Christmas Portrait 2012

Herding Cats Under Twinkly Lights

Cosmic Alignment, 60 photos later
Here's the photo we sent out with this year's Christmas card.  We do it every year, sometimes with the entire family and sometimes with just the kids.  This year's card is definitely a high water mark for the pictures.  I decided to write a breakdown of the process because I really get a lot out of these types of posts in other peoples' photography blogs.

For all the photos in this post, I'm using a 35mm f/1.8 lens, which is equivalent to a nifty 50 on a full-frame camera.  I only have two choices for fast lenses - the 35mm and a 50mm.  Both of them are f/1.8 primes - fast, sharp and terrific performers for the price.  I normally use the 35mm as my go-to lens for indoor photography without a flash.  The 50mm is my portrait lens (equivalent to a 75mm lens on a full-frame camera) and would normally be my first pick for this type of thing.  However, the original concept was to include quite a bit of the Christmas tree in the background, so I went with the wider perspective of the 35mm.

1% Inspiration, 99% Moving Furniture

My original idea was to take the photograph from behind a couch with the boys looking over the back of the couch at the camera, and the Christmas tree in the background providing most of the ambient light.  The tree would be thrown out of focus to get the Tinker Bell light effect.  But when I started looking at that arrangement through the viewfinder I didn't really like it.  At the height required to clear the back of the couch, the tree was narrower and didn't fill enough of the frame for my taste.  I could have moved the boys closer to the tree, but that would sacrifice some of the bokeh.  So I went with a lowered perspective by using an ottoman instead of the couch.  So the boys would be bent over the ottoman in front of the Christmas tree.

I'll say one thing up-front, I'm not (yet) a great photographer of children.  I can take a pretty picture, but a good child photographer is part artist, part entertainer, part child psychologist, part babysitter, and 100% patient.  It's that last thing that I really lack.  I get pretty myopically focused on my goal, and tend to lose my cool when kids become obstacles to that.  I'm not proud to say it, but that's the truth of it.

But I've taken enough photos of my own kids to learn a couple of tricks.  First one is always do the prep work on your time, not theirs.  The longer they have to sit around while you're fiddling with stuff, the fewer good pictures you're going to get because their attention span is just too short.  Our living room is arranged for living rather than shooting, so I re-arranged our living room to get what I wanted.  Then I set up my lights and camera.  The lighting is straightforward.  A single speedlight, shot through an umbrella placed camera-left, from above at about 45 degrees.  Easy peasy.

Lighting diagram, courtesy of PowerPoint

Testing 1, 2, 3 

And so begins all the test shots to get the lighting and camera settings right.  Below, I'm just showing key photos from that series.  I probably took a dozen or so before I felt really dialed in.

My initial shots were to set exposure for ambient lighting.  One of the trippy things about flash photography is that you usually establish two exposures -- one for the ambient lighting (illuminated by existing light) and one for the feature lighting (illuminated by flash).  I always try to set the camera ISO to 100 if possible.  If you're artificially lighting a scene, you just as well light it enough to get your best image quality.  I like to do test shots in Shutter Priority mode to narrow down on my exposure settings, then take note of the settings and replicate them in manual mode in order to "lock them in".  I try to set the shutter speed as close to 1/200 as possible but after the first test shot (on the left), I realize that's a pipe dream.  Ain't happening.  There's just not enough light to get a decent ambient exposure at ISO 100 and anywhere near 1/200.  So I up the ISO to 200, which is as far as a I want to go if I can help it, and I start bringing down the shutter speed.  I decide that I won't go lower than 1/50 and even that will be challenging while shooting kids.  The flash should help though.

Once I get the ambient exposure about where I want it, I need a stand-in for the kids while I get the flash exposure right.  I look around the room and spy my wife's decorative snowman who lives in the attic except during Christmas.  He's the perfect model really.  He stays exactly where you put him, doesn't complain, doesn't get tired, and doesn't get distracted.   Here's his first photo.  As you can see, the ambient lighting looks pretty good, but Mr. Snowman is back-lit and in the dark without a flash.
Here's my first photograph with flash.  Not too bad really, even with the dog's butt in the frame.  I mainly shoot manual flash, not TTL.  It's not some kind of macho thing.  It's simply that I don't have either a hotshoe cable, nor wireless triggers.  So I use optical triggering built into my speedlights with the camera's pop-up flash as the master.  Cheap, consistent, and it works great.  But it does mean that I have to 1) set the power of each speedlight manually (a pain in the ass when they're high up on stands), and 2) put my camera in manual exposure mode.  An automated or semi-automated exposure mode on the camera will drive you nuts because the camera will try to set exposure taking only the ambient lighting into consideration.  So when I add flash to my set up here, the camera gets flipped over to manual mode (using the shutter and aperture settings the camera selected when I was in shutter priority as a starting point).

