The Family Photographer

Here’s something new I’ve been thinking about sharing on the blog – more sophisticated tips and tutorials for photography. This is a fun little trick I learned this year and I thought I’d share it with you. Want to make a fun winter photo even more wintry-looking? Add a little snow with Photoshop!

First, you need Photoshop Elements or just about any version of Photoshop. I love Lightroom for most editing purposes, but when it comes to cloning out unwanted bits or playing with layers, nothing beats Photoshop! Second, you also need to download these fun (and free!) snow textures from Florabella.

Open your photo and one of the snow texture files and drag the snow on top of your original photo. This is the important part: make sure you set the blending mode to SCREEN and not overlay. I think it’s the inclusion of the word ‘overlay’ in the title that keeps messing me up here, and it took me forever to figure out why I couldn’t get these to work. SCREEN blending mode!

Adjust the opacity to taste. I also like to add a layer mask at a low opacity and randomly lighten spots, especially over key detail areas. For this image, first I duplicated the background layer and set the blending mode to multiply to punch up the contrast, and then I added the snow layer.

Here’s the original:


Here’s the version I took in the blizzard:

Snowman fun-2

What do you think? Would you have guessed the snow was added in post production?


I love September for many reasons (and dislike it for a few more!) but one of the best things about September are the morning drives to work. The sun is rising just as I leave the house, and the cool overnight temperatures often lead to misty or foggy mornings. Fog + colourful sunrise = irresistible!


There’s a couple of tricks you can use to capture really amazing sunrise photos. (The same applies to sunset photos, but early riser that I am, it always seems to be the sunrise I’m chasing.) If you’re using your camera, set it to capture the most saturated, vibrant colours possible. If you can pick your exposure, try to expose for the sky away from the sun and not the sun itself — you want to underexpose your image by a stop or two to make those colours nice and rich.

I love using my iPhone for sunrise shots. The filters often add a quick hit of saturation by torquing the colours and the contrast up a bit. This is a Hipstamatic shot, taken with the John S lens that adds a heavy vignette (darkened edges) and contrast:

winter sunrise

While the sky colours are often spectacular in themselves, pay attention to the other things in your picture and try to use those elements to frame the sunrise, or to add interest or contrast. Since you’re exposing for the sky, which is bright, and you’re trying to underexpose it to saturate those colours, everything anything on the ground or in the foreground is likely to become a silhouette.

250:365 Sunrise on the farm

Think about the overall composition as well as the colours, and try not to put the sun or the horizon in the dead centre of your frame. If you’re shooting a gorgeous sky over a boring suburban skyline or an otherwise uninteresting foreground that will be lost in the shade anyway, just use a bit of it as a frame for contrast. Consider other elements of composition like balance, leading lines and shape/form.

"There is nothing is more musical than a sunset." ~ Claude Debussy

And, as far as I’m concerned, a good shot is almost always made better with a human element. Since many of my sunrise shots are snapped on my commute to work, I don’t get the chance to play with people in my shots too often. This one is actually a sunset shot from this summer, but I love it so much I have it both as my iPhone wallpaper and hanging in the living room as a canvas.

Sunset on Lake Huron-6

A little planning goes a long way. This guide will tell you when the sun rises and sets each day, but of course not every sunrise or sunset is spectacular. My favourite conditions are when there’s fog and funky clouds covering half or less of the sky. Think about where the sun will come up (or go down) and think of a few beautiful foregrounds that might frame a beautiful sunrise. I have a few favourites picked out on my way to work, including the Long Island Locks (first shot above) and a handful of barns and silos before I hit the urban part of the city. Also, know that the colours of a sunrise are usually more intense just before the sun comes up or after the sun drops below the horizon, and that the colours change minute by minute.

Happy shooting!


Last week, I hauled out the Santa hats for our annual Christmas card shoot. The boys recognize this tradition, and are wonderfully patient subjects. It was getting dark quickly, but the sun was perfectly screened by light cloud cover and the light on the porch was lovely when I got a few good shots. This isn’t the best of the lot, but it is my favourite of the outtakes.

336:365 Christmas card outtake

Here’s the official portraits from 2009 and 2010, too!

Merry Christmas 2009Happy Christmas

(Ha, I just realized that they’re in exactly the same seating arrangement for all three pictures — complete coincidence!)

With a little bit of patience, you too can take great pictures of your kids (no, really!) for your own holiday cards. Here’s a few tips:

– work with them when they’re at their best. Full bellies, post-nap, playful mood and nobody in a rush. Also, a calm photographer goes a long way towards making kids calm, so don’t try to cram a session in while the spaghetti is boiling over or you’ve only got 10 minutes before you have to leave for hockey practice.

– be playful. Tell the kids a knock-knock joke, and snap pictures between the responses. Make funny noises. Make funny faces. Genuine laughs are way more beautiful than what a six year old boy *thinks* a smile is supposed to look like.

– get in close. Fill the frame with the kids, or even just their faces. Also, try avoid shooting down at them. Get yourself to face level or even shooting slightly up at them.

