Monthly Archives: December 2013

Understanding Exposure

Before venturing out of your camera’s Auto Mode, opening a whole new world of photographic possibilities, we need to develop a basic understanding of exposure.  Don’t worry, this is not going to hurt.  There are really only 3 things that you need to follow:

1.  ISO: the measure of a digital camera sensor’s sensitivity to light
2.  Aperture: the size of the opening in the lens when an image is created
3.  Shutter Speed:  the duration of time that the shutter is open

If you’re trying to decide whether or not this is worth your time to learn (come on…it’s only 3 things), skip down to the bottom of this post and read the last 2 paragraphs.  If any of it rings true in your photographic life, come back up here and dig in.  The whole thing is going to take about 5 minutes to turn you into an exposure pro!

Continue reading

Woo Hoo! Got a new camera for Christmas! Nikon Coolpix P7800 Review

I bought Kaysi a new point-and-shoot camera for Christmas.  It’s a Nikon Coolpix (I’m not pimping them…just about everything out there will do the job).  I’ll be using it or my cell phone camera to take most of the shots I post here.  I’m doing that because I want to show everyone that a $10,000 camera is not needed to get amazing images.  After the holidays settle down, I’ll get some shots from it posted.  We’re going to be working on learning how to shoot in Aperture Priority Mode (it’s easy…I promise), and why you’d want to do that.  It’s no more difficult than shooting in Auto Mode, but you get much more control and a better result.

UPDATE:  OK, after using our Coolpix 7800 for the past 2 weeks, I am going to pimp this camera.  Yes, I’m shamelessly promoting it.  Here’s my mini-review:

Although I previously said, “just about everything out there will do the job,” and that’s true…this one does it much better than I expected.  To say it’s awesome is an understatement.  It’s the best point-and-shoot camera I’ve used.  Its Auto Mode is outstanding, but what I really love is that it’s a fully functional manual camera as well.  In other words, as you learn more about what a great camera is capable of (we’ll teach you!), it will grow with your abilities.

The 7x optical zoom gives you the same effect as a 35mm camera’s 28-200mm zoom (any idea how heavy that is?), and it has Vibration Reduction (VR) to help eliminate blurry images from a shaky hand.

Another feature I really enjoy using is the viewfinder.  That’s the little glass area we all used to look through before giant digital screens became the rage.  I don’t mean to imply that a big viewing screen is a bad thing, but if you’ve ever been out on a bright clear day, with the sun slightly behind you, the glare on those screens can make it very difficult to see where you’re actually pointing the camera.  Here’s where having a viewfinder will save the day.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of point-and-shoot cameras left that still have one.

It’s handling of color (particularly skin tone) is also amazing.  Overall, I’m so pleased with it, that when we travel now, knowing I’m going somewhere that I plan on capturing some great images, I will no longer be lugging around 40 pounds (and $12,000) of my Digital SLR gear.  It’s just me and my sweet little Coolpix.


A Little On Lighting & More Cell Phone Camera Help

This is going to be a basic introduction to outdoor lighting, and about a few things we’ve covered but with different examples.  The subject is an adorable young girl, leaning against a brick wall, with outdoor lighting (flash turned off) -all shot with a cell phone camera.

First, let’s talk a little about natural lighting.  Outside, there are four ideal lighting situations:

1. Sunrise (including up to one hour after)

2. Sunset (including up to one hour before)

3. A heavily clouded day (like it’s going to rain)

4. In the shade (like under some trees or under a covered deck)

Sunrise and sunset are ideal lighting conditions because they produce a warm -toned light that usually doesn’t cause your subject to squint their eyes.  The biggest problem with them is that they are short in duration and one in particular (sunrise), is not a pleasant time to try and get your kids up and about.

A heavily clouded day is great because it produces even, soft lighting (soft means no harsh shadows under the eyes) and it’s usually available all day long.  When I say “heavily clouded,” I don’t mean a black clouded thunderstorm type of day, but rather one of those days where the entire sky is white to light gray.   One of the best things about this type of lighting is that no matter where you position your subject or your camera, the lighting is going to be great.  This happens to be the weather we had when I took the images for this post.

Shade can work well, but it can also be problematic.  Even though your subject is in the shade, if the direction they are looking (towards you and the camera) is in bright sunshine, you can still end up with squinting eyes and complaining children.

The worst lighting of all is direct sunlight (unless it’s sunrise/sunset).  It produces very harsh shadows, creates overexposed skin (faces full of reflected shine), and very unhappy kids, often times crying before you finally give up.

