A senior photo session - concept to delivery

This was created very quickly with the camera hand-held on motor drive.

This was created very quickly with the camera hand-held on motor drive.

Senior (graduates) photography is just dang fun. The youngsters are full of energy and eager to express who they are, and who they are becoming. Well, most of the time. I have had one or two in the past that made me feel on par with a trip to the dentist, but normally this is not the case. This was definitely not one of those times. 

I thought it might be helpful to those photographers looking to start, or do more, senior sessions if I outlined the entire process – from concept to completion. I’ll cover the essential pieces that have been helpful for me to create successful sessions and also to ensure that I actually enjoy doing them! Yah, that’s important too, right?!

In this post, I'll cover the thought process, planning, gear I use, lighting tips, workflow outline, software and presets, how to make the fun animated GIF in Photoshop, and how I make use of plugins for cool services to automate getting images online and shareable as fast as possible.

This session was extra special because it was for my niece (Clare’s sister’s daughter), who stopped through Bend on a road trip from Washington to Vegas for a dance competition. She’s serious about her dancing and the training shows in her elegance. As we photographed her, Clare and I reminisced over the photos we took of her as a baby, sitting in the sun in diapers. 

Every session starts with a plan. Clare is a huge part of making this happen and she talked to Sierra to see what type of setting she would like: Flowering fields? Urban? Grunge? Studio? Sierra likes the urban, graffiti covered wall look, so Clare went to work finding us some locations in town. We settled on three spots around town: a downtown alley, a flowering garden, and a cool painted staircase near an outdoor mall. 

Clare then looked over Sierra’s wardrobe and helped pick the best outfits for each location, with a couple backups in case we had time. We thought about how the outfits would compliment her skin and hair tone, as well as the colors of the locations we’d be using. 

No senior session would be completely primed for success without a trip to our favorite makeup artist, Katie Tuma. A hair and makeup person can really make a significant difference in the quality of your images. Even if your senior says she knows how to do her own makeup, they almost always enjoy the professional attention of a true artist – and the results that follow. A good artist will create makeup as natural or wild as your session requires and will always ask what you’re looking for before diving in with sponges and brushes. 

As we sat in Katie’s studio, watching her work on Sierra, there was thunder, lightning, and rain going on outside. But we remained calm inside. And that’s the other key ingredient to a successful session: faith and a positive attitude. 

Clare and I have learned over the years to embrace just about anything that comes our way on photo day. If it rains, we bring umbrellas. If it’s windy, we let the hair fly, if it’s snowing, we bring snow boots and hats! If you let yourself get visibly discouraged by anything, your client will pick up on it and it will shake their own confidence. There is a great Hasidic saying, “He who has confidence in himself, gains the confidence of others.” And it’s true.

Low and behold, we left Katie’s studio under cover of an umbrella, but arrived at our first location to the tune of dry ground, soft clouds, and perfectly moldable light. 

An important ingredient for me as a location photographer is portable, simple lighting tools. I carry my camera, lenses, and lighting gear all in a single shoulder bag. I currently use a Nikon D750, with a variety of lenses. For this session I brought my 70-200mm f1.0 (just kidding, it’s f2.8), 50 mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4, and 24mm f1.4. I also always pack a Lensbaby Edge 80. For lighting, I use 2 - Nikon SB910 speedlights and Yongnuo transceivers. It’s essential to diffuse and shape the direct light from the speedlights, so my Westcott LunaGrip is always with me. The Westcott 5-in-1 diffuser/reflector is a must-have item for photography and the LunaGrip super-charges it even more.

All of this packs nicely in my ThinkTank Urban Disguise 60 classic shoulder bag with room to spare for ND filters, Sticky Filters (colored gels) spare batteries, emergency gadgets, etc. 

Our LunaGrip fitted with a speedlight and 5-in-1 diffuser disc was all the light we needed.

Our LunaGrip fitted with a speedlight and 5-in-1 diffuser disc was all the light we needed.

Our mock Broadway alley

Our mock Broadway alley

When we get to our location, I scan for backgrounds and light. That’s really all that matters. Sometimes we’re in a location that may require us to exit rapidly (if you know what I mean). This is one reason I like to travel light ;-) We started in a back alley and there were occasional cars passing through, so setting up light stands and other obscenities was out of the question. Everything we use is attached to our feet. 

The alley way had a groovy brick wall, covered with public art and topped with a string of lights. It made me think of a back alley off Broadway, the perfect spot for an aspiring pro dancer to shine! The sky was still layered with clouds from the storm, creating a perfectly soft fill light. I just needed to add some shaping light to it via my speedlight and LunaGrip. 

I set my exposure so that the ambient light was about 1 f-stop under normal – providing a dramatic background and just the right amount of fill light for the main. My exposures hovered around 1/250th of a second since I was shooting close to wide open – f2.8 to f1.4. Occasionally the shutter would venture in to the higher speeds, the realm of high-speed sync, but my transceivers don’t care, they just keep triggering. 