At this point the flash configuration is:
  • A speedlight (Nikon SB700) placed at camera upper-left
  • Shoot-through umbrella, about 3 feet from Mr. Snowman and aimed slightly in front on him
  • Full CTO gel on the speedlight
  • 24mm zoom setting
  • 1/4 power
  • Triggering by the camera's pop-up flash using the optical slave mode of the speedlight
  • The pop-up flash obscured with an SG-3IR.
  • Manual exposure mode
  • White balance set to incandescent

The Understudy Gets His Big Break

A bit too much ambient
Ambient re-established
All kinds of wrong
Mr. Snowman has served admirably.  But now I'm ready for a human stand-in to make sure the skin tones are reasonable.  Being human and all, I decide to play stand-in.  You can see the wireless shutter remote in my right hand. In the first photo, I notice that spill from the umbrella is lighting up the background a little so I fiddle around with the exposure and flash exposure to re-establish the light balance I wanted.  In the third photo, I experimented with mixed color temperture on an flash aimed at the tree from camera right.  You can see the effect more clearly on the window frame.  Yuck.  Baked Wrong smothered in Wrong Sauce.  So I kill that light.  I also notice that the single speedlight on me is casting a slightly overly dramatic shadow on my face. In other situations this could be cool, but it's a Christmas picture so I add a reflector (camera right, on the floor) to redirect spill from the umbrella back up into the subject's face in order to soften shadows.  In classic Dumeril fashion, it's a hillbilly reflector -- a reflective sun shield I swiped from the car.  You can see the placement of the reflector in my lighting diagram above. 

Test Shot 7
By the time I shoot this photo, I finally feel dialed in and ready for my actual models.  My camera settings are f/3.5, 1/50 second, and ISO 200. I'll shoot with these settings the rest of the way.

Round Up The Usual Suspects

Finally, I'm ready for the kids. I have them put on red sweaters. They're wearing shorts, but I don't care because I know their legs aren't going to be part of the picture. At this point, it's just a matter of putting them generally in place, getting them to smile, and snapping as many photos as possible hoping for some keepers.  Here's another trick that can work with kids (not mine on this day, but in general it works pretty well):  Give them something small to hold in their hands, like a toy.  That can help to keep them engaged and it can add another interesting element to the photo.  I try using some tree ornaments, but it didn't work out well; they got bored with them too quickly.

Now, I'm only sharing the better photos here. There are about 40 unusable ones because the kids aren't exactly cooperating. They're smiling fine and laughing at my jokes, but they're incredibly fidgety and pretty unresponsive to other requests. The requests soon escalate to futile demands and I start to lose my patience. Without chemical assistance, I'd be an absolutely terrible child photographer. Fortunately, my wife steps in to help me maintain perspective, and wrangle the kids.

This might work
But as soon as I see this one on the LCD I know I have at least one keeper.  There might be better ones in the pile, but I know that I can work with this one if there aren't.  So the session is over.  The kids and I are both glad.

Fairy Dust

Now, I load the RAW format images into AfterShot Pro.  First thing I do is delete the unusable ones.  I've read about photographers who keep absolutely everything they shoot "in case they change their mind later".  I'm not a believer in that approach.  I believe in the power of getting rid of shit.  When I first started recording music digitally, I loved the idea of fixing things in the mix.  Crappy take?  No problem, slice, dice, tweak, and re-assemble it in the mix!  But every track you keep and every decision you delay until the mix adds additional choices, and complexity, and stuff to manage in that mix, a process that is already overflowing with decisions and complications.  And for all the effort that must now go into the mix, it usually sounds worse than if you had just committed to a path while recording and kept only the very best tracks, played as well as you could play them.  So nowadays, I tend to edit as I go so that the mix is fairly straightforward.  I keep the same philosophy with photography.  Maybe one day I'll change my approach, but I doubt it.  Anyway, back to our story, I start off by deleting the crummy photos -- the ones that are blurry, have a serious compositional flaw, or where one of the kids has a weird expression.  And as I said earlier about 40 of them are trashed.  I put metatags on the survivors. 

There are a number of good shots for this year's Christmas portrait.  But as I thought I would when shooting, I select that last one.  It's a good photo -- nice pose, natural smiles.  Admittedly it doesn't have the nice candid vibe of some of the others, and they would be perfectly valid choices in my opinion.  But I'm kind of going for a slightly more formal photo anyway since it's going to be sent to grandparents who dig that sort of thing.

In AfterShot Pro, I do some RAW noise removal and a tiny bit of exposure level adjustment as the RAW is slightly underexposed.  Then I export the image to 16-bit tiff for retouching in Portrait Professional.

In PP, I do some spot healing, teeth whitening, eye color enhancement, hair shining, and skin toning on the boys.  It sounds like a lot of stuff, but I go very, very easy on all the controls because most kids, including mine, have awesome skin and features and just don't need much to look beautiful.  But boys being boys, they do have some scratches and boo boos that can be a little distracting.  I accidently overlook a little  scratch on the younger one's arm.  C'est la Vie.  I'll keep it in case anyone asks me if it was retouched ("Are you kidding?  See the scratch on his arm?!").

I bring the result back into AfterShot Pro and do final sharpening and export to JPG.

I like the original composition, but for the final photo I go with an alternate crop that pares it down to just the kids.

And there you have it.  A few weeks later and there's only one change I'd make:  If I were to shoot it again, I'd have a rim light on the boys to give them a bit of definition from the background.