Although there is much to discuss about lighting, these are the basics of using natural light.  It’s good info that you can put to use today.  We’ll hit upon other areas as we address specific subjects in future post, and of coarse, I’ll provide much more in my book.

Here’s a shot I took on an overcast day at about 3 in the afternoon:


Now, before you start questioning my abilities, let me admit there are a number of things wrong with this image…that’s why we’re starting with it.  Overall, it’s not terrible and most Moms would be happy to have it in their scrapbook. (Remember…we’re supposed to print our images), but let’s look at what needs to be fixed to make it better.

1. It’s flat.  That means the image has little to no contrast, which translates to little to no life.  The reason is that even though the sun was not out, the white cloudy day you can see in the background produced lens glare on the camera.  Lens glare sucks the life out of any shot!  I needed to have produced some shading (like with my cupped hand) over the lens.

2. The perspective is terrible (my angle of view).  That’s because I shot this image while holding my phone up at the same level as my own face and I’m about a foot taller than she is.  This made her head appear slightly larger than it is, in relation to her body.  It also made her body seem unusually small.  Specifically, her legs and feet look small.  I know there are some girls out there who would love to have their legs and feet look smaller, but not at the sacrifice of a giant head (I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea).  Another perspective problem is the background.  Everything has a slant to it, especially the large window behind her.  All of this is easily corrected by bending your knees and getting the camera at about the same level as her body’s center (the stomach).  This puts the camera lens on a flat plane with the subject, neither tilted up nor down.  That’s always important, but critical for a very small lens camera, like we have on cell phones.

Here’s a better version of the same general shot:


Much better!  I cupped my hand over the phone, eliminating lens glare and increasing contrast.  Now we have some life in the picture!  By lowering my camera angle, everything is properly proportioned (see, she doesn’t have big feet; now they look normal), and all of my vertical lines around her are much more straight.  I also cropped the image a little to get her out of the center of the shot, as well as not taking up half the image with the brick wall.

But I’m not done yet…


This is the exact same shot we just reviewed, but I spent about 5 minutes editing it – on my phone.  The only time this image was on my computer was to upload it to the blog.  For this one, I used two different apps, Snapseed (free) and Photoshop Touch For The Phone (maybe $2 or $3).  About 95% of what I did was accomplished in Snapseed.  That included things like contrast and saturation adjustments, an overall warming tone, as well as something they call ambiance (I have no idea what this is, but it looks good).  In Photoshop Touch For The Phone, I added some selective blurring (to put your focus on the girl) and I got rid of the metal pipes on the wall behind her, as well as added a cloudy blue sky (from another photo I had).  The Snapseed edits took 2 or 3 minutes and the Photoshop edits took another 1 or 2.  Now we no longer have a cute snapshot, but a great portrait…all accomplished with your mobile phone camera!

These photo editing apps are not difficult to use, though they can be intimidating if you’ve never messed with them.  I can tell you that anyone is capable of doing what I did here.  While a step-by-step written set of directions would seem long and complicated, I’m going to create a few videos of me actually doing them on my phone for my book.

That’s it for now…go take some pictures, and don’t be bashful about asking me any specific questions you might have.

Camera Perspective

We all take a few extra shots during the holidays, so here’s a little thing you can do that will have a big impact on all your images…change your perspective.  Instead of shooting everything from your own view (towering over your kids like Godzilla over Japan), get down to their level.  So, drop it down low and shake that booty on the flo!  Capturing your children while standing over them can distort the image, making their heads appear disproportionately large in relation to their bodies.  This will also give you a different background to enjoy instead of your carpet or the grass outside.

Also, if you’re going to try and put your child in front of something interesting, like the Christmas tree, a bush or a wood fence, don’t put them right in front of it.  Get them about 10 yards or more from the background and zoom or move close enough to fill the frame with your subject.  This will help throw what’s behind them out of focus so the sharp details of the background aren’t distracting in your photo.

As the next few days roll by, I’ll try to get a few example’s of this posted.

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 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.


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.

Cell Phone Camera Tips

We’re going to get to a few life changing (no kidding) tips in a minute, but first, let’s talk about cell phone cameras in a general sense.  I did not coin this phrase, but it’s soooo true…”The best camera is the one you have with you.”  Cell phone cameras have come a long way in a pretty short time.  As of this writing, I would say that every currently manufactured smart phone out there (iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry) does somewhere between an adequate to great job at creating images.  In case you’re wondering, mine is an Android Nexus, but they are all very capable and continue to get better with every new device.  Having said that, cell phone cameras do have their limitations.

