Holiday Gift Ideas for Photographers

With the holidays fast approaching, many of us photographers get asked by our loved ones for gift ideas relating to our love of photography. We then shock our loved ones by telling them about some lens that is the size of a bazooka and costs more than a 1969 VW. Typically, the conversation proceeds that there MUST be something reasonably priced on our wish list and our minds go blank.
I'm here to help out. Here's a list of relatively inexpensive gift ideas to share.
Gift Ideas for Photographers
- Subscription to Rangefinder magazine (FREE!) - this is the magazine of Wedding & Portrait Photographer's International (WPPI). Visit to subscribe. Heck, subscribe a friend as a gift if they don't know it's free!
- Subscription to Vogue ($15) - Okay, maybe you're wondering about this one. Why subscribe to a fashion magazine? Simple - it's 700+ pages each month of great photography! It's like getting a book every month full of the latest work by the best commercial photographers. Visit and follow the "subscribe" link.
- Gels - this one may come as a surprise. Maybe you've been wanting to get into using more gels or you're just not sure where to start. How about you just get them all for a couple of bucks? That's right, Rosco - THE name in gels - offers two swatchbooks filled samples of their gels in a 1.75" x 2.75" size - perfect for taping to the front of your speedlight. Each swatchbook runs about $2 at B&H.  If you want gels that are a little bigger (3"x5"), spring for Rosco's Roscolux Designer Color Selector Swatchbook for $22.50.
- Softlighter - of all the umbrellas out there, this is one to be sure you have in your collection. The Photek Softlighter is a favorite of many top photographers. You can use is as a shoot through or reflective umbrella, with or without a black cover. It has 10 spokes instead of the usual 8 and the shaft unscrews at its midpoint for positioning close to your subject. It also comes with a removable diffusion panel to create a softbox light quality. Sizes range from 36"-60" with prices from $50-$80. This is a great modifier for studio and location work due to its portability and versatility.
- Giottos Rocket ($8) - do you have little spots on your images because your sensor has gotten dust on it? Maybe you don't need an expensive cleaning, you just need to blow the dust off. The Rocket creates a blast of air that's clean - just squeeze away. A special valve makes it so the rocket doesn't suck dust back into its chamber only to blast it back onto your sensor. Cool, cheap and fits easily in your camera bag. You either have one or need one.
- Photovision calibration targets - I'm always beating the drum about these targets because they're a great way to nail both exposure and white balance. They come with an instructional DVD to walk you through step-by-step on how to use them. Best of all, they're on sale through 10/29 at
-X-Rite Colorchecker Passport - This little device appears simple but does some really cool stuff - it allows you to create custom camera profiles for any shooting situation. That sounds complicated but it's really easy and you'll be amazed at how dialed in your colors will appear. Typically these go for about $99 but you can find 10% discounts if you search.
- Understanding Exposure, 3rd Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera by Bryan Peterson. This book is simply a joy to read for every photographer. You'll learn tons about what you can do with just your camera. It's better than any manual that came with your camera. Under $20 at Amazon.
- Manfrotto 3095M Mini Backlight stand - this is a little stand for use with a monolight. I get tons of questions about this stand at workshops. Own your own for $28 from B&H.
- Rosco Slit Drape - ignore this crazy name - this item is usually called a rain curtain. It's a sheet of mylar that has been cut into little streamers for use as a backdrop. Think of a cheesy Las Vegas magician and you'll know the type of backdrop. It's not for everyone but it's an easily-stored backdrop that you can combine with other backdrops and gels for a variety of effects. A single drape is $12.50 at B&H but you'll want to get two or three to get enough width for shooting. A definite "fun factor" item.
- Itoya Art Portfolio Advantage Book - looking for a great binder to show off your prints? This is simple and the pages won't interfere with viewing your prints. Prices range up to $30 for the 11x14 size at B&H.
- Manfrotto Background Paper Counterweight - I have to admit that this item is a little odd for a gift. You'll love it and the giver will wonder why. This item clips onto the bottom of seamless background paper and adds the weight necessary to keep it smooth. A real time saver. About $33 from B&H.

