If you had to choose one moment from a child's birthday party that perfectly summarizes the entire event, which one would it be? I’ll bet that most of you will say it's the moment when the birthday boy or girl blows out his candles. That's the right of passage that nearly all kids have as they mark each birthday. The candles are lit, they blow them out, and then they are another year older.
Unfortunately, this is also one of the most difficult moments of a party to capture well, particularly during an indoor event. And it's a fleeting moment, too, which means is that once it's gone, it's gone. So how can you get in there, capture that elusive moment and do it in the most effective way? Read on to find out.
Whenever you are preparing to shoot one of those fleeting moments, you absolutely must be prepared well in advance for what's going to happen. You know that the candles will be lit, the cake will be presented, “Happy Birthday” will be sung, and then the candles will be blown out—and that all typically happens in one minute or less. And because it's a birthday party, you can hardly ask the birthday boy for a do-over just because you didn't get the photo the first time.
Instead, have your settings dialled in ahead of time. You don't want to be standing there messing with your ISO setting just as the birthday boy takes that deep breath before blowing out the candles, because you'll miss the shot for sure.
Because this is almost always going to be a tricky lighting situation, I think it's a good idea to stage the shot ahead of time, that way you’ll have a good idea about settings prior to the arrival of the moment. For example, if you know the party is going to be at 3pm the following day, it doesn't hurt to get some candles the day before, set them up in the same place where you’ll be presenting the cake, have your child (or another helper sit in front of them), and then take a meter reading.
Candles can actually be a challenging lighting situation because you have a very hard light source appearing in the frame, possibly in a darkened room. Because candlelight is such a hard light, you may find that your camera’s meter will err on the side of underexposing. The reason it does this is because it assumes that everything in any given scene averages out to roughly a middle gray tone, and those very bright candle flames are throwing it off. So it's best to use spot metering to get the shot, because you'll need to expose for the birthday boy's face rather than for the candle flame.
To use spot metering, switch to manual mode and place the spot in the center of the viewfinder on your subject’s face. Now, your spot meter will assume that your subject’s face is a middle gray tone, too, so you’ll need to make some additional adjustments depending on his skin tone. Most Caucasian faces are about one stop above middle gray, and some people with darker skin are a stop below that. So if your subject has very fair skin, use an exposure compensation of +1, if your subject has very dark skin, use an exposure compensation of -1, and if it's somewhere in between, you can probably leave it at that middle point.
Make note of the settings you come up with, and then dial them in just before you light the candles at the party. Remember that what you meter the day before may not be exactly right for the conditions the following day—there are other factors like the presence of people standing in front of the window or changes in the weather conditions that may alter the amount of ambient light in the scene. But as long as you have a good idea of what your settings will need to be, you can make fine adjustments when the moment arrives without risking missing the moment.
Blowing out the Candles by Flickr user deltaMike
Whatever you do, don't use your pop up flash. Flash will completely destroy the ambiance of that moment—remember that the greatest appeal of candlelight is, you know, the candlelight. When you add flash, you take that mood completely out of the scene.
But you also know that you need to use a fast-ish shutter speed to freeze the action—in this scenario, at least 1/125, maybe even as high as 1/250. If the lights are low it might be a challenge to achieve that. So there are a couple of things you could do to help remedy this situation: first, you could try turning on a few lights nearby. Don’t go for the overheads because again, you want there to be some ambience from those candles. But try turning on a few lights in adjacent rooms, or try adding a low-key light such as a table lamp in another part of the room.
If that’s not enough, boost your ISO. You may have been told that you should always keep your ISO at 100, but this is simply not true. When you’re photographing people, especially people who are moving, you don’t need low ISOs. In fact it’s far better to trade a little bit of noise in exchange for a tack-sharp photo, so feel free to turn your ISO up as much as you need to.
Use a large aperture, too. If you have a 50mm prime lens, this is a great choice for those low-light indoor photos because you can select apertures up to f/1.8 (even f/1.4 if you have a mid-priced 50mm prime). A large aperture will allow you to use a faster shutter speed in low light, and that may be just enough to give you the boost you need. Keep in mind, though, that at large apertures you will get very limited depth of field, which makes it particularly important to choose a specific focus point (ideally, your subject’s eye—or perhaps the candles, or even one of each). The best way to do this is with single-point AF, which is the mode that lets you move your focus point around in your viewfinder using the joystick on the back of your camera.
White balance can be a challenge whenever you’re shooting candle-lit scenes, because while you do want to capture that warm glow that we associate with candle light, you don’t want to end up with faces that look too orange or red. Some cameras have a “candlelight” mode that will help with white balance, but I don’t like to recommend it because it doesn’t give you any control over things like shutter speed and aperture. Built-in white balance settings can come close but again, you may not get the results you’re looking for especially if you have some light coming from other sources. This is a great time to get familiar with your camera’s custom white balance setting (well, the day before, not the time of the event itself). All cameras do this a little differently, so consult your manual—but generally you’ll need to take a photo of a photographer’s gray card or a true white surface and then tell the camera to reference that photo when deciding on the white balance for that scene. This should give you perfect color results when the time comes—but just to be sure, you should also shoot the moment in raw (if your camera gives you that option). When you shoot in raw, correcting white balance after-the-fact is a simple process.
Now that we’ve got those settings figured out, let’s talk a little bit about how to capture the moment. The rules here are no different than they are for any other kid shot—get down to child’s-eye-level. Never shoot from a standing position, otherwise you’re going to create an image that looks just like it looks to every single adult who’s ever attended a child’s birthday party. Instead, shoot from a child’s-eye perspective—this makes it a lot easier for your viewer to relate to your subject.
Now put your camera in burst mode—the actual blowing-out moment is going to happen fast, so you’ll need to put your finger on the shutter button and leave it there until after the last candle goes out. But more importantly, make sure you’re shooting well before, because there are no guarantees that you’ll get a great shot during that very fleeing moment. There’s almost certainly going to be some time between the arrival of the cake and the moment the candles go out—usually during the “happy birthday” song. The cake is typically placed in front of the child, candles blazing, and she’s not going to blow out the candles until the song ends. So from the moment the cake appears in front of her, start taking photos. She’s probably not going to move around a lot during that time and her smile will be genuine.
Birthday parties only happen once a year, and the candle-blowing moment is only a few seconds out of each one of those annual events. If you’re not ready, another chance isn’t going to come around again for a whole year, and you’ll never be able to go back and capture that lost moment. So make sure you are ready! Check and recheck your settings and have your camera prepped and ready to go. Make fine adjustments just as the cake arrives and then put your finger on that shutter button. Don’t let go until the moment has passed. And if you’ve done it right, then you can be secure in the knowledge that you got it all on camera, so the moment hasn’t really passed at all.
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