The main limitation is related to the image sensor.  It’s what gathers the light and records the information to create and save your photograph.  Here is a place where size really matters.  For comparative sake, a full frame digital SLR (for the most part, a digital camera you can change the lens on) has a sensor about the size of your thumb – from that last joint to the end (trying not to get too technical with all that millimeter talk).  Your typical point and shoot camera (can’t change the lens, but the lens can usually zoom out, and you can easily carry it in your purse or jacket pocket) has a sensor about the size of one of your fingernails (if it were cut short).  Most cell phone sensors are about the size of half your pinky fingernail (again, cut short).  We could get lost at this point in discussions about the number and size of the pixels on these sensors, but let’s just leave it at this…a tiny image sensor, means much less information can be recorded, which means a lower quality photo.  Don’t fall into a pit of depression.  It’s lower quality when compared to a $1,000 + camera that you need to hire someone to lug it and it’s associated lenses around.  You may not be able to print a crisp, clear 30×40 inch canvas from your cell phone shot (I’m actually working on this now), but you can print all the 4×6’s, 5×7’s, 8×10’s, and probably even 16×20’s, that you want.

Another limitation is the tiny lens that a cell phone has.  Rather than go into size comparisons as I did with the sensors, just look at it…it’s tiny!  That basically means that it can’t open and close in varying degrees (in the photo world we call this “aperture”), letting in (controlling) different amounts of light for different shooting situations.

These limitations (sensor and lens size) create 2 particular areas of difficulty for cell phone cameras…capturing images in low light and capturing images in fast action.  Understanding the problem is the first step to fixing it.  I promise to discuss how you can best deal with these issues later, and will even include sample images, to show you the “before and after” effects, but for now, let’s get on to some life changing tips.

I take a lot of cell phone pictures, and I also look at a lot of other people’s images.  One of the most common things I see that turns an otherwise great shot into an awful one, is lens glare.  The lens on your cell phone sits flush with the back of the device, providing it with no lens shading at all.  This means that unless your phone/camera is either in the shade (in other words, you are in the shade), or the sun is both low in the sky, and at your back, you are probably going to have some glare on your lens.  This can even occur when photographing inside, from overhead lights.   The light (indoor or outdoor), does not have to be shining directly into your camera to cause this.  It’s going to happen to a greater or lesser degree anytime the lens is not actually in the shade.  So, you might ask, “What will this evil lens glare do?”  It will kill you!  Ok, not really…but it will cause your pictures to have that flat, boring, washed out look.  It’s one of the main reasons we are so often disappointed in our cell phone cameras, and it’s pretty easy to fix.  Either shoot from a position that puts you/your camera in the shade/shadows, or carefully create that shade/shadow by cupping your free hand over the top of your phone/camera.  I say carefully because if you don’t pay close attention, you’ll have a finger or two show up at the top of your picture.  The difference in how rich and sharp and fully saturated with colors your images will be is amazing!

Here’s an example of a cell phone shot I took at about 3 PM (that’s a guess) on a fairly overcast day (kind a whitish looking sky), with my phone facing the in general direction of the sun (though it was mostly overhead):


See how flat, colorless and boring this is (though the dog is adorable!)?

Here’s the next shot, a minute or so later, same camera/subject/time/weather/composition, but with my hand cupped over the top of my phone:

WOW!  That looks so much better!  There’s more contrast in the image, as well as more color, and greater sharpness/detail.  You could easily argue that one was from a bad cell phone camera and the other was from a great cell phone camera.  Don’t discount the value of this little trick!  Remember, either shoot from a position that puts you in the shade, or create your own shade using your hand or something like a hat.

Finally, here’s an image, a minute or so later, same camera/subject/time/weather/composition, but I edited this one, on my phone, in about 5 minutes, using some free phone software called Snapseed.  It’s available for both Android and iPhone:


WOW, WOW, WOW!  This looks like it was shot with an expensive digital SLR camera, but I only used my phone.  Don’t forget to notice that I’ve used the rule of thirds in composing these images (discussed here in the blog).  It’s no longer a picture – we’ve made a piece of art, and you can too!  I’ll talk about making quick but significant editing changes to your cell phone images later, and even more in my book, but for now, I’ve gotta go.


