Photography and Backpacking – Part 7 of 10

Off the Trail – Thoughts on Family Photography

My interest in photography began while I was in high school. It was a known fact that the photography teacher was a bit of a pushover. He’d let students roam the campus in search of… uh, “like stuff to take pikchures of dood!” (translated, skip class and hang out) It seemed logical that I needed to sign up for this class.

My first assignment was to build a pinhole camera and take several photos of designated subjects with it. Once that was mastered a Canon AE-1 was provided for use during class. To my surprise, I lost interest in wandering around and took up shooting black and white film with the Canon. While most of my classmates were still fiddling with their pinhole boxes I was honing my skills in the darkroom. Maybe my teacher had a plan after all; let photography find those who enjoy it.

When my parents took notice of my new found hobby they gave me a Yashica Electro 35 GSN to use outside of school. This kept me pretty busy throughout high school, but in the years to follow I lost interest in pursuit of, shall we just say, more exhilarating things. Foolishly I tossed out, or possibly just misplaced many of my film photos and negatives. My parents have the few that survived.

Fast forward about 15 years to the birth of my daughter and my interest in photography was suddenly sparked again. My wife and I had picked up a Canon G3 digital camera a few years prior but the sensor finally gave up the ghost and I missed having a ‘real’ camera. I ended up with a Canon 40D and about a year later I moved to a full frame Canon 5D and have not looked back. While this camera is bulky, heavy, and not something I enjoy hiking with, it’s a great all around camera, especially for taking candid photos of the family, indoors in low light. Due to its aging status in the digital world the 5D has become the “entry level full frame DSLR” priced now around $800-$1000 and well worth it.

The author sporting a baby carrier
The author sporting a baby carrier

I remember that baby carrier… never again! Kids bouncing around on your shoulders have proven to shorten one’s life expectancy! I was pretty spry in those days though.

Over time I’ve sort of fallen into the role of “the guy with the camera” at family functions, shindigs with friends, and just about anywhere we go. My style can probably be described as journalistic, or when applied to family photography “FPJ” (family photo journalism); a term coined by another photographer, Chuck Anerino. That’s the style I’m going to discuss in this article to take a look at photography away from the trail in this part of the series. While this will mainly be aimed at those of you with children, I think it can really apply to anyone who enjoys taking photos of family, friends, and pets to document the special moments in between all of the “important” ones. I hope you enjoy.

What is Family Photojournalism?

Family Photo Journalism (FPJ) is a documentary approach applied to daily life, and especially family moments. The opposite of this would be going to a studio and having family portraits taken. FPJ is all about capturing images that tell a story. Every day life is filled with little moments that we sometimes take for granted. By getting into an FPJ mindset we learn to see those moments differently and realize that sometimes the most significant events are not the ones we’d expect.

My son on the troll bridge
My son on the troll bridge

Right Tool for the Job

Moments come and go and I want to give myself a good chance to get the shot. The tools that are essential to me are: A camera that can perform well in low light -and by “perform well” I mean it can auto focus fairly quickly and accurately, has a good viewfinder for manual focus, and can control noise up to ISO 1600. A lens with a wide~ish to normal angle of view and a fast aperture is also a must-have.

Too much noise can reduce the detail of a photo. Shooting at ISO 800 and 1600 can be common practice indoors, so having a camera that can produce clean results at those ISO’s is a good idea. Generally this would translate into either an SLR or a compact camera of some sort that has a large sensor, of which there are more than a few available now (Fuji x100, Sony NEX, Nikon 1, Sigma DP1, etc…). I use a Canon 5D. Yes, it’s about six years old as of 2011, and yes, it still delivers excellent results. Paired up with the Canon 35L lens it’s a combination that’s hard to beat. I have recently started using a Sony NEX 5N with some tiny Voigtlander lenses (made for Voigtlander and Leica rangerfinder cameras) which has turned out to be a great setup for backpacking, but I’m not sure if it will de-throne my 5D for indoor low-light photography.

Canon 5D + 35L  vs.  Sony NEX 5N + Voigtlander 35 Color Skopar
Canon 5D + 35L vs. Sony NEX 5N + Voigtlander 35 Color Skopar

A “normal” lens isn’t the opposite of an abnormal one. Normal is photographer jargon for “about 50mm”. Everyone has their own “normal”, and for me it’s 35mm. This is focal length is the way I see the world and feels natural for me. It’s not too wide, and not too tight. I can shoot fairly close without distorting the proportions of my subjects, which wider lenses tend to do. If I back up just a little I can get plenty of environment in the shot to help tell the story. I wouldn’t recommend a lens wider than 24mm, and for most people 28-42mm is probably a good ballpark. If you are working with a crop sensor (APS-H, APS-C, micro four-thirds) remember you’ve gotta multiply the focal length of the lens by 1.3, 1.6, or 2.0 respectively to obtain the effective field of view of the lens. For example, a 28mm lens on an SLR camera with a crop sensor gives the same field of view as a 42mm lens on a full frame 35mm SLR.

