Five Tips to Make Your Photography Backgrounds Spectacular

I have gone back and forth in my mind about the importance of a good background in photography. I have regular conversations with my clients about what type of background they want; urban or rural, color choices, muted or bright colors. I am convinced that lens selection and focal length have a huge impact on the final product and can make the overall background not quite as significant, although a good background can really make an image spectacular.

That being said, most of us don’t live the in the forest of car/building free wonderlands. Photographers are constantly trying to avoid cars, trash cans, even sculptures of naked people in our backgrounds (true story for me). Here are five tips for you to help make the most of the background in your next photo session:

Five tips for making your photography backgrounds spectacular. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Five tips for making your photography backgrounds spectacular. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography. All Rights Reserved.

Look for unusual angles.

In the image above, I was wanting to focus on the subjects and the giant, beautiful golden tree behind them. The trouble was there was a 20 foot dirt pile behind them, and I couldn’t figure out a way to not have it in the frame. The solution: I got way, way down on the ground in an unusual angle, and blocked the dirt pile with the long grass in front of me. Look for an unusual angle to block or hide the unsightly pieces.

Use lens compression to your advantage to focus on one area of the background. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography LLC. All rights reserved.

Use lens compression to your advantage to focus on one area of the background. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography LLC. All rights reserved.

Zoom in really, really far.

This is utilizing what is called lens compression, where the camera sees the background as closer to the subject when it is zoomed in. This also makes the background have even more of a blurred effect, making your subject stand out even more. In this image, the bush behind the subject was not very big, and we had many other objects nearby such as a shed and a wheelbarrow. I wanted to focus on the little girl and the bush, so I scooted myself really far back and zoomed in a lot, making the bush appear much larger than it normally did in the frame. 

White Space is golden.

Use white space to your advantage to make your subjects pop. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use white space to your advantage to make your subjects pop. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.

Normally during a session I try to find interesting places to feature my clients within. I have learned, however, that having just a simple white space can be incredibly powerful. In this image, the kiddos were walking up the hill. I got down on my stomach and created a frame with tons of white space using the open, plain blue sky. What I got back was an amazing piece of storytelling that would be fantastic for an art piece in a home.

Enhance Texture

Pairing silky smooth skin with a textured background creates an interesting contrast. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Pairing silky smooth skin with a textured background creates an interesting contrast. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I love to play with opposites. When I want to focus on a smooth, silky kiddo face I will often place said kiddo next to a textured wall or blanket. When photographing someone wearing a crazy, textured knitted outfit, I will aim for a smooth planked wall or water. I find if I pair smooth with smooth or textured with textured, the image can sometimes appear muddy. By playing with contrasting elements my subjects will pop against their backgrounds and keep the viewer’s focus where I want it to stay.

Frame Your Subject

It is really, really important to make sure your subject is framed within the background elements. Check for poles coming out of heads, trash cans coming out of elbows, even naked statues peeking over shoulders (again, true story.) Use the background elements to create a frame around your subject, and place the subject in the white space. This creates an intentional composition that looks polished and well thought-out.

Use the more colorful or busy elements to frame your subject, and place your subject in the darker and less busy areas of the frame. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use the more colorful or busy elements to frame your subject, and place your subject in the darker and less busy areas of the frame. Image copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC. All rights reserved.

Beginning External Flash – The Gear

An external flash is a flash not built in to your camera. They only work with DSLR cameras and mount on to the “hot shoe” (the metal part with a few small prongs) on top of the camera. The biggest question I’m sure many readers have is “What external flash should I purchase?” There are so many flashes to choose from in a wide price range, and it can be a bit overwhelming. I bought a used flash that I ended up hating, it didn’t suit my needs or have the flexibility I wanted, so I did more research and finally found a flash I loved in a great price range.