What I’m about to share with you in the next few paragraphs is priceless.  First, lets understand that if every technical detail of your photo is perfect (lighting, focus, exposure, subject position, overall composition, and a few others I’m probably leaving out), but the expression is bad, the entire picture is worthless.  You might as well photograph the back of their heads.  If you do nothing else I suggest here, the rest of this section will improve your pictures to such an extent that once again, everyone who looks at your scrapbooks will be begging you for your photographer’s phone number.  They won’t understand why their kids can’t look so genuinely happy (because they are) like yours do.  They may even stop liking you and make up terrible rumors about your family, but your pictures will be awesome!

CHEESE…delicious to eat, terrible to teach your kids to say!  It’s funny, what we always want from our kids is a natural smile, or even laughter, but what we always tell them to do is say “CHEESE!”  It’s not really your fault…our parents, and their parents all taught them the same thing, but the truth is, there could not be a worse word to use for creating a happy expression.  It consistently produces the most unnatural smile possible.  Cheese, as a word, is probably not all that bad a thing to say.  The problem comes from how we’ve taught them to say it…extremely exaggerated and drawn out.  Do your pictures a favor, for get this word and lets move on to professional tricks of the trade.

Better ways to get a pleasant smile are through conversation while you’re photographing them.  Of course, these would not be conversations about what they did at school today.  You want to talk to them about happy things, like what’s the absolute, best thing they make for lunch at school, what’s their favorite ice cream flavor, favorite candy bar, favorite movie/cartoon character.  Then shoot while they answer.  Try to catch them off guard with questions like, “If we bought you a purple turtle, what would you name it?” Or, “What color turtle should we buy you?” Or, “If you could draw a giant picture on your bedroom wall with crayons, what would you draw? What color would it be (Choose this subject at your own risk.  I am not legally responsible for your walls now being colored on)?”  If you can coerce them into saying the word “green” (without telling them to say green), it’s usually makes a beautiful smile.

If you’re going for laughter, you’ve got to be prepared to get down and dirty!  You’re going to have to talk about things like boogers, farts, poop, and don’t forget to tell them that you heard little Jimmy down the street always smells like stinky feet.  Tell them you’ve been taking singing lessons while they’ve been at school, and if they will name any song in the whole world, you can sing it.  They’ll name a song and you belt out some horribly made up lyrics and prepare to snap away.

Before we leave the subject of expressions, lets talk for a moment about one of the greatest of all…no expression.  Yep…I just said that…a picture with no expression at all.  And why in the world would I say that’s the greatest of all?  Because it’s what we call a permanent expression (as opposed to a temporary one).  Temporary expressions are exactly what they sound like…temporary.  For example, a smile.  It’s temporary because we don’t walk, sit, and sleep wearing it on our face.  A happy event occurs, you smile or laugh, it ends, and you stop.  A permanent expression, while not truly permanent, is the expression we maintain most of the time.  It’s not happy, but it’s definitely not sad…it’s just there.  Sometimes its called stoic, calm, peaceful, contemplative, cool or patient.  If there is a smile associated with it, it’s a subtle hint of one, sometimes seen more in the eyes than the mouth, and is often referred to as the “Mona Lisa” smile.  This is an expression that best belongs on your wall in larger portraits.  If the idea seems odd to you, think back to your last trip to a large museum.  Of all the painted portraits I’ve seen that date from our current time, to a thousand years ago, I can’t recall a single one where the subject had a big toothy smile.  Before you get too upset with me, I’m not suggesting you stop taking pictures of your kids having the times of their lives (or at least pretending to for the ice cream you promised).  I’d say that at least 90% of all your pictures should be happy ones.  I’m just encouraging you to capture something different every once in a while.

That’s plenty to get you on your way to coaxing better expressions from your kids.  I dive deeper into this in my book.


The World English Dictionary defines composition as:
the harmonious arrangement of the parts of a work of art in relation to each other and to the whole

Basically, it’s about the way your subjects are positioned within your image.  There is nothing wrong with having your subject in the center of the picture, but placing them in different areas of the image can lead to more interesting compositions that result in you enjoying them more.  Composition comes down to thinking about more than just your subject.  Although there are many great and lengthy writings on this subject, here are two simple rules to keep in mind when getting ready to snap a shot:

