Can you make me look younger?

Of course I can, but are you sure that’s what you want?

None of us are as young as we used to be and it’s pretty common for someone getting a Professional Headshot taken to say something off-the-cuff about photoshop when we start the shoot.

That’s a pretty normal, self-concious reaction to being put under the lights.

But some people are serious: they want me to make them look younger.

Of course with Photoshop, anything is possible. But remember that a Profile Image is all about establishing trust. With age comes experience, wisdom and pragmatism. All good things for a professional in a service industry.

Also remember that at some stage, if you get your marketing right, this potential client is going to meet you in the flesh. If they discover they’ve been mislead by your profile image, how much more will they trust you?

Most of the work on an image is done in camera: lighting, posture, presentation, expression and engagement. I do just enough finishing in photoshop to make sure you look ‘your best’.


More of Me

Some nice reaction to my last self-portrait post.

Now it’s Friday again and I’m messing with the studio set-up to give some more options for Business Headshots.  There’s a lot of them about at the moment.

So out with the Clamshell lighting.  A simple but effective beauty lighting: one light and a shiney reflector (in this case the triflector and stand).

And what Beauty is on hand to try it out?  Well just me actually.

Last time someone asked that I smiled a bit.  Trying to pull a natural smile on your own in a dark room isn’t easy but I tried.

Only that lovely clamshell lighting picked up all those wrinkles – I look like a pug!  Time for some delicate photoshop!!!

201701-Collage copy

One of these might actually work for a new profile image?  Text your votes now!

For the interested, I also tested out the tethered set-up for another job on next week.   This allowed me to trigger the camera remotely with the wireless mouse and review the images in Lightroom without leaving my seat.  I just had to trust the autofocus – which did a very good job at f2 on the 85mmf1.4.  You may also spot that I added a small backlight so I have a slightly better edge to my hairline in the later photos (click the image for the higher res version).  I just the Lowel video light but it’s hard to direct on your own.  The background is a dark pop-up but it’s getting no light so it’s gone practically black.  Liking the Black more and more…

Incentives (Draft 2)

I knew this would be a difficult subject to address.  Draft 1 kinda turned into a rant so it’s consigned to the WordPress ‘permanent draft’ folder.

So let’s start again.

My objective for all my family photo sessions is that everyone enjoys it.  It’s simple really: if we can make sure that the whole experience is a very positive one then the photos will reflect that.  As much as possible is done to make that happen – choosing a good location, timing etc – and from the moment we meet it should be obvious that this isn’t something that anyone needs to get stressed about: we’re just going to go out into the Park and take some photos.

I find that kids react to their environment.  If everyone is cool and easy-going they’ll relax and be themselves.  They’ll start playing and I’ll be able to watch them, encourage them, they’ll start to trust me and take some really lovely pictures of them.

It’s easy to go in to a photo session with expectations of how it’ll be.  In reality you might not have done this before. I think some parents worry that they might not get the images they expect.  Remember that all my work is shot with ‘normal’ people.  The pics on the web site are kids just like yours.

I’ve done this before.  You’re in good hands. I understand that kids need some time to get used to me, the camera and having their photos taken.  They need time to feel comfortable, reassurance that they’re not going to get into trouble for doing or not doing something so they can relax and play.

So don’t panic.  Relax and enjoy your kids and let me handle the photos. Don’t ask the kids to ‘smile’ or ‘be good’ because those terms mean nothing in the context of the photo session.

It’s not uncommon before or during a session for some parents to get so worried that their kids won’t ‘smile’ or ‘be good’ that they offer a reward for doing just that.  I have found that overall that’s not helpful – mostly because it’s too easy to get wrong.  Kids can become so focussed on the reward that it upsets the session.

Equally they can be so unmoved by the reward that they are impervious to it’s charms and parents are tempted to escalate the incentive (or even turn to punishments).  In this case we’re now fighting and the chance of pictures of a relaxed kid smiling are reduced.

I’ll try to illustrate:

Dad: Now you be good for the man
Kid: ????
Dad: Smile now
Kid pulls weird grin
Dad: Not that smile, your real smile
Kids weird grin just gets weirder
Dad: If you give me a big, real smile I’ll give you a treat
Kid just tries harder at the really big weird grin
Dad: No, that’s not it
Kid is now upset because they failed and won’t get the treat
Dad: Just smile for Daddy
A cycle of weird grins, Dad gets frusrated, Kids gets sadder cos Dad’s not happy. Eventually Dad notices Kid is sad and gives the treat to make it better.  Kid thinks he did good and it’s all over.  Until:

Dad: so where’s my smile?
Round we go again – Kid not sure what he did last time for the treat so goes through grinning-crying routine again.