I always bring a variable ND filter with me in case I get in a situation that requires more light at really fast shutter speeds. For example, if we were to shoot in full sun, requiring 1/2000 or 1/4000th shutter speed, high-speed sync doesn’t always give me enough power in those situations. I can get 1-2 f-stops more effective output from my flash by using an ND filter at 1/250th instead. (I’ve written other articles on this magic trick if you are interested)

Since most clients, especially seniors, view and share their images online primarily, I try to think about alternate ways to show the images beyond the printed piece. There was a cool scene against a wall where I thought it would be fun to have Sierra dance and spin her way through it, and I could make a stop-motion type animated GIF from the sequence, as in the opening image. It’s really easy to do in Photoshop. I’ll post instructions at the end of this article for those interested. 

We worked through our other locations, taking time to grab some soft, natural light photos with a near white sky as the background. For these images I over-exposed my shots by about 1.7 f-stops to compensate for the backlight and soften the overall feel of the images. Later in post-processing, I used my KevaLuscious Lightroom preset (from a soon-to-be-released collection) to create the perfect complementary color and tonal palette. 

Soft, bright, and slightly vintage in feel. My Lightroom preset, KevaLuscious was applied.

Soft, bright, and slightly vintage in feel. My Lightroom preset, KevaLuscious was applied.

As sunset fell upon us, we wrapped up the evening with a nice variety of images. The next day I entered the job in to my kumuSTUDIO client management software then copied the resulting job number on to my client folder on my working external drive. I downloaded my images via Lightroom to the working HD. The catalog itself is kept locally on my laptop for easy, any time access. I have my GoodSync software setup to automatically back up the contents of the external working HD to my server as I work. All my LR catalogs on the laptop are also instantly backed up to my trusty Synology NAS system via a dropbox-like mirrored cloud folder.  

I convert all my RAW files to DNG upon import to simplify the file management and ensure all my adjustments are actually stored within the DNG file itself.

After culling in LR, I apply presets to get the looks I want for this particular session. I generally try to keep a consistent look throughout a session, but each session may use a different set of presets. For this one, because of the rich colors and Sierra’s beautiful red hair and creamy skin, I used Café Krema Light, Light Kreme, and KevaLuscious. They all have a similar feel to them, but some suited a certain series of images better than the other presets. These Lightroom presets will be available in an upcoming package soon. 

After the images were complete, I used the Facebook Publish service in LR to upload a handful of my selects to an album so that Sierra and the family could take a peek and start sharing them. 

I then used the Animoto plugin for LR to export them to my Animoto account, saving me time to getting them in to a slideshow. The plugin is very simple and automatically sizes and uploads appropriate images for you to your account – ready for customization and rendering. Animoto is an automated slide-show generating software that is simply amazing. I’ve been a fan for years and it never ceases to amaze me how easy and effective it is to have a cool slide show to be able to share. To use the plugin, you simply select the images you want, then export them using the Animoto export option. As soon as the images are prepared, your browser opens to your login page where you can jump in and start customizing the slide show style, music, text, logo, etc. 

Next, I used the StickyAlbums LR plugin to export the selects to my StickyAlbum account – again saving me some time and steps to getting a customized smart phone album made to pass on to Sierra and the family. 

A StickyAlbum is a great way to let clients carry and share their images. 

Because Sierra lives in another state, we did not have a chance to show her the finished images in our studio, as we typically would, so utilizing the fun online tools was extra beneficial. 

Lastly, I uploaded the full collection of her finished images to my Smugmug account for her to browse and order from. In her gallery, I can also upload the animated GIF and the Animoto video since SmugMug hosts those types of files as well. Animoto has a simple link from their site to pass your created videos direct to your Smugmug account. Easy peasy.

As photographers, our workflow has evolved quite a bit over the past few years. It is now so much faster and easier to process jobs and get the images out there to clients and friends. As much as I love making big, beautiful prints and albums for my clients, I also have to accept that most of us (including my family) love to share and view images online in some form. We have to embrace this new paradigm and make sure we’re taking advantage of all the cool technology we have available to share the love. 

How to make an animated GIF in Photoshop.

1) capture your series of images either using a tripod or steadily hand-held. 

2) edit and color correct them all identically in Lightroom

3) export them as smaller JPG files to a unique folder. I use 1200 pixels on the long edge.

4) open Photoshop, then use File > Scripts > Load files in to stack… Set the options as shown:    

5) Each image will import as a separate layer in Photoshop. The “automatically align…” option will attempt to register the images based on the background detail. Useful if you shot the sequence hand-held.

6) you will need to re-arrange the layers so that the bottom layer is the first image of the sequence, and work your way up. Just drag them in to reverse order of the way they imported.

7) if your hand-holding skills were a bit shaky, then some of the resulting aligned images may have blank space along the edges, compared to the other images. Cropping a bit off the edges of the composite image usually solves this. 

8) go to Window > Timeline to open your timeline editor

9) in the option menu in the center of the timeline area, choose “Create Frame Animation”

10) from the pop-up menu, choose “Create frames from layers”. All your layers should then appear as individual icons on the timeline.

11) use the pop-up menu again to choose “Select all frames”

12) change the timing of the images from the timing menu under one of the icons. This will set the timing for all the selected images. You can select them individually and set different timing for certain images if you want. I set a longer timing for my middle image, when she jumped in the air.

13) set your looping options to “forever” so it will keep repeating

14) test your animation using the play button on the bottom. Re-crop or change the timing if necessary.

15) when happy, use the File > Save for web… option menu

16) choose GIF as the format, with these options. Tweak as needed. Then save the file!