I purchased the YN560-II from Amazon, and it’s my favorite flash. It’s compatible with many different brands of cameras including Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Olympus. I like the shape of the big flash head, I can use it in manual mode or TTL, slave mode (we will go over all of these modes in future blog posts), and the head swivels both horizontally and vertically. It doesn’t eat my batteries up quickly and it takes normal AA batteries, no need to purchase a $10 set of two batteries to be used up in an hour. I love how Yongnuo updates its flashes well, and the newer model, the YN-560 III also utilizes the transmitters already built in to many DSLR’s so users don’t have to purchase additional transmitters. The flash is also very affordable, at $71 for the latest model, versus the good flashes from Nikon and Canon I have found. This is a fantastic flash for those looking to start using external flash

While the flash on its own is a great tool, I really recommend one other piece of gear to make it even better. Every flash needs a diffuser for general use, and while pretty much any flash diffuser is better than nothing, I really love the Neomart 3 Color Flash Diffuser set. It’s inexpensive, and when I finally purchased one I started to notice a dramatic difference in the quality of my images, especially while indoors. These two pieces of gear are perfect for the photographer looking to begin using flash photography.

Of course, there is always more gear one can purchase. When I want to get really creative, I like to put my flash on a transmitter and stand. So far I have used the Cowboy Studio transmitters for my own flash, and they have worked just fine. Be sure to look in your manual and the reviews of the flash to see if your camera requires it to use a transmitter for use. I also occasionally use an umbrella, either a white shoot-through umbrella, or a opaque reflective umbrella, depending on the softness of the light I am going for. We will go over use cases for each of these items in a future blog post and you can decide what pieces of gear you would like to try. 

What is your favorite external flash gear? Have you struggled with a piece of gear and could use some help figuring it out? Share your stories and a link to your site or blog here!

Beginning External Flash – Introduction

When I bought my DSLR I studied so hard and learned all about using my settings in the light already in a scene. I found, though, that I was still frustrated with my results during a time when I often took photos: indoors at night. If I turned my ISO up high enough, my images were very grainy and often still blurry from the slow shutter speed. I often would eventually turn the camera back to auto with the flash on, and the built-in flash would create a cold, flat light on my kids’ faces. After reading several articles and listening to photography podcasts, I decided to take the plunge in to external flash.

Sample of my gear for a large photo shoot

Sample of my gear for a large photo shoot

I wish I could tell you my new flash showed up and suddenly all of my images were perfectly exposed, vibrant images that looked super professional. Unfortunately, it took me quite awhile to get the hang of it, but with a lot of perseverance I have really come to love my external flash. Yes, I’m the mom at Chuck E Cheese with the big camera that looks like a member of the paparazzi, but I really truly don’t care because my images are crisp, sharp, and exactly what I have been hoping to achieve.

In the next few blog posts I am going to introduce you to external flash, the gear I recommend, the settings to use with your camera, and how to create stunning images both indoors and out. If you have any questions feel free to comment on any of the posts and I will see what I can do to help you out.

Do you have any specific questions you would like answered about external flash? 

How To Achieve Perfect White Balance In Camera

White balance is a tricky subject in photography. Different types of light emit different colors, though our eyes often adjust to these changes on their own. Cameras, however, need a little help adjusting their color input. We change the way our cameras see light by using the White Balance feature. 

When I started using white balance, I kept running in to problems. There is a lot of terminology that can seem overwhelming, and sometimes using the “right” setting doesn’t always create the correct color temperature in the final image. Is a light tungsten, fluorescent, or shaded? Sometimes it’s all three, and I found myself frustrated with overly yellow or blue images. While I can definitely adjust my image in post processing (especially when shooting in RAW, which I will write about some other time) I really prefer to get it right in camera, when I can.

For this tip, you will need to use a DSLR camera with the “Custom White Balance” feature (Canon) or “Preset Manual” white balance feature (Nikon). (Be sure to check your manual for a custom white balance feature, different models and brands have it under different names. I use a Nikon D5200, so I will show you the steps I use to create perfect white balance in camera. 

On the left I accommodated for the incandescent (tungsten) lights, on the right I accommodated for the flash. Both are definitely not the coloring I was looking for.

