An In-Depth Guide for Beginners As Told By An Amateur
I’ve always been interested in photography. But, in the past, I’ve had a hard time putting in the time required to develop my skills. Once my son was born I really wanted to start focusing more on my technical skills behind the camera. Talk about bad timing. If I didn’t have the time before him, I certainly don’t have it now. At any rate, I’ve found made time because it’s something I really enjoy.
I recently attempted a cake smash photo shoot for his first birthday. This is my first time. I had no idea what I was doing. But, I’m happy with the outcome. I got some shots I would be happy to hang on my gallery wall. However, there are some mistakes I made that really cost me the quality I was looking for.
I’m going to break this down by equipment, location, the actual shoot, camera settings and editing. I’ll be sure to point out areas I made mistakes in and include suggestions for corrections. I’ll also make suggestions for alternative methods if you can’t recreate my shoot exactly. Let’s get started.
- A refurbished Nikon D5500 that I got on Amazon a few years ago for around $600.
- You can certainly use your point and shoot, cell phone or whatever you have. Good equipment helps. But, the great thing about photography is that most of it is about your skills, not your stuff. That being said, once your skills surpass your equipement, maybe you should look to upgrade.
- A refurbished AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8 prime lens I got from Nikon’s website for about $170. I could have easily used my 18-55 mm kit lens (the lens that came with my camera bundle) to get similar results. So the prime lens isn’t necessary here.
- Again, no need to spend a ton of money on equipment unless you you know you’ll get use out of it.
- A YONGNUO YN560 IV Wireless Speedlite (flash) from Amazon for about $75.
- Good natural light will do fine. If you have a good room with great light that’s perfect.
- An very budget set of two softboxes on Amazon for around $50. There are tons of these bundles. Take your pick. They all look similar.
- Same as the flash. Don’t go crazy, especially if you have good natural light in your house.
This is what my set up looked like.
I don’t have room in my house for a studio so I had to create one by pushing everything out of our living room. I spent a lot of time moving the softboxes around and taking test shots until I got the desired effect. I ended up with both lights positioned slightly away from where my son would sit. Having them pointed directly at the wall created some unwanted shadows which looked too harsh. Also, note that I have a very bright window to the right of this set up. So, if you’re using lights and depending on your space, you might need them configured differently. You can see that the speedlight (flash) on my camera is pointed away and slightly up, also to prevent harsh shadows (there was a lot of testing with this as well).
Where you see my camera is where I shot from. In hindsight, I should have brought my son away from the wall more. This would have given me the bokeh (background blur) I really wanted. An example would be the picture of the smashed cake. You see the pretty blur of the streamers in the back? I would have loved to have that in the shots with my son as well. Oh well, next time. I would have also liked to shoot closer to him to get some tighter shots but when I tried this he lost interest in the cake and wanted to come see what I was up to. He hasn’t been cooperative with pictures for months now. *sigh*
I didn’t worry about the mess since I have hardwood floors and the frosting wasn’t any crazy color or anything. I was a pain but it cleaned up just fine.
The Little Details
For the props, I used some standard streamer paper from Party City (Robins egg dots, sunshine yellow and orange dot) and just twisted them a few times and tacked them into the wall. I kept it simple because I didn’t want it too cluttered or tacky.
The cake stand was something I picked up in a thrift store years ago.
And, the Daniel Tiger themed (his favorite show) cake was made by a friend. Another learning experience: make sure the cake isn’t just out of the fridge. The frosting was too cold to really get smooshed (something that also cost me some good shots).
The blanket, which is something I’ve used in all his monthly pictures, was made by a friend as well and was only there for a few pre-cake shots because I didn’t want it ruined by the frosting.
I decided to leave him in his diaper because I wanted this to be simple and not overdone. And, I didn’t want to waste money on a one use prop outfit for this. Plus, there is something so cute about a baby running around in a diaper. I’ve shot all his monthly milestone pictures in nothing but a diaper.
I enlisted the help of my husband to corral my son when needed. I used to be able to do all his pictures by myself but not anymore. He’s too nosy and wants to know what I’m doing. So, this time, my husband was there to keep him on task. My son would sit for a while then wander off. We’d give him a minute or so then put him back. Giving him that minute before putting him back helped to keep him calm and stop him from getting too frustrated. But, honestly, he was pretty interested in that cake so it wasn’t a lot of work. I laid a yoga mat down on the hardwood floor and I stayed behind the camera and just shot and shot and shot. I took about 300 pictures in 15-20 minutes. I ended up with about 15 or so that I like. Most were no good which I expected and I think is pretty normal for an amateur.
I shot in manual mode (I hand chose the settings instead of letting my camera decide). If you’re not comfortable with manual mode you can shoot in auto mode. Or priority mode that lets you control one of the settings of your choice (aperture, shutter or ISO priority mode) and the camera will auto adjust the other two. Below are the DSLR settings I used.
