What’s the difference between a good baby portrait and a great baby portrait? Well, the answer is debatable, but most professional photographers would probably agree it all comes down to lighting. After all, you can have a cute baby and a nice background, but if the lighting is poor (read: unnatural looking), the shot will certainly fall short of what it could have been.
This lesson illustrates the difference, and walks you step-by-step through the process of creating great baby portraits.
- The Gear
- The Lesson Plan
- Shooting Fully Auto
- Adding a Shoe Mount Flash
- Investigating Lighting Techniques
- Setting Up an Extra Small OctoDome Kit
- Primary and Secondary Cold Shoes
- Baby Portrait Lighting: Take 3
- Shooting Untethered to the OctoDome
The equipment used in this lesson all folds down very compactly. Here, you can see everything that was used for the first part of the lesson. The only other piece of equipment used in the second part of the lesson was a medium Photoflex LiteStand.
Here’s what you’re looking at:
A: Manfrotto camera bracket
B: Nikon shoe mount flash
C: Quantum wireless transmitter/receiver + sync cable
D: Olympus E-3 SLR
E: Photoflex Basic Metal Octoconnector
F: Photoflex Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware
G: Photoflex Heavy Duty Swivel
H: Photoflex OctoDome nxt: extra small
The Lesson Plan
My name is Ben Clay and I am a photographer who considers himself extremely lucky to have a beautiful, new three-month old baby girl and an equally beautiful and wonderful wife. A wife, who among other things, is interested in photography, although she considers herself a novice.
In my recent preparation for a lesson (this lesson) involving lighting and photographing our daughter, Nola, I realized that my wife, Tamara, would probably do a great job as the photographer with just a little guidance from me.
So rather than shoot this baby portrait in the studio, we decided that she should shoot it at home in Nola’s room. We wanted to keep the concept simple: Nola laying on a sheepskin rug with the floor and wall behind her and nothing else.
Shooting Fully Auto
After Nola awoke from her mid-morning nap, Tamara placed her on the rug and set the camera to auto mode with the built-in flash activated. This camera setup is the one that most novices use to take pictures.
Here’s her first result shot.
As you can see, the result is typical for this type of auto shooting. Although Nola is exposed properly, the overall quality of the light is harsh and unnatural. The built-in flash, because it’s small and projects light in the same direction as the lens, tends to flatten out the contours of its subject matter. Notice the hard, unnatural looking shadows cast from Nola’s hand, as well as the tiny catch-lights centrally reflected in her eyes. This is all typical of this type of “convenient lighting.”
Oh, and that dark shadow in the foreground? That’s actually the shadow of the camera lens, which is blocking a portion of the built-in flash lighting.
Adding a Shoe Mount Flash
Tamara then told me she’d heard that a shoe mount flash can improve the quality of light because it’s somewhat larger than a built-in flash and because it’s a little further away from the lens. And this is true to a certain degree. So, she decided to see how much of an improvement it would actually make. She attached a shoe mount flash to the camera, powered it up and set it to Auto.
Here’s her second result shot.
Although the foreground lens shadow is no longer in the frame, the quality of the lighting is still pretty similar to the built-in flash lighting. Below, you can see a side-by-side comparison of these two results.
Investigating Lighting Techniques
Unsatisfied with the results so far, Tamara realized she needed a different lighting strategy. So, she put some jammies on Nola and set her in her crib so that she could figure out an alternate lighting setup.
I mentioned to Tamara that there were several lessons on the Photoflex Lighting School website that demonstrate different ways to modify shoe mount flashes. So in the interest of time, she simply pulled out her iPhone, pulled up the website in her web browser, and reviewed the techniques illustrated in the Indoor Portrait section.
Setting Up an Extra Small OctoDome Kit
After reviewing the lessons, Tamara told me she wanted to diffuse the shoe mount flash with a circular soft box so that she could render circular catch-lights in Nola’s eyes, and that she wanted to have the whole setup mounted to the camera.
I just so happened to have the gear she needed in a rolling equipment case, so pulled it all out and set it on a table in the next room.
The main piece of lighting equipment here was the Extra Small OctoDome (1.5 feet across the diameter of the front face), which Tamara decided to set up first. She grabbed the Basic OctoConnector, lined it up so that the threaded hole along the outside edge of the Connector was lined up with the notched flap of the OctoDome and began inserting the rods.
