Focus On: Rachel Devine

Focus On: Rachel Devine

Carrie McBride
Feb 25, 2011

Do you ever look at someone else's family photos (usually fabulous bloggers) and think that their family just seems to be having more fun than yours? Well, maybe it's just the photos! Rachel Devine's work brims with playful, energetic imagery that punctuates media-fed images of childhood and replaces them with offbeat, quirky glimpses into the heart and soul of children's lives.

Even the images she creates for the media (she has a long and impressive list of advertising clients) feel honest and authentic. An American expat based in Melbourne, Australia Rachel frequently turns her lens on her 6-year-old and twin toddlers so her advice is particularly suited to busy moms hoping to document life's beautiful, fleeting moments.

I highly recommend a long perusal of Rachel's personal and commercial portfolios which you can find on her website, Rachel Devine. Then visit her blog and see what I mean about her family quite possibly having more fun than yours (or at least looking like it). Melbourne may feel like a world away, but you can take online classes, Beyond Snapshots (& blog), with Rachel and her photography partner Peta Mazey: "how to take that fancy camera off auto & photograph kids like the pros" to try to capture your own magic.

Here are Rachel's indispensable photography items, followed by a mini-education on many photo topics you asked about. Rachel, take it away!

Rachel's Photo Five:
• Nikon D3
• Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 micro lens
• Epiphanie camera bag
Sekonic L-308s handheld light meter
PhotoJojo the website

Reader Question: I guess this goes under the low light category – our apartment is very long and we only have windows in the front and back. I try to photograph my daughter in either of these rooms but her bedroom and play area are in the middle which has almost no natural light (truly, it's nearly dark without the lights on) and this is where I'd most like to take photos of her. Is there a good combination of artificial lighting (we have an overhead, a floor lamp and a table lamp in this area) and flash use I should consider or should I just kind of give up on this idea? I have a Nikon D100.

Rachel Devine: This sounds like the perfect setup for bouncing an external flash. That means you will actually be sending the light from the flash onto a white surface either opposite, above or to the side of your subject and then that light will be directed back onto your child. This creates a wider and more even light source than just using the flash aimed forward. The goal is to illuminate the scene, yet avoid that nasty little pinpoint catch light that is the hallmark of on camera flash. The majority of external flash units (the kind of flash you can take on and off the camera) will have a head that swivels. The most simple way to set this up is to mount the flash onto the camera's hotshoe (that little track where the flash attaches to the top of the camera) then swivel and angle the flash head so that it is pointing behind and slightly above you. Make sure the flash is pointing towards a white wall (if you are in a painted room, you can always stick a large white foam/poster board onto the wall with blue tack and bounce the flash off that) or you will get a color cast to the shot. If you are not shooting in manual, at least try shutter priority and keep the shutter set to 1/60th as a starting point. The slower shutter speed will allow the camera to record the ambient light in a darker room and the flash will still catch the subject in action. If the shutter speed is too fast, you will get a dark background...another usually unwanted side effect of flash photography. Set the flash to TTL and let the camera's metering system do the rest. You can even point the flash head at the ceiling (those are often white!) and get great flattering light with the same method. This works well in bathrooms.

Reader Question: Are there some simple post-production steps for the amateur to improve photos (other than cropping)? Is iPhoto enough, or do you recommend Photoshop, or something else?

Rachel Devine: iPhoto is pretty basic. If you want to have more control over editing your images, I recommend at least getting Photoshop Elements. The full version of Photoshop is an amazing tool, but can be quite overwhelming and expensive for an amateur or hobbyist photographer. Adobe offers thirty day free trials of their software and you can download it from their site. Most digital images can stand a little bit of editing magic as even back in the film days, the lab technicians would slightly adjust exposure, contrast and color balance on the negatives before they were printed. With digital photography and home printing, that job is now ours. Exposure and contrast can be adjusted with either levels or curves layers. A simple color balance tool is the easiest way for beginners to play with the color in their shots. In the more advanced editing programs, all of these adjustments can be made as different layers on top of the orignial image so that if an effect is too strong, the opacity of that layer can be reduced. It is the little fine tuning details like that which justify the price. If you enjoy editing your shots even just a little bit, iPhoto will soon be outgrown.