But we still don’t have a photo.

Now these are hypothetical.  In reality, most Dads are Messers at heart (for their own kids at least) and when they realise they you’re giving them the best excuse ever to just kick back and enjoy their family we get what we came for.

So, in summary:

  1. Relax
  2. Treat the session as just a normal thing to do
  3. Don’t offer incentives or negative repercussions for behaviour
  4. You can reward once we’re done but don’t mention it during the session
  5. If your kids aren’t smiling then say or do something that will make them smile or laugh (just make sure I’m ready to photograph the reaction)
  6. Follow my lead for helping me get a good reaction from them

Preparing for your Family Photo Session

So we’ve booked the session, decided where to go and now you’re wondering what you need to do before we meet for the photo session.

I’ll contact you shortly before the session to confirm the booking.  I’d normally leave that until a day or so before the actual session so we can get a more reliable look at the weather forecast in case there’s anything nasty definitely headed our way.  All being well you’ll get a text or a call from me to confirm time and place (but if at anytime you want to check, just give me a buzz).

Similarly if someone’s sick or something else comes up just call me and we can re-schedule the session.  I want to get the best images and that’s not going to happen if someone – especially a young child – is suffering with something.


Lots of girls want to choose their own clothes – it’s part of who they are

The most common question I get asked about is clothing.  There’s no absolute rules here but there are a few things to bare in mind:

  • Everyone needs to be comfortable and free to play.  So warm but not too snugged up, layers they can take off if they’re hot and something handy to put on if it gets cold.
  • Cute hats are generally good – especially if they’re used to them – but try to avoid anything that will hide their faces in the pictures: hats with a brim, scalves, body warmers with high necks etc.
  • Nothing too precious.  They need to be able to play freely without you or them worrying about getting a bit dirty.
  • While the ‘white shirt / t-shirt’ image is popular in the US, it can be quite hard on most Irish kids’ complexions – especially at this time of year.  It’s also going to be the first thing to show dirt (and it may be too cool in Autumn as well).
  • In general remember that we’re here to get pictures of you all and your faces are what we’re most interested in.  So avoid anything that’s going to compete with your expressions visually: heavily branded clothes, tops with characters on them (especially faces), very distracting patterns etc.
  • Brightly coloured clothing can work well in the forest but make sure it’s not too much (or clashing).  Again, the problem comes when the colours take away from the kids expressions.


Body warmer are handy but watch out for high necks that will hide their chins
Body warmers are handy but watch out for high necks that will hide their chins

For most people the session is about the whole family but there are parents who don’t want to come into the photos.  That’s a bit of shame but it’s OK.  Even so you might be asked to support your children getting up onto a tree or something or just holding their hand at some point so even if you don’t want to do a full family photo, make sure that you’re wearing something you don’t mind being photographed in (even if it’s your back or your arm).

Mom and Dad need to get in on the act too!


This is generally not something you think about before the session but getting this wrong in the middle of the day can make things harder than perhaps they need to be.  It’s often occurred to me that I should have talked to parents about incentives before the session because they have an significant impact on childrens’ behaviour (for good or for bad).

There’s actually quite a lot of psycology in taking pictures.  Offering a reward for ‘good behaviour’ with small kids can be hard to get right (and easy to get wrong).  It tends to work once or twice for a short period and you never quite plan for what happens next.

In fact, this is a big subject and I’m going to need a separate post but suffice it to say here that you should think more about positive re-enforcements (“how nice this is going to be”) and distractions (“what’s over there?”) than offering a reward for ‘being good’.  I’ll be doing my best to make the whole session fun and hopefully they’ll be happy and playful without the promise of a reward.


You know your own kids.  If they don’t eat between meals, they’ll be fine.  If they snack then yes, bring food. Something small, clean, easy / quick to eat and not too sugary.  Bite-sized snacks that aren’t rewards are ideal.

Where to do your family session

In the first part of this series of posts, I wrote about booking your session.  But where would you go?

Well, the simple answer is ‘anywhere’.

I’ve done sessions in many locations across the city and county and there’s never been a location that didn’t work out well.

There are however a few ingredients that make things easier for everyone.  The objective is to get a really good range of pictures of everyone having fun.  Choosing the right location gives us the a better chance of getting as many pictures as possible.