Once she had the OctoDome set up, Tamara screwed the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware to the threaded hole of the Basic OctoConnector.
Note: The attached brass mounting stud shown here actually comes with the Heavy-Duty Swivel, which you’ll see in a moment, and does not come with the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware.
Once she had the hardware attached, she closed the flaps of the OctoDome using the sewn-in Velcro patches. Here, you can see the notched flap of the OctoDome in more detail.
Next, Tamara took the camera bracket and mounted it to the bottom of the camera. This bracket would ultimately serve as the support for the OctoDome soft box.
Note: The wireless transmitter she would use to remotely trigger the flash is shown here mounted to the hot shoe of the camera.
Next, Tamara mounted the Heavy-Duty Swivel to the top of the camera bracket and then mounted the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware to the Heavy-Duty Swivel.
Primary and Secondary Cold Shoes
With both the OctoDome and the camera mounted to the camera bracket, Tamara was now ready to attach the shoe mount flash. She adjusted the primary cold shoe of the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware for positioning and then secured the shoe mount flash to it.
Once the shoe mount flash was in place, she mounted the secondary cold shoe to the wireless receiver and secured it to the rail of the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware.
After the wireless receiver was mounted to the hardware, she synced the flash with the receiver by way of a short PC sync cable. With everything powered on, the signal from the transmitter (mounted to the hot shoe of the camera) would travel wirelessly to the receiver and then to the flash. She was now ready to shoot.
Note: If you plan to make adjustments to your shoe mount flash during your shoot, you may want to mount your receiver upside down, as shown here.
Both the primary and secondary cold shoes of the Adjustable Shoe Mount Hardware can be removed and mounted in either direction. This simply allows you to easily access the controls of your shoe mount flash, as well as your wireless receiver.
Baby Portrait Lighting: Take 3
With the camera and lighting gear all ready to go, Tamara brought Nola back out onto “the set,” and risking the possibility of a wet sheepskin rug, decided to have Nola pose “au naturel.”
Tamara took a series of shots with this setup and this one ended up being one of our favorites.
Notice how much softer the overall light is in this result. Because the light is relatively large and diffused, it renders Nola in a very natural looking light. Notice how all of the shadows are soft and gradual, how the catch-lights in the eyes are bigger, and how Nola’s eyes are brighter than they are in the previous shots.
Below, you can see a side-by-side comparison of the shots taken so far.
Shooting Untethered to the OctoDome
Tamara and I were both very happy with the results, but she wanted to take a few more shots without being tethered to the soft box so that A) she could move around Nola more freely and B) that she could position the light exactly where she wanted it.
This was easy enough to do and only took a couple of minutes. First, she removed the camera from the camera bracket and then loosened the Heavy-Duty swivel and removed the OctoDome from the camera bracket. The camera bracket had served its purpose, but now was ready to be put away.
Tamara then set up a medium LiteStand and simply mounted the OctoDome to it via the Heavy-Duty Swivel, the same way she had mounted it to the camera bracket. At this point, she was ready to go.
Tamara brought in the OctoDome/LiteStand setup and positioned it so that the OctoDome was angled over Nola to serve as a soft, overhead light. She decided to come in a little tighter on the lens for these shots, which meant that Nola (and the rug) would now be safe with her back in a diaper.
Tamara then took another series of shots and this one ended up being a favorite.
Again, notice how there are no hard shadows in the shot and that the lighting renders Nola’s features gradually and with a three-dimensional feel. And with the catch-lights now off-center in the eyes, the result seems even more naturally lit.
Tamara and I were both excited with the results and she decided to take just a few more shots while Nola was still in a cooperative mood.
I’m glad she did take a few more shots, because otherwise she wouldn’t have come away with this one, which I think captures Nola’s personality beautifully.
Needless to say, Tamara became convinced of the need for light modifiers in portraits like these. And now that she’s gotten comfortable with these lighting setups, she’s already planning the next baby photo-shoot!
As always, remember to experiment with your lighting and camera techniques, and above all, have fun!
Written and photographed by Ben Clay.