Reader Question: I like kids with bright eyes in pictures, is there any quick ways we can retouch a picture to make it like an HD version?

Rachel Devine: The best way to get bright eyes in photographs is to start with great light! When you have a large catch light (the highlights reflected in the eye) and good overall exposure the eyes come alive and sparkle with virtually no post processing help. To get great catch lights, try to photograph your subject in open shade (where the light is falling just in front of the subject like on a front porch) or take advantage of a big window like the photo example here. The girl is facing a large south facing window covered with very sheer white curtains to further diffuse the light coming in. I was directly in front of her with that window behind me. There was no need for any extra editing to make her eyes stand out. If you do need to add a little bit of pop to your shot, a simple curves adjustment layer in your editing program should be enough to lighten and brighten without overpowering the image. You will want to avoid the overdone "alien" eyes that glow. That comes from over processing! Also, a direct gaze into the camera lens in combination with nice catch lights is almost all you need sometimes for a simple yet strong portrait.

Reader Question: I just ordered my first DSLR on Amazon today (yay!) It's a Canon Rebel T1i, and I can't wait to receive it. I got the body only with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. What other (relatively inexpensive) lenses would you recommend to a DSLR newbie? What is YOUR favorite lens?

Rachel Devine: I have so many favorite lenses, but for a beginning photographer, the 50mm is a great start. The wide aperture (the f/1.8 part) means it is great for shooting in low light. One lens that would be a wonderful addition to your camera set up is the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 lens. It is a sharp lens, not very expensive and has an aperture of f/2.8 over all focal lengths. Some of the less expensive zoom and kit lenses will have an aperture that ranges from one setting like f/3.5 to f/5.6 as you zoom out. Tamron is a company that manufactures lenses for all different brands of cameras. I use this particular lens on my old Nikon D200 and find it still as sharp today as when I bought it in 2006. Make sure you get the Canon mount and it will fit your Rebel. This lens that I am recommending is made for the digital sensor so it will not work on a full frame camera. The majority of DSLR cameras are built with these smaller sensors and these lenses are made to specifically cater to them. Sigma also makes great lenses for a variety of different camera companies. I have the Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 and it is a great lens for the price.

Reader Question: What type of film (yes, old-fashioned film) is best for highly saturated color photos? And what is the best all-purpose lens for a Nikon SLR film camera?

Rachel Devine: I came from a film background and the only stock I used to shoot when my business was still all film was the Kodak UC. Kodak is changing things up at the moment and combining a few of their old films into a new version. The Kodak Portra 400 is the new standard for great vibrant color saturation while still keeping the skin tones a pleasing shade. I am really excited for this film!

Reader Question: What is the best way to get shots of kids, good positions, etc.

Rachel Devine: Kids really are best photographed when they are not posing. Give them something to do and or hold and just let them explore that "prop." You may end up with something funny like the shot of my son having cucumber for lunch or something magical like my daughter floating on the trampoline (bottom of the page). I love those images because while I was purposely photographing them, I ended up with such unexpected and natural results. There are no cheesy grins or awkward body language, just my kids in the moment. For more formal occasions where you need to give the kids some direction, you must give them something to do with their hands. Also, photographing someone from slightly above is a very flattering angle.

Reader Question: I see so many beautifully photographed nurseries on Ohdeedoh and am looking for help taking photos of my home and especially my son's small nursery. What's the best time of day to photograph a room? Should I turn lights on or leave them all off? Any tips for photographing a very small room?

Reader Question: When I see really good photos, I'm often impressed more by the setting: the quality of the light, the sparseness of the background, and the cute clothes/accessories on the kid! I'd love some tutorials on setting up photos indoors and out.

Rachel Devine: What you need to remember is that photographs are frames in which we can create the perfect life. As visual storytellers, we have the power to set up a shot to convey what we want people to know about us or the people we are shooting. My house always looks tidy in pictures and that is because I want it to. I can easily shove things like the ever present GIANT pile of laundry (I am a mom of toddler twins and a busy 6 year old...there is always stuff lying around) just out of frame. I can put the cool toys out and make sure the most delightful books are set out on the bedside table. It does not mean that just under my feet there is not a basket filled with Disney princesses and Bob the Builder books...because there always is. If it does not contribute to the image in some way, it is best to leave it out. Keeping things simple is easier if you take a few moments before you start shooting to look at the scene. Really, this is a very important tip and one that is often forgotten in the excitement or nerves at the beginning of a photo session.