A “fast” lens is another photographer slang for “aperture larger than f2.8”, so f2.0, f1.8, f1.4 etc… The aperture opening is the opposite of the “f” number, so f1.8 = large opening, lots of light. f5.6 = small opening, much less light. A large aperture will allow for higher shutter speeds to prevent motion blurring and/or lower ISO to prevent excessive noise/grain in the photos.

These types of lenses can be expensive, but there are usually reasonably priced versions as well. For example, Canon’s EF 35/2.0 and EF 28/1.8 lenses can be had for around $350-450 new, and well under that gently used. In comparison to the Canon 35/1.4 “L” lens which costs over $1300 new, these look like a bargain! There are also manual focus alternatives if you look to lenses from the film era that can be adapted to your digital camera. These can range from $20 to over $4000 depending on the lens you have in mind. Manual focus takes more practice and can be especially difficult in low light, but it’s do-able.

Some advanced point and shoot cameras now offer “fast” lenses also. These are almost always zoom lenses, but the good news is that they will retain their fast aperture at the wide end of their zoom range. As you zoom in you’ll notice the minimum aperture becomes smaller (remember the aperture opening is the inverse of the “f” number, so f1.8 = large opening, lots of light. f5.6 = small opening much less light). When looking at the specs of a point and shoot camera (or zoom lens for an interchangeable lens camera) the aperture will usually be given after the focal length; for example it might be 24-105mm f2.0-4.5. That would mean at 24mm you can open the aperture up to f2.0, but it will gradually become smaller as you zoom more and eventually f4.5 will be as wide as you can open it.

Armed with a fast normal lens and a good camera I have been able to photograph quite a few nice family moments. It’s not quite as simple as “get the gear and start snapping away” though.

Turning Candid Moments Into Great Photos

Candid moments make great photographs because they capture us as we are. When we’re not being self conscious of our appearance, posture, behavior, etc… we reveal true emotions and feelings, and the resulting photographs draw the viewer into the scene as if it were unfolding in front of them. With kids this can make the difference between a natural smile or some ridiculous look they might make while posing for a photo. I’ve seen enough of those ridiculous looks over the years to have them burned in my mind forever, when I look back at photos of the kids I want to see a real moment in their lives, not yet another “hey kids, look at the camera” moment.

Eye contact, but otherwise average photo
Eye contact, but otherwise average photo

In the photo above my son and daughter were playing with some chalk. At first they were playing apart, as I sat and watched (with camera ready) they eventually moved together. At this point I got their attention and took a shot. The lack of interaction with each other was missing. Instead I let them resume what they were doing which eventually turned into them being interested in the flowers next to them, at which point I took a couple more shots. The black and white photo below was the resulting image which is one of my favorites of them together. Patiently waiting and not distracting them paid off.

A candid moment makes for a better result
A candid moment makes for a better result

Sometimes I happen upon a quiet moment, such as one of the kids playing by themselves, or grabbing a nap. These types of things can make for great photos too. Kids are always so busy, it’s nice to see them enjoying a little downtime.

Cat Nap
Cat Nap

When people are having a conversation, or are preoccupied with an activity this is the best time to catch them with their guard down. Gatherings and parties are the prime times to watch for folks engaged in conversation and poach a few photos. These types of settings often have “romantic” lighting that adds to the atmosphere so I try to bring a little of that into the photos when possible. Getting some environment in the photo goes back to using a wide~ish lens. The other thing a wide lens does for you is provide more depth of field, which helps when working at wide apertures, and in turn wide apertures help keep shutter speeds up in low light. As you can see many of my photos have a thin depth of field, but I’m usually not too concerned with trying to keep everything in-focus. I typically manually focus, even when using auto-focus lenses, so I can control what’s in and out of focus and decide what’s most important to me in a given photo.

Of course babies always make great subjects. You can set your camera on rapid burst mode and literally catch a different expression in every frame. They also seem to be fascinated by cameras (along with everything else) so they’re easy to photograph but that can also make it tricky to catch them candidly.

My daughter My nephew

Tips on Technique

Clear up the Clutter

I’m sure your home always looks perfectly kept like mine (wink!), but just in case you took a day off from cleaning… Let’s say your kid is doing something cute like having a spontaneous tea party with their dolls, or building the world’s longest Thomas the Train. You decide to take a few photos only to notice later that your socks from yesterday creeping into the scene, a sweet looking partially eaten bowl of cereal on the coffee table, and countless other toys lurking about. Suddenly your moment is lost in the clutter. The only way to fix this after the fact is a lot of time spent in Photoshop cloning things out, which can be very difficult if not impossible in some cases. What I (try to) do is make a quick scan of the scene and toss any offending objects into a far corner until I get the shot. If time is of the essence I try to keep an extra close eye on my composition and frame out as much clutter as I can, or frame it where I know it can be cropped out later.

A clutter-free quiet moment
A clutter-free quiet moment

Get a New Perspective

Like Tony Wong mentions in his article earlier in this series, changing your position can have a big impact on the end result. Kneeling, sitting, or evening laying on the ground when shooting can create interesting perspectives, especially with kids. When photographing my children I’m almost always down in their world. It’s hard to go wrong when you capture good eye contact down at their eye level.

