March 13, 2017

The 10% Rule - Chicago Photographer Elizabeth McQuern on Editing

Every savvy consumer of our material culture understands that every photograph you see in the media is Photoshopped (or otherwise edited). I hate the degree to which our exposure to these literally false ideals change the way we think of ourselves, make us feel insufficient, and propel us to stores to buy all the "stuff" we think will make us beautiful and therefore happy.

I recently saw and before-and-after photo of Beyonce (forgive me for not being able to include the accent mark on her name!) and was shocked - they hadn't just done the usual things like I do - brighten teeth and eyes a bit, brighten highlights in hair a little, put a tiny twinkle in my subject's eye.

But what shocked me was how much they changed the tone of her skin, and the actual shape of her face and features. They changed the shape of her face and of her nose and of her jaw. The changed the shape of her brow ridge. She was a different person.

Photoshopping is possibly my favorite part of the photography process (okay, it's second to the shoot itself, especially the fun or experimental ones), and I'm entirely self-taught, but there are certain rules of thumb I've put together for editing/retouching, and specific goals with each project.

I don't have rules in any particular order, but my general goal for my editing is to show someone at their very best, in a very natural way. I don't want to change who they are. I don't want to make them unrecognizable.

I don't want to "fix their face." Nobody's face needs "fixing." I'm trying to create the best photograph that I can, so I mostly make changes in light (or lack thereof) and color. Sure, some people have a blemish, I'll touch that up, but the moles on my chin? Those are part of my face! That's what I look like.

Like a lot of newbies, I've been guilty of learning a new editing trick and then overdoing it, spurred by the excitement and the novelty of the new power.

My general rule is 10%. Brighten eyes or teeth - but not more than 10%. Beyond that, it seems more artificial. It's not natural looking. Lightly touch up the highlights in someone's hair - 10%. Otherwise, you're making them look like people they aren't. 

Of course, there are other reasons to Photoshop - sometimes when I can't control my environment and get sufficient light, I choose to shoot with a lower ISO, resulting in a darker, but higher quality image I can easily increase expose with today's amazing editing programs.

Sometimes somebody has a crazy curl that just won't sit down like the others. I don't feel like it's dishonest to clone that curl out. Sometimes (all too often, actually), my three-year old son runs through the shot in his underpants. Once, when I was doing a fun outdoor portrait session with author Zoe Zolbrod, we had framed a gorgeous photo of her on a park bench, the beach and water and greenery behind her, a lighthouse poetically off to one side...and suddenly a chocolate lab hunching over and doing his business. Believe me, if that had been the perfect shot but for the photobomb, I would have cloned out the dog and considered it a success.

Sure, sometimes I go crazy, exploring new techniques and doing crazy things with colors - changing shirt colors just to see if I can do it, trying contouring and adding makeup to people's faces (same reason).

But, of course a photo for a client needs to be the way THEY want it to be. We talk our project ahead of time, explore the possibilities, clarify expectations. And that's when I can feel pretty confident (and edit more quickly) if I use the 10% rule.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to check out more of my work at http://elizabethmcquern.com/.

March 11, 2017

Superspy Photographer Elizabeth McQuern Nabs Surprise Chicago Proposal Photos!

Sometimes the universe works in strange, mysterious, and beautiful ways. As a photographer, you chase down jobs in every way you can think of, but every once in awhile a very special opportunity just falls in your lap.

Awhile back, via social media, a friend of a friend of a friend (yes, you counted the amount of "friends" correctly) contacted me because he was bringing his longtime girlfriend to Chicago for a vacation away from their hometown of New Orleans.