So here’s my guide to choosing a location:RLC_2445-1000px

Somewhere personal.  Do you have somewhere that your family visit regularly, somewhere you’ll look back on and identify strongly with this time in your lives?  These places are definitely the place to start.  Using a location which is part of your family history to create memories is very precious.

Feeling free.  RLD_7503Taking the photo session outdoors serves a number of purposes – it takes the pressure out of a studio session and everyone finds it easier to forget they’re being photographed.  Not many people have their private copse but many of the local parks and forests are quiet enough for us all to feel inhibited.

Backgrounds.  But the location will also for a background to RLJ_0400your photos – even though it may be deliberately out of focus in many of the pictures.  One of the reasons Autumn forest pictures work so well is that the trees are alive with colour and can be used to create stunning backgrounds.   Don’t assume your favourite location is deciduous though – many local forests are evergreen.  That still works but may not be what you expect.

Levels.  If you were to ask me what the hardest place to photograph is I’d say ‘in the middle of a fRLE_3094ield’.  It’s much easier to work with a range of terrain, benches, logs, trees, bridges, walls, summer houses etc to provide options for people to sit, stand and lean on.  It gives them something more natural to do (posing standing still is very unnatural) and it provides the opportunity for Small People to get more height and be closer to their parents (and Big People to hide a bit if they want).  The more things to climb and sit on the better.

Something to do. “Stand there now and look relaxed and happy”.  No better way to make somone tense and uncertain looking.  It’s all about providing a distraction and at it’s simplest it’s just walking, exploring, climbing trees or choosing colourful leaves.  But if you can think of other things that the kids love to do (without turning it into a competition) then we can work it in.  Most of the time they find something to do themselves and we photograph that.  Playgrounds sometimes work but they can be busy (and we don’t want other families coming in) and brightly coloured stuff can be distracting in the final pics.RLJ_6615

Cover.  The obvious concern about an Autumn session is the rain, but full sun is a problem too.  Either way it’s handy to have a bit of cover available to give options for shade as well as to keep out of cold winds.

Distances.  You’re probably going to have to drive to the location so just keep it to a managable journey.  If you’re all tired and cranky after the journey then it’s going to take longer to distract everyone out of it and we’ll get less opportunities for what we’re looking for.  Also consider how far we need to walk from the car park to the nicest spot and how old the kids are (bring the buggy if you need to but we don’t want anyone dozing off before we get some pictures).

In the next post, I’ll look at a few good locations around Cork that you might consider.

Quick Thinking

Hours of Practice

It’s in the nature of what I do that many assignments come at short notice.  Yesterday lunchtime I was asked to photography my daughters for a promotional image for the dance company they work so hard for.  My pleasure.  But what to do?

What do we have to work with: it’s sunny, we are blessed with a large garden but it’s a bit cluttered (trampolines, sheds, swings, nets etc), we also have access to our neighbour’s garden which is a lot greener (but quite narrow).  Thankfully it’s half-day at Secondary school and the girls are in fine form and have matching dresses.

So we’ll work out the garden thing but the sun is the first challenge.  Nice and bright but we need to make sure we deal with the contrast between the direct sun and the shadows.  There’s no real shade at this time of the year so we need to plan to shoot in full sun.  Personally I generally shoot into the sun or at a slight angle so that my subject is in reasonably even shadow and we might get a bright rim light.

Fine but now there’s a stop (or more) between my subject and the background.  You have two options: expose for the shadow and blow the background by overexposing it; or get some additional light into the subject using a reflector or an artificial light source.  I want my background so it’s going to be the second option.  I’m a big fan of the reflector but I don’t have one big enough to light a full length shot and no time to find something to improvise.  On site I’d normally use on-camera flash to fill in here but I have a little more time and enough kit at home to try something else: off camera flash to one side.  This gives me the option to get more dramatic lighting (since it’s a dance pose).

When we get to the bottom of the garden there’s actually some lovely dappled shade at the bottom of the garden from the bare trees.  Two bonuses here: the back-lighting is now way more interesting and textured; it’s also somewhat diffused so there’s slightly less contrast between the sun and the shade.  Result.

As it happens my first few test shots show that the camera’s exposure is pretty much bang on so we work away.

Some lovely stuff in there and hopefully we’ll be seeing them around Cork very soon ahead of the show in May.

Daughter Number One has been on at me since Christmas for some nice shots of her dancing to balance out the swimming pics on her wall.  So as well as the duets for Tina we do a few of her on her own.  I’m sure Other Daughter will want some now too when she sees these…

Shooting Nana: Conclusion

So where are we after all these pictures of Nana?

