Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Portrait On-Location

We're sending our Christmas cards pretty late this year (it's now more like a Happy New Year card).  At least I'm pleased with the portrait that we finally got to do.  Rather than discuss the lighting itself, I want to talk about the shooting process.  (If you want to know about the lighting per se check out this post)  Here's how we put together this shot.

  1. Scope out the site beforehand.  I thought of a location for our family portrait.  Although we had been there before, I checked it out to see possible places to shoot our portrait and to note the sun's position.
  2. Have a plan.  I visualized our portrait and thought of the lighting equipment I would need to get the look I wanted.
  3. Test all equipment.  Before the day of the shoot, I made sure to test my equipment to confirm that they were functioning as expected.  I had been planning to use the Cyber Commander but I couldn't get it to trigger properly (will soon be posting how I resolved it).  Although I was disappointed, I was glad to find out then rather than on the field.  I switched to the Radiopopper JrX.
  4. Don't haul too much equipment.  Whenever I have a shooting session I often bring everything I can fit into a large storage chest so that I can address as many issues as possible.  Most of the time I don't use even half of the stuff I bring.  At the same time, hauling around the equipment is stressful not just physically but mentally, limiting my imagination for alternate locations (to avoid having to relocate the equipment).  This time I brought only what I needed, with only a few backups.  Worst case scenario?  Shoot ambient and fix it with postprocessing.
  5. Setup before the client gets there.  It usually takes me a while to set up the lights with care.  Meanwhile my wife has little patience and has to deal with two kids running around.  To avoid pressure, we planned for me to get to the location ahead of time and set everything up.  That worked very well and I was able to prepare at a relaxed pace even with my son looking around the area and asking lots of questions.  I looked for the best shooting angle, setup the tripod, took test shots, set my ambient exposure, adjusted my flash exposure, tinkered with the location of the lights.  By the time my wife and daughter got to the shoot, everything was ready and they just had to pose and smile.
  6. Be open to other possibilities.  Although I had a plan, I wasn't attached to it.  When I got to the location on the day of the shoot, I analyzed it with fresh eyes.  I saw that an alternate location would allow me to use the sun as a backlight/rimlight and I proceeded to create a new plan from there.
  7. Simple vs. Ambitious.  There were many techniques I wanted to try and I wanted to add fancy lighting effects.  In the past though that approach hasn't been easy and I wasn't able to execute the complex plan very well.  Instead I kept things simple.  Because the setup was so simple I was able to execute it very well, which freed my mind to focus on other things like facial expressions.
  8. Top-down vs. Bottom-up lighting.  Along the lines of having a simple plan, my plan wasn't built on eliminating ambient light and creating all the light sources I would need for a portrait that was designed according to my imagination.  Instead, I analyzed the ambient light first and because it was pretty good, I built my lighting plan around the existing light.
  9. Plan for merging group shots.  I took over 150 shots of us yet not one of those shots had us all with great expressions.  The fact is that when I'm not behind the camera I can't see everything, and it's virtually impossible to take a perfect portrait with kids.  Instead I just have to accept that I will need to merge faces.  To facilitate this, I take a background shot every time I move the tripod. I make the tripod as steady as possible (by hanging a bag off the hook for example) and I shoot a little wider than I want (for flexibility with cropping).
  10. Use manual focus mode.  Autofocus slows the camera down especially in challenging conditions such as strong backlight.  It's better to get the focus right then switch to manual focus so the camera won't have to take the time to autofocus.
  11. Vagabond II instead of Vagabond Mini.  For this shot I used a Vagabond Mini because it was lighter and I didn't need a lot of flash power.  However the Mini had a difficult time recycling the flash fast enough.  Note to self: use Vagabond II instead when I expect to take a lot of shots.

Equipment used:
  1. Nikon D300
  2. SanDisk UDMA CF Card. The fast CF card allowed me to take several shots in quick succession without worrying about locking up the camera.
  3. Tamron 17-50 VC.  I've come to rely on the very useful focal range of this lens.  I didn't need its fast 2.8 constant aperture on this occasion but it would have been there if I needed it for impromptu solo portraits with shallow depth of field.
  4. Linco light stand.  I love this light stand because of its extra wide base and sturdiness.
  5. Targus TG-P60T tripod.  This "cheap" tripod continues to serve me well.  It's not as rock-steady as "real" tripods but for my kind of photos (I rarely use long exposures) it works.
  6. Meike MK-RC7 remote shutter.  Performed perfectly on this shot.  No misses.  Hopefully it stays that way.
  7. AlienBees B1600.  Small and light relative to the amount of power it has.  Has always been very reliable.
  8. Radiopopper JrX Studio.  The most reliable radio trigger I have.
  9. Westcott 60" convertible shoot-through.  As long as it's not windy, it works well.
Thanks for visiting the blog.  We wish you and your family happiness throughout the new year! 


  1. Great post, I always appreciate the posts talking about photography "logistics", like sometimes Kirk does, it's enlightning to see how people make photos work apart from the lens choice and lighting ratios.


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