Feeds self yogurt, effortlessly


Including: a random brain dump after the “jump” about photography and kids.

I realize no one’s asked, but I thought I might dash off a bit about at least how I photograph my kids. Because why not. Notes to self, even. To keep myself brief, I’ll do it in bullet-point style:

  • I use a single-lens reflex camera (like I have since high school); I went digital not too long after first kid arrived on the scene, after six months’ borrowing somebody else’s.
  • I get more control over the image with the SLR, but I bet handheld pocket jobbies with access to exposure controls can do a fabulous job; wish’t I had one to always have in the pocket. [Added later: thanks to the souped-up in-phone camera capacity of the iPhone 4S, I kind of do. Sans exposure control.]
  • I have a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, because my single lens reflex camera pre-ditigal was a Canon, and I loved it.
  • I have semi-permanent loaner of a gorgeous lens, a 17-40mm Canon jobbie. It has a red stripe on the end of it, which evidently means something to finer enthusiasts than me. What I love is that it feels IDEAL for the kind of picture-making I like to do. There’s a bit of a wide angle to it down at the 17mm end, when needed, but not too distortey (but a little distortey! good!); there’s a bit of a telephoto up at the 40mm end (telephoto meaning relatively speaking; for digital, 40mm feels more like 64mm in analog), but not so much that I get lazy and do intimacy stuff when I’m not willing to move my body. That’s at least my relationship to the telephoto. I know that a longer telephoto lens is great for portraiture, which I’ve borrowed one to do that (e.g., here).
  • I have never once asked a subject to look at the camera. And I never will. It is their business to stay focussed on whatever they’re doing. As soon as I get them self-conscious, I have begun to wreck whatever good thing we have going on.
  • As a corollary to the above: I have never asked a subject to smile. 100% of the time, when asked to smile, I grimace. Again, what I’m interested in doing is photojournalism, not portraiture. Or at best, photojournalistic portraiture.
  • Exposure-wise, like many photographers, I am absolutely obsessive about natural light. That’s one of the things I love about digital photography, since you can toggle back and forth between ISO speeds to get to the point where you can use natural light on something.  Once in a while I use the built-in flash, but that’s only to achieve a certain effect. The use of natural light, I think, accounts for 75% of the warmth and intimacy of any given image I’ve been able to get.
  • I tend to keep the camera set at an aperture-priority setting, and usually at the median good one for face shots, like around f5.6. A tighter one, 4.0, if I want to push an effect like blurred foreground & background. Rarely do I seek out a sharp image foreground & background, since so often I’m focussing on the kids. But in a more landscapey image, then sure, I try for the f22 thing.
  • Sometimes, though, speed is more important, usually when I want to emphasize movement. Then, we go down to a speed of 1/20th of a second or so. That feels like the point at which I can still trust to keep the rest of the stationary objects from blurring from hand shake, but the moving stuff will move.
  • The two things I feel like I’m most attentive to, when it comes to photographing our kids (or anything, really) are (1) the quality of light in any given moment, and (2) the descriptiveness or narrative value of what’s happening in the moment. If both are rich, or compelling, then bingo! We’re off!
  • I have learned from years of practice, and early on when I was getting more serious about amateur photojournalism that: Duh!  The photographer moves!  I frame shots, now fairly intuitively, by moving my own body. That’s essential, but it’s funny how easy it is for folks to forget that they have the ability to move themselves (rather than ask the subject to move or something).
  • [Added later] Editing after the fact does a lot. By which I mean both the winnowing process after you’ve amassed the images, and the tinkering with them afterward. For instance, the image above was the last among about a half dozen I took of my son with a yogurt-besmirched face.  Finally the light was right, but also, I finally tried it with him off center. In this case, the image you see is all of what was in the original (e.g., no cropping, virtually no tweaking of exposure). But I’ve also rescued poor exposures with post-production in Adobe Lightroom (a birthday gift last fall). Still, your capacity in post-production is limited by the raw material.
  • Another common photojournalistic trick (actual photojournalists could chime in and be more authoritative & imaginative about this) is: we are over-accustomed to seeing things in the range of height of the average human being. Therefore, squatting down low, or standing on a chair will shift the point of view enough as to give us all a fresh take on something.  Needless to say, with kids, squatting or lying down on the ground is critical. [Added still later] Hey, and a good 10% of the useable images I have here I took without even looking through the lens finder. And I don’t mean, I looked at the dang image on the back of the camera (that’s still anti-intuitive and weirdly mediated for me).  I mean I just dropped the camera to hip, or held it above the head or off to the side (Hail, Mary!) and pressed the shutter release to see what would happen. With analog film, that was a photojournalist/street photographer’s trick that only the bold (or independently wealthy) would risk. With digital, yer a fool not to try.
  • I am no expert on photographing kids, but of course I do it a lot. So far my own kids haven’t become self-conscious, nor have they begun to “pose” for my camera. THANK GODDESS. They are of course aware of it, and often ask to see what just happened in the camera’s screen jobbie on its back. Sometimes the older girlie asks me to take a picture of something, mostly I think for her own sense of documenting an item. I keep the camera close to hand, usually on an accessible shelf or something, so that the distance between perfect light/descriptive moment and me photographing it can be shaved down.
  • I think about Mary Ellen Mark a lot (she’s photographed her children a great deal, and has come under fire for what’s been read as either exploitation or worse), and others who have documented their kids’ growing up, and in the public eye. I have no idea what I’ll do when the kids get older and older.  I do know that the moment anyone says “Don’t take a picture, Baba,” I don’t. And I usually ask first, “Can I take a picture of that to share with people?” if the situation feels like something they’d have an opinion on. I never take pictures of them frustrated, angry, crying, or in pain, and can’t imagine ever doing that.  I’m their parent, and in those moments, I have parental work to do. Not to mention I’d feel creepy-exploitative.
  • I will for sure, and with some pain, I’m sure, halt all of this at such time as I’m asked to by them. I did make all the Flickr images “for friends & family only” when I saw once, a while back, that someone “favorited” an image, and his other “favorites” were on the severely unsavory side. Sigh.
  • I hope that there’s some good that comes of visually documenting our family life, and that it outweighs whatever inherent risks there are in exposing my kids’ faces to the world this way.  I know for certain that it’s all time-dated material — their youth, and my photographing and sharing it — so I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

