#2 the curls
This all started out as my attempt to record the amazing curls of blond hair on the back of Teddy's head. In the end it became a picture of attitude and eyelashes — and the curls, too. Pre-conceived photographic ideas have a way of finding themselves littering the side of the road in a few thirtieths of a second.
For weeks Anne has been saying that I really need to do photographic justice to Teddy's hair. I would nod my best whatever and continue doing whatever I was doing, but I knew she was right — the curls were really sweet and we were burning daylight — they were not going to be there forever.
I stalked him half-heartedly last week but I was well aware that this was one of those photographs you have to make happen and not wait for. There was a little voice in the back of my head telling me that this was going to be an exercise in putting the right background and the right lighting and a beautiful little boy with curls in the same room and make something sweet come out of it.
Here were all of my preconceptions about this picture:
1. The curls were the star of the show.
2. The final crop would be a square. I had this image in my brain of Teddy's little round head centered in an elegant square with a little accent of curl in the corner and I couldn't let go of it.
3. The picture was a profile. I wanted to see the curls and I wanted to see his face. That means profile.
4. The background had to be dark to show off his blond locks.
5. The picture was going to be in black and white. I was going to make him look like an angel, and angels should always be photographed in black and white.
EIGHTY-THREE HORIZONTAL PICTURES
Because my final picture was going to be a square, I shot everything as a horizontal — it's just a little easier to hold the camera that way. I could have shot all verticals and it wouldn't have made any difference. So I shot eighty-three pictures. This seems like like an average number for a picture like this.
WAITING IMPATIENTLY FOR THAT CANDID MOMENT
I tried to get something candid but my heart wasn't in it. Here's a typical example of my early attempts. He's playing in a sprinkler, so I figured the hair would tend to be curly. This picture doesn't do it for me.
THE PICTURE OF TEDDY WITHOUT TEDDY
I decided to make a little natural light studio in the garage.
I've taken piles of pictures in my garage that I love. When the sun is hitting the pavement outside and bouncing into the dark room, great things happen. I have photographed dozens of my neighbors here.
I would position Teddy for a classic effect called "backlighting" or "rim lighting." I'd like to credit my old lighting instructor, Professor Walter Disney, for this, but it wasn't his idea either although his movies are full of it. Backlighting has been getting an emotional reaction since charcoal touched paper. It's simply beautiful and always will be. You can't go wrong with backlighting.
I wanted a dark background so I used a piece of black gatorboard (fancy foamcore). It's very handy. One side is white and the other is black. Very light weight. $20.
Teddy was going to have to be restrained and he was going to have to think it was fun. The low point of this whole project was carrying his high chair downstairs. I did not curse but I considered it. Mom was invited to entertain him.
When you have a subject that is possibly going to be less than cooperative, it's a waste of time to deal with your camera settings while they watch.
This is a picture of me checking my exposure and the lighting effect. the light is coming from behind my hand — backlighting. I often use my hand to make sure everything is ready before I get the subjects into the room. I put my hand where Teddy's head was going to be. Look at the white light that encircles my thumb. Perfect. I'm ready, ready, Teddy to rock n' roll. I've been wanting to use that line for quite some time.
ENTER HAIR AND MAKEUP
Just to make my wife feel better, I let her coif the curls before I started shooting. It really wasn't necessary, but in the interest of my marriage I let her do it. He was beautiful when he arrived and her messing with his head made zero difference. I did the right thing — I told her it made all the difference in the world.
I NEEDED SOME HELP
Anne was, however, key to the success of the picture. I would have had trouble doing this alone. Teddy is months or even years away from understanding the concept of “show me your profile,” and me saying “Hey, Teddy, look at that can of WD-40 over there!” wasn't going to do it either. I needed his mother to distract him which she did to perfection.
In the end she put her finger in her navel, jumped up and down and yelled, "Where's mommy's button? Where's mommy's button?" I'm all for whatever works and it worked perfectly. Teddy could have cared less about me and my camera.
The whole session was over in about eight minutes.
THE SWEET SIXTEEN
Now to the computer to edit. I went through all of the pictures and narrowed it down to sixteen. There are so many nice ones here. The next step was much more difficult — I eliminated twelve of them.
THE FINAL FOUR
I tried to give myself a variety of moods here. He’s looking down in one. He’s looking up in another, which is typical with Teddy — he's always looking for airplanes and birdies. The one where he's reaching is close but there's a problem. My sixtieth-of-a-second shutter speed was not enough to freeze his quick gesture, and the blur of his fingers is a little distracting. The last one — the simple profile — had some nice surprises for me, and I love nice surprises.
Here's a better look at the final four.
The last one is my final frame, above. Here's a closer look, below, to show you why this one put me over the top.
I have been holding Teddy closely for a year and a half. I have slept with him, I have bathed him countless times, I've been swimming with him and I read to him till I can't hold my head up. He has peed on me, puked on me, pooped on me, and he has hugged and kissed me and I have matched him hug for kiss and yet I have never, ever noticed that his eyelashes were this extraordinary. I knew they were nice, but this picture was a revelation to me. And the picture just got better when I started cropping.