Finally - if you're stuck on what to get your mom this year I'll tell you what she really want - a new photo of you!  Book a session with your best photographer friend, get some big prints, frame them, wrap them up really nice and watch mom cry when she opens it!

Happy holidays!

Austin Texas Wedding Photographer Tim Babiak

Will PS Actions Be the Avocado Toilet of Tomorrow?

Austin Texas Headshot Photographer Tim Babiak

As a people photographer, I'm always checking out other photographer's work online and seeing how people react to it.  In my opinion, the biggest trend in photography has nothing to do with photography - it's all about Photoshop and what happens after a photo has been taken.  Make no doubt about it, I'm a big - okay, HUGE - Photoshop fan.  I love it and I think it's an important tool in image creation.  Yet the biggest trend in using Photoshop is getting things done quickly - and the quickest way to get things done in Photoshop is by using actions.  If you're unfamiliar with Photoshop, "actions" are strings of commands strung together.  For example, let say you want to open an image, convert it to black and white, resize it and save it.  If you do this all the time, just create an action and you can just click one button instead of many.  This is a great feature in and of itself.  However, many people sell their actions so other people can get their look.  So new photographers learn they can "dress up" an otherwise crummy photo by running a few actions.  People then see the result and say "oh, that's so cool!" so the new photographer thinks they have something.

Beyond this, many "expert" photographers now use their own actions to dress up images.  Desaturate or saturate the colors, add some flare (like a light shining in the lens), add some texture and add a logo with some swirly design and a cool-looking font that says "Josh Newby Photography".  Oohs an aaahhs guaranteed.

I've tried this stuff myself because it seems to be the latest thing.  I just can't get my head around it.  I've got tons of actions.  I try them out and invariably get the "it makes the image look different but it looks like crap" result.That being said, people are really impressed with these types of images these days - just like everyone thought avocado was the coolest color for bathroom fixtures in the 1970's - only to try to find out how to dispose of their avocado toilet in the 1990's.  Remember those colorized photos from the 1950's?  They're nostalgic now but you don't see anyone asking for that look anymore.

Okay, so maybe photography goes through trends and this is one of them.  Photography should still be about photography - that is, writing with light.  People photography should be about a deliberate vision. Here's an example I saw the other day - it was one of these "action"ed images - pale pastle colors, flare and a cool logo swiped across the image.  The photo was of a woman who was broad lit and how was prominantly presented her underarm to the camera.  To be blunt, the Photoshop actions were simply lipstick on a pig.  Don't do this, people.  Take good photos then dress them up with your style.  Know what your actions do - don't just run them blindly.

Don't make photos today that are tomorrow's avocado toilets.

The Color of Light

Austin Texas Portrait Photographer Tim Babiak

Many of you have been out to my photography workshops and last night we celebrated our two-year anniversary by getting together  to socialize at the Oasis restaurant overlooking Lake Travis. As many of you know, the Oasis bills itself as the "Sunset Capital of Texas". I wanted to show everyone who came out a little trick for making sunsets look especially stunning while still maintaining good skin tones for the subject in the foreground. It all comes down to the color of light.

As a people photographer, the color of light is especially important. If you don't get your color right, your subject either looks like a smurf or like someone who ate some bad eggs. If you've ever had one of these pictures then surrendered and converted it to black and white you know what I'm talking about. Managing color is one of the key elements that many new photographers struggle with. As challenging as managing color can be at first, once you understand how to manipulate color to your advantage you open a whole world of creative possibilities.

