My Favorite Holiday Portrait Session

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Being the holiday season here in the US, it’s pretty common for families to all squeeze together in front of their camera in the hopes of getting a great family photograph to use for their holiday cards to friends and family. If you’re like me, you get a stack of these in the mail every year and they’re all pretty much the same, mug shots from the entire family in a line, standing impatiently in the snow or in front of a Christmas tree. Standard operating procedure, right? Heck, I’ve been guilty of this myself and I know better.

I recently had the opportunity to shoot a family’s holiday photographs that were anything but boring so I wanted to share some of the images from our session. I wasn’t scheduled with them until later in the evening when it was going to be dark, and it was rainy and cold, so shooting outdoors wasn’t going to be an option. When I arrived and started to look around for environmental elements that might make a good background or pose photographic and lighting challenges, and noticed there was a Christmas tree which I (wrongly) assumed would be included, at least in part, in the photographs. As far as lighting challenges go I noticed that the entire back wall of the house was glass and would produce horrific reflections of my speedlights and myself if not taken into consideration. Surveying the area for ambient light sources I saw incandescent and fluorescent lights and lamps, not all of which I could gel my flashes to match, so I decided to just overpower all of the existing light with my speedlights and not have to worry about it.

We began to discuss what kind of image they were after and I immediately knew this wasn’t going to be the typical holiday family photo shoot. They already had some great ideas for their family photograph that ironically didn’t include standing in front of a Christmas tree. This was going to be fun.

I started scouting around for an appropriate background we’d use and realized there really wasn’t an area I could use that wouldn’t be distracting. There was a fireplace that might work if I could get them far enough away from it to throw it out of focus with a large aperture while keeping them all within an acceptable plane of focus. And if I had the option, I would have preferred to underexpose the background by a stop or so to further emphasize the family, but given the distances involved to get the image that I had in my mind, it would be next to impossible. The lighting was also going to be challenging since their ceilings were low and light colored. Without leveraging a couple of softboxes to control the light spilling onto the background I wouldn’t be able to underexpose the background the way that would get the image in my mind. Oh, did I mention that I didn’t have any softboxes with me? So, not an option. And just a side note, I could probably pull this off with the umbrellas that I did have with me if I could get the distances I needed between the subjects and the background. I would’ve needed to crank the power of the flashes to full power and move them as close as possible to the subjects. Metering my exposure for my subjects, the light at that power and distance would fall off rapidly enough that I would probably get the background underexposed as desired (think inverse-square law). I began to think that we better start looking for a different background since we’d need to move even more furniture around, and it was starting to become one of those situations where we might be beating a square peg through a round hole and I better start coming up with some new ideas. I did come up with some good options in my head but they conflicted with what the family wanted to accomplish, so it was time to fall back and punt.

Despite my “fast and light” propensities for gear and workflows, I did happen to drag along my Westcott X-Drop portable background system which turns out was just the right piece of gear for this particular situation. I asked if that would work and showed them the different backgrounds that I had brought with me and they loved the idea of simplifying the image and basically setting up an onsite studio. They selected the studio gray background and we were off to the races. One thing that I had to consider with the X-Drop, rather the size of the X-Drop which is 5 feet wide by 7 feet tall, was being sure to keep all of the subjects within that 5 foot background area, a bit of a challenge with four people and two dogs. To stack the odds in my favor I needed to shoot with as long of a focal length as possible to compress the image and isolate them into the background. For example, if I tried to use a wide angle lens I’d probably have to be right on top of them to keep them in the background area. The longer focal lengths are typically better for portraits anyway, so it was just trying to decide between using my 56mm portrait lens or stepping up to my 55 – 200mm zoom lens. And just a side note, I use a FUJIFILM X-E2, so those focal lengths are for the APS-C sized sensor which puts the 56mm lens at the 85mm equivalent for full size sensors. I wound up opting for the 56mm lens since I wouldn’t have to stand so far away from my subjects. It did make it more challenging to compress them into the confines of the background, but I wanted my rapport with my subjects maximized which can be challenging when you’re standing in the kitchen.

