By Telfer Wagg
I have a 24-inch photo enlargement supported on my fridge by magnets. It shows my father and grandfather baling straw on the York County farm where I grew up. Invaluable. Thanks to the technology that enables scanning of a 1955 Kodachrome slide and digital printing, I can cherish daily reminders of my past. Photography makes it possible.
Thoughts of this were in my mind when I had the recent opportunity to photograph the Aeberhard family. Andreas and Petra immigrated to Canada from Switzerland in 2002 to begin farming and raising four boys on Concession 14 of Normanby Township, Grey County. With Petra’s sister Erika and goddaughter Salome visiting from overseas it was a perfect time to take some family pictures. I couldn’t have asked for a more agreeable and co-operative group.
After two hours and over 300 digital pictures on a recent sunny evening, they now have memories that will last forever. I also enjoyed the experience of pursuing a goal with such a cheerful group. It confirmed my view that something similar could and should be planned by other families. With this in mind, I offer the following suggestions for on location photo shoots.
I was fortunate. Petra had a ready list of locations and compositions. Thoughtful preparation makes everything go smoothly. Keeping everything moving prevents the photo subjects, especially any children, from getting bored and restless. Scout out potential settings in advance.
You may not have a choice, since scheduling depends on everyone being available at a given time. However, choose overcast when possible to avoid unflattering hard shadows and hot spots. On these dull days any angle will work. Then your only concern should be to keep grey skies out of the composition.
Sunny day? Don’t despair, but remember you need to be aware of how your subjects are illuminated. Your eye compensates for shadows, but the camera won’t. Work early or late to avoid harsh midday sun. Forbid hats mid-day. Take notice of how sunlight is striking the faces of your subjects. Slight turns of the head make a big difference. Don’t shoot toward the sun and be careful of distracting backgrounds.
The worst lighting? Half and half…the dappled sunlight found under a shade tree. Avoid it at all costs. Make it either all sun or all shade.
Locations and settings
Choose locations that reflect the family’s lifestyle. With a farming family, emphasize the farm setting. Cows are perfect additions…always curious and patient. We had no trouble getting the Aeberhard’s inquisitive Charolais-cross cows to cooperate.
Horses and sheep will be less enthusiastic. Chickens don’t take direction well at all. Whatever the livestock, use your ingenuity to include them.
For cash croppers, scatter the family members over some machinery. Another good option is for subjects to stand in the corn, beans, wheat etc. For townies, it could be cars. Or gardens.
Casual. No white shirts, particularly for men or when sunlight is harsh. Muted colours work best. Texture is desirable. No uniformity. On the other hand, nobody should be drawing the viewer’s attention because of a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. Discourage hats, especially in bright sun.
Pants? Black is not ideal since it often shows no detail (similar to photographing Angus cattle).
Indoors or outdoors
Outdoors, please. Moving indoors creates exposure challenges. Again, your eye compensates, but camera settings react to the lower light intensity. Vibration control lenses or tripods are likely required. Raising the camera’s “ISO” can compensate, but will decrease the quality of the image and add graininess. Most of all, don’t use flash, especially automatic flash. Results will be harsh and unnatural.
Yes, professional photographers can make it work with special lights, reflectors etc. You don’t need any of this. Do it outside.
Take lots. Use a variety of casual shots along with more formal poses. Take some with everyone smiling at the photographer, then some where
family members interact and look at each other. Keep shooting. One image will surely catch somebody blinking, another might have mom looking down. In another, one of the boys is frowning. Delete these. You need lots of choices.
In the days of film, you would restrict the numbers because of expense and the nuisance of changing rolls of film. With digital, it costs no more to take hundreds of photos so keep shooting. Only keep the good ones and delete the rest.
While these few tips should help, don’t sweat the details. Even poor pictures are better than no pictures. There is no time like the present. Granny isn’t getting any younger and before you know it, Kayley will be away at University in Nova Scotia and Kevin could be working in Ottawa.
If you don’t record these memories now, you never will. Don’t hesitate. Do it now. Then get those priceless keepsakes up on your fridge. ◊