Behind the picture: how to take atmospheric child portraits

July 21, 2021

In association with MPB

Emma did a lot of preparation, and carefully set up this gorgeous image
Nikon D780 with Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens, 1/250sec at f/1.4, ISO 1000

Emma Phipps’s winning image, ‘Nightlight’, is steeped in nostalgia, narrative and history. The idea for the image came from the chamberstick featured in the image. ‘It is extremely old and well used and has had a lot of repairs,’ discloses Emma, who continues, ‘It made me think about its history and who else had used it as their nightlight.’

Emma has created a few images at home over this last lockdown with a similar style, however this is not part of a bigger project. She had a vision in her mind of what she wanted to create and used a rough sketch to work out the idea and composition, making decisions about the model’s clothing and the candle’s position in the frame before setting up the shot.

Emma’s inspiration comes from fine art, especially artists such as Norman Rockwell and photographers such as Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk. ‘I’m inspired by her work,’ reveals Emma. ‘Her creativity is amazing.’   As anyone who has photographed children (and adults for that matter) will know, perhaps the biggest challenge is the cooperation, attention span and patience of the model.

Preparation is key and it’s vital to avoid fiddling with camera settings, scrolling through menus and adjusting lights while the model is waiting in position. For this image, Emma enlisted the help of her daughter, Hannah. ‘Asking her [Hannah] to sit for more than five minutes is difficult as she gets so bored. I have to make sure everything is worked out and set up before I ask her to sit for me – she is only five, after all.’

Nostalgic vibe
The mixed and complex lighting was the main technical challenge for Emma who has done a wonderful job of creating a rich, warm and nostalgic vibe through deliberate, skilful and creative use of lighting. ‘I wanted to create a nighttime image and
I tried to use off-camera flash but the images were not turning out how l wanted them to, so instead, I shot the image with natural light, late on a gloomy Sunday afternoon.

To turn day into the night I had to use Adobe Lightroom, using various combinations of gradient and radial filters and by using the colour grading tools I was able to cool the shadows and warm up the highlights – candlelight gives off a very yellow light so I used blues in the shadows to balance it out.

I originally wasn’t going to light the candle, I was just going to add a flame in post but the image just looked flat and I wanted to see the light reflected in her eyes.’  As the image was captured in daylight, Emma had to fix some anomalies that just wouldn’t be there at night.

‘My windows are very old and have a lot of scratches and marks on the glass,’ explains Emma, ‘so these had to be removed. I did a clean-up on the glass in Adobe Photoshop. The light shining off her face from the window also needed a light source so I decided to create a moon and moonlight using radial filters and the brush tool in Adobe Lightroom.’

Camera settings
Emma used a Nikon D780 with a 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art. ‘I had to shoot wide open (f/1.4) due to the poor light and as my subject couldn’t be relied upon to stay still I didn’t want to risk dropping my shutter speed too much,’ explains Emma. ‘I wanted to keep noise to a minimum and I knew my camera could handle ISO 1000 without too much trouble.

I use my Sigma 35mm 1.4mm Art lens the most at home, it is just great for indoor smaller, less- well-lit spaces. I shot this handheld and no other equipment was used. I love my Nikon D780, I have only owned it for six months. It has been a significant upgrade from my old Nikon D7100. I wanted a camera that could handle low light well and the Nikon D780 is just incredible in these challenging situations.

I also like the fact that it uses mirrorless technology when used in live view mode. I will probably move to a mirrorless system for my next upgrade but I am so happy with the Nikon D780 I don’t think that will be for at least a couple more years.’

Emma Phipps
Emma is a full-time wife and mother of two, living in North Wales. Her interest in photography came about because she wanted to capture her children’s childhood as it goes too fast. Her two children feature in a lot of her work. She also enjoys wildlife, nature and portrait photography. See for more of her pictures.

Nikon D780

* £1,739 body only (in Like New condition)
* 24.5MP full-frame CMOS sensor
* ISO 100-12,800 (ISO 50-204,800 extended)
* Hybrid AF system
* 3.2in, 2,360k-dot tilting touchscreen
* 12fps cont. shooting in live view (7fps via OVF)

Succeeding the Nikon D750, the D780 is possibly the company’s most versatile DSLR ever. It profits from some of the things Nikon has learnt from mirrorless to make it an even better all-rounder and the D780 excels in both stills and video. It has a 24.5MP full-frame CMOS sensor and a sensitivity range of ISO 100-51,200 which can be expanded to ISO 50-204,800, along with a quick 7fps shooting rate with the viewfinder or 12fps in live view.

What we said
‘The Nikon D780 is a blend of what we liked about the D750, with innards adopted from the Nikon Z 6 and a few other improvements added.’ ‘Operating the camera in live view mode is a completely transformed experience. Autofocus speed and response is much improved. This, combined with touch focusing via the screen, makes it a pleasure to use when you want to work quickly from shooting angles that aren’t best suited to using the viewfinder.’

What to pay
When we reviewed the Nikon D780 back in February 2020, it cost £2,199 (body only). Since our review, a used D780 in like new condition can be picked up for around £1,739 (body only).

MPB is the sponsor of Amateur Photographer of the Year 2021

Further reading
APOY 2021 now open
APOY round 7 is open: Portraits

Receive a free welcome gift worth £77.90 with your subscription!

Get your first 6 months of Amateur Photographer for only £57.99, saving 36%! PLUS, receive a free Passport Duo travel pack & JOBY portable mini tripod!