BTS: Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Caught


My youngest son turned 16 yesterday. I would say it's been a very good year for him. He got straight A's in school this year (so far), he made all-district band on Horn, he's the showcase player for his piano teacher, and his high school marching band did really well in competition back in the fall. Forgive me for bragging, but I'm extremely proud of his kid.

I decided to mark the occasion of his 16th birthday by taking some portrait shots of him. His look has radically changed over the last three years. He's shot up to over six foot tall, his face is looking way less child-like, and of course he grew out his hair. I made the mistake of telling him, "You can wear your hair however you want as long as you keep your grades up!" Yeah, I know, I got played on that one, but I don't really regret the trade.

So we set up in the living room, which luckily had already been cleared out because we had just installed a new wood floor in there that week.

I knew that I wanted the background to be blurred so I used my Sigma 50-100mm Art lens at f/4. That aperture provided enough depth of field to make focusing easier to nail while getting a decent amount of background blur at the distances available to me. If possible, when shooting with artificial light I like to have my shutter speed at near the maximum sync speed because indoors it minimize the contribution of ambient light, giving me more control over the lighting. And with the D7500, I also like to use ISO 400 as my base ISO for flash photography because it reduces the amount of flash power I need by two stops with only a tiny noise penalty versus ISO 100. That gives me faster flash recycling, less risk of overheating the flash, and longer battery life. I need to write a post one day to explain how that works in detail, but the short story