On the left I accommodated for the incandescent (tungsten) lights, on the right I accommodated for the flash. Both are definitely not the coloring I was looking for.

I recently did a photo booth for a women’s event at our church. I brought a grey and white bedsheet from Target and hung it from my Background Kit. I wasn’t sure which source of light to consider when setting my white balance, and when I tried accommodating the settings on my camera using premade white balance settings, I kept coming up off.

I photographed only the gray and white background to set my white balance.

I photographed only the gray and white background to set my white balance.

I finally took a moment and photographed something gray or white in the entire frame. In this case, I was lucky because the entire background was gray and white. This can also be done with a gray card, as long as it fills almost the entire frame and is in all of the lighting you are planning on using in the final image. My image was still a little yellow for my liking.

Next, I went in to the White Balance menu on my camera (Be sure to check your manual to find where your white balance setting is). Usually there are several options to choose from, though none of them were working quite right for me.

White Balance menu with presets in Nikon

White Balance menu with presets in Nikon

Using my Nikon D5200 to adjust the white balance in camera

Using my Nikon D5200 to adjust the white balance in camera

If I scroll down past these, settings, there is another option called Preset Manual. I click the right arrow to enter the options for this setting. I then can choose to use the photo I just took of the gray and white background. (“Measure” is another chance to take a gray or white photo to use). I choose the photo I want to use, and my camera automatically calibrates the white balance perfectly. 

My camera also saves this setting as the current “Preset Manual” until I reset it. If I wander around different locations but come back to this one, I can select “Preset Manual” and I don’t have to recalibrate the white balance again.

The rest of the day in the photo booth went swimmingly. I loved not having to worry about different colors of light affecting my images, and I had a blast with these wonderful women!

 

Have you ever used a custom white balance in your photography? What is the biggest benefit you have found? Is there a part of customizing a white balance you have found difficult?

Harp Photography – Fill Flash

In my last post about my sister’s harp portraits, I explained how I did the silhouette effect in camera. Today, I will show you how I took my favorite shot from the day using a fill flash.

Copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC

Copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC

Copyright Emily Straw Photography LLC

Copyright Emily Straw Photography LLC

For starters, I used the same camera and settings I had used on the silhouette images. I used the meter focused on the sky for my exposure, I wanted to easily see the details of the sky and the beautiful sunset. I started by setting my ISO at 100, ensuring a lot less light entered the camera and no noise reduction was necessary in post processing. I set my shutter speed at 1/125 for two reasons: I wanted to capture the ambient light from the sun and on the harp, and I needed it to be slow enough to sync with the external flash. I then set my aperture to get the correct exposure for the sky; for this image I set it at f/16. I loved using the high aperture and slower shutter speed instead of the other way around, the entire image is sharp and the ambient light pouring on the subject is gorgeous.

The biggest change in photographing this image compared to the last post was the use of an external flash. I use the YN-560 on a Cowboy Studios transmitter, mounted to a flash stand. 

ISO – 100        Shutter Speed – 1/125 sec.

Aperture – f/16         Fill Flash – medium/high

This flash is an inexpensive, very powerful tool for experimenting with flash. I pointed the flash straight at my subject with absolutely no diffusion. I started with the flash on a medium-low power and slowly increased it to get the correct exposure. I wish I could remember what power level the flash was set at for this image, sadly I do not but I remember it was pretty high. When she was sitting I had her tilt her head and moved the flash to be in line with her nose. This eliminated some of the harsher shadows on her face, making it look even and symmetrical. When she was standing the flash was further to her left and illuminated the side of her body more than the front, and combined with her body’s angular lines and posing it created a very flattering and slimming effect. I also loved the specular highlights on the harp on the second image, the angle of the flash was perpendicular to the top of the harp in the first image and it created a very flat light. 