1.  The Rule of Thirds
2.  Triangles

The Rule of Thirds:
This is a HUGE one in the world of art.  In the rule of thirds, a piece of art (that means your picture) is divided into thirds with two imaginary lines vertically, and two lines horizontally making three columns, three rows, and nine sections in the image.  I know…technical mumbo jumbo.  Here’s an example of what it looks like:
See, I had you nervous with that description, but it’s actually quite simple!  A picture really is worth a 1000 words…or at least a bunch of them.  Actually, for some cameras, they even make viewfinders that you can snap on to the eyepiece so that when you look through it, you see the grid imposed over what you’re viewing.  For the greatest visual interest (to take the best picture), your subject, or at least the main focal point of your subject, should fall somewhere that your vertical and horizontal lines intersect.  For a ¾ to full body shot (whether sitting or standing), the main focal point would typically be the face.  For a close up (like head and shoulders), it would be one or both eyes.  For a scenic shot, it might be a mountain peak, a big tree, or a boat.  These points where the lines intersect are places that our brains find most visually interesting.  Since I’m not writing a psychological blog, you’ll have to trust me…plus there’s a couple thousand years of art you can look through that backs this up. Here’s an example of two sisters by a river:
Now overlay your grid:

You can see that one of the intersections of the grid falls right between the sister’s faces.  Also notice the “negative space.”  This is all the area in the image that is NOT your subject (the positive space).  Having some (negative space) creates additional visual appeal.  It leads us to the sisters and creates room/space, so that we’re more comfortable looking longer at the girls.  In the same way you get uncomfortable being in a crowded space, you also get uncomfortable looking at a crowded space.  In it’s most basic sense, this Rule of Thirds is saying, “Get out of the center of my picture! Do something different.”

Here’s another example, but with a closeup:

I know, it’s a studio shot that I took, and you don’t have a studio, but you get the idea…think about the intersecting lines and get out of the center of my camera.  And before you say, “Yeah, yeah…anyone can take a great picture of a beautiful girl.  My kids never look like that.”  The truth is, this girl is horribly ugly, but because I used the Rule of Thirds, she took a stunning picture, and so can you!  Of course, I’m kidding.  That girl is so beautiful, a five year old with a spy pen camera would have done a great job.  But the truth is, in the right light, the right positioning and the right composition, anyone can take a beautiful photograph, and I’m going to show you how to do all three of those, and more.

Don’t believe me?  Check this out (before):
…and after:
Same person, different composition…unbelievable!

From an art perspective, our brains prefer to see an odd number of things more than an even number.  This means that if you currently have two children, for the sake of creating better photographs, you should either get started on making a third child, or at the very least, get a dog and train it to sit and stay so you can include it all your photos.  Outside of those two options, composition, along with having an additional item of visual interest in your picture, can provide the odd number you’re looking for.  In the case of the two girls above, the extra item of interest would be the river.  Triangles (or in their inverted form, Pyramids), are a great way to compose/position your subjects (especially when you have three of them) to make your image most pleasing to the eye.  They can be used in many ways for arranging your subjects, the other things that are included in your photo (around your subject/subjects), and you can even create compositions that include multiple triangles within an image, such as for larger groups of people.

Here are our two sisters again, this time with their super model Mom (you guessed it…she’s also hideous, but the triangular composition made her look beautiful):

And now you can see the triangle in action:

There are also compositional rules that cover things such as Diagonal Lines, Leading Lines, Diamonds (not the kind you wear) and more, but I’ve got to save some information for my book.

Now that we’ve covered some of the “rules,” do be afraid to break them.  They are guidelines that will help improve the shots you take, but they should not limit you trying other things.  Sometimes, filling your frame with an adorable face, smack dab in the center of the shot, can be powerful.  But if this is what you always do, change it up.  Your imagination and creativity are the most fun parts of photography!

Upcoming Topics

This is mostly so I don’t forget to write about them.  I’ll end up breaking each of them into a more detailed discussion later, and into further detail in my book.

Why your kids hate you whenever you want to take their picture.

Photographing babies (from newborn to toddlers).

What kind of camera should I use/buy?  Short answer…the one you’re holding when you want/need to take a photograph.  They all work fine to great, and we’ll discuss them and how to get the most out of each in “normal” people detail.

Your best friend’s, cousin’s sister in law just bought a $1,200 camera and declared herself a photographer…why you should say “no thank you.”

 Action shots.

 LIGHT, LIGHT, LIGHT, including difficult lighting situations.

When to use your camera’s flash (almost never) and how to get the most out of it when necessary.

Clothing.  Sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn’t.  Here’s a quick tip…If you ever thought you were too skinny and you want to look heavier than you are, wear white.

Blurry images?  Ways to steady your camera without lugging around a tripod.

Get up close…every image doesn’t need to show the entire subject.  Create something different with your macro focus option.

Dealing with tricky exposure situations.

Setting The Focal Point Of Your Camera.  Spot focusing.