6 thoughts on “Feeds self yogurt, effortlessly”

  1. Many thanks for sharing your photographic approach. I love your photos, and come from a long line of serious amateur photographers myself, though mostly in the landscape vein, so I don’t post much on my own blog. We’re a Nikon family, though–hope this means we can still be friends. 🙂

    In addition to your technical tips, special thanks for sharing the recognition that at some point our kids will weigh in on all this blogging business, and we will have to concede to their wishes (whatever they may be) on how we use their images and words.

  2. I am a big tent friend, sister. Nikon users are welcome. Some of my best friends use Nikon.

    A friend who does a lot of work online — designs online tracking stuff, actually — makes the point, as so many have, that the real threats to our kids, where they exist, are in real life. At the supermarket, in the crosswalk, etc. I hate to be paranoid, but if I’m going to be paranoid, I’m trying to direct it where it’s most useful. And so far, this place feels okay. We’ll see.

  3. Thank you for sharing these tips, I have in fact thought about asking you from time to time about this.

    Unfortunately I still don’t understand exposure rate and shutter speed, no matter how many times I read about it, I can’t wrap my brain around it!

    Do you find it cumbersome to carry your camera around so often, especially considering it seems on the heavy side?

  4. Ooo! Ooo! Okay, let me try! Maybe it will take because I will be coming at it with a blessedly simple understanding of it myself. All of the numbers used to mark these things (shutter speed, exposure rate, blah blah blah) denote all sorts of technical detail which is fun for some, and stupefying for others. For my part, I have become familiar with what effect each one has, and have a VAGUE understanding of why they work the way they do. But maybe my vagueness will help, since I won’t be tempted to go into too much detail. I am absolutely certain I will even say incorrect things here and there!

    Before you read any of this, you may just go directly to someone who knows a whole lot more and can explain it better.

    When you expose a picture, the shutter opens and shuts. The two variables here are: (1) how wide open the shutter opens, when it’s open at its widest (at its widest aperture, tecnhically, and (2) how long it stays open (referred to at its speed). If we were in person, I’d be miming it with my hand, with the thumb and first finger opening and tightening back in a tight circle.

    So! What makes it all so fun, is that the size the shutter opens to has an impact on one dimension of the image, and the speed it opens and shuts influences another.

    Quite simply put, the size the shutter opens to (its aperture, also called the f-stop for reasons I totally forget, though you could find out) influences depth of field: the bigger the opening, the narrower the depth of field. So only the one thing focussed on in the image is clear; the whole foreground and the whole background are blurry. On the other hand, the tinier the opening, the sharper the image is, throughout the whole range. Hyper clear depth of field.

    An easy way to remember this is that Ansel Adams and that whole crowd (Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston were other famous members) were in a group of photographers who called themselves Group f/64, since they all revered a hyper-sharp, throughout the range of depth of field- type of image. The f-stop 64 is a teeny teeny pin-hole. Conventional cameras w/ manual adjustments (single lens reflexes, or SLRs) only go to f-22. So maybe remembering Group f/64 and Ansel Adams and the obsessively über-sharp picture might help you remember that the bigger the f/stop or aperture #, the sharper the picture will be through its range of depth of field.

