Who am I and what is the intent of this blog?

Hi, my name is Grey Darrah. My wife, Kaysi, and I run a family and children portrait studio outside of Atlanta, GA. I’ve been a professional photographer since getting out of the Marine Corps in 1985. If you’re interesting in seeing some of the work we do (I wouldn’t want you to think I was making all of this up!), you can check us out at www.darrahphoto.com I’m not a professional writer, so if you find a few misspelled words or the occasional grammatical error (I do love a good comma), I apologize and encourage you to make fun of me.

I have a couple of reasons for starting this blog, but the primary one is to help educate others in taking better photographs. Some might say that this is a direct conflict with the business that I’m in, but I disagree. There are times (check out this post) when only an established professional photographer can provide you with a certain type of image (like a classic portrait to hang proudly on your walls), but for preserving the everyday life that you, your children, your friends (and even your pets) live, much of what you want can be accomplished on your own. I love what I do and I want to share the information I have so that all your snapshots, albums and scrapbooks will look even more amazing than they already are.

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Questions

Ask any questions you might have.  Just click the “Leave a comment” below and ask away!  This might include a certain picture you want to take, but can’t seem to get right, or something about a lighting problem, blurry images, or even a shot you saw somewhere that you want to replicate, but aren’t sure how to do it.  Just ask…I’m here to help.  And please, share your images and your stories…

If you’re not logged in (and you don’t have to be), you do have to copy and paste the password that you’ll see before you can leave a comment/post an image.  It’s just anti spam junk.

Tell Us How We Can Help You Become A Better Photographer

Let us know if there are any particular subjects that you want us to write about.  I’ve got a lot of things floating around inside my tiny head, but if there is something you would like to read more on, leave a comment below.

When Should You Use Your On-Board Flash?

Never!  Just in case that needs a little more explanation, Never, Ever!  It doesn’t matter if your using a cell phone camera, or a $5,000 DSLR, if you use the flash that’s on the camera, your picture will look like crap. If you’re close enough to a subject to actually use your flash (they typically work out to about 6 to 12 feet, so it always cracks me up when I see them going off in the bleachers of a stadium) then you flood them, straight on, with a ton of white light.  It’s a horribly lit, horribly flat shot.  The “flat” part means that it has no perception of depth, which is created by having some shadows.  This is why any time you’re photographed in a studio, you’ll notice that the photographer typically has a light set off at an angle to your face.  This creates a subtle shadow that gives us the perception of depth…letting our minds interpret the photograph into a 3 dimensional image of the captured subject.

The only thing your on-board flash is good for, is proving that a picture of someone was taken.  For example, if you decide to become a kidnapper, it would be perfect for taking a picture of your kidnap-ee holding up a newspaper to prove that you have them.  I guess you could also use it for taking mug-shots at the police station.  That’s it…it’s good for nothing else.  OK, maybe if you become a spy, it works well for photographing documents.  Notice how nothing it’s appropriate for is related to taking pictures you would want your friends to see.

So how, you might ask, can you take pictures indoors or under low light situations?  A semi-complicated solution is to buy an external flash unit, commonly referred to as a “speed light.”  You can set this up on a small light stand, off to the side of your camera, and fire it remotely to get away from that “flat” look.  The problems with this is that it adds $$$’s to your set up, extra gear to carry around, and a greater technical understanding that most people aren’t interested in.

Depending upon your camera, the best way to handle low light is to increase your ISO setting, increasing the cameras sensitivity to light.  Most cameras allow you to manually adjust your ISO.  Where a “normal” ISO setting would fall in the range of 100 to 400, many cameras can go as high as 3200, 6400, and even higher.  At these highest settings, you may start to see some noise in your images (also known as a “grainy” look), but that depends on the camera.  Some can go well above 3200 and show little to no noise.  Even with the “potential” noise, it may be worth it to get an overall better image that doesn’t resemble a mug shot.

So don’t wait until you need to get a low light shot to try this out…grab your camera, adjust the ISO higher (way higher), and take a few shots!

Let’s Get Out In That Snow And Shoot!

Put on something warm, get out in this weather and take some pictures!  Our little ones are no longer little, so it’s Heidi to the rescue for us.  I shot this with my CoolPix at f3.5 in macro focus mode to soften (blur) the background.  I sent it over to my phone and spent about 30 seconds editing it a little with Snapseed.  It was taken at a shutter speed of 1/50th (using Aperture Priority Mode to control the f-stop), so you can see the streaks left by the falling snow.  Heidi wasn’t really cold, but the scarf adds a nice splash of color.