Consider the following image which I shot at the social event last night:

It looks simple enough but, if you would have been there you'd know that the sunset that evening wasn't quite as spectacular as the photograph leads you to believe. That being said, I didn't use Photoshop or other post-processing wizardry to create these vibrant colors. I simply managed the colors and manipulated them the way I wanted them to be. To Natalija, the subject of the photo, there was nothing special about the photography - I just walked up and clicked a snapshot. It was the preparation I did prior that made the difference.

Here's what I did. Whenever I shoot outside, I think of the process as making two photos at once - one of the background and one of the foreground/subject. These two photos are squashed flat into the two-dimensional finished image we see. Each part has its own exposure and white balance - or, to put it in other terms, luminance and chrominance. If we're aware of these two factors, they can be molded in lots of fun ways. For the background of this image, I wanted really rich colors - big surprise, right? To get those rich colors, I needed to underexpose. I used a circular polarizing filter and bumped my ISO down a stop to reduce the camera's rate of exposure. I could have used a one-stop neutral-density filter instead of the ISO change but the ISO change allowed me to achieve the same result without putting additional filters in front my lens. I shot at f/3.5 with a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. You'd think I would have had to use a smaller aperture but the polarizer gobbled up sufficient light to knock down the exposure - along with the ISO adjustment. I didn't want to stop down the aperture too much because I knew I wanted to used a camera-mounted speedlight for the subject and wider apertures would work better with the speedlight. So the exposure for the background was a combination of the usual triangle of exposure - ISO, aperture and shutter speed - along with the polarizer. The result would have been fine but I wanted more color. So I came prepared with a FL-W filter on my lens. The FL-W filter is intended to color correct fluorescent light for daylight film. While it works fine for that, what I wanted was to use the filter for was its magenta color - a color that would make the sunset appear even more spectacular than it really was.

Of course, screwing the FL-W filter on my lens should have made Natalija look an odd color like she'd been holding her breath. But I came prepared. As I mentioned, I had a speedlight on my camera so Natalija's exposure was driven mainly by ISO, aperture and flash power. For clarity, the camera body was set to manual mode to control the background and the flash was set to TTL so the speedlight would adjust its power based on the camera body's internal light meter. TTL does an okay job but with this shot I had to dial down the flash compensation a couple of stops. But what about the color of light, right? Well, I knew that Natalija's exposure would be primarily from the flash so I put a  Rosco Tough Plusgreen gel on the speedlight. This gel is intended to color correct for fluorescent light - and it's exactly the opposite of the FL-W filter I had on my lens. To put it another way, the two colors are complementary. So the flash put out green light, bounced off Natalija and was filtered by the lens filter so normal light reaches the lens. The light from the flash has virtually no effect on the background but the FL-W filter does. The result - a gorgeous sunset that never was with a normally colored subject in the foreground. Best of all, it takes significantly longer to explain than it takes to set up and shoot!  How much fun is that?!

"Too Good To Be True" = Kiss of Death for Local Business

Austin Texas Portrait Photographer Tim Babiak

When you're in the portrait photography business, marketing is key to success. One of the latest marketing tools is provided via "deal-of-the-day" websites like Groupon and Living Social. The way they work is simple. A provider (such as a portrait or wedding photographer) comes to an agreement with the website as far as the structure of a deal to offer to the website's subscribers. In general, these deals include steep discounts - generally 50% or more. Subscribers to the website who buy the deal get a coupon they can redeem for the goods and services. Typically, the money collected by the website is split 50/50 with the provider (such as a photographer). 

I've had conversations with many other photographers and opinions are mixed. In general, more experienced shooters way they want to stay away from this tool because they don't want to marginalize their business. For example, if they offer a $350 session for 50% off, they wind up collecting $87.50 for the session then they need to try to upsell to make a reasonable margin. On the other hand, new photographers looking to build their client base generally see this "deal-of-the-day" tool as a great way to jumpstart their business. Which is right?