His name was Phillip, and he wanted to propose to his girlfriend Taylor in a beautiful spot in Chicago, and he wanted the proposal surreptitiously photographed.
"What fun," I thought, and I thanked my friend Chip Aucoin (a longtime comedy friend and lovely human being) for being the friend of the friend of the friend who'd thought of me and introduced me to the future groom, and after a few emails with Phillip, I accepted the job. We went back and forth a few times about how to find a spot that would be easy for them to find, easy for me to get to, and, of course, beautiful.
Luckily for me there is a gorgeous one-mile long Chicago public park right by my house where I photograph clients as much as the weather allows, and I just knew it would be the perfect place for this special moment. Phillip texted me a photo of himself and his intended, and I did the same. We coordinated our timing and crossed our fingers.
As it happened, that day was a bit overcast (natural overcast light is the best, most beautiful light for photography), so I felt good about that, although I was a little worried about the small sprinkles of raindrops that were flitting down from the sky intermittently. Would I get raindrops on my lens? Would the rain get harder? I had an umbrella, but would I be able to wrangle it and the camera?
We had chosen a specific spot for Phillip to pop the question, so I found the ideal location for myself to sort of hide in some pine trees with my zoom lens. Due to the weather, the park wasn't terribly full, so I felt a little self-conscious pretending to take photos of trees and an empty park until they arrived.
At one point a man walked by with his two dogs, looking at me, clearly a little puzzled about what exactly I was doing, but luckily for me I'm a pretty non-threatening-looking person. Nevertheless, I did get a little nervous when a Chicago Police SUV pulled up behind me at the same time that I saw Phillip and Taylor stroll into the park.
Everything went PERFECTLY. I could tell Taylor was a little unsure as to why they had pretty much gone directly from the airport to this park, beautiful though it was. I realized my hands were shaking with excitement and nervousness a little bit as he hugged her, gave her a big romantic smooch, and gave me our agreed-upon and unmistakeable signal (one arm waving frantically up and down). This was the moment! Phillip got down on one knee, the beach, the beautiful blue sky, and the beach behind him, and a beautiful woman in front of him. He pulled the box out of his pocket and she immediately began to cry tears of happiness.
She cried and he teared up a bit and they hugged and hugged and hugged (and I wished I was close enough to hear their happiness), then I saw him point to me, and explain that I'd been there the whole time, and we walked toward each other. I hugged them both and congratulated them. Their joy was palpable and I was delighted to be a part of their special moment.

Then the police in the SUV behind me flipped their sirens on for a moment and we all looked over as they gave Phillip and Taylor a congratulatory thumbs up.

They were so cute and so happy I invited them back to my home studio for a few special bonus photos. I had some hand-made heart-shaped decorations left over from my last Valentine's Day shoot, and I wrote "engaged" and put the date on one, and laminated it as a keepsake for them for their special day. We took some cute couples photos and some closeups of the ring, which was stunning.

I wish I had kept the texts I got from Phillip when he reviewed the photos and chose the ones he wanted finalized and Photoshop - it was another testimonial from a happy client that made me feel proud, and happy, and very very lucky to do something I love so much.

Feel free to check out more of my work at http://elizabethmcquern.com.

September 29, 2016

Blast From My Past - Lincoln Lodge 17th Season Cast Photo


As some of you may be lucky enough to already know, Chicago has a bustling stand-up comedy element in its city. Big fancy theaters, grimy little bars, and everything in between host Chicago's local stand-up talent every night of the week. And there is a LOT.

Chicago's longest-running independent comedy showcase is the legendary Lincoln Lodge, now entering its 17th year. If the show were a person it would be old enough to drive, and old enough to get a fake ID and make terrible personal choices! (Rumor has it yours truly enjoyed a brief stand-up career and herself performed once at the Lincoln Lodge - but that's a story for another day.)

The Lodge is a cast-based show that survived the sudden loss of their long-time venue, the Lincoln Restaurant, and landed triumphantly at the awesome Subterranean, where they continue to highlight the best of Chicago's stand-up and variety talent, as well as bringing in national names and Chicago-spawned comics who have found success in New York or Los Angeles.

I was flattered when the Lodge asked me to take their Season 17 cast photo. The visual gag was "everyone in prom dresses," generally pretending to be drunk, the day after prom, on a playground. 

By some utter miracle, the show's longtime producer Mark Geary managed to schedule 8 comedians to show up at my house at 8 AM on a Sunday, and after some fidgeting and emergency clothes-pinning of dresses, we ambled up a few blocks to a playground where I take my kiddo a lot, and we struck 5 different poses in 5 different places, and got some really great shots. 

