#1 Teddy Got New Boots Today
HE came into my office dressed as you see him here. He's only a year and a half old but he was clearly proud to be wearing big boy boots. It happened to be raining at that moment and it seemed a perfect opportunity to test the boots and my concept for a new series of articles I plan to write for this blog. Every week I'm going to shoot a baby photograph and break it down as best I can into the individual decisions that went into the making of that picture. I'm going to retrace my steps to find out where that picture came from. I have been taking pictures for so long — and I take so much of this for granted — that this may be more interesting to me than it will be to you. A little self-analysis never hurts. It's entirely possible that this process will help us both become better photographers.
Forty-one Verticals, One Horizontal
I scooped up Teddy with one arm and my camera with the other hand and we headed outside. Before we even hit the door, I was confirming my settings. ISO 500 is my basic around-the-house baby photography ISO. Auto-focus — check. Auto-exposure set for aperture priority — that means if I put the camera on f2.8, it will automatically set the proper shutter speed for me — check. I shoot lots of picture wide open (f2.8 on this particular lens) because I know I'm going to want the background as out of focus as possible to put your attention on my boy.
As soon as we got outside, I saw the water running down the middle of the alley, and I made five quick decisions.
- Teddy's face was probably not going to be in the picture. He was going to be walking away from me. I have plenty of pictures of Teddy's face and this was an opportunity to do something different. The boots, the baby, and the natural path of the water were my three main visual elements.
- This was going to largely be an excercise in color. The yellow boots were going to pop out of the picture and say something about both babyhood and growing up.
- I was going to be looking down on him to take advantage of the neutral color of the pavement. The wet concrete was going to help me concentrate the viewer’s eyes on Teddy and his boots. There are very few great photographs with distracting backgrounds.
- The picture was going to be a vertical and Teddy was going to be at the bottom of the frame. This would give the viewer space to imagine what was about to happen — Teddy was going to take another step into a great big world.
- I would zoom out for a wide-angle effect. It would accentuate the receding and converging vertical lines of the water and the alley suggesting distance and giving Teddy a visual place to go that appears to be far away. It would help set the mood.
I was now committed to working the situation to get one good picture. Now Teddy needed to come up with some interesting body language. I wasn't sure what that was and knew I couldn't control it. I needed to get lucky. To me that means making some key decisions up front and then when stuff starts to happen you push the button a lot.
I set him down and he went for the running water like a pig to slop. There are certain things you can always count on in baby photography. Put a dry baby within 30 feet of running water and in a few minutes you will have a wet baby.
I think four minutes had elapsed since I met Teddy's new boots.
One Good Frame
Now I want to find one good frame. Some people want to find a whole bunch of good frames — not my style. There's almost always one frame that rises to the top. And even if there's a close tie for first, you need to ask yourself, “Just how many pictures of my kid do other people really want to see?” I submit that the answer is almost always very close to one — OK, it's one.
Right off the top I eliminate eighty percent of the pictures. Here are my thoughts on the final eight:
#1. I had decided that Teddy's face was not going to be in the picture and then he turned around. I pushed the button. There's always the possibility that your gut reaction is completely wrong. The trick is to push the button before the doubt sets in. Don't ask questions. Just push the button.
I'm not crazy about this photo. Teddy has super cute moments and this is not one of them. Photo #1 — out. (And don't get me wrong. A baby picture doesn't have to be cute to make the cut.)
#2. The green weeds growing in the cracks are taking my viewers eyes away from those precious yellow boots. And his body language is not all that great. Out.
#3. Interesting. He's pulling his boots up. This is what I'm talking about when I say just push the button when stuff happens. I never could have predicted that Teddy would use the handles on his boots to pull them up. (GENIUS!!!, I say.) But somehow it's just not happening. Nice try, Teddy.
#4. This picture I like. For all of my bluster about a brave young boy walking into a big scary world, this picture of a defeated human being works for me. It's a possible final.