Even if it is just a daily life shot of my own kids, I take a moment to look at the surroundings, glance over what they are wearing and what the light is like. While removing things to keep the images as clean as possible is my rule, there are times when I want to show life as it is. You can also single out the details in your home and create beautiful vignettes of a room. No one would be able to tell that a room is tiny by looking at a collection of the best parts. A few over view shots from different angles will cover the whole room without trying to get it all in one frame. The collections of stuffed animals that live in the beds...that is something I never want to forget, so while I can shove it all aside or just shoot the details, I also show the mess when it is a part of the story.

Reader Question: I got my first SLR for Christmas (a Canon Rebel) and want to learn how to use it. I know I should slog through the manual, but I'm finding that very boring and just can't seem to make myself do it. Should I try to find a class or is there a good book for beginners I should read? Or maybe an online course? I'm not trying to become a pro, I just want to make good use of this generous gift.

Rachel Devine: Glad you asked! This happens to be a great passion of mine. I love helping regular folks learn how to use their fancy cameras and photograph their life well. In fact, I (with my photography partner, Peta Mazey) have a book on just that coming out next year on Amphoto Books/Random House. We run online classes, Beyond Snapshots, as well where we take people through all the basics of camera function, through light and exposure, composition and even workflow for anyone with a digital camera. Unlike a lot of classes that are just emailed lessons and assignment suggestions, we have a virtual classroom where we provide comprehensive lessons and evaluate the images that students hand in. We are there to really help people grow over the 8 week course. I feel like with personal knowledge of photography comes greater appreciation of what professional photographers do.

I really love candid shots of my kids, but I can't seem to get my toddler to NOT look at the camera. Any ideas for kind of blending into the background? I try to sneak around, hiding the camera behind my back, but I'm not sneaky enough for him!

Rachel Devine: Having your camera out all the time is a great way for it to become just another part of daily life. When you hide it away in the camera bag and then pull it out only to take pictures, it becomes a thing of fascination. As the novelty of the camera wears off, your kids will begin to pay less and less attention to it. Keep it on a table or shelf (out of reach, but not out of sight) and carry it with you while you go about your day. Another thing to remember is that your camera (no matter how fancy) is not going to take any pictures inside the camera bag in the closet. Get it out, practice and record your daily life. While your kids are getting used to you having a camera around, take pictures of them when they are engaged with someone or something else. Step out of the room and even get some of the doorway in the shot for a natural frame. If you are photographing your child while you are playing with them, set up the shot and then take the camera down from your face. You can try to get some pictures "shooting from the hip" where you don't actually look through the viewfinder while you press the shutter release button. You will most likely get a lot of unusable shots in the beginning, but with time, practice and a lot of blurry pictures you will find some real gems.

Reader Question: I'm home all day with my kids and would love to actually have some photos of myself with them. Any advice for getting in the picture myself? Do I need a tripod or other gear or just very long arms? ;)

Rachel Devine: There are so many ways to get into the shots with your kids! I find it really important to make the effort as I do not want my kids to look back on all of these beautiful photographic memories of their childhood and think: "Wonder what mom looked like..." One way to get the shots quickly is in the mirror. There are reflective surfaces all over the place so carry your camera with you and you never know when you may pass by a shop window and get the perfect family portrait. You can certainly grab your kids and pull them onto your lap for a cuddle and hold the camera out in front of you to get a sweet and intimate shot. Take a few and set the camera to closest subject focus so that the camera decided what to focus on. The most wonderful accessory to have though is a camera remote. You can get inexpensive ones on sites like ebay or spring for your camera's branded version. The shutter remote release allows you to set up a shot and take the image while you are in the frame. No need for a self timer and the mad dash to make it into the frame. You can even let your kids have some fun and press the button themselves. Having them involved in the process makes it more fun for them. A tripod is not required for using a remote shutter release, but a good investment as you need to make sure your camera is secure. If you do not want to lug around a large tripod, there are cool bendy ones called Gorilla pods that allow you to stick your camera almost anywhere! Small and light, they fit right into most camera bags for fun on the go.

Thanks Rachel!

(All images: Rachel Devine)

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