Satisfied that we'd gotten the shot we wanted, we headed back to my house. Impulsively, the cast decided to jump up on a dumpster in my back alley for a few last photos, and - of course - THAT WAS THE PHOTO THEY WENT WITH. The one we hadn't even planned. Funny how things work out that way. The spontaneous, impulsive choice was the right one. 

Find out more about my work at my website:

September 28, 2016

Steinways and Tomatoes - A Family Reunion

My brother's spouse had not seen his aunt (his father's twin sister) or his two first cousins in over 15 years. Sunday my husband and son went to their house to meet the family, and it was a beautiful day of enjoying the outdoors (eating tomatoes straight off the vine!), running around the yard, and getting to know each other.

Much like my brother-in-law, his family are the warmest, friendliest people you've ever met in your life. We all struck up easy conversations, and of course my son enjoyed being the center of attention most of the time.

I could see a physical resemblance among them all, and definitely the same love of laughter and music. Paul sat down at his Steinway and began playing a song from his early days in church as a little boy, and the entire rest of the family began to join in singing the song! He had no idea they all knew the words, and it was truly a beautiful moment. I would have cried, except Paul put me in charge of taking a brief iPhone video of the song.

I haven't friended them on Facebook yet or reached out to them otherwise, and I don't post people's photos without their permission, but I thought I'd include some I took of my husband and kiddo while we were there that day. Do you think my son gets enough attention and playtime? (Yes. Oh, yes, he does. I think that top photo of him tackling my husband is the very definition of the word "frolic.")

Find out more about my work at my website:
http://elizabethmcquern.com/

September 22, 2016

L's First Birthday Party - at the Vienna Beef Factory and Cafe! - Elizabeth McQuern Photography

One of my favorite kinds of photo gigs is a good old-fashioned little kiddo birthday party. What's not to love? Happy little kids excited to see each other, hyped on up sugar and the excitement of a guitar-led singalong, and I usually have a minute to sit down and snag a piece of birthday cake myself. When in Rome, right?

A recent client wanted to plan something "very Chicago" for her daughter's first birthday, and so booked the back room at the Vienna Beef Factory and Cafe!

As a photographer, I was thrilled with the choice, because the place was brightly lit and extremely colorful.

There were balloons and photos and treats and snacks and toys and gift bags and - yes - hot dogs! Lots and lot of hot dogs.

Well-wishers included approximately 15 one-year olds plus their parents. Many a pickle was munched, a smash cake was, well, smashed, and a good time was had by all.


The musical entertainment led us all in a rousing edition of "Wheels on the Bus" (are children born knowing this song? I've yet to meet a kid who doesn't know at least 15 verses of this tune).




The star of the party, little L, came in wearing the most awesome purple tutu I've ever seen, with a jean jacket on top to remind you she's also edgy when it comes to fashion choices.

She was quite cheerful the whole time, and I even managed to snap a few cute pictures of two of her friends who are birthday twins (birthday triplets?).

And later, when it was over, and I was reviewing the thousands of photos I'd taken that day, I came across one I didn't even remember snapping - an adorable rear-view that was just too cute not to include in the final collection.

Because when you're serious about partying, there's no amount of tulle or big fluffy diaper that's going to keep you from dancing with your friends and celebrating your special day.

Happy birthday, little L. Thanks for letting me share in your special day, and may you have many, many more happy birthdays to come.

Visit my website at http://elizabethmcquern.com/.