    The camera speed makes more sense. In the old days, the “standard” default speed at which a shutter would open-and-shut would be 1/60th of a second. Which seems quick enough. With old timey analog film cameras, most folks could be expected not to shake their hands so bad that your hand movement would blur an image at that speed. Slower, and it would be dicier. Though with digital film, for reasons some techie would know but I’m blessedly ignorant of, I seem to get away with no camera shake effect down to like 1/20th of a second. Don’t ask me why.

    Now if you are “capturing” a split second, I mean a split-split-split-split-micro second, you are more likely to get an object utterly frozen: no blur, no how. So sports photography that’s trying to “stop” action will be shot at hyper hyper micro fractions of a second. Imagine a race car image all utterly frozen amidst what you know to be mad fast movement, or some athlete.

    A third variable comes in to influence where you can start and stop with all this: the “speed” or sensitivity at which the “film” is picking up the images. (Used to be called ASA, now ISO, again for reasons I’m blessedly ignorant of.) In olden days, this was the actual, physical film in the camera, and the sensitivity of its chemicals, with higher numbers denoting more sensitive, low-light appropriate “speeds” (e.g. 400, 800, 1200) and low numbers used for bright outdoor situations (e.g. 100 or 64 or even 25).

    Nowadays, again for technical reasons I’m blessedly ignorant of, it’s variable and can be set by the photographer. Digital cameras range typically from film “speeds” that go from the kinds in old-school, analog film days, would have been used only in dark bars or something, where you want to pick up detail with very little light, but don’t want a flash. With analog film, this usually (unless the film was really fancy) would generate a grainy effect. In my high school analog film developing/ printing days, even 400 speed would make things grainy. In digital film, I think the impact of one of these “slow” speeds is the digital equivalent of graininess, which is kind of “pixel-ey.” What I’ve found, though, is that at least with my camera, even a speed as slow as 1600 ain’t too shabby. Which is what I love about it, and why it enables me to do so much natural light photography.

    Now to put all this together: this morning I was with the girlie at her ballet class at the YMCA (no joking! no joking! we love her; she asked for it; what are we gonna do. at least she wears black and generally disregards what the teacher says). I wanted to get the gals to be blurry, mostly, to both indicate their movement and to obscure their likenesses. There was nice light coming in a series of north-facing windows, plus overhead light. I had to fiddle with the three variables — camera “speed,” shutter speed, and f/stop — until I could get it so that it’d be sure to blur everyone. What this meant is that I had to set the camera speed to something more appropriate for outdoors on a sunny day — an ISO of 100 — and then set the f/stop to something high. Like f/14 or something. Then this obligated a super-slow camera speed, like way slower even than 1/4 of a second. From here on out, I could toggle back and forth between various f/stops ’til I got the amount of blur that seemed right. To ensure the camera didn’t shake while the picture was exposing, I set it on a folded up towel (it’s the YMCA, they’re everywhere) set on a ledge. Then hooked up the self-timer so at least my hand wasn’t jiggling the camera.


    This one was at a film “speed” of ISO 100; aperture (or shutter opening) of f/20; and shutter speed of .6 seconds. The last detail, how wide or telephoto the lens is, if you have a telephoto or a choice of lens sizes, had an impact here. Wider the lens, more light comes in, and because I wanted to get the whole room, I had the lens at 22mm, which is on the wider end of the spectrum. Which is probably why I had to force the slow shutter speed so much w/ the fast film speed or ISO setting of 100, and had to tighten up the aperture all the way to f/20.

    Okay! Did you ask for a tome? Not really! But there you go! I hope it at least didn’t confound what you do know. Cheers!

  5. Okay, I got so excited about trying to explain the whole aperture/speed thing that I forgot your second question, Studying Stones.

    Basically: yes, it’s cumbersome enough that I have to make the commitment to take it. Though I should note that the Canon body is pretty light and (as of recent years) really as small as it can be. It’s the lens that’s heavy & bulky.

    Before I got my semi-permanent loaner of the glam 17-40mm wide angle zoom lens, I had a fixed length 24mm one left over from my analog camera. That was nice and small, and so the whole rig was easier to lug. But still I wish I had something I could genuinely keep in my pocket. I’d probably try hard never to be without it.

  6. Amendment: selfsame friend who loaned me the Canon lens loaned me a great pocket camera, a Ricoh GX 100. So I’ve been using that a good deal lately (spring 09). Highly recommended if you have a multi-hundred dollar gift receiving occasion coming up. Or like ten friends who’d pony up big time.

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