Now that we had an idea of the image we were going after and had the background setup as desired, I turned my attention to the lighting. I knew that my subjects were all going to be constrained to the 5 foot area in front of the background, so lighting them with a single speedlight would be trivial. I put a single YN-560-III on a light stand shooting into a 43 inch Westcott shoot though umbrella and set it off the camera’s right, and as high as I could get it given the height of the ceiling. One pitfall to consider in this type of light setup is that the person closest to the umbrella is going to be lit brighter than the person farthest away. I could add multiple lights to even things out, but the easiest option is to feather the light a bit to decrease the amount falling on to the closest person and even out the light across all of the subjects. A simple twist of the light to the left so it was pointed directly where the second to the last person on the left would be standing was all the feathering required to even things out.

Lighting Diagram
Lighting Diagram

I could have probably been good to go with the single umbrella but I wanted to be sure that the shadow side of my subjects didn’t get too dark and no subject blocked the main light falling on to another subject, and I wanted to be sure that none of the ambient light could color the remaining shadows, so I decided to add another light to the scene. Since my main light was set to 1/4 power to be sure to nuke out any effects of the ambient light, I was going to put the second light on my left, shooting into another umbrella, just off the camera’s axis and set it somewhere around 1/16 power, changing the distance as needed to fine tune it. Again, I was just trying to add some light into the shadows to keep the highlight to shadow ration in check. Since the ceiling was low and painted a light neutral color, I opted to just shoot the second flash just about strait up towards the ceiling and let it act as a huge light modifier to evenly distribute the light onto my subjects.

A couple of other things worth mentioning is that I wanted to warm up the scene just a touch so 1/4 CTO gels were added to both flashes, or more accurately, not taken off the flashes since both of the speedlights I pulled out of my bag have 1/4 CTO gels on them as a rule. I also keep my flashes set at 1/4 power as their default setting so I know exactly where they’re set when I yank them out of the bag. I only have to decide to grab a pre-gelled flash or non-gelled flash when I’m setting up. I’m all about speed, and all of the above workflow took only a few minutes to setup including the time it took to move some furniture around to make enough working space. The FUJIFILM X-E2 camera that I use allows me to configure 7 profiles in advance, so I pressed the “Q button”, selected C7, and BOOM. I’m ready to shoot, ISO 200, white balance set for my flashes, selectable focus area, etc. Again, I’m all about eliminating as much time as possible futzing around with gear and as much time as possible talking and shooting.

I popped a shot at f5.6 and noticed the image was too dark for my liking and opened up to f4.0. One other thing I’ll mention about my default camera settings is that since my X-E2 has an electronic view finder, I have it display the photograph that I just took for half a second which is just enough time for me to inspect it for any errors and get back to shooting without having to pull my face away, hit the display button, and then have to view the image on the LCD. Ya, I’m looking at you Canon.

Now that the lighting and the camera’s settings were where I wanted them, it was time get to work and capture some images. If unmanaged, most people will typically line up in front of me and say, “Cheeeeeese” hoping that I will be able to magically create a great image of them, hence why I sound like a broken record about building your rapport with your subjects and getting them comfortable in front of your camera. It’s ironic how unexciting a good shoot should be. In fact, you know you’re doing it right when it seems like you’re just continuing the same conversation you’ve been having before the lens cap was removed with the occasional shutter click or posing direction casually injected into the dialog. But sometimes, your subjects just get into it and start having fun simply taking pictures, and this just so happened to be one of those times. Other than the occasional direction or posing suggestion, I only had to pipe up once in a while to remind them to stay close together so they didn’t spill out of the edges of the background. I love to photograph people, I truly do, but I’m certain that they were having more fun than I was having at that moment, and I was merely an observer with a camera along for the ride. It was awesome. What a fun bunch of people to photograph.

We shot for a while and wrapped up our session, packed up gear, and returned the furniture to its pre-studio condition. I yanked my SD card and we culled through the images together looking for the image they wanted to use for their holiday card then called it a night. Looking through the photos, they might not appear like the type of images that Annie Leibovitz (one of my all time favorite photographers) would produce, and I do see some technical issues that I wish had been addressed and had the space to throw in an additional light behind them on the background to add a gradient, but in the end I think having them in a picture with a plain ole background, devoid of any other details puts the focus on them, and was ultimately the goal of the photograph they wanted.

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