June 30, 2016

I've Photographed My Husband's Headshots - 3 Times in 9 Years

My husband and I met through Chicago comedy. First we were stand-up open mic buddies (along with two friends of his, fellow members of the production company Blewt!, which he's been associated with since its beginnings), then, as I slowly started moving behind the camera, producing live shows like Chicago Underground Comedy - aka "ChUC" - for 8 years and creating original short comedy films which were screened at places like Second City, The Lincoln Lodge, and the Just For Laughs Festival), I happily became sort of a "silent partner" in his comedy adventures, usually with my camera in hand. (Our current comedy status: Bryan is in his eighth - I think? - year of teaching at The Second City, and I'm on "indefinite maternity leave" from ChUC, currently making my first comedy short film in four years, shooting about every two weeks because I have a, you know, baby.) 
I took photos at several of Blewt's show "Don't Spit the Water," a live comedy game show that ran for ten years, and was pitched by the Blewt! gang to the bigwigs at Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon. Blewt! is a broadly talented group of real creators, several of whom started doing improv in college together - including Bryan - so there's 15 years of comedy bonding between these crisply quipping judges of the acts comedy performers have only a week to put together.
I sat in the front row and took photos of almost every season (8, so far) of Blewt's "Impress These Apes," a ridiculous and brilliant 8 week talent show in which Bryan played one of the Ape judges, Bushmeat, the hyperintelligent redneck ape from the future. (Combining those two descriptors was a feat of its own, if you ask me.) The concept of the show is that a scientist created superintelligent apes which turned on humanity, and traveled back in time to judge an 8-person comedy show, the results of which would determine the fate of humanity. (I know..."what??") I followed the show from the Playground Theater to the Lakeshore Theater to ComedySportz, where it's been for the last few seasons. Here's a cool Tribune review of the show, featuring one of my credited photos!
To add to the ridiculousness of the show's premise, there's the fact that Blewt's senior producer Steve Gadlin took his silly idea "I Want To Draw A Cat For You" on NBC's "Shark Tank," and convinced Mark Cuban to invest $25,000 in the concept as a business. That's Bryan in the middle in the photo of the three apes. Paul Luikart (Captain Apehab) is to his right and Erica Reid (April Mae) is to his left.
But the funny thing is, only 3 times since we've known each other has he let me take headshot portraits of him, and only when he REALLY needed them (for publicity for a show, for the "teacher's wall" at Second City, etc.). And even then, about 75% of his photos were him making such ridiculous faces that the photos would be utterly useless as headshots or promo photos. Kind of like our three year old.
I am a compulsive photographer who has the camera out and is focusing on something every single day. But none of the people in my family give a crud about stopping what they're doing to "pose" for me. Husband, kid, and cat. Which is cool. I would feel the same way. When I'm doing something I enjoy, I don't want someone bugging me. It's usually when I unobtrusively record a natural, pure moment with a click of my camera, that I'm really, really excited about a photo.
And although I have lots of cute closeups of my husband and son together, I've always had a fondness for the photos that focus fuzzily on them from afar. It makes the photos feel more universal. It could be any father and son. It could be you and your dad when you were three, or you and your now-grown son when he was but a wobbly toddler.

Check out more of my photos at my website.

June 28, 2016

The Opera "Quantum Mechanic," Directed By Andrew Snyder

My brother Andrew Snyder, a creative director, has been working as a director of John Bilotta's opera "Quantum Mechanic," as staged by Chicago's Floating Opera Company. (You can also find the Floating Opera folks on Facebook.)

I had the pleasure of being there to photograph both a pre-show costume fitting, a rehearsal, and also a performance, which was in the Peterson Garden Project's Community Cooking School at the Broadway Armory.

The show is described as a "an interactive culinary experience and opera performance. The event begins with mixology, food demos, and tasting with Chef Alvin Yu of Fyusion Dining."

My brother found a fabulous costume designer, Kate Setzer Kamphausen, who put together beautiful, colorful dresses for the ladies (the men weren't quite as colorful).

As New Fangled Opera describes the show (which clocks in at a tidy 15 minutes), "Quantum Mechanic is a quirky comedic short opera. Mrs. Schroedinger is preparing a dish in her kitchen when suddenly, her quantum QRX-3000 Refrigerator malfunctions, ripping a hole in time and space. As beings start to materialize from other dimensions, she calls for the help of the Quantum Mechanic. The mechanic soon realizes that he cannot fix the problem without destroying the alternate universe, but he must do what he has to do before all universes are lost. After the harrowing ordeal, Mrs. Schroedinger’s dish is perfectly prepared and order is restored."