 Here’s one more…

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When It’s Time To Hire A Professional, Hire A Professional!

This site is all about teaching you how to take better photographs on your own, but there are times when you need a professional to create something special…that canvas wall portrait of the family, the children, or best of all, individual portraits (easier to pass down in the years to come, as our children become parents).  The reprint of the article below is a great example of why you don’t want to hire your sister’s best friend, that just bought a new camera and declared herself a photographer, to do the job.  I know it’s hard to pass up that great deal of 500 images on a CD for $75, but you get exactly what you pay for!  Way too many out of focus, poorly exposed images, and a bad experience for you and your children.  Read through the tips here, and I promise you’ll be taking better shots yourself – for free!  When it’s time for that serious portrait, hire a professional that really knows what they are doing.

A Slide Toward Mediocrity (reprinted from PPA Magazine December 2013 by Kalen Henderson)

It was only a matter of time.  A former customer called me the other day for some advice.  She had opted to have her annual family portrait taken by “a friend who has a nice camera and really wants to be a photographer.”

“You should see her work,” the client said.  “Her Facebook page is absolutely beautiful.  Her pictures are amazing.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I queried.  “When I took the disc she gave me to Walmart to have prints made, the photographs came back all blurry, not like they looked on Facebook, “ she said.  “I figure it’s a problem with Walmart’s printing and was hoping you could make the prints for me.”

Swallowing the temptation to say, “I told you so,” I agreed to take on the printing.  She mailed me the disc, and I slipped it into my computer drive.  Opening the images, I noted that the resolution was incredibly low on every one.

“I’m sorry, but the settings on the camera determine whether or not an image will look good as a print, and these can’t be printed much larger than a postage stamp, “ I explained.

“But she has so many “likes” on Facebook,” she said, exasperation in her voice.  “I just don’t understand.”

I sympathized with her for a few days before the larger context hit me.  We’re seeing a generation of hobbyists who want to be photographers and are gauging the quality of their work by the number of “likes” they receive on a social network.  They’re not necessarily interested in putting in the work required to get their prints hanging on clients’ walls or earning PPA (Professional Photographers of America) merits for image excellence.  They concentrate on conquering Instagram rather than the CPP (Certified Professional Photographer) exam.

Fun With Cupid

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We decided to have a little Valentine’s Day fun and ordered this Cupid set-up from Etsy.com.  Here again, anytime you’re dealing with a small child (6 months in this case), remember to get down low to compose your shot.  I was lying on my stomach for this one.  I shot this in our studio, but you could also create a great shot like this at home in front of a window (preferably a large one).  Try setting your child up on a table (with a helper to make sure no one accidentally falls off the table…that really ruins the photographic mood for most kids) to get them centered in the window, and throw a clean sheet or two over the table to soften the image.  It’s best done in a well lit room, but you might try opening the front door to let more light in.  If you can get the table set up about 10 or 12 feet away from the window in the background, and use a wide open f stop (like f2.8 or 3.5), you’ll get a soft, beautiful blur behind your cupid.  Remember to try raising your ISO (to 2000 or more if available) to deal with having less available light.  That should help get your f stop as low as possible.

Shutter Priority Mode – Freezing Moving Objects

If you end up shooting a lot of images of your children playing that are blurry, this is the article for you.  When things are in motion, there are basically only two ways that you can capture them in a frozen, crisp, clear manor.  One is with a very bright flash of light and the other is by increasing your shutter speed.  We’ll talk about the bright flash of light at the end of this, because it’s the least desirable method to use.  And by the way, if you haven’t read our article on the basics of Understanding Exposure, you really need to go over it before reading this.

