Monday, December 7, 2015

Traditional Christmas Family Portrait with Natural Light

This weekend, I took a photo of our family for our Christmas card.  In this post, I'll describe the thought process behind the photo.


Camera and Lens
In preparation for the photo, I first had to decide on which camera and lens to bring.  I wanted the photo to appear traditional, which means that I would be shooting at typical portrait distances.  This usually means that I would need a longer lens.  However, because it would be a group shot, I don't need a very long lens.

I was choosing between the Sony 18-105 f/4 (with the Sony a6000), the Samsung 16-50 f/2-2.8 S, or the Samsung 50-150 2.8 (with the NX500 - reviewed here).  The Sony 18-105 f/4 would be able to cover almost any scenario for taking portraits, whether I have a lot of space (which would mean that I could use it toward the longer end), or not (in which case I would use a shorter focal length).  The disadvantage of the 18-105 is the narrower aperture compared to either the Samsung 16-50 S or the 50-150 S, but that wasn't a huge disadvantage, given that using f/4 or narrower for a group photo would help ensure that everyone is in focus.

The 16-50 S can take group shots as well.  It has the same focal length as the kit lens and can cover anything from wide angle to very short telephoto.  It has the advantage of a much wider aperture compared to the kit lens, which can blur the background a bit, although that would have to be balanced by the need to keep everyone in focus in a group shot.  Moreover, because it can only go to 50mm, it cannot easily take a photo from a farther distance.

Finally, there was the 50-150 S.  This was the "riskiest" lens for a group photo because it needs a lot of space to be usable.  If I don't have at least around 10 feet of space to shoot, I can't zoom out or crop the image to fit.  On the other hand, if the space were available, it would give me the farthest perspective, which can help make the portrait look more cinematic.

I ultimately decided to use the 16-50 S and 50-150 S, primarily because I prefer the colors and tonality of the NX500 over those of the a6000.  It's just a subjective preference, and the a6000 could of course have done the job as well.

In previous years, I took our family portraits with flash (like I did last year).  This year, we weren't absolutely sure about our location, so I wanted more flexibility in changing locations.  Moreover, if I used flash, I would be limited to the sync speed (1/200 for the NX500), and because it was quite sunny, I would likely be forced to use a narrower aperture, in turn limiting my ability to blur the background.  (True, I could use still a wider aperture if I had an ND filter, but I don't have a good quality one at the moment.)  I therefore decided to use ambient light only.

To trigger the camera, I brought the Yongnuo RF603.  The NX500 can connect to a smartphone as a remote live view trigger.  However, when shooting that way, the image is JPEG only (i.e. no Raw), which I wasn't satisfied with. (This is also true for the Sony a6000.)  Instead, I used a radio trigger, with the Yongnuo RF603 II as a transmitter and the RF603N (with a JJC remote cable for Samsung NX) as a receiver.  This setup worked well, with no missed shots.

My wife already had a good idea of what the Christmas card would look like, so she wanted a background that was covered with foliage.  We decided to take the photo at a nearby outdoor mall, which had a couple of spots that could provide a suitable background.

The first spot we tried was at a corridor.  Besides having foliage along the walls, the sun was hitting the top of one side of the corridor, which provided a soft yet directional light source to add a subtle pop to the picture.  The corridor was just barely wide enough to use the 50-150 at 50mm.

However, for the group shot, I had to switch to the 16-50 S (at 40mm):

In these shots, one thing I had to be careful of was blowing the red channel.  Even though the ambient light wasn't very bright, we were wearing bright red clothes.  The NX500's exposure algorithm appears to look only at the luminance values rather than the separate RGB channels.  Therefore, at what would be a "correct" exposure for luminance can easily blow the red channel.  In this case, I checked the histogram then underexposed by 0.7EV to bring down the red channel to just under the point of oversaturation.

Anyway, I wasn't completely satisfied with the shot, so I continued to look around.  I then tried the mall's large outdoor Christmas tree as a background:

The mall's Christmas tree was very tall but not super wide.  To be able to use it as a background filled with foliage, I had to shoot from afar with a long focal length, which is exactly the kind of situation the 50-150 is made for.

With the sun almost overhead, I positioned our group to be in the shade of the tree (unfortunately, the sun could be used as shoulder light for me but not for my family due to obstructions).  I also positioned us several feet from the tree so that background blur could help separate the foliage as background.  I was about 15 feet away, and shot at 85mm (about 130mm equivalent on the NX500).

For the exposure, I used aperture priority and set the aperture at f/2.8 (which had just barely enough depth of field to keep us in focus).  I intentionally underexposed by -1EV to avoid clipping highlights and to preserve the red channel,

Because we were backlit, the NX500 took longer than usual to focus each shot, usually taking about 1 second or so to focus, and some shots missed focus.  This was an issue with the NX500, not with the RF603 (I tried using manual focus for some of the shots, and the RF603 took the shots with no delay).

Here was the original shot, corrected only for color temperature and slightly cropped.

Because the shot was intentionally underexposed, I had to raise the exposure in postprocessing to normalize it (see here).  In addition, I clawed back the highlight details with highlight recovery (on the side of my head and jeans).  Note: if a highlight is blown, it is lost.  However, the NX500 is pretty good at exposing to retain relevant highlight detail, so all that I did was to reveal the highlight details captured by the NX500.  Don't expect to be able to do that with your smartphone. :)

To add some glamour to the shot, I tweaked it using PortraitPro Studio, which lets you enhance portraits using sliders.

Here was another shot that I took with the NX500 and 50-150:

To print the photo on a Christmas card, I looked at and  They both have special offers right now.  Tinyprints has 40% off + free shipping (use the code: BESTSALE40FS until 12/8/15), while Shutterfly has 50% off (use the code: HOLIDAY).  Both had designs that we liked but in the end, we went with Tinyprints because we wanted the return address printed on the envelope instead of using an address label.

I hope you found this post helpful.  I wish you and your family Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!

Family Portrait Walkthrough
Christmas Portrait On-Location
One Flash Portrait with Linco Boom Arm (Samsung NX500 + Samsung 50-150 S)