Well we’ve some lovely images here and personally it was well worth getting these taken.  She’s someone who I’ve found difficult to capture in an image and now I feel I have something that starts to do her justice.

However this was also a series of experiments in photography as well as an excuse to photograph Nana.

I’m definitely liking the medium format thing:

  • I really like shooting with the longer focal length lens (for the same distance to subject) and the look and feel it creates in a portrait.
  • I kinda like the ultra-slow consideration that’s forced by 12 shots.  It’s very different and for the right subject works very well.  I need to not rush through them and forget the tendancy for continuous shooting.  If I talk more and shoot less without putting pressure to click every few minutes I might get more variation from my 12 and more keepers.
  • I really like the interaction not being stuck behind the finder.
  • I don’t however love it so much I’m going to drop €20k on Medium Format digital.  If I had the client base for more of this I might consider it.

My 35mm digital working is much more dynamic.  It allows much more freedom to shoot and it suits the way I work with kids much more.  It has less advantages for more static subjects like this but:

  • Working on the tripod with the release got better this time and is something that I will definitely bring into more of my commercial portrait and profile sessions.  In fact I’ve already shot one almost entirely from the tripod.

35mm Film presents very little extra to add to the way I work at this stage.  It’s has only two things going for it and these aren’t going to be enough to offset the cost and advantage of Full Frame digital:

  • It ‘slightly’ slows you down and makes you think a bit more before shooting duplicate images.  But you could force yourself to work this way equally with digital.
  • That film looks is really nice – and it hides lots of technical issues that become distracting in high-definition digital.  But the hassle and expense of processing 35mm black and white film and the ability to do this digitally (albeit not as easy or consistently) doesn’t make this worth while apart from the sheer fun of it.
  • I have to give up part of the workflow: I am at the mercy of the lab unless I take the time to process my own film.  The amount of crap and scratches on the negs of all the films was quite astonishing.  In fairness this is probably a function of the amount of film being processed but this was also a feature in my previous use of film.  It was less of an issue with the 120 as the negs are that much larger but it killed off a few images on 35mm completely.

So it’s easy to see why 35mm film is pretty much a craft market these days.  It’s lovely to work in but lacks a strong case for sticking with it.

The assumption here though is that you can afford to kit yourself out with 35mm Full Frame DSLR kit.  If you’re shooting a crop sensor or even a compact with a smaller sensor and you want that ’50mmf1.4′ look then in fact a film SLR and a 50mm lens may be your most cost effective way of starting out.  It might be enough to help you understand if this is going to be useful before forking out and extra few grand on a Full-Frame DSLR.

I’ve learned something about shooting portraits.  I have some new techniques that are now good enough to use commercially (and can still improve).

I’m not sure I’ll be using 120 film in my commercial work but I will be ordering some more film for a few more personal shoots.

The fun of spending time with Nana, shooting with all those cameras and the feedback on the images was definitely worthwhile.

Shooting Nana Part 2: Instant Gratification

While I wait for the 120 and 35mm films to be processed I have the digital files to look at.

Digital has changed pretty much everything about photography apart from the fundamentals of a good picture.  There’s good and bad in there though.

I set Nana up in the window light and had the Lowel available of fill or a hair light.  I used the D700 to check the exposure and the level of fill before running off on the Hasselblad. Then I shot a few more before running though the film and a couple more at the end, playing with the light.

She was pretty cool throughout but definitely got more relaxed as the session went on.

The main challenge for the digital part of the job was to work with it on the tripod, come out from behind and shoot with the cable release while more actively engaging with my subject.  Just like the old days.

The problem is that I like my portraits – especially like this one shot on location – with soft backgrounds.  In fact I like everything soft apart from the eyes.  The eyes are the window to the soul.

I went through the ‘everything tack sharp’ phase but I released that I have always been drawn to shallow-focus images.  Before I started looking into it critically I was always ‘wowed’ when I got one right (usually out of necessity cos it was dark).

They work because your brain automatically draws your attention to the sharpest thing in the shot – the eyes.  All that creamy soft background adds context but automatically isolates what’s most important about your subject. 

Then thanks to David A Williams, I released that portraiture isn’t about tack-sharp detail, it’s about emotional connection with the subject.  The fact is that most ordinary people don’t want to be able to see every pore, they want you to capture their nature.

So anyway.  I like shallow focus, that means that I have to go to great lengths to make sure focus is extremely accurate.  This is hard enough when you’re looking through the finder in complete control of the camera.  But how do you do it when you standing next to it with a release in your hand.

