How did you take that picture?

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Some of my clients or fellow photographers often ask me “How did you take that picture?”. This can be answered differently to different people.

This portrait below was taken of one of my favorite clients and featured in my commercial last June in Long Island, New York.  As soon as I pressed that shutter, I felt something magical.  Not only had I fallen in love with this image instantly, but so did his parents and his grandma too.  My clients ordered two 16x20s. Why did my clients like it? More importantly, why did I love it? I’ll answer those questions shortly. To give you a bit more background about this image, in addition to being a special portrait, I discovered that this image won an international award in September 2011.  The feedback given by the judges including comments about the strong composition.

How did you take that picture?  NLP portfolio017 1024x681

Getting a 3 year old boy to play a harmonica while seated safely on a balustrade overlooking a lily pond was not easy.

How did you take this picture? This portrait was taken one afternoon early in June.  I used my Nikon D3s with my 24-70 at 40mm using only available light.  My first step before setting up the shot and positioning James was determining my camera settings and my composition.  I also took a few test shots of the scene.  Many of us know photographing kids is not an easy task and we don’t have unlimited time at our disposal.  I selected my f stop first.  I chose f 4 because I wanted most of the scene to be in focus, although the focal point was James playing the harmonica.  I had my ISO at 400 from a prior scene and found the shutter at 4000 gave me the proper exposure.  The sun was on the left side of the photo just in front of James.  The suns position added more interest to my portrait by creating beautiful shadows and highlights on the trees and bushes.  I didn’t mind the shadow on the balustrade or on James as it created great depth and dimension.

How did you come up with this concept? Like many of my portrait sessions, I had envisioned this photo of James long before we arrived at the lily pond.  There are a few stages in my photographic process, which can vary slightly for each shoot.  When my client commissions me for a portrait, I begin by asking them what the occasion is for their portrait.  I enjoy speaking with them on the phone to hear more about their family but would welcome an in person meeting in my studio.  For this portrait of James, I asked his mother what some of this favorite activities were.  Since I had photographed James before, I knew this angelic boy was from another era altogether. He’s definitely an old soul, very lovable, very gentile.  He loves to play instruments and has a lot of energy.  What’s important to me and to my clients is capturing James in his element.  His mother often takes him to the park and he’s always throwing a ball or playing instruments.  For this portrait above, we brought his harmonica.  Getting a three year old boy to play a harmonica while seated safely on a balustrade overlooking a lily pond was not easy as I mentioned.

How did you execute this concept? After getting my camera settings and composition,  we positioned his mom just behind the bush near her son.  Safety first! I think her hand was sticking out of one of the versions of this photo.  James loves to play instruments, but lets be real here folks, getting him to play for several minutes on a balustrade made of cement wasn’t exactly easy.  I used his age to my advantage.  Yep – I just wrote that.  At the tender age of 3, we have the ability to play make believe and stretch the truth a little bit.  Just as I was setting up the shot, I started talking to James about the lily pond. I told him that I was really excited to see all the frogs jumping around.  He looked around excited, but didn’t see any frogs. I said to James “just wait… if you play the harmonica over there, you’ll see a few frogs jump out and leap across the lily pads”.  James looked back at me with the biggest smile and I knew he was going to play his harmonica for me.

How did you compose this portrait and pose James? In this portrait, I  followed the rule of thirds keeping the water line on the lower quadrant line.  James was positioned just outside the bottom right quadrant.  The balustrade (cement wall) is just shy of the midpoint in this portrait.  The framing felt balanced to me due to the similar size of the water in the lily pond and the blue sky above. You’ll also notice similar shadows and shapes in the sky and in the water, creating additional balance in the photo.  There is also a very simple and serene color palette here.  I posed James towards the sun for more drama.  I framed and composed the portrait giving plenty of room for James to look ahead. If I had positioned James to the right just where the framing ended it wouldn’t feel right.  The picture would feel cut off.

Why did my clients like it? More importantly, why did I love it? My clients loved this image because it was truly James.   This was a moment in his life at the young age of three.  It was authentic in every way. His family sees this image and wants to embrace him and cherish this memory and this time in his life.  The years go by much to fast as we all know.   I often think if there’s anything I could ask for in this world it would be to have “more time”.  This portrait was taken on a beautiful spring afternoon with blue cloudy skies of one of my favorite clients.  I happen to adore Denise and her son James.  We spent so much time preparing for this portrait of James.  It came out better than I had ever dreamed. I pour my heart and soul into my commissioned portraits which can take weeks or months to prepare and when I took this picture I knew it would hold a special place in my heart.

How many hours of time was investing in this image? My estimation is 10-12 hours was invested in creating this image.  3-4 hours during the consultation and preparation, 1 hour on the execution and at least six hours processing and editing this photo.

STAY TUNED for more articles on “How did you take that picture?”.  If you enjoyed reading this article and are curious how I took any specific pictures, just email me at

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!


How did you take that picture?  pin it button
Noa - 12/30/2011 - 12:40 pm

This image is absolutely luscious. Love it Natalie!

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