Halifax Baby Photographer Dustin Hall – Behind the Scenes with Isla Niamh

Kids photos are rather new to me and something I’m working on getting better at.  I have seen many amazing baby photos with elaborate sets and I am always in awe of how those photographers put it all together so well.  My wife and I decided that we would send out Christmas cards this year with a photo of our daughter, so I knew I had some work to do.

I came up with an idea for a background and set out to make it happen.  It was nothing too crazy, but still something I hadn’t done before, and with it being my own daughter, I wanted it to be perfect.  My idea was to have a backdrop of Christmas lights so that you weren’t looking at the lights per se, but the bokeh from the lights.  If you’re not a photographer and wondering ‘what the hell is bokeh?’, it’s how the background blurs when it’s out of focus, lights especially become big round dots at large apertures.

I had a white curtain I was using for the background, and I didn’t want the wires from the lights to show up too vividly in the background, so I knew I needed white strings of Christmas lights as opposed to the standard green.  This turned out to be a bit trickier than expected.  I managed to find some eventually at Wal-Mart.  The lights were $5 for a string of 50 lights.  While that sounds like a lot of lights, it is hardly anything, so I bought 9 strings in total (everything they had).  I would have liked another 5 or 6 strings for a denser light arrangement, but since 9 was all I could get, that was going to have to do.

I wanted something for the floor that was white and fuzzy and that was trouble too.  I searched a dozen stores before finding a furry rug at HomeSense for $70 (which I promptly returned after taking the photos because it shed like a Siberian Husky).  We had a little Christmas tree from HomeSense already, some ornaments, and a sleigh I received from a client a few years ago, and that was all we were thinking of using.  We wanted the focus to be our beautiful little girl, so we kept it simple.

This photo is the eventual winning photo that wound up on our Christmas card, but I want to show you that this was not a one click of the shutter situation, much more goes into the process.  With that being said, here’s a bit of a behind the scenes look at our Christmas card photo shoot.



Baby with Christmas Lights Background, final version

I really like this photo, and it was my choice to be the Christmas card this year.  Robyn had other ideas as I will point out below, but she let me win.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas Lights

Camera settings: 1/200 f/2.2 ISO 160 Canon 5D mark iii.  Flash camera left at 1/16 bounced off white walls, flash camera right through small softbox aimed directly at Isla at 1/16 +.7.

As you can see, I needed to remove Robyn’s hands from the photo.  Isla was still fairly new to sitting and in stage where she liked to trick us into thinking she would sit still, until she slowly tipped over.

Now that you’ve got the final product, let me give you some insight into what else went on during our shoot.Yorkie photo test subject

When I was setting up my studio in my office, I needed a stand in to see how I was doing.  My puppy Ginger helped out before running off.  I used a Christmas decoration reindeer after that.  Unfortunately the reindeer was actually too tall which threw off my ideas a bit.The model getting ready

Our little model Isla getting prepped for her photos.  She wasn’t quite ready for photos, so we had to entertain her a bit.  Babies are temperamental so don’t try to rush anything.Isla Standing Outtakes

Although she does not yet stand on her own, I wanted to try some photos with her holding herself up to look like she could stand.  You can see that her facial expressions didn’t push these near the top of my list when we were done.  The photo on the left has a big drooly drop hanging off her lip.Isla Standing Final

This was the best one of her ‘standing’ with the sleigh.  I still think it’s cute, but Robyn wasn’t a big fan of the idea of her standing when she wasn’t standing on her own.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsIsla loves her tummy time, so we naturally thought some photos of her laying on her stomach would be cute.  The main problem we had with that idea, was that she loved grabbing the rug and pulling.  Due to the small nature of the set, she needed to be near the front edge for the look I was going for, and that meant she kept pulling up the rug and exposing the bottom side of it.  Well that, and the fact that the rug shed like crazy causing us to remove a thousand bits of wool every time she moved.

Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsA little different perspective with her doing the ‘skydiver’ pose with both hands up. After spending a few minutes with the sleigh in the background, I decided that I didn’t like it there, so we removed it in the photos going forward.  If you’re not sure of how something is going to look, try it.  You can always take it away or make whatever change you want, a lot of photography is trial and error, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsYou can clearly see how much better the photo looks without the clutter in the background.  Now we were getting somewhere.  I really liked this photo.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas Lights

This one is Robyn’s favourite, she absolutely loves the expression on Isla’s face, it makes her smile every time she looks at it.  It’s not the best photo technically, but to the parent of a child, you need to remember that, that stuff doesn’t always matter.  A moment, or a look, can make or break a photo in their eyes.Isla Laying Down in LightsAnother one of our favourites, this photo came about organically.  We needed to take a break from the pose we were doing because let’s face it, babies are not very patient.  After picking her up for a minute and soothing her, we put her on the rug on her back.  I had been using a string of lights that wasn’t yet in the photos as a source of entertainment and they were just sitting next to me, so I did what you see above.  Isla seemed to like it.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsAs she was happy to be on her back, we made use of it and moved her a little to be positioned in front of the background.  I only got a couple photos off before we needed to move her again as she was getting upset with us leaving her alone on her back.Isla holding Lights processing variationWhile I didn’t think this was the best idea due to her desire to put everything in her mouth, I wrapped a string of lights around Isla and let her play.  Letting her play involved spending 80% of our time pulling the lights and her hands away from her face.  I included the 2 photos to show you what some processing can do.  I love the black and white photo on the left, but I don’t like the Straight Out Of Camera (SOOC) image on the right.  Don’t immediately discard an image because of what you see in front of you.  Take a couple seconds to visualize what the photo might look like using other processing. Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsDon’t be afraid to try different angles.  I got in close here to see the lights reflecting in Isla’s eyes, a bit of a challenge with her moving around so much.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas Lights and ornamentsThis was another idea I’d had for a while, to have Isla surrounded by ornaments, looking at the camera.  As you can see, it was impossible to get her to refrain from touching the ornaments, but that’s alright, there are times you need to let go of your original vision and adapt.  This photo is the uncropped version of the image below.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas Lights and ornamentsYou can see that just by cropping, I’ve cleaned up the image quite a bit.  You no longer see Robyn’s knee in the bottom right, nor do you see the areas of the background that do not have lights.  The wardrobe change was another unexpected plus for the photos as I liked this outfit better but expected the other one to be my favourite.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas Lights and ornamentsI just wanted to show you a photo that demonstrates what it’s really like shooting kids.  Keeping them looking at the camera is one of, if not the biggest struggle, it’s nice to have a parent hovering over my shoulder if possible for the baby to be looking in the right direction and as close as possible to directly at the camera.Isla with tree optionsThese photos used another background element I wasn’t overly fond of in the end.  The image on the left was taken at max sync speed of my camera with external flashes of 1/200 of a second, F/3.2, ISO 1000, with a focal length of 28mm.  You can see the difference in the blurring of the background and how much nicer the photo looks by changing the focal length to 50mm.  You notice that the strings of lights start to disappear and the lights themselves become large circles of light.  Ideally I would have liked to be further back, but the space I was using didn’t permit me to be much further.Isla fell and bumped her headIt’s always a good idea to have a parent or two sitting nearby to be on watch for falls.  While Isla looks happy now, she was about to have a good cry after hitting the floor.  In hindsight, I should have put down some more padding so a fall wouldn’t result in her essentially hitting her head on the floor.Office Studio SetupYou’re probably wondering what my setup looked like, so here it is.  The lights going from the hockey stick to the background were not a part of my original plan and they certainly made getting Isla on the area rug a challenge and a half.  You can see that I have 2 Canon Speedlights on light stands aimed away from the set.  I have my office painted white so that I can bounce my flash and essentially turn the room into a big softbox.  You have also probably noticed that only one of those lights is firing.  That’s intentional for some of the shots below.  I have another flash on the ground with a mini softbox which I was using for a little different look.  Other things worth noting in the photo are the lint brush in the bottom left, the fact that the curtains are closed so I could could control the light, my puppy model at the bottom, the cool way the lights reflect of my monitor, and the fact that my office is a mess.  One thing you can’t see in the photo is my space heater.  I made sure the room was nice and warm so Isla would be comfortable, even if it meant I was sweating.