I always love the energy backstage before a show, and the feeling of having a "pass" to run around in the green room, sneak photos of the set before the show begins, and generally soak up all the performers' excitement, while knowing my function is entirely behind the scenes, therefore avoiding anything even close to performance anxiety. (I did this for 8 glorious years as the producer of Chicago Underground Comedy, armed in that case with a videocamera rather than taking photographs, but the feeling is the same. Supporting other artists and showing them at their very best is an instinct that serves this creative introvert very well!)

Chicago is a huge theater town, and though my inclinations have always been more toward the comedic, I wouldn't mind being in and around more theater/musicals in a photographic context. So everyone be sure to let my brother know he needs to direct more operas. ::wink::

And be sure to check out more of my film and photography work at my website.








May 6, 2016

Photographing Toddlers in Their Natural Environment

When I started out doing photography, it was usually in a comedy context. I was either in the audience at my now-husband's shows taking photos, or getting my feet wet with headshot/portrait photos for comedians and an actor or two. 

After my son was born, friends' predictions that he would become "the most overphotographed child in history" came true pretty quickly. And before long, I started bringing my camera along on playdates, and taking photos of my kiddo's tiny pals as well. Obviously now I do lots of children and family photography, and I absolutely love it. Kids' birthday parties? I'm in! Your little boy's special portrait for his great-grandmother? I love it! The whole fam damily? I can do that, too. 

One thing I learned quickly while working with small children is that you cannot pose them. They do not care in the least that Mommy and Daddy booked a photographer and want a cute photo for their Christmas card. And why should they? Their main job is to play, explore their world, and learn social skills, both at home, and while playing with other kids. 
The best thing to do when photographing small children is to get them involved in an activity they love - playing in the park with a friend, painting on their easel, eating a special treat at a local cafe. I focus on creating a relaxed comfortable environment where the photography seems secondary. I speak to them the way I speak to my toddler - with a sweet tone, lots of affection, lots of silliness. They need to have fun! And I do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Often the kids even forget I'm there, and for help I occasionally ask for their mother or father to stand right over my shoulder to get their attention, so I can get some nice shots of them looking at (or close to!) the camera. 

The photos featured in this blog post are of my son's little pal S, who sadly has since moved away. My son still asks about her from time to time and he's a little bummed she's gone because they lived on our block and we enjoyed a lot of time together.

She and her mother met me and my son and husband at the nearby beachside playground and we ended up with a lovely, precious set of images of her playing and happy and enjoying herself. (Kudos to my husband for watching our child so I can photograph the other one! I can't do both things at the same time.)

Oh, and my other tip about photographing little ones: get on their level. Wear appropriate clothing such that you can work on the ground - crouching, kneeling, sometimes even lying flat - whatever it takes to get the right shot! Seeing them on their level and showing the world from their perspective can really freeze a moment in time that you'll cherish for the rest of your life. 







April 10, 2016

Long Time No Blog: Old Dogs and New Tricks

Clearly, it's been awhile since I've blogged. My last entry was 2014? Really? Wow. I've been very busy, but I do intend to make a more regular habit of it again, ideally with at least a little blog post about each photoshoot I do.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Photoshop! It's as powerful a tool as my camera itself, and when I have free time I want to spend on professional development, I often teach myself how to make the best of this incredible resource. Lately I've been doing a fun thing where I take older portraits I did before I knew anything about editing, and give them the full sparkly Photoshop treatment.

One thing I've learned to do it erase the original background (which is often the black or white 4 foot by 8 foot v-flats I had made) AND add in new colored backgrounds, gradients, or sometimes just silly stuff for fun.

For example, check out this fun pic of my friend Jenni Prokopy, the Chronic Babe herself! (Check out her website and you'll see many more photos taken by yours truly, not to mention a ton of brilliant resources helping women "living kickass lives in spite of chronic illness.") Jenni truly is a ray of sunshine and an inspiration to many.


This is a silly fun photo we took during a video shoot awhile back, and I thought it was just begging for some fancy-ing up. Not only did I remove the plain white background, I drew fun colorful circles behind her for extra fun!

Truly, this is a great time to be an autodidact - there's nothing I want to learn about Photoshop and its companion software Lightroom that I can't find multiple tutorials for online. Look for more examples from my "Photoshop remixes" series coming up soon!