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How I Got the Photo - At-Home Studio

portrait of little girl

This is my daughter, Violet. I love the pose, the look, and all the little details. As soon as I took this, I thought, "This is my daughter's movie poster for her starring role in an action film." Here's how I got the photo.

The Set-Up

I took this photo in my kitchen. Every now and then, I'll set up my lights for a few days and just practice, hoping for some good photos of my kids.

For this experiment, I used gaffers tape to attach a roll of gray 54-inch gray seamless paper to the wall. To the left of my camera is a 48-inch octobox with two speedlights. (Pro Tip: look in the eyes. You'll see the light set-up.)

That's it. I try to keep things simple. It doesn't get much simpler than one light and a plain backdrop.

I used my Canon 6D and my Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS lens. I created this photo at f/5.6, 1/160, and ISO 200. I used an aperture of f/5.6 to make sure that I had most, if not all, of my daughter in focus while blurring the background a bit. The sheet of seamless gray paper was old and a little wrinkled, so I wanted to blur those wrinkles a bit. My flashes were probably powered to 1/4 or 1/2, though I'm not exactly sure. I use Yongnuo 560iv flashes, and my Canon 6D does not record the metadata for those flashes.

One last tip for the set-up: I taped some letters of the alphabet to the floor for my daughter to stand on. I made sure the letters were taped at the right distance between the backdrop and the light. I had her run out of the room. Then I taped new letters on the floor for her to find. When she found her spot, I clicked the shutter a few times. Her brother was distracting her in the background, which is how this pose came about.

The Processing

As you may have noticed, the photo above is not processed with natural colors. I did my usual edits, but the results just didn't do the photo justice. Here is the photo with my usual edits.

portrait of little girl

The photo is clean and bright, but it lacks a little something. It was just too pure, to polished. I thought the photo could use a little more style. So what did I do to take the photo from bright and clean to styled?

In Lightroom, I first decreased the saturation to -45. I looked at the original photo, saw those saturated blue jeans, and knew that a desaturated look would work. I then doubled my usual -10 vignette in Highlight Priority style to -20. The added darkness around the edges would draw us into the photo that much more.

My last two bits of style came in the Tone Curve panel. I wanted to create a matte look--you know, the popular faded look with no true black tones. (Most people would call the matte look a "filter" or "aged.") To create a matte look, open the Tone Curve panel, make sure you're on the RGB channel, and add points to the left of the line, especially at the bottom. Take the bottom point or two and raise them up. That gets rid of pure black tones. (If you look in the histogram, you'll see that the black tones are gone.) Take a look below to see what I mean:

histogram and tone curve

See how the line in the Tone Curve panel doesn't touch the bottom in the lower right? That's how I got rid of black tones and created the matte look.

After adding a matte, I wanted to shift the colors a bit. I clicked on the Blue channel of the Tone Curve (click the RGB to see a drop-down menu and click Blue) and added blue tones to the shadows and yellow tones to the highlights. How? Similar to the RGB channel, you can create custom points on the tone curve line. If you look closely, you'll see your histogram in the Tone Curve panel. When you create a point and drag it above the neutral line, you add blue to the tones. When you drag a point below, you add yellow tones. (Tones on the right are highlights, and tones on the left are shadows.) Take a look below to see how I added blue to shadows and yellow to highlights:

tone curve

And that's it! I went from a clean, polished photo to a stylized photo in four easy steps. (If you'd like to really learn about the Tone Curve panel, I wrote a detailed article here.)

To Sum It Up

Keep your setup simple. A big softbox and a plain backdrop can yield beautiful results. If you're working with kids, find creative ways to have stand in the right place. If my daughter hadn't stood in that exact spot, something would've been off. The backdrop might not have looked the same, or the Inverse Square Law might have negatively affected the quality of light. Lastly, a little creativity and an understanding of the Tone Curve panel can really add some style to your photos.


Aaron Taylor is a stay-at-home-dad and professional portrait and product photographer. Aaron is forever blessed to be in love and married to his best friend and partner in parenting. Most of his time is spent chasing his curious, energetic kids, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. Aaron lives in Columbus, Ohio. Before moving to Columbus in the summer of 2016, Aaron was a high school English and Drama teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. He spent ten years in the classroom and earned National Board Certification in English Language Arts. Give him his family, a good cup of coffee, and a homemade cookie or three, and all is right in Aaron’s world.

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