#5. Very strong. My favorite yet. This is what I'm talking about. You could never invent this picture. And you could never get a baby to do this if your life depended on it. I'm going to overlook the similarity in body language between Teddy and a certain former recent president. It's scaring me. But this could be the one. I like it.
#6. I think this is when Teddy wet his diaper. Out.
#7. It's nice, but I like #5 better.
#8. This picture has a lot going for it. It's a little bit The Music Man and a little bit Joe Cocker. I always loved The Music Man, but Joe Cocker was always better when you couldn't see him. It hurts me to reject this photo, but I must. (Retraction: I love Joe Cocker even when I can see him. I simply could not resist the cheap comparison. I mean seriously, if the caption for this photo were, “A little Joe Cocker on his way to voice lessons,” that's funny!)
Anyway, #5 is favorite. It may not be yours, but in my mind it's important that I took a stand and now I'm going to run with it. Is there a possibility that I can make it better with a good crop? That's always a reasonable question.
Finding a Shape
Cropping is an art. There are few photographs that can't benefit from a little tweak here and there. The danger is to go overboard and forget about your original vision. Here are a few examples of how I could have cropped this photo and why I basically didn't.
Crop #1 is a square. Square are elegant, and can be useful in a layout, but we've clipped off a little more of the important space above Teddy than I'm comfortable with. I wouldn't crop it this way unless I really had to.
#2 is the worst of the bunch. It's what I call a Butcher Crop. It has eliminated my original intent of the photograph. You can't just go all willy-nilly and crop a perfectly lovely vertical picture into a horizontal to accommodate, say, a scrapbook page or a greeting card shape. Good croppers are sensitive thoughtful people. Like I said, cropping is an art.
I really put #3 in here just to demonstrate something that amateuars rarely consider — the tilted crop. It doesn't really add anything in this case, but sometimes it can eliminate a distracting element or it can add a little visual tension to the image. It doesn't add much here, but it's good to be aware of the possibility.
#4 is interesting. In the right scrapbook layout or the right picture frame, this crop could work beautifully. It accentuates the distance Teddy has to go and therefore enhances the mood of the picture. I like it. Don't get me wrong. It's extreme and should be used sparingly, but in this case it may be the way to go.
Finally #5. I had really already cropped the picture with my camera when I shot it. I brought the edges in a little bit here to eliminate what is possibly a little too much green stuff at the top of the frame. But this picture came out of the camera fully formed, and I really need to just have the good sense to walk away from it.
Black and White or Color
I'm nutty about black and white, and if a picture is going to be in color, then there needs to be a reason for it. The reason in this case is the boots.
But let me make a case for the black and white version. Can you see how the color picture feels like it was taken yesterday and the black and white picture was taken any day? B&W is just timeless and beautiful. I believe that we will be looking at black and white pictures for the rest of our lives.
The Beauty of RAW
I'm not going to go into a full explanation of RAW images here, but I want you to know that I shoot RAW all of the time. If you think that RAW is some high-level professional thing, you should reconsider. RAW will cover up lots of mistakes. The three pictures here all came from the same RAW file.
Here's a view of Photoshop's rather intimidating RAW window. Believe me, it's worth getting into. Basically you just start sliding things around until you see something you like. Every picture I shoot is RAW. It's simple.
What Could Have Messed Us Up
Finally, I'd like to point out two things that could have drastically changed the look and feel of this photograph.
I took this picture around noon. If the sun had been shining, the whole thing would have a harsh and glaring feel to it. The soft light of a cloudy day simplifies things visually. There are no nasty shadows and the color is more saturated. All things being the same, if the sun had been shining when Teddy showed me his boots I don't think I would have been inspired to grab my camera.
And finally, if Teddy had been wearing his brightly colored Wall-E pajamas this picture would look more like a Pixar merchandising ad than the comment on childhood I was trying to make. The neutral white is very helpful here. And one more thought on the cloudy day: If the sun had been shining the pure white onesy would have been blown out and difficult to deal with.