Shutter Speed: I set this to 1/160. I played and played with this and finally got a good result at 1/160. It was fast enough to allow me to shoot my son while in action without blurring his movements. But, it wasn’t too fast for my flash which would have given the picture horizontal black or shadowy bars across it.
Aperture: I set this to 3.5. I meant to set it to 5 but was shooting something else and forgot to set it back. Originally, I played around with it until I got what I wanted. Setting it at 5 would have allowed my son to move a bit and remain in focus. And, had I positioned my son further from the wall, this would have allowed me to have a depth of field (area that is in focus) where both the cake and my son were in focus at the same time while giving the background a bit of blur.
A higher aperture would have more things in focus and a lower aperture would have less things in focus. For instance, the lens I used can go as low as 1.8 and that would mean that his eyes would be in focus but the rest of his face (even the tip of his nose) might not. Some lenses can go even lower than that. Sometimes it can have a great effect if you want to highlight one specific feature. But, not when shooting a cake smash.
I did end up dropping the aperture down to 1.8 to shoot the smashed cake pictures. It was safe to do that because the cake isn’t moving around, in and out of focus. And it allowed me to get a really good blur.
ISO: I really messed up here. I struggled with this setting so I asked some friends for their recommendation and they told me somewhere around 100 because I was using flash and softboxes. ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to the light. Lower light, higher ISO and vice versa. The higher your ISO the more noise (graininess). I thought I had set my ISO at 100. But, during the editing process I noticed a lot of noise and when I checked the properties on each picture it had my ISO listed at 720. That was too high. I should have double checked. Ouch!
You can the see the graininess below when I zoom into the picture.
The Finishing Touches
I don’t have Photoshop or any other fancy editing software so I used my PC’s built in photo editor which is pretty basic. Once I’m better overall then I’ll invest in editing software. With what I have I can crop, retouch, remove red eye, adjust color and exposure, straighten, reduce noise and sharpen. Basics. Well, maybe it can do more but I haven’t tried. Anyway, I brightened up the pictures a bit with some adjustments to exposure. I added a bit more saturation and warmth to the color. I cropped, trying to follow the rule of thirds (guideline for composure) as best I could, straightened, reduced noise and sharpened a bit.
Here are the SOOC (straight out of camera) and edited versions side by side.
- do have help.
- do make sure to check your camera settings. And battery life, memory card and flash batteries for that matter.
- do take lots of shots. Lots and lots. Like way more than you ever think you’d need. You’d be surprised at how few actually come out great.
- do have patience and give the baby a few short breaks, if they need it, to prevent frustration.
- Do take a few test shots right before you put the baby in front of the cake so you can make last minute adjustments before the action starts.
- Don’t forget to take the cake out of the fridge well in advance.
- Don’t place the baby too close to the backdrop if you want that gorgeous background blur.
- Don’t over do it with the props.
Things To Consider
You don’t need to spend a ton on equipment. You can work with what you have, seriously. I LOVE photography and am actively working on improving my skills. So, all the money I’ve spent on equipment (which is not much if you’re more advanced) is worth it to me because these aren’t one use items. They all serve a purpose beyond this one project. You can work with what you have or opt for even more budget friendly options if need be. Before I upgraded to my DSLR, I got some great images with my $100 point and shoot and nothing else. Example below:
Really, seriously, get help with that baby! If you don’t, it could cost you great shots. With my son, when I tried to do it myself, I’d get behind the camera to find he was inches from my lens when seconds before he was feet away. I’d get up, place him back on his marker, go back to the camera as quickly as I could and find that he was right in my face again. You can’t shoot like that. If you have help, that person can do the herding and you can click, click, click.
At one point my husband was standing to the right, in front of the window, which caused some ugly shadows across where I was shooting. I caught it after a minute or so and he moved but I missed a really good shot because of it. It was just something we didn’t think of before hand. So, make sure your helper says out of the way of any light.
If you are using soft boxes, like me, don’t forget to take into consideration the differences in light sources in your space vs. mine. If you don’t have a window like mine or you have more windows than I do, you may have to position your soft boxes differently than I did. Take some test shots in advance so you know what you’re working with. Also, if you set up in the morning and don’t shoot until early evening the light may have changed on you. Be prepared for that.
For a colored background you can get a roll of seamless paper. For me, at this stage, they were a little too pricey, at around $85 with shipping, because I’d want a wider roll, so I didn’t end up using one. But, they can look really nice and there are tons of colors. You can mount it with a backdrop stand or tape it to the wall. My husband bought me an inexpensive backdrop kit on Amazon for around $50. I’ll be looking into seamless paper rolls for future projects.
I’m really new at this and am self taught but I’d love to hear any questions you might have. If I don’t have the answer I will do what I can to find it for you.
Happy shooting! Don’t forget to like, share, comment, whatever.