There are a couple of ways I can think of:

  • Tell them not to move.  OK for this subject.  Most of the time.  Not so for others.  And what if she does something spontaneous that’s nice like leaning forward (did happen).
  • Stop it down to increase your depth of field so if you’re a bit off with focus then they’ll still be sharp – OK but now you’ve lost that creamy shallow focus look and of course you need more light (or more ISO) to work with.
  • Use the camera’s AF to track the subject. Tried this one previously and it worked reasonably well.  It did track but a significant number were still soft (critically so).  I think I also discovered this ‘thing’ using AF-C wide open that was giving me some additional misses.  Good but not 100% happy.
  • Use Live View – on this generation of camera Live View has a significant lag to shoot the frame and the focus is less acurate.
  • Use ‘intelligent AF’.  Most pros tend to turn ‘intelligent’ features off because they are hard to predict – so in any given circumstance you may not know what they’re going to do.  Others just don’t trust technology just because they know what they can do without it and don’t bother to explore the limits of the tech.  So you get the ‘Manual Only’ photographer who still says he’s quicker than the tech.  Personally I think if you pay all that money for the latest technology you should use it.  But you need to know how it works and when to either turn it off or otherwise help it out.  So I use AF with a single point on subject, AP with compensation, Auto ISO with limits (and turn it off when it’s not helping), AWB (but shoot RAW).

I wanted to see how the Inteligent AF worked – in the case auto area AF-S.

Well guess what?  It worked very well.  Those Nikon guys have been working out!  There is a slight lag in focus compared to the single area focus I normally use but I don’t think I missed anything.

I helped it a bit by stopping down to f2 for most of the images (even f4 on the 85mm) but even the few I took at f1.4 seem pretty good.  Now she wasn’t moving that much and I tended to lock and watch and re-lock if I thought she’d moved.

I’m not a fan of techology for it’s own sake but this stuff really works – the combination of fast, accurate AF that is biasses towards skin tone and works in low-light, great low-light performance (so you can shoot at f4 in someone’s living room) and great, fast lenses make this work very well.

And I really enjoyed being able to forget about the camera.  Just chat away, watch my subject and fire when something interesting happened. Particularly with someone like this, who wasn’t ever going to pose for me.

Of course there’s a tendacy to look at me and not down the lens but you can always ask to look into the camera and you can always go back to the viewfinder.  But you’re much more able to see what you’re subject is doing out from behind.

A lot of good photography is about watching.  Watching and reading, trying to predict and stimulating a reaction.  It’s much easier with both eyes.

So I think I might bring this into more of my formal sittings and continue to work on it.

Processing-wise I chose a black and white conversion in Lightroom 4. Upped the orange filter for better skintone, adjusted contrast, blacks, whites, clarity and shadow.  A small bit of healing on the skin here and there and that’s it.  Not big photoshop on this one.


Six Go Wild in Currabinny Woods

Clearly I’m not a believer in the old motto ‘never work with kids’.

Why would you not work with them when there’s so much fun to be had.

The thing about photographing kids of any age is to realise that they generally won’t do what you want – they’ll do what they want.  Which is only a problem if you want them to ‘sit still and smile’.

But if you want them to go out and be themselves, doing what they want is all you can wish for.

You just have to be able to capture it in all a photograph!


One of my favourite quotes relating to what I do has to be:

If you want to photograph a man spinning, give some thought to why he spins. Understanding for a photographer is as important as the equipment he uses.Margaret Bourke-White, Portrait of Myself by Margaret Bourke-White

This comment resonated with me before I really understood it.

The more I look and try to understand truely great photographs and how they were created, the more I see that the level of understanding in your subject is key.

The difference between a ‘Portrait’ and a simple picture is that a Portrait captures an essence of character and in so doing stimulates an emotional response in the viewer – whether it’s an empathy or a more negative reaction.

Generating that response, creating a rappor and engaging your subject creating a Portrait requires more than just camera skills.  In fact many of the greats of portraiture weren’t great camera operators but their personalities and creative vision allowed them to create some astonishing portraits.

And I don’t think that this is limited to portraiture.  Looking at Landscape work and stuff like Thom Hogan’s wildlife courses and many other fields it’s clear that a fundamental understanding of your subject and how it tends to behave gives you an advantage in being in the right place at the right time in good light to capture that decisive moment.

So, I’ll add a more recent quote from Thom: ‘Frankly, planning, preparation, and patience tend to gain me more than what the camera makers are gaining in their latest tweaks.’