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Lighting Tutorial: A Story of 10 Children Who Survived Cancer

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I was recently contacted by my cousin because a group was looking for volunteers to photograph 10 cancer survivor children. Without any hesitation, I contacted the person in charge and booked the shoot.

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Not many people know it, but over 200,000 children all over the world develop cancer each year. As a single entity, cancer is the world’s leading killer, being the cause of 8.26 million deaths in 2012. In my own country, the Philippines, about 3,500 new cancer cases will be diagnosed yearly. This amounts to almost 10 children each day.

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Late diagnosis is measured at 70%. For such cases, cure is no longer possible, or will require the most aggressive treatments that only few families can afford. Only 1 in 5 children will get effective treatment, mostly as paying patients. The abandonment of treatment is at 80%, and barely 2 in 10 children survive.

About My Child Matters Philippines

My Child Matters, a joint program of the Union for International Cancer Control and Sanofi Espoir Foundation, is driven by a most noble cause: The reduction of inequalities in the treatment of childhood cancer worldwide. Since 2006, it has funded efforts in the country to raise awareness among professionals about the early signs of childhood cancer. It has also funded, since then, efforts to develop a network of satellite centers throughout the Philippines for the treatments of children with cancer.

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In this article I will show you how I photographed each photo and also tell you the tell you the amazing story of each of the children.

For the photoshoot, we all went to my studio because I had all my gear and lights ready. I was using between 1 to 3 lights for each photograph and was only using the white seamless paper and also my big softbox for the background.

For my camera, I was using a Nikon D810 and Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens.

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Renz Michael S. Agustin, 21

Diagnosis: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, cancer free since April 2012

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“I was only 16 when I found out I had cancer. I was really surprised and scared, and I thought it was my end. Cancer takes a lot from you… most specially your time, and it brings so many difficulties to your family. But never entertain the idea of giving up.” His message to children still fighting: “Look at people who love you and use this to inspire you not to give up but to live for and reach your dreams!”

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Renz was the first one I photograph and I wanted to start with a very simple setup. I had a 60-inch silver umbrella on my left for the main light. I also moved him about 4 feet away from the background to get a grey background.

Hannah Kate B. Banaga, 8

Diagnosis: Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, cancer free since September 2015

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Cancer is something you don’t wish on any child. Much more if the condition is Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, a more difficult type of cancer. AML survivors are fewer than survivors of other types of cancer in children.

Such is the case of Hannah. Young as she is, Hannah had to fight for her life, knowing that fewer kids survive this type of cancer. According to Hannah the needles being inserted for the bone marrow were the most challenging experience she had.

She recalls: “When I feel weak, I call Papa Jesus. When I am strong, I thank Papa Jesus”

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For this shot I wanted a really white background and a rim light around the subject. I got a big softbox “Big Mama” and placed it at the back of the subject. The light for the background is about 2 stops higher than my main light which was an umbrella on the right side of the camera.

Ramielle C. Layugan, 6

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since November 2014

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Young Ramielle was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 1 year and 8 months. At the time, his mother Katherine knew nothing about cancer, save for it being a serious illness. When the doctor finally explained what cancer is, Katherine felt her world crumble.

Katherine remembers clearly. “Ramielle was just a baby, and I could not understand that babies can have cancer. When Ramielle had his last test, they could not sleep, and hoped for favorable results. And when they got it, and realized the ordeal was over, they were overwhelmed by emotion.

They knew Ramielle’s experience is unique, that it would only make him stronger… like a warrior.

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Still with the same background, I turned off the silver reflector on my right, and got a speedlight with a DIY snoot. I handheld the speedlight and aimed it towards his eyes to get just a spot of light in his face.

Kessa D. Alvez, 19

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since December 2011

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When one reaches a double-digit age, you feel you have a whole life ahead of you. The best times are about to begin — of being a tween.

But not for Kessa.

At the age of 11, she was diagnosed with ALL, and her life was thrown into a different world. “I was shocked,” recalls Kessa. “But quickly shifted to a positive attitude. I believe I could get better, and I just prayed and entrusted everything to God.”

As a competitive gal, Kessa was saddened when she kept from competing for honors in her school. What she did not realize was she was competing in a bigger fight called Life.

With support from her family, Kessa gamely faced all challenges and completed her chemotherapy program with so much to spare. In 2011, she was declared cancer-free!

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I went back to shooting with the white seamless paper as the background, but kept the big softbox as my main light on my right side and faced it towards me so I can only get the feathered light hitting my subject. I got two bare studio strobes and placed it at the back left and right of the subject pointing at the seamless paper to get it pure white. The strobe on the right side was titled a bit towards the subject to get a rim lighting on the right of the subject.