Overall I was really pleased with the effect I was able to create in camera. Very little post processing was done, I lowered the highlights so you can see the sky even more, and warmed it up a bit to enhance the sunset feeling. I added a bit of contrast and sharpening, deepened the blacks a bit, and and added a vignette. There are definitely a few things I would have changed if I did the session again, but I really love the images I created and my sister was extremely pleased with them. 

 

 

Have you tried creating a studio lighting setup in an outdoor environment? Share your tips and ideas here, and leave a link to your work! 

Harp Portraits – Silhouette

When my sister asked me to photograph her and her harp together, I jumped at the opportunity. I love working with family because it gives me the chance to try something new with lighting, and they are almost always on board with humoring me and my crazy attempts. For this session, one of the techniques I decided to try was silhouetting the subject.

For starters, I knew I needed to take these photographs during the Golden Hour. This is the last hour before sunset, or the first hour after sunrise. Since I am not an early riser, I knew it had to be during sunset.

If I had tried this photo much earlier or after the sun had set, it would have been difficult to see the contrast between the subject and the background.

Copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC

Copyright Emily Straw Photography, LLC

Next, I knew I needed to take this shot in an open space with lots of the visible sky. I have a location I love to shoot at, with a big lake and mountains in the background, without a lot of buildings and traffic in between.

Copyright Emily Straw Photography LLC

Copyright Emily Straw Photography LLC

Next, I needed to set my camera correctly. For this shot, I knew I needed to greatly underexpose and I had to use Manual Mode. I set my ISO at 100 not only to create the highest quality image I could, but also to let very little light inside. I set my shutter speed to 1/160, if I had set it faster I would have missed out on the ambient light from the sunsight. Finallly, I set my aperture at f/16. I know the “sweet spot” of a sharp aperture is typically f/8, but I needed to use my aperture to lessen the amount of light entering the camera. 

Camera Settings:

ISO: 100     Shutter Speed: 1/160     Aperture: f/16

I love the effect I was able to create, you can definitely see she is playing her harp and it looks so elegant and refined. The entire image is sharp because of the high f-stop, and the lower shutter speed let in more ambient light. Plus, with the ISO at 100, I didn’t have to do any noise reduction in post processing. In fact, there was very little post processing done in these images. I only did my basic RAW-.jpeg settings of increasing contrast and sharpening, decreased the shadows and increased the highlights a bit, and added a slight vignette. The image in camera was already great, and I loved learning this technique!

Have you ever tried shooting silhouettes? I would love to hear all about it! Please leave a comment and feel free to leave a link to your site. Let me know if you learned something new today! Blessings!

Rebranding

I took several classes recently on Creative Live (seriously, if you haven’t checked out this site yet, please do!) My latest favorite was Pricing and Sales with Julia Keeler. Julia is a newborn photographer in a small town near Portland, and I was blown away by every second of this class.She taught not only taught about pricing, she talked about the total customer experience that makes you worth a higher price tag. She brought emotions in to her sessions and sales, all while keeping it in a positive light. If I can be half the photographer she is someday, I will feel very blessed indeed.

I have written down several baby steps I would like to take in revamping my own business. The first is working on rebranding. One key point she talked about is that you need to make your brand reflect you, instead of trying to make it what your clients might “want.” I learned how my clients want me, and the more I capture what I am passionate about and I love, the more my brand will be built.

I started with a logo search on Etsy and ended up finding several excellent choices in marketing sets. I narrowed it down to a few choices, and while I would have much preferred to have an exclusive marketing set, the budget only allowed for an inexpensive revamp. As long as no one else in my area uses the same logo, I think I will be just fine. In truth, I LOVE THIS.

I chose a color scheme that can be neutral for boys or girls as I have decided tomostly focus on babies, children, and families, as well as still teaching knitters how to photograph their knits on the podcast. I still plan on photographing seniors occasionally, but since my own photography got started by me capturing moments of my kiddos, I thought it would be great to really hone in on this particular passion in my brand.

I will be working on my website extensively in the near future to make it match the brand, so stay tuned for updates! Blessings!

What do you think of the new brand? Have you ever had that ah-ha moment for your business?