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Cake Smash Shoot


I'm not a pro photographer but have been snapping away for a while now. I did an A level in photography but waited so long after leaving school before buying a decent camera that I pretty much forgot everything. Now I'm getting better again but still in need of a little advice.

I've got the D3200 (obviously) and the 18-55 kit lense that came with it. I primarily take shots of my children with it and am aware it lacks quite substantially indoors for that. With that in mind we're planning a cake smash shoot for our youngest as she turns 1 in September. I want to get some practice in before then so I'm going to try and do a mini smash this weekend to see how things go.

Basically I'm wondering what settings would be best for this sort of thing?

We're going to do it outdoors to get the best possible light for this lense. I was also thinking of going with 35-55mm range on the lense depending on how close I want to get to her, Aperture priority mode, auto-ISO with 1/125 min shutter speed, lowest possible aperture, AF-S (but wasn't sure if I should be using AF-C), and I'm unsure about what's best in terms of focus and exposure. Because I'm thinking this is essentially a baby portrait, but she's bound to be moving about a bit because she'll be diving in to the cake. But then she's not likely to be really rapidly moving. So I'm unsure. Should I go with centre weighted metering and single point focus? Or do I need to make the most of auto-area focus?

Thanks in advance


  • I'd be inclined to try shutter priority here. If you're in aperture priority and auto ISO, the shutter speed will drop to 1/30 before the ISO changes, unless you make a menu change (which you indeed can). Whether you need the lowest aperture will depend a bit on whether you need to blur the background, and whether it's even possible to blur the background. If you don't, or can't, you might find it looks better to have a smaller aperture, and more sharpness all around. If you do want to try for a soft background, your best chance is at 55. But remember too that if you're very close, you need enough depth of field to get a whole face in focus. It's easy to overdo, and end up blurring things you don't want to.

    This last is a matter partly of taste. The blurred background in portraits is very nice when it's possible, but it's not always best if you're only able to blur it a little. If you're zooming right in you can still get a useful amount of blur/isolation even with the kit lens, and it's worth a try. Look for the best angle at which the background makes the least sense or is least identifiable as something specific. Consider getting down very low so you're not always looking down on your subject. Try to get at her own eye level.

    If the light is consistent, you might do better to use manual mode, set the shutter speed and aperture as you like, and let the ISO float. You can experiment to see what the highest ISO you can stand for noise is and then set that as a limit in the menu. Outdoors, with good light and people as the subject, you can likely go pretty high without worry, but you're probably best to block out HI and 6400.

    If the light changes very much you may have to change a setting, but within a reasonable range you should be OK, and chances are that in open daylight ISO will never need to go too high.

    If you're focusing mostly on the cake at the moment of diving, AF mode may not be that critical, but I'd likely use AFC so that it's possible to track the subject if you're in a position where she's moving toward you. ON the D3200, AFC is a little more forgiving. It's always in "focus priority" either way, but AFC is less fussy about perfect focus before it allows you to shoot. That could be a problem with a very fast lens up close, but it's likely to be a virtue in this case.

    Single point focus should work fine. I'd avoid auto area if there are many people around, because it can decide on the wrong subject or the wrong part of the subject. If you use AFC you can also try dynamic area focus, but single point should work fine at the speeds involved, and your best results will be if you can nail your subject's eyes. You're likely to have enough depth of field whether you like it or not, but the shallower your DOF, the more important it is not to have the AF wander away from that point. Even dynamic area and 3D, though often very effective, can stray a little if the subject is large in the frame. It's a common issue, for example, with birds in flight: the AF stays on the bird just fine, but because it looks for the closest point within the focus area, it shifts to a wing tip instead of the face. The further away the subject, the less that's a problem.

    3D will tend to jump around unless your subject is quite distinct from the background. Good for some things, but in a complex scene it can jump to the wrong thing. Auto Area will tend to look for the closest thing it thinks is a subject. That can work fine sometimes, but in a complex scene, and especially if there are others around, it can make a wrong choice. I've always found AFC and single or dynamic area work best, choosing single if the subject is fairly easy to track and fairly close (a baby is likely to work here), and dynamic if it's further away or moves too fast to track well (e.g. a butterfly on a flower).

    If the subject is moving sideways, you can pan, and if you slow down the shutter speed a bit, you can achieve background blur that way. The subject will be sharp, but the background will be blurred by movement. That may not work if the subject is moving slowly, but you can try.

    Depending on ambient light, distance, and so forth, don't dismiss the possibility of using the flash. Although the built in flash can be a little harsh by itself, it will default to "fill" mode when using the A,S,P,M modes, so if you set the meter correctly for exposure without flash, then actuate the flash, it will tend to lighten up dark faces a little, and may also help to stop motion. If it's tending to over-brighten, you can compensate the flash down by a couple of stops, and still open up faces just a little. A little fill can be very useful if you're doing this in bright overhead light, to minimize the "panda eye" effect that comes from natural shading.

    Don't forget to vary your distance a lot if you have time,, and to try at least a couple of shots way closer than you think you'll want at the time. Our natural vision tends to be very wide in angle but narrow in attention, and when we make a photograph it cancels our mental selection process. Things we ignored in reality intrude in a photograph, and what looked fine in the viewfinder looks busy as a photograph. Get the event first, but if you have time, be a little crazy and look for ways to simplify an image with composition and abstraction.
  • Hey thanks for the tips. I'm going to go for a more blurred background. We have a very nice location in mind that's got enough space so it shouldn't be too difficult to achieve.

    I'll have a little play with the settings you've suggested this weekend and let you know how the test shoot goes.

    Thanks again.
  • Hey. So we've done the shoot. Got some really good results that I and my wife are very happy with. Will post some pics up when I can work out how!
  • edited September 2017
  • Looks pretty good. You got the focus well. My only quibble would be that it looks a bit as if you clipped some highlights, but this may be partly a matter of how the images are printed or how they appear here, and may also be necessary to keep the face bright with all that white surrounding. It's a pretty high key scene by nature.

    If you shot Raw, I would suggest, just as an experiment, that you try lowering the exposure by a stop or so, or try some highlight restoration. If you are in JPG, check out Faststone Image Viewer, which has a surprisingly good highlight feature, in the "Adjust Lighting" section of the "Colors" menu. A little dab might get the definition.
  • Hey thanks. I shot them in Raw, haven't really had a chance to play with those files yet tbh, these are pretty much straight conversions.

    I have very limited experience in post editing so I tend not to do much because it's alien to me! Will try what you said though.
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