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsOriginal image on the left, cropped on the right.  I didn’t have the angle quite where I wanted it to get the overhead lights to sparkle, but I was having trouble getting Isla to look up enough without falling back.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsI dropped myself lower, essentially ignoring the overhead lights.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsA quick little crop and I have a photo which was in contention for the Christmas card.  I liked that her hand was up bringing a bit more interest to the photo.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsBeing a parent, I am also in a unique position as a photographer to be both the guy there making her laugh, and the one taking the photos.  At times this can be very difficult.  I am left holding the camera in a position that feels right, while making eye contact with Isla to make faces that will make her laugh.  The result is often one like the above photo where my photo is not where I want it to be.  I can always shoot wider, but to get the background correct, I needed to be shooting at a long focal length.  The other option is to put the camera on a tripod and trigger it with a cable release. I would have taken that route if there were more room in my office because it frees you up to be an entertainer and not have to worry about the camera, it takes away the camera as something coming between you and your subject.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsThis photo doesn’t add much to my advice, I just really like the results, she has a big smile on her face, and I feel like I can hear her laughing.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsYou can see that when I took this photo, I got a bit lower than I wanted, and too far to the right as you can see where the lights stop.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsAgain, cropping is your friend.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsWhile she’s not laughing, nor does she have a really big smile in this photo, I like that you can see her eyes so clearly.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsWith Robyn just on the left, partly in the closet, her knee still made it into the frame.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsRobyn was easily cropped out.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsThis was another finalist in the Christmas card competition.  She’s just so damn cute eh?Isla same photo different lightingI thought I’d give the overhead lights another go.  I took the image on the right first with these settings: 1/125 f/2.8 ISO 125 at 55mm.  The photo on the left was shot at 1/160 f/1.8 ISO 160 at 50mm.  The larger aperture made a huge difference in the bokeh, and I like it far more. Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsI switched to horizontal, but I couldn’t get the right look with the hanging lights.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsWith a crop the photo is completely useable, though not my favourite.Not everything worksThis one shows a couple of things you have to deal with when photographing babies; grabbing things you don’t want them to, not looking at the camera, & not having eyes open (applies to anyone you may be photographing really).  Don’t get frustrated, always stay positive, a baby can read your body language rather well.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsNeeding another break, our diva of a model was put on her back to look up at her mummy while I put a string of lights in front of her and got low to the floor with my camera.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsI converted the photo to black and white as I guess I don’t like the look of the colour photo when she was being illuminated by the light strings alone.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsWe were getting near the end of Isla’s patience, but I wanted to try again with the ornaments.  I set her up and then moved back to my shooting position, only to have Isla smack all of the ornaments around.  Needless to say, it didn’t work.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsWe took the ornaments away again and knew we only had a few shots left before she was done.  After seeing this photo, I was quite happy, but felt I should get a bit lower.Newborn Photo Tutorial with Christmas LightsA bit lower and this was the look I wanted with this light setup.  While it did not end up as our Christmas card, it is one of my favourites.  We decided on the other photo at the top of the post because it was lighter and it just felt right for Christmas. One of the Yorkies for ChristmasWhat kind of puppy parent would I be if I didn’t photograph my dogs?  I had just cut their hair a couple days before, so they were looking pretty cute.  Cinnamon on the left is the hard one to get to sit still for photos.  I hold up treats for them and tell them to sit, but Cinny has a tendency to  sit, then take a step forward, then sit and inch forward, while Ginger will sit but likes to look around, so usually before I can get Gingy to look at me, Cinny has moved out of position.  I took 30 or so photos of the dogs before getting this one, the only one with them both looking at me.  I actually think this photo is hilarious as Ginger had just licked her lips giving her a silly little smile.

I hope these photos and my explanations have helped demonstrate the process we went through to produce our Christmas card this year. If you’re new to this kind of photography and looking to do something similar, don’t be afraid to try different things such as different poses, background elements, and lighting.  Change your camera settings up too, so many different looks can be had just by making a few changes in camera.

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