BTS: 2016 Holiday Photo

Other than the occasional pretty picture, I really haven't written a pure photography post in quite awhile. I simply haven't been as prolific with my photography lately because I've been concentrating on fishing. As I get the kayak going, I intend to combine these pursuits. Hit the water, take some nice photos, and, fate willing, catch some fish! But for the holidays, we typically send out a Christmas card to all our friends and include some nice pictures of the kids. So I got to spend some quality time behind a camera recently. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at this year's holiday photos.

Rather than go on a cat herding expedition with my kids in the cold weather, I decided to work indoors and do a simple white backdrop for this year's photo. With backdrops, most of the time I prefer black. I like the way it looks and I'm better at shooting on it. But I figured a Christmas picture ought to be a bit lighter in mood, so I went with white.

The lighting setup was simple. Two key lights, camera-right and camera-left. As usual, I used speedlights (Nikon SB700). The speedlights were shot through white umbrellas. They were arranged symmetrically around my subject, about 3 feet away and 2 feet above, shooting down from an angle. The power on each speedlight was set to 1/8.

I actually prefer softboxes over umbrellas because umbrellas are hard to control spill, throwing light around everywhere indiscriminately. But a white backdrop needs to be lit evenly and brightly. It's best shot in a big space so you can independently light the subject and the backdrop. The area where I shot these photos was very limited in size. So I used the umbrellas to light my subject and the backdrop, deliberately spilling umbrella light onto the backdrop.

Two key lights with shoot-through umbrellas
I also lit the backdrop from below using another speedlight (Lumopro LP160) shooting through my trusty little Lumiquest Softbox III to get a wider spread. It was set to 1/4 power. The backdrop light was mounted on a camera tripod behind and below my subject. By the way, all of these flash power settings I arrived at through experimentation, chimping my way to the right balance.

Backdrop lit from below
I triggered the key lights using Nikon CLS. I don't use TTL mode much with CLS because I find it easier to work with manual power settings. But CLS can also set the flash power on Nikon speedlights remotely using manually-selected settings and that's my favored way of working. Similarly, when working with artificial lighting I also prefer to use manual exposure mode on my camera. I just find it easier to get what I want by setting the camera and flash settings directly than by messing around with exposure and flash compensation controls.

The Lumopro speedlight I used for the backdrop light doesn't speak CLS, so I put it in optical slave mode and it triggered itself off the other speedlights. I have a set of wireless triggers, but CLS and optical triggering works really well for close range shooting so I didn't bother with them.

As for my exposure settings, I used f/5.6, a 1/160 shutter speed, and ISO 100. I chose my aperture to get into the sharpest range of my lens, put the entire subject in focus, and give me enough exposure to avoid cranking my speedlights up to full power. I choose the shutter speed to effectively eliminate ambient light since the room has a mixture of incandescent and natural light from skylights. And when shooting flash, I like to shoot at the lowest ISO setting possible to minimize noise.

Dialing in the exposure with inanimate and (usually)animate subjects

Post-processing was minimal. I tweaked the exposure and contrast a bit, did some spot healing on a couple of skin blemishes, and added a bit of a vignette so the backdrop wasn't quite so flat.

Shooting this year's photos was a bit of a refresher. I haven't shot artificial light in several months, so I was rusty on the various settings and configurations of my equipment. Thankfully I didn't have to crack open any owner's manuals, but did have to think a bit as I went along and it took me longer to get everything set up. But I enjoy shooting with artificial light, even when it's slow-going. It's always an interesting thought exercise and it's fun to work your way to what you've envisioned.