A portrait from her height
A portrait from her height

If I’m not down low then Sometimes dramatically exaggerated perspectives work too. Anything you can do to change the perspective from “typical” to “atypical” is worth trying. In the photo below I am actually standing on the edges of the bathtub straddling the kids. In this case I used a 24mm lens and shot straight down.

Dad, what are you doing up there?
Dad, what are you doing up there?

And another one, this time standing on a chair…

Elbows off the table... check.
Elbows off the table... check.

My last comment here is in regards to composition (a.k.a framing). To keep my perspective fresh I try to frame shots in creative ways. Sometimes this works out, sometimes not. In the world of FPJ many of my shots are too “tight” to fit the strict definition, but this really doesn’t matter unless you’re concerned about semantics. I often try to place myself into the scene and capture the photo from that perspective. Again, my goal with this is to draw the viewer in and put them into the shot, rather than giving the perspective of an outside observer. In the series below I’ve framed the shots in this way rather than trying to step back a bit and frame it more conventionally.

Watering the garden with Mom Watering the garden with Mom Watering the garden with Mom Watering the garden with Mom Watering the garden with Mom

Composition is one of the key factors that can either strengthen or weaken a photo. When inspiration strikes take a photo, then consider other ways to compose the shot and move around a little. Don’t be afraid to try un-orthodox perspectives; keep it interesting.

See the Light

Recognizing “good” light is a key skill that will take your photos to the next level. I have heard people talk about buying this lens, or that because their photos don’t “pop”. Having good lenses is great, but I would take good light over good lenses every time. Shooting in broad daylight is problematic. The contrast and dynamic range is too high for cameras to reproduce and so we end up with “blocked” shadows, “blown” highlights, and an overall harsh, flat look.

Aaron Cowan mentions this in his earlier article in this series. Ideal times to shoot are in the early morning and before sunset. This applies to taking people photos as well. To recognize good light at other times of the day look for cues. Overcast skies, and even dusty or smoggy days will diffuse the sunlight making it softer and more photo friendly. When you see shadows that don’t look “black” that’s a good indicator that the light is good. It still helps if the sun is not directly overhead. Moisture in the atmosphere can also give light a special quality, lending toward mystical feeling landscapes and environmental portraits.

The more you shoot and the more you pay attention to the light, the more you’ll learn about it.

Make a Series

It’s not easy to tell a story with one photo, sometimes a short series is the right tool for the job. By using a few photos to capture an unfolding moment we can preserve the actions and emotions that detail the progression of events and tell the story as they occur. Shoot more frames than you think you’ll need, and put together the series afterward using the ones that tell the story best.

Little brother flexing his muscle
Little brother flexing his muscle

Get in the Picture!

As parents we probably take way more photos of our kids than we’ll ever need and far too few with ourselves actually in the photos. Hopefully when we’re gone the photos will live on. For that reason, I try to remind myself to get in the photo once in a while. This can be tricky, awkward and sometimes hard to pull off. I hope one day my kids will appreciate having some childhood photos, not just “posed” with their parents, but actually having some interaction. The shot of me and my son wrestling (below) is a self portrait made by using a tripod and remote shutter release. Another option is to pass the camera to your significant other and have them snap the shot, duh the obvious! Bonus points if you both can get in the picture with your kid(s)!

A selft portrait + 1
A selft portrait + 1

Share The Love

Photos are best when shared with others. For sharing online, services such as Flickr cost nothing and give you a way to post your photos and control who can see them. Of course there is also Facebook (for those who use it) but unfortunately it’s awfully rough with photos and degrades the quality pretty badly. It’s nice to be able to keep friends and family in the loop without having to make email friendly sizes of your photos to send to everyone.

We have a family website (which shall not be disclosed for privacy reasons) that most of our photos are posted to via a WordPress blog. It’s on the web but we keep it hidden from search engines so unless someone happens to know the URL the chances of it being seen my anonymous people is fairly low. This is another option for anyone wanting total control over the display, quality, and format of their photos.

Leaving the digital world aside for a minute, printing photos is still hip! I make many prints and frame them for display around the house. This is part of the reason why many of my photos are black and white. Sometimes too much color can be hard to look at where a black and white display takes that out of the equation. I am working on a new photo wall though which will be a mix of color and B&W prints. Visitors always enjoy seeing the prints, I highly recommend printing some of your favorites!

In Summary

I hope this article has provided some inspiration to use your camera off the trail. Backcountry landscapes can be both beautful and dramatic, but the beauty in every day life can make for great photos too, and wouldn’t it be a shame to leave that camera on the shelf in between hikes? I try to use my camera(s) at least weekly whether it’s photographing my kids, scenery and people around town, or hiking adventures. Just like ultralight backpacking can influence our thought process in daily life, I believe photography can influence our vision of our world. May yours’ be as spectacular as it is unique!

The rest of this series can be found here.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

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