– look for the best light – and turn OFF the pop-up flash on your camera. This is the dimmest part of the year, so good natural light is hard to come by — but it’s worth hunting for! Think about shooting with an open door or window behind you (but watch out for your shadow) or shoot beside a big window or patio door. Soft, diffuse light is better than direct light, though. (Oh, so many rules!) If you’re outside on a bright day, look for open shade with bright light nearby.

– try to capture catchlights in their eyes. Catchlights are those bright points of light that bring sparkle to the eyes, and are either a reflection of the light source itself or a large surface of light like an open window or bright patch of floor. Catchlights are so important that Photoshop books will teach you how to fake them, but it’s better if you can just and capture them.

– avoid having the kids look at the camera and say cheese. Nothing spoils a good photo faster, IMHO! Catch them interacting with each other, with a favourite toy or book, or even interacting with you — but no canned cheese smiles, please!

– give the kids some control. Tell them that once you get a couple of shots you’re happy with, they can do a funny-face one, or one with everyone doing rabbit-ears, or whatever it is that they’re trying to do that you don’t want to send to all 150 people on your greeting card mailing list.

– think about what they’ll be wearing and try to coordinate the colours. They don’t have to be matchy-matchy, but think about having a bit of one colour on each person, or complimentary colours. Or go for matching props, like with my precious Santa hats, or maybe matching mitts or scarves. Unity is good, cloning is not.

This year, I’m feeling mildly guilty that I chose to print flat, single-sided hoilday cards — preprinted with a greeting and our names, no less! — rather than the folded cards that I’ve personalized by hand in prior years. And I had even had grand designs of creating my own template from scratch at one rather optimistic point back in September, but have defaulted to one of Costco’s templates. I feel like such a slacker!

But at least I had the photos taken and the cards ordered before the end of November. I think that’s a new speed record for me! Now it just remains to be seen if I’m organized enough to send them out this year…


When I started my first 365 project back — hey, it was two years ago tomorrow! I didn’t realize that until I was half way through the sentence!! Ahem, anyway, when I started my first 365 back in January 2009, I posted almost every shot straight out of the camera (SOOC). I had it in my head that post-processing (that is, adjusting the exposure, white balance or even crop) was somehow making my photo less “true” to the original.

About two months into the project, I started using Photoshop and became a convert. In the spring of that year, I discovered The Pioneer Woman’s Photoshop actions, and became a veritable junkie. Over the course of six or so months, I figured out how to do a few things in Photoshop very well — adjustments like curves, white balance, and of course my beloved actions, which I ran on just about every picture. (In fact, looking back at some of those images, one might argue I could have used a lighter touch with some of those actions!) Other things, like cutting the head out of one picture and pasting it in to another, or the kind of magic worked by my friend Justin in pictures like this just escape me. (No really, go click on the link to see Justin’s picture, it’s worth it!!)

The only problem with Photoshop was that we were using a version supplied by Beloved’s employer, and he was uncomfortable with me using it for even semi-commercial purposes. When I started taking portraits and commissions, we decided we’d buy a copy of Photoshop Elements for me to use, and avoid any potential licensing conflicts.

Photoshop is a behemoth of a program. It does so much more than I was using it for. It’s also hugely expensive: currently Photoshop CS5 is $699US from the Adobe store. We picked up a copy of Elements 8, which is a much more practical and stripped-down version of Photoshop that does virtually everything I was using Photoshop for, at Costco for less than $100 last summer.

Also around that time, I downloaded the free beta of Adobe Lightroom 3.0 and once I got the hang of it, I never looked back. The beta ended in June of last year, and I had to buy my own copy. I love Lightroom! I love my presets, I love the ease of use, and I love the interface. Playing with pictures in Lightroom is one of my very favourite things to do, and post-processing has become as much fun as actually taking the pictures themselves. The only time I open Photoshop anymore is for my TtV pictures, because there are a few actions that I like that I haven’t been able to replicate in Lightroom.

I know a lot of you are doing your own 365 project right now (I love that so many of you are, in fact!) and even if you’re fairly new to photography, I’m betting that if you stick with it, eventually you’re going to start thinking about buying some post-processing software. If you do, I can’t say enough good things about Lightroom. Having said that, here’s two things you MUST know: first, you can download a free trial of Lightroom to check it out. And even better, Adobe offers smashing educational discounts on all its software for students and teachers. The full price on Lightroom is $299US, but you can get it for $89US with the educational discount. It’s *so* worth it, and all you need is to submit a copy of your student or faculty card (or, ahem, your dependent student’s student card — hint, hint. What, your five year old doesn’t need to learn post-processing with his ABCs?)

So, are you guys interested in chatting more about Lightroom and stuff like that here? So many blogs are already doing a much better job than I ever could with Lightroom tips and tutorials and presets, but now that I’ve re-engaged the photo-obsessed part of my brain, I’m looking for more creative outlets! And if you’ve got other non-Adobe suggestions for post processing, please share them!