Yesterday, a news story came out about a beauty salon that used one of these sites and ended up going out of business as a result. (The full story is at this link.) Apparently, the salon offered a $499 package of services for $99. The offer was so compelling that 5,000 people signed up for it! If you do the math, that means that the deal-of-the-day website as well as the salon would get a check for close $250,000 from the sale of the voucherss! That was the good news. The bad news was this - the salon was on the hook to deliver the services it had promised. According to the news story, "the salon would have to give nearly 14 half-day treatments every single day for one year to honor all the vouchers." Take the math a step further - assume each treatment can be performed by one person. You'd need seven people working full-time for a year to fulfill all of the coupons. That means each person would make about $35,000/year during that time before paying overhead to the salon. To some people this may sound like a nice living but, to a salon services provider making $60,000 - $80,000/year it's a nightmare. To mitigate the situation, the salon apparently limited the number of coupon sessions it offered and before you knew it, according to the news story the salon's "voicemail greeting said they were booked into 2012 for the voucher."

Over the weekend, after 34 years of business, the salon abruptly closed.

That story was about a beauty salon and this blog is about photography so what's the relevance, right? If you're reading this blog, you're either a photographer or someone who is a customer of photography. For either party, these deal-of-the-day websites can provide a "too good to be true" offer if you're not extremely careful. If you're a customer, you may find yourself with a voucher that's difficult or impossible to redeem. Remember, most quality photographers don't deeply discount their services. If you're a photographer, you may find yourself with a stack of business that doesn't add up to much revenue at the end of the year.

It's entirely possible that these websites can provide a deal that's a win-win. That being said, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Proceed with caution.                                                                                                                


Portrait Photography Summer Style

Austin Texas Portrait Photographer Tim Babiak

As the weather warms up, people want their portrait photography done outside and Rachel was no different.  She came to me for a session and wanted some time in the studio and time on location.  When she showed me the outfits she brought, I knew immediately which ones would work for the types of shots she wanted.  She wasn't too crazy about her bright, polka dot outfit but I knew it would be perfect for shooting by the lake.  After shooting in the studio, we headed to the lake but Rachel had forgotten her earrings and other accessories.  While Rachel was disappointed, I was glad because I knew the absence of accessories would work better in the image to avoid overstyling - the dress would say enough.  It didn't take long to get the shot I wanted - Rachel relaxed and posed like a pro.

I kept the lighting simple for this session so I could run and gun.  It's just an on-camera speedlight balanced with the ambient to knock down the ambient and lift Rachel to the forefront of the image.  Fun stuff!


The Essence of Portrait Photography

Austin Texas Portrait Photography Tim Babiak

When you're doing portrait photography, you can take several approaches. For me, I try to accomplish two things. First, I want the final image to be the best image the subject has ever had made of them. The second goal is to create a portrait that is about the subject. In other words, the image shouldn't get comments like "great photographer!" or "beautiful lighting!". With these two goals in mind, I try to keep it simple. If there's a story to be told, I want it to be a simple story. If there's an expression then subtlety should be the hallmark.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to work with a talented young photographer and model named JonyRose. JonyRose went on to win the award for "People's Choice - Photographer" at the first Austin Fashion Week. At a young age she was great on both sides of the camera. With her work in front of the camera she had done a number of interesting editorial themes. As we planned the shoot, I suggested to JonyRose that she lacked a headshot in her portfolio. She said she wanted a headshot that incorporated a rose necklace that signified her name. With a portfolio of extreme images, I wanted an image that drew the viewer in with its simplicity and the subtlety of expression. This is what we came up with.


Tragically, about a year after we shot together, JonyRose died unexpectedly. The Austin photography and modeling community was shocked and distraught. One of its own had been taken by sepsis. In the ensuing memorial services I saw that the image we created was used. I soon found out that this image was JonyRose's favorite. I was stunned, humbled and honored.

If you're in Austin, on Saturday, April 2, friends of JonyRose have organized a benefit for the Sepsis Alliance - If you can't attend the benefit, visit to make a donation.

Does Having Haters Mean You've Made It?

