By Sean Gannon
Autumn provides photographers with an abundance of colours and amazing light. When captured right, autumn can create images which are the envy of everyone.
For family photos, autumn can provide you with amazing backdrops, and a variety that can be matched by no other season. For this article, I took my own two children for a walk in the woods to do some fall portraits. Photographing other people’s children is always easier than your own, so I thought it would be a great exercise, and we may also even get some nice pictures of our own children for once. So here are some fall portrait tips to get you started.
Preparation is the key to any successful shoot. Of course ensuring your camera equipment is charged, you have clear cards, and your gear is clean seems like a no brainer, but it’s often the fundamentals that we overlook. Clearing cards can be daunting for those starting out, but just double check that you have downloaded everything, then use the Format function (in the camera) that will give you a completely clear card. There are rumors that deleting single images in-camera can lead to corrupting the card, so it’s best to use the Format function.
Make sure you check the weather. Here in the UK, as well as many other parts of the world, it can change quickly at this time of year. Check with a few sources about local weather. It’s such a pain to get everyone together, get in the car and travel for some time, only to be rained out. Although, even rain in autumn can provide some great image opportunities, if you are dressed correctly.
Sunrise and sunset can give us the best light. However, dragging your family out of bed for a photo shoot is always going to be tough. Aim to start your shoot about an hour before sunset. This Golden Hour is favored by many professional portrait photographers, as the light is more flattering and you may even get a great sunset. You can look up sunset times for your local area. It can be surprising how early it gets dark, and you want at least a good hour of shooting before the sun goes down.
Make sure everyone dresses appropriately. It’s getting colder, and it’s one less thing to worry about if everyone is warm during the walk back to the car. While we still think it’s lovely and warm outside, believe me, it gets cold pretty quick when the sun starts to go down. Also have a change of clothing available for everyone. It can be wet and muddy and some of us are prone to falling over!
Make sure you bring snacks and drinks. Especially if you are photographing children. They will get bored and hungry way before you do, so anything to help keep them going while you master that perfect shot the better.
Editor’s note: if you are photographing other people’s kids have the parents bring snacks that the kids like. Never give food to other people’s kids without asking the parents, there may be allergies or special diets.
Clothing advice for portrait photographers:
Clothing choices are always important for portraits, but in fall it can really make a difference to your image. Try and have everyone wear natural tones that will either compliment the colours of the leaves and trees, or blend in. My son wore a dark red sweater, as we knew the area had very vivid reds in the trees. My daughter wore black and white which is a timeless combination that blends in well. My son also wore a grey hood that coordinated with his sister.
Try and avoid clashing patterns or colours amongst your subjects by discussing it in advance, and maybe come up with a colour theme that everyone can include. Also avoid t-shirts or sweatshirts that have dominant logos. If he could, our son would have Star Wars logos on everything. This can of course date an image, and is also very distracting.
Try and have a few changes of clothes available. This will not only provide variety in your images, but in the wet and possibly muddy conditions, you may well need them, especially for any children.
Location is essential for any shoot, but for autumn you want to find the best colours and textures you can. Things can change really quickly. The leaves can change over a couple of days, but it often doesn’t happen until later than you think. For this article, we actually struggled to find autumn colours despite it being early October. You also need to check that the leaves are still there. A heavy wind can take them down overnight, so don’t wait too long after you have scouted your spot to shoot.
We searched online for arboretums, these are great places that have collections of interesting trees. Of course, your local forest would be great too.
Use social media for location tags to see what other people have photographed over the last few days, at or near the same location. Instagram, Twitter and even Trip Advisor are fantastic for this. You may also get to see a great place that you may not have found otherwise.
The technical bits
For my shoot, I was using a Canon 5D Mark 3 and took the 24-70mm f/2.8 Mark 2, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 Mark 2. These of course are professional cameras and lenses, but any modern camera whether a DSLR, point and shoot, or even a smart phone should provide great images. In fact, I find the iPhone 6 has great range of colours and light.
If you are using a DSLR, you can really play with the aperture (f-stops) to get a range of looks without moving location. To get a super blurry background, set your aperture to the lowest number. On my lens, this is f/2.8. Some lenses can go lower and some are limited to higher setting. Even with a kit lens that comes with your camera, you should be able to get to around f/5. If you want the leaves and your family in focus, try increasing the aperture to f/8 or even f/22. Do be careful though because at f/22 your shutter speed will be significantly slower, and you may well need to increase your ISO to compensate.
I photographed the images above in Aperture Priority (AV on a Canon, and A on a Nikon). This is when you decide the aperture and the camera sets the shutter speed. Keep an eye that the shutter speed doesn’t geet too slow (1/60 as a minimum). If it does, increase your ISO.
Personally, I always shoot in RAW. For me it just allows me that flexibility afterwards. However, with modern cameras, JPEGs are very versatile, and don’t break up as much as they used to. Some cameras allow you to capture a RAW and JPEG at the same time. This is great so you have the RAW to go to if need be.
White Balance: for these images, I shot in cloudy White Balance. It warmed up the colours, although I did alter these in Camera RAW processing later, it did give me a great starting point. If you are using your manufacturer’s own software, you should be able to change the white balance quite easily.
Getting natural smiles and reactions from children
You know your own children very well. You know the songs they like and what gets them interested. However, they are also very comfortable around you, and may decide to walk off just as you get your camera settings right. Here are a few tips to get a natural reaction.
As in the images in this article. I asked my children to laugh hysterically for no reason at all. This got a huge overreaction which although is a great animated image, is not what we were after. What did happen is that as they calmed down from that, they had natural smiles. They thought it was funny and continued smiling naturally.
If you have more than one child, ask one to tell the other a secret. This will always get them giggling.
With just one child, ask them to tell you or the camera anything that they are interested in. Our son will talk for hours about anything Star Wars or Marvel. With our daughter we can ask her math questions, which gets a range of reactions.
Sing them a song but get it wrong. For some reason, this is the funniest thing ever to kids. Basically, do anything to distract them or get a reaction, but not by saying CHEESE!
Editing your images
For editing, I used Camera RAW processor which is part of Photoshop. However, most cameras come with editing software, or you can use something like Lightroom which is quite affordable. I actually kept the editing quite simple. The main thing I did was to go to the saturation panel and increased my Reds, Greens and Yellows. This really brought some punch to the image.
Please print your images in some way. As parents, we are great at taking images, but not doing anything with them. Don’t worry about capturing the most amazing image, just get something that captures your family and print it some way.
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