much easier to use and way more sensitive in natural or lower lighting conditions than my slr is. I have a Nikon FE1 or 2 (I think, cannot recall) and a Pentax Optio 330GS digital 3.1 megapix. My Nikkor portrait lense is fantastic but the digital seems to be excellent for use without the flash and I don't get blurry pictures as much when holding it by hand in lower lighting conditions.
I tend to prefer no flash. I will work from a crappier No Flash photo before I will work from a really clear Flash photo. I can generally add to or fix the natural lighting crappier photo to my liking in my portraits.

Laura Shelley
05-15-2004, 06:42 PM
I've done my photo session, and the advice on this thread was invaluable. I took three 24-exposure rolls in about an hour while chasing two kids around a park. I brought an army blanket to put on the ground for sitting poses, and mostly shot in the shade or in filtered sunlight. Then I put them on the play equipment for standing shots with their heads on the same level.

I had my sheet of white foamcore for a reflector, and I wore a lot of jewelry so I could give it to the little girl to play with while I took pictures. Her older brother was much more cooperative than she was, but is a stiff smiler, unfortunately. I got him unawares several times, so I have some better material than the "posed" shots.

I am going to do some things differently next time: use 400 ASA film rather than 200 when I am shooting fast-moving kids, and try some backlit situations as well as frontally lit ones. I also felt the lack of automatic focus, but that's going to have to wait until I get a new camera. Mom was rather in the way and issuing orders to the kids--"Smile! I told you to smile!" But I'm not sure how you get her out of the picture, so to speak. I made her hold the foamcore, though. :)

After looking at the developed rolls, about a dozen of the photos are possibles, and about six of those are good enough to show to the parents, though I certainly have a way to go before I'm proficient at this. I'm very glad I asked some questions first!