Today, I got an odd message over on ModelMayhem.  Another photographer I didn't know named Jason Harper wrote to tell me that a second photographer I didn't know, Kenneth Man, was tearing apart my work and sent me this link.  In the link, Mr. Man shows a variety of images in an effort to show that the associated photographers don't know what they're doing.  His point is that white backgrounds should render at 255 when you use the threshold command in Photoshop.  He posted an image of mine then used the threshold to show that "the background of this photo is not white at all."  Unfortunately, Mr. Man has it wrong.  It's widely accepted that a background doesn't need to be 255 to be white - values with no color bias above 245 render as white.  In fact, I've worked with commercial photographers that don't want to have values above 245!

All in all, this was an odd event for me.  The image Mr. Man chose to criticize is one that I've received many compliments on.  For the life of me, I just couldn't figure why this guy picked my stuff to criticize.  Then it occurred to me.  He must have a high opinion of me.  Ironic, isn't it?


Austin Texas Portrait Photographer Tim Babiak

It's Spring and it's been warm in Austin.  I see some of the weather reports from around the country and we're lucky - today we're in the 80's and it's mid-March! 

Given the warm weather, a week or so ago I rounded up some photographers and one of my favorite models, Ivy, and we headed out for some evening shooting.  The location was Austin's South Congress area - a quirky mix of art shops and great little photo spots.  On the first Thursday of each month, these shops stay open and people come out - so we had a great backdrop and some crowds to work as well.  Ivy was great - she loved the attention and really kept her energy high during the shoot.  I've shot Ivy several times before so this time I wanted something different.  I wanted images that were less posed and I wanted images that showed a strong off-camera connection.  I tend to shoot more in-studio so shooting "run and gun" on location was a bit out of my comfort zone.  To keep things simple, all I brought was my camera with a 70-200 and an on-camera flash.  I gel'd the flash with a 1/2 CTO so the flash would be similar in color to the late day sun.  Some of my shots used the flash as a key light, others as fill.  A shot like this used the late sun as the key light - just a touch of fill from the flash and you'd hardly even know it.  Keep an eye out for the magic moment during the golden hour and it's all easy, right?  Well, Ivy makes it easy.

Pageant Headshots

Austin Texas Pageant Headshots Photography Tim Babiak

I've been getting a lot of interest in headshots for pageant contestants lately.  Last week, Brittany contacted me and said she needed her headshot done in a rush for a pageant application.  Brittany has a classic beauty look so she was easy to shoot - just a beauty dish above and a triflector below.  We tried three different gowns and this is the one she chose.  I think she'll do well!

Believe in Yourself

Austin Texas People Photographer Tim Babiak

I wish I could learn to believe in myself more - I guess we all do.  I'll get an idea for an image but I'll immediately think, "nah, that's dumb!" 

Such was the case with Eleya.  Eleya was one of the first models I worked with and she believed in my skills more than I did.  The first time I shot with her, I asked her if she had any ideas she wanted to try and she sent me to a list of about 100 photos that she wanted to copy.  At that time, I was terrified to try to copy a photo.  And here was this gorgeous model who was asking me to do just that.  Well, that first shoot went pretty well, I guess, because Eleya got back in touch with me to do a shoot for a new magazine.  Gulp!  A magazine?  I had barely shot for a year and this model was going to drive 100 miles to shoot with me and bring people from a magazine with her to video the shoot?  Okay, now I was petrified.  I had some angel wings and I knew Eleya wanted to shoot with them so we came up with some ideas for the shoot.  While the magazine editors were there, I hesitated to reveal my idea.  I figured it would be..."dumb".

Well, the magazine people had to run before the shoot was over so I knew I had my chance.  We shot the image above and later showed the images to the magazine people.  They saw this shot and went crazy!  They said they had wished they stayed so they could video the shooting of this image!

Then, they used it as they're cover shot.  Holy cow.

Believe in yourself - you never know what might happen.