Every year the holiday season brings a flurry of Christmas themed child portraits to the photography community. It’s easy to see why. Christmas is a magical time for children, and as photographers we want to capture that magic in an image that will bring parents- whether they be clients or ourselves- right back to that special moment in their child’s life. One especially enchanting and popular shot has the subject of the image, a child or group of children, sitting in front of a lit Christmas tree reading a story book that appears to have come alive with an enchanted glow and sparkles. Creating this magic book photo is actually pretty easy, and has two key elements: setting up the shot in camera, and playing up the magic in post processing.
Setting Up the Shot
There are three important aspects of setting up this shot. First, position your subjects slightly away from the background and in a straight line. Second, light the scene. Third, choose your settings based on positioning and lighting.
Positioning: Place your subjects a few feet from the Christmas tree. In the shot above the children are sitting about 5 feet from the tree. This allows the lights on the tree to blur a bit and create a beautiful bokeh effect. Because this shot was done in fairly low light, the children are positioned in a straight line. This allows for a wider aperture, letting in more light.
Light: The magic storybook shot can be done in a room lit only by the lights on the tree, but this image was taken in a room with a little ambient light. First, a little front light on your subjects allows the viewer to see the pajamas or holiday outfits worn by the children, as well as the storybook itself. This contributes to the special, cozy holiday scene. A little more light in the room also makes it easier to grab focus. This image was taken in a room with overhead lights on a dimmer, so the light wasn’t too terribly bright. You can also use a lamp or a softbox. Just keep in mind that incandescent lights may make the photo a little orange, and you may need to cool it down during the editing process. Don’t worry if the room is a little brighter than is ideal, we can darken the background in post processing to give the image a little drama. Alternatively, if you want the story book to be in silhouette, forego the ambient light and use your center focus point on something high contrast within the frame to help your camera grab focus on the children.
The second aspect of lighting this shot is inside the book itself. The most common way to get the book to “come alive” is to place a cell phone inside the open book. This image was shot while a cartoon was playing on the cell phone inside the book. You could also use the flashlight or torch function on the phone, but the video will hold a small child’s attention better, lending itself to the “rapt attention” look that helps to make the shot come alive. The other benefit of a cartoon playing is that the light tends to be warmer and softer than the flashlight, which blends with the soft lights of the tree and contributes to the inviting tone of the image more than the colder, whiter light of the flashlight.
Settings: This image was shot with a 50mm lens at f2.8. Even at f2.8, an ISO of 2000 was needed to keep the shutter speed high enough to avoid motion blur. Using a video on the phone helps here also. It amazing how still a wriggly toddler will sit when watching their favorite cartoon! A proper exposure is also a very important piece of this shot. Don’t shy away from raising your ISO. An underexposed image in low light will add grain more than a high ISO will. This image strives for a dreamy look, not a gritty one. So minimizing grain is an important aspect of setting this shot up in camera. Below is the SOOC image. Now we are ready to edit!
There are lots of variations of this shot out there, and just as many different ways to do the editing. You can purchase overlays and sparkles, presets and actions. Or, you can edit the entire image by hand. Either way, the goal is to manipulate the light and color in the image to give the illusion the story book has come alive. This particular image was edited with a few steps in Lightroom and a few steps in Photoshop.
In Lightroom, a matte preset was applied to the image: Cole’s Creation- Less Haze, from the Cole’s Endless Elegance Preset Collection. A matte edit doesn’t work on every photo, but the goal of this image is a dreamy and fantastical look, and matte works well in creating that feel. Next, the luminance slider was pulled up quite a bit, to around +40. Typically, photographers shy away from over using the luminance slider, because it can make the subjects look like they are painted more than photographed. But again, in this shot a less realistic look actually lends itself to the story being told. Remember, it’s a fantasy world. Using the luminance slider will also take care of any grain in the image due to having a higher ISO. Lastly, the image was cropped a bit to eliminate some distracting elements.
After initial editing in Lightroom, the image was taken into Photoshop to add the magic. In Photoshop the light and color in the image is manipulated and adjustment layers are used to apply the manipulation to specific parts of the image.
Curves: First, if the scene as a whole is too bright, the background can be darkened with a curves adjustment layer. To do this, bring up a new curves adjustment layer and pull the mid-tones on the curve down until the background is sufficiently dark. Remember that the adjustment will appear to affect the entire image, but which parts of the image receive the adjustment can be controlled with the paintbrush tool. Select a soft, round brush and use black to “paint” the darkening effect off the subjects. Black paint will obscure the adjustment, in this case, the darkening effect. If needed, the magical light coming from the book can be enhanced by doing this process in reverse. With a second curves adjustment layer open, pull the mid-tones up slightly to increase the “light” in the image. Invert this layer mask by clicking on the masks icon and then choosing “invert” from the menu on the right. Inverting the layer mask will obscure the adjustment from the entire image. Now the adjustment can be “revealed” just where it is needed by painting in white. Paint white over the portion of the image above the book and on the children’s torso and faces to give the impression the book is glowing.
Exposure: An exposure adjustment layer will allow us to add sparkles to the image. Add an exposure layer and pull the exposure slider a good bit to the right. This will make the image appear very over-exposed. Invert again, obscuring the adjustment, and then use a shaped brush in white to “stamp” sparkles into the image. Each stamp will reveal the very bright adjustment layer, and will look like a point of light. There are a great many sparkle brushes available for purchase, but this image simply used a standard Photoshop star shaped brush at varying levels of opacity and varying sizes.
Color Balance: At this point, the image is pretty magical and the result is really solid photograph any parent would treasure at the holidays for years to come. But, to add even more enchantment to this image, a few color balance adjustment layers will do the trick. Just like curves and exposure adjustment layers allow the light in a photo to be manipulated, color balance adjustments allow various hues to be manipulated. Again layer masks will be used to reveal the adjustments just where they are wanted. With each new layer, add one color to the image by pulling the slider toward the color being added to the image, then invert, and use the star or sparkle brush and white paint to reveal “sparkles” of that color in the image. Add colors and layers until the desired effect is achieved and the image is ready to be finished off back in Lightroom.
Back in Lightroom, the final adjustments made to this image are two inverted radial filters and a slight vignette. The purpose of these edits are to draw the eye into the subjects of the photo and create drama. The first radial filter is a small elliptical just inside the book, to enhance the magical light effect created by the cell phone. Inverting the filter keeps the effects inside the radial, otherwise the edit will be applied to everything outside the ring. Slightly increase warmth, exposure, highlights, whites; slightly decrease clarity and dehaze and set a fairly high feather. This will make the book really appear to be glowing. Adjust the sliders until the effect is soft, warm, and inviting. The second radial filter is a large soft one around the subjects. Invert this filter too, and bump exposure a bit, with a feather around 50, add a bit of warmth if needed. This filter adds a warm glow around your subjects. The final touch is a slight vignette at about +10 to pull the eye inward and make the image pop.
The final effect is a magical picture that tells a magical story; one you or your clients will treasure for years to come. Happy Holiday Memory Making!