The shutter speed determines how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to the available light.  If it’s open for too long, the things that it records will show any movement that occurs as blurred.  “Too long,” is a funny way to phrase it, because we’re really talking about very small fractions of a second.  They are typically expressed in terms of 60 (for 1/60th of a second), 125 (for 1/125th of a second), 250 (for 1/250th of a second), and so on.  There are both faster and slower speeds than the few I just listed.  These fractions (shutter speeds) are adjustable on your camera and can be set in either full manual mode or more preferably, in Shutter Priority Mode.  The reason that Shutter Priority Mode is more preferable is because it’s easier!  This mode is similar to Auto Mode, in that the other elements of your exposure (your aperture and your ISO) are auto adjusted to insure you get a proper exposure, based on the specific shutter speed that you selected.  In other words, you set the shutter speed and the camera takes care of everything else.  Although every camera can work a little differently, usually, if you set it to Shutter Priority, you then adjust the shutter speed by turning one of the dials on your camera.  If you watch the viewfinder while turning the right dial, you’ll see numbers like, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, etc…(some cameras may have a few extra ones, so don’t be alarmed).

Typically, subjects that are relatively still, can be captured blur free at 125 (1/125th of a second).  250 to 500 will freeze most moderate movement, while 1000 will handle some serious activity.

Below are some examples of different activities paired with different shutter speeds.

This first image was shot at 160 (1/160th of a second…I’m going to stop writing the fraction out now, because at this point, I’m hoping you’ve got the idea).  If you look at the full size image closely, you’ll notice that the kids’ movement (a slow walk) is frozen, as are the puppies, except for the second one that is in the middle of a jump.  That particular puppy was not listening to me when I said, “Walk slowly.”

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This next image was shot at 125, and you can see that girl in the center has both her hand, as well as her pant leg blurred.  Once again…not listening!  I said, “Spin slowly.”  Just kidding.  Sometimes, a little blur can give a great sense of motion to your image, bringing it to life.  But it’s good for you to see what types of activity will not be frozen at certain shutter speeds.

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In this next one of the same girls, I increased the shutter speed to 800, and everything is as crisp and clear as could be.

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Below, the horse and rider were captured perfectly at 640.

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The skateboarder and football game were both shot at 1000, an ideal speed for serious action.

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Notice in the football shot above, my camera’s perspective.  I’m on my knees, very low to the ground…at the kids’ level.  This makes for so much better of an image than one taken from a standing position.

The tennis player below was shot at 800.  Such a cool shot of him suspended in air!  You still see a little movement in the racket, but that’s because it’s moving at close to 100 mph.  A shutter speed of 1000 probably would have caught it clearly, but I actually like it’s movement…a nice contrast to the mid-air stillness of the player.

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So, that’s all the good stuff about Shutter Priority Mode.  Here’s the bad…faster shutter speeds (the shutter opening and closing faster), means less light getting to the image sensor.  If you’re out on a bright sunny day, it’s not going to be a problem.  Even on most cloudy days, you should be OK.  The most problematic situations are sunset, sunrise, and the worst of all, indoors (i.e. a basketball game or gymnastics).  As we discussed in Understanding Exposure, three things control the light that gets to your sensor:

1. ISO
2. Aperture
3. Shutter Speed

Since we need the shutter speed to be at a specific setting (to freeze our action), we’ll have to rely on adjusting the aperture and/or the ISO to get more light to the image sensor (still staying away from the subject of flash at this point).  Most camera’s will let you set the the ISO manually, so you should try a higher setting, maybe 800.  You can certainly go higher than this, even up into the 3200 range (on some cameras), but you start getting into grainy-looking images at those higher levels, with some cameras handling it better than others.

The other available adjustsment would be your aperture.  In a DSLR, this will come down to how much money you spent on your lens.  The more expensive ones have much lower available f stops (lower numbers, like f2, meaning a larger opening, letting in more light).  This is often referred to as a “fast lens.”

In most decent cameras, if you’re in Shutter Priority Mode, the camera is going to auto adjust your ISO and aperture to give you a proper exposure at the shutter speed you’ve selected.  But know that you could always venture into the world of full manual mode and take total control if desired.

We should also touch on the nasty topic of shutter lag.  This is most noticeable on a point-and-shoot camera.  It’s the time lag between when you press the shutter button and when it actually opens.  It’s usually measured in a fraction of a second, but that can easily be enough to miss the shot, or at least have the moving subject no longer at the location on which your camera was focused.  Clearly, if you’re committed to a lot of action photography, a DSLR is the way to go.  But many point-and-shoot cameras do have a workable solution…it’s called Burst Mode.  You may have to check with that extremely boring camera manual, but this is a setting available to most good to great point-and-shoot cameras (like my lovely Nikon Coolpix 7800!).  It causes the camera to take anywhere from 6 to 10 images (maybe more or less, depending on the camera), each time the shutter is pressed.  I’ve gotten some great action shots on my 7800, but there will be a few fuzzy ones mixed in as well.  The point is, you can still get the shot and not have to lug around a bunch of heavy camera gear.