(Nope, this is not a sponsored post – I’m just in love with Adobe’s products.)


A couple of you have asked me about my new fascination with TtV photography, so I thought I’d post a little tutorial here.

The idea is simple enough: take a photograph through the viewfinder of another camera. The viewfinder camera is usually a vintage twin-lens reflex camera, the kind that you would have held at waist-level and looked down into the viewfinder. It doesn’t need to be in working order, it just needs a largish and relatively clear viewfinder. A little bit of schmutz on the viewfinder does give your images character, though! I started with an old Kodak Brownie Hawkeye that I got from my uncle when I was wee, and I recently won an auction on eBay for a lot (pun intended) of vintage cameras including my new baby, a Kodak Duaflex IV. It’s in amazingly good condition for a 50+ year old camera!


This is a terrible, blurry shot of the top and back of the Duaflex, but at least it gives you an idea of how nice and big the viewfinder on top is. (Note to self, check the LCD display every now and then. You’re not shooting film anymore, you can fix your mistakes on the fly!)

duaflex back

The second camera, the one that actually takes the picture, can be a point-and-shoot, or a dSLR, or if you’re really old-skool, a film camera of any kind. The first tutorials I read said you need a macro lens, but I don’t use one. You align your subject in the viewfinder of the vintage camera, check your focus, and shoot. You’ll end up with a shot that looks kind of like this.

pinwheel fullsize

Then you crop it to square, leaving that characteristic bit of black frame, and do however much or little post-processing twists your knickers. I like a little bit of an urban-acid cross-processed look to mine.

Once you’ve taken a few TtV pictures, you realize that there is an annoying glare on the viewfinder, and that’s why people build amazing Rube-Goldberg-esque contraptions to eliminate the extraneous light. I’ve heard of TtV junkies using everything from a Pringles can to elaborately decorated and personalized contraptions. I’m using a highly sophisticated contraption myself, constructed from yellow posterboard and scotch tape:

duaflex in contraption

And, equally stunning in its sophistication, here is my visual summation of the TtV process. Because sometimes a picture *is* worth a thousand words. Try not to be too awed by my mad photoshopping skillz.

ttv illustration

And this is the final product.

260:365 Colour wheel

It’s a lot more challenging than it looks to get your composition right, not least because everything is flipped right to left, so when you want to adjust your image to move the subject more to the right, you have to swing to the left. In fact, there’s ongoing debate in the TtV community as to whether you should flip your final images or leave them reversed. (So far, I lean toward the latter.) Getting your camera to focus on the image in the viewfinder and not the viewfinder glass is another troublesome spot. But IMHO, when it does work, TtV produces dreamy, retro images that are oddly compelling.

I’m totally hooked! In fact, I’ve discovered that there’s a group on Flickr of devotees who are doing 365 projects entirely in TtV. Hmmm, that may be next year’s challenge — if I didn’t think my family would completely disown me if I even thought about it!

If you’re curious and would like to see more, check out my TtV set on Flickr!

Edited to add: I finally got around to rebuilding my contraption and writing a better version of this tutorial in May of 2010. Check it out!


(I’m annoyed with Twitter right now, so I pulled this from Twitter to my sideblog!)

This is an excellent little checklist from photographer Scott Bourne to evaluate your photographs. Very simple, but quite helpful set of reminders: 10 ways to know you made a good picture. This is the one I have to really keep in mind: “#7. Emotion: the photograph should evoke some emotion. Any emotion will do. But really good photographs cause an emotional reaction.”


The Family Photographer: Protecting your images online

7 July 2009 The Family Photographer

This is an issue I’ve been struggling with for a while, so it’s not so much as a “how-to” post as an invitation to discuss the subject. The keen-eyed among you will have noticed that I’ve started watermarking my photos. (A watermark is, in this case, a small and mostly transparent addition to your image […]

11 comments Read the full article →

The Family Photographer: Composition 1

18 June 2009 The Family Photographer

I have to laugh when I look at the pictures I used to take when I was younger: as soon as whatever subject I was trying to capture was in the frame – anywhere in the frame! – I’d push the shutter button. Don’t get me wrong, it works — but if you take a […]

6 comments Read the full article →

The Family Photographer: Controlling the light

9 June 2009 The Family Photographer

Okay, so you’re trying to take a picture of your brand new puppy: a tumbling, squiggling ball of golden fur. It’s late afternoon and the light is low. What can you do? My first recommendation? Don’t use a flash, and especially don’t use the in-camera flash that pops up in automatic mode. I’ve learned over […]

8 comments Read the full article →

The Family Photographer: about lenses

1 June 2009 The Family Photographer

Okay, so maybe I was a bit ambitious with the idea of a whole new blog and Flickr group for my Family Photographer idea, but there’s no reason I can’t start the posts here and migrate them to a new blog as time, energy and your interest permit. Amy from the Muddy Boots blog asked […]

12 comments Read the full article →