Family Xmas Portraits, Take 2 – Reality

A couple of these gig-overview posts back, I switched to using the terms “theory” and “reality” for the pre and post gig discussions.  In the past I’d used terms like “pregame,” “review,” and “preview,” but I never felt that any of those were really the right description – they are all open to too many interpretations.  So I’ve settled on theory and reality, because anything I come up with before a shoot really is a theory – there’s reason to thing things will work out, there’s logic and past experience to back it up, but for all that, there’s nothing that says it has to go that way.  Reality is, sometimes, quite different.

And sometimes, reality kind of stinks.

Take 2 of the family Xmas portraits involved doing them for my girlfriend’s family.  If you’ll remember, the concept was a good one; cycle people through a nice living room scene with a good lighting setup, and make some really nice group images.  That was the theory.

Reality turned out to be quite different.  Due to a breakdown in communication between the multiple planners on their side, and my girlfriend (not sure why they didn’t just call me directly?), they were expecting us to arrive 30 minutes before the time we had written down.  So needless to say, tempers were flaring, small children were burnt out already, and instead of a calm, orderly studio environment, I stepped into an outer ring of Dante’s Inferno.

Unexpected good weather made the family decide they wanted outdoor photos instead, but strong wind gusts and the sudden lack of a dedicated assistant made an off-camera Speedlite and umbrella impossible.  So I slapped the 580EX onto the 7D, dialed in a fill-flash compensation, and away we went, with each family picking their own backyard location.

Family Portrait 01

Some of the shots went pretty well – this group let me work them into a band of shade, and while the lighting is still not very much sculpted, it does get the job done pretty well.

Family Portrait 02

Others didn’t go as well as I would have liked.  The extreme dynamic range here means that even with the fill, the highlights are running too hot and the shadows block up.  Simply put, there’s too much contrast.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible shot, it’s just not what I’d like to have made.

Group Portrait

Ironically, that same issue results in a lack of contrast here.  The group opted for the shade to avoid the squinting problem, but put the sunlit backyard behind them, creating an over-contrast issue.  To solve that issue, I applied a Shadow/Highlight layer in Photoshop, which helped create some semblance of balance, but ate up too much contrast.  Suffice to say, this was a post-processing intensive set of images, and I’m not nearly as happy with them as I’d like to have been.

The only two that I am pleased with are these, taken of my girlfriend’s immediate family – her little sister suffered complete burnout at the original setting, so we went home to their house to finish their portraits.  Finally able to step back into a studio setup, I was able to setup a single Speedlite off-camera w/ and umbrella to create these:

Family Portrait 03

I like this first one for the darker overall quality.  Originally I had wanted to merge it with a second shot, one taken at a longer exposure with the tree aglow, but my PS skills aren’t really up to that challenge, and more importantly, I don’t like doing things that way in the first place.  I’d rather get it right in camera (which was not going to happen due to an unhappy 4 year old).

The final image was even simpler; the same single Speedlite positioned high and almost directly in front of the subjects, just in front of me.  And I’ll even admit, believe it or not, that I used Live View to get this shot – it was the only way to see when little sister’s eyes were open and looking at me, since through the viewfinder I couldn’t always tell (the lights were dim from the last shot, still).

Family Portrait 04

In a perfect world, I’d have been able to stick with the theory and gone with the well-planned studio setup.  Or at the very least, had the time and help to use and off-camera Speedlite outdoors.  But given the way things went down, the pictures were still taken – and that’s the main thing.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. So the assistant bailed out on you. Ouch.

    • Brent Pennington

      Well, she bailed on helping with lights – instead she was on family patrol duty, trying to keep everyone from snapping too much. Still helpful, just not quite hands-on.

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