Seve Augusto S. Perez, 13

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since February 2008

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In September 2005 — one month after turning 3 years old — Seve was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Acute denotes the disease’s rapid progression. He started to meet doctors more than teachers, visited hospitals and laboratories more than parks and playgrounds, and slept more on hospital beds instead of his own.

He showed tremendous courage facing his affliction, especially when his condition turned from bad to worse in 2007, where he had multiple complications, and his doctors nearly gave up on him. But Seve pulled through. After all the 1000 needles he had to endure, Seve woke up from deep sleep and shared that God told him he could go home and play with his sisters again.

To him, it was a miracle.

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I wanted to have different lights for each children. For this shot, I turned off the two studio strobes pointing at the background. I then faced the big softbox towards Seve, 45 degrees. and I got a reflector but used the black side of and placed it on the left of the subject to get a deeper shadow.

Aliya Kate T. Paderan, 10

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since August 2014

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“No one will ever be ready to hear what doctors will say.. especially when they will explain to you that it is cancer.” These are the deep thoughts of Ernesto Paderan reflecting on their experience about her daughter Aliya was diagnosed with ALL, a cancer common in children.

“I had to stop almost all my usual activities. I couldn’t play with my playmates as often anymore. This was difficult but I knew I had to do it.”

The whole experience kept building Aliya’s strength of heart. For the rest of the family, it was difficult to see their daughter suffer, especially when she was having treatments that involved needles being inserted into her back, but the whole family had to be strong for her.

She was relieved that it was over, and that her father will now stop worrying so much about her health. This developed a strong and unique bond between the father and daughter.

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Two lights bare studio strobes at the back pointing at the white seamless paper, a big softbox on my right for the main light and a silver reflector on the left. Notice how far the subject is from the background to stop the light from the back hitting the subject. Almost all my shots were shot at ISO 64, 1/160, @ f2.8-3.5

Ayessa Euenie A. Baniel, 11

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since June 2012

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When Ayessas’s mother, Mayrine, found out her daughter had cancer, she said it was like hot and cold water were poured on her, all at once. “I did not know where to begin, I didn’t know where to find strength of heart.”

Mayrine tried to give her child as normal a life as possible, despite many limitations. She drew strength from Ayessa herself. Marine shares: “Ayessa wasn’t too stressed over her struggle because she was still a child. That kept us going.”

When the bone marrow test indicated that Ayessa’s cancer was in remission, Mayrine felt a deep sense of relief.

A battle had been won.

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This can also be done using a white seamless paper. But we had a newly bought grey seamless so I wanted to give it a quick test. The subject was just about 1-2 feet away from the background so that I could get her shadow to fall on the seamless paper. Big softbox on the right for the main light and silver reflector on the left.

Angelo M. Matias, 12

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since november 2009

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Angelo was so young he was diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t filly understand what was happening. But as he got older, having to wear a facial mask made him realize that he wasn’t like the other children.

Now 12, Angelo looks back: “I was not allowed to get tired, or to eat certain foods.” He adds, “I didn’t like the pain of being pricked by needles during treatment. But I had to do it.”

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With the same setup as above but now using a white seamless paper for the background.

James Lorence M. Ragua, 9

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since May 2013

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James’s parents are deaf-mute. So when he was diagnosed with ALL at 2 years old, one would wonder how the family could survive this. Communicating with doctors and nurses was a challenge, but with the help of James’ aunt, this was slowly addressed.

Her aunt recalls: “James would cry from treatments like bone marrow aspiration, blood extraction and chemotherapy. He would look for his real mother. But since I am the one who always accompanies him, I can only cry with him but at the same time, show him how to be strong. All throughout, I know the Lord would not give us something we couldn’t carry.”

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A clean and simple on white shot again using two bare studio strobes pointing at the background at 2 stops higher than my main light. The Mainlight was a studio strobe with a 60-inch umbrella on my left.

Yishin Lexie B. Peralta, 8

Diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, cancer free since March 2014

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“My mother and grandfather kept on bringing my to the hospital. I though I was always going to birthday parties, as there are always kiddie parties and activities in the hospital.”

ALL is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia which, is the cancer of the white blood cells. The Peraltas believed that God permitted them to bear this, so bear it they could.

Then finally, victory over ALL came! And when it happened, Yishin remembers this so well. “I prayed so much. This time, it was full of thank you to God for the blessing and I pray until that the other children will also graduate from cancer soon.”

For the setup I had my big softbox on the left and moved the subject about 5-6 feet away from the white seamless paper for it to get dark. I wanted to emphasize on the headband she was wearing so I got my a speedlight with a DIY snoot and pointed in on the flower on the headband.

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As a product and portrait photographer, I get paid to do advertisement work but I also believe that photography is not all about the money. Getting to reach out and help other people is priceless.

Photographing the kids was easy because they have very natural smiles and laughter, but you see something in their eyes that tell a different story, and knowing that these 10 children survived cancer and getting to meet them is something I would never forget.

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