Finally, lets touch on flash.  If you’re indoors, let’s say at a basketball game, you can forget using your flash.  The flash on most cameras, even on a DSLR, is going to reach out about 10 to 15 feet.  Beyond that, the light is getting too dim and because your camera will automatically set your shutter speed to 60 as soon as you pop up the flash, all you’ll get is a dim blur.  If you can get close, it works, but you’re better off with no flash and a fast lens.  Indoor sports are tough situations, and sometimes, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently stated, “You can’t always get what you want.”  On a note of good news, for those of you that might have kids in the theater, most stages are so brightly lit, you can usually get pretty decent shots of them acting and singing their hearts out.  Just remember to leave your flash turned off!

In summary, capturing a moving subject without blur is all about getting into Shutter Priority Mode and raising that shutter speed to an appropriate level for a particular type of action (faster action = faster shutter speed).  It works best with a DSLR (little to no shutter lag), but can also work with a point-and-shoot, using the camera’s burst mode, if available.  Regardless of the camera, don’t expect every shot to be perfect, but many will be.

I’ll go over more detail in my upcoming book, but this is more than enough to get you on your way.

Now, pick up your camera, put it on Shutter Priority Mode, and  get out there and practice for a few minutes.  Use the dog (if you’ve got one) so your kids won’t roll their eyes into the back of their head because you want to take more pictures!

Here’s what 800 looks like with a Jack Russell, running full speed, preparing to kill his Frisbee.

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And yes, you can even do this with a cell phone camera.  I took this on my cell phone using a camera app (called Camera FV-5) that has a burst mode.  This is actually a small area if the image that I cropped it to, so the resolution is not as great as I would like, but I got the shot!

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Go take some pictures, and post some of your images in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Remember, the choice to use Shutter Priority Mode should be driven by your need to freeze fast action.  For what you might call “regular” photography, I’d suggest sticking with Aperture Priority Mode.  In most normal lighting situations, your choosing to set an aperture of f2 – f5.6 to soften a distracting background, is likely to cause your shutter speed to automatically be set above 250.  This is more than adequate to freeze moderate movement.

In another article, I’ll discuss a related subject, Setting The Focal Point Of Your Camera.  Did you even know you could do that?

Don’t miss an opportunity for a great snow picture.

According to the weather folks, it looks like the Southeastern US may get hit with some snow and ice today/tonight.  It’s not something we see too often down here, so start thinking about what you can do to create a few great images.  If you have any water fountains in your town, they can get really cool (that’s a weather pun) looking under these conditions.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Try to get out of Auto Mode and switch to Aperture Priority Mode.  I know I keep saying this, but that’s because it’s important!  Keep your f stops low (under f 5.6) so you can soften the background by throwing it out of focus. If you’re scared, use Auto Mode and switch over for just a few shots.

2. If you have a lens hood, use it!  Even if it’s cloudy, you can still get quite a bit of lens glare.  If you don’t have a lens hood, buy one!  They’re not expensive and will significantly improve the contrast and saturation in your pictures (that means they’ll look better).

3. Position the kids so that when they look in your direction, they are not facing the sun to help eliminate squinting eyes.

4. Try different areas.  Take some shots right along the edge of some trees (also know as “the woods”).  You can have the kids popping in and out from behind the trees and use the shade to eliminate glare and squinting.  If you’ve got a forest nearby with some dirt roads, you can capture some beautiful images of kids (grown-ups and dogs as well) walking down the snowy road.  Get them walking both towards and away from you.

5. If you have one, try getting the kids to play with a bright umbrella.  The splash of color looks great against the snow, and it’s something different.  Have your child stand under a tree and get someone to shake it.  The snow falling over the umbrella will look spectacular.

6. Don’t spend all your time trying to get the kids to look at you and smile…let them play with each other and or the snow itself.

Snow is magical (unless you live in it 3 to 6 months of the year), so put your coat on and get out there with your camera.  Post some results in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Monthly Photo Challenge

We’re kicking off a Monthly Photo Challenge that should be lots of fun for everyone.  Head on over and check it out.  And don’t be a chicken, participate!