THE CROP OPTIONS
Here's the square crop I had envisioned. It works just like I thought it would. Looks great.
When I cropped the picture horizontally, below, I left a little space for him to look into. It just feels right compositionally — there's more space on the left than the right. I would be perfectly happy with this.
Before I tell you why I love the crop below, I have to say that I never would have considered this as a possibility if I weren't going through the motions of demonstration for you. This slightly vertical crop has a lot going for it, though, and it's what I most love about this picture. This crop brings body language to the picture and I never saw it coming. First of all, look at the curve of his chest and how it sticks out with such determination. And look how much his nose extends past his chest to the left. Then notice how far to the right his arms are past his curls. He's like a cherub hood ornament feeling the wind in his face for the first time and getting ready to go for a long drive. But the thing that I really love about this crop and takes it into the, dare I say, art realm is the bottom right hand corner. First of all, the line of his arm does not go directly into the corner. There's a little space between his arm and the corner. If his arm went directly into the corner, it would create a piece of visual tension that would make you feel uneasy even if you never saw it — I'm serious. And that space gives the feeling that Teddy has gone someplace or is getting ready to go. That little space in the corner is a very solid compositional building block.
I fussed with this crop for quite a long time. I think I spent as much time getting this crop right as I spent shooting all of the pictures.
REMOVING THE CRUST
Babies faces seem to be covered in some kind of mystery crust. The chemical composition of this stuff is undetermined — I have my theories — but it's nice to know that it's easily eliminated in the retouching process.
Below is a retouching before-and-after. The picture on the left is a little crusty. The picture on the right has been fixed with Photoshop Elements' "healing tool." Amateurs tend to think that retouching is way beyond their skills, but technology is now so user-friendly that cleaning up a picture like this is actually fun and so satisfying. I think I could teach any ten-year-old to do this in a few minutes.
I actually spent quite a bit of time fixing this picture because I knew you would be taking a close look at it. I normally would have spent about a minute fixing this shot. For you, I spent three minutes. (Not so long ago, I would have to pay several hundred dollars to have a professional retoucher do the equivalent of what you see here.)
A LITTLE HAIRCUT AND LESS THAN AN HOUR
There were also a few loose hairs hanging around that I took out in retouching. It's easy when you're shooting to get hung up on a few distracting hairs and try to fix them or comb them and loose sight of the fact that you are using the few precious minutes of cooperation that your subject is giving you to deal with something that doesn't need dealing with. (And even if there were a few loose hairs here, the picture would still sing.)
So this is Teddy. Big eyes lit up like lighthouses. Curls blowing in the wind — chest moving forward — stopping not an option. Arms cocked back, ready to take down Alexander's latest Lego creation and always working the ladies with the eyelashes — very successfully, I might add. A baby and his curls becoming a boy right in front of my camera.
WHAT COULD HAVE MESSED ME UP?
If Teddy had shown complete disregard for his father's wishes, this picture would have been a bust. But I chose my time wisely. Teddy was in good humor, the hot humid day had rendered the curls extra curly, and his four year old brother was at day camp — a key ingredient. (Alexander is a good kid, but he would not have scored high on the helpful scale in this situation.) Basically, if Teddy had decided to be difficult, I would have bailed early and tried it again later. And to be truthful, if Alexander had been home, I would have been a fool to even think about it.
If I had cropped too tight when I was shooting I would have eliminated the possibility of the body language that, for me, makes the picture. I was intentionally leaving myself some cropping space but was confident that the final picture would not show his chest and arms. It did. Basically, I got lucky.
The beautiful natural light was a key to success. A flash would have destroyed this portrait.
I like seeing the detail in the ear. If the picture were more of a silhouette and darker in the shadows, it would still be strong, but I like to see detail in the shadows — as do most good photographers. You probably don't want dark areas going pure black in any photograph.
It could be argued that this picture has a bit too much of a studio look, but no one at my house is complaining.
It was a good call to set up a home studio. I could have chased this kid with a camera for days and never taken a picture I like — I mean love — as much as this one. And I do love this picture.
Total elapsed time including studio setup, hair and makeup, picture editing, and retouching: about 45 minutes.
I saved the final sixteen pictures and deleted the rest. Amateurs save way too many pictures. They're plugging up your computer. You will never look at them again.
ONE MORE THOUGHT
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed on a internet radio show for new moms on www.newmomsnewbabies.com.
Nice website and really sweet people — here's the link for my segment: http://newmomsnewbabies.com/how-to-photograph-your-baby/
Anyway, after fifteen minutes of me describing how you can shoot photos of your babies, one of the interviewer's last questions was something like this:
"So, when I hire a professional photographer to photograph my baby, exactly what do I need to look for?"
I let a couple of awkward seconds roll by to make everyone uncomfortable. Then I suggested that we had experienced a major breakdown in communication. I am, I said, suggesting that you can do this yourself. We are not talking about hiring photographers here.
This picture is a perfect example. I know people who have paid $2,000 for this lighting effect. I'm not saying it's not a $2,000 lighting effect. I'm saying you can do it yourself.
I love it when you send me pictures. Please send me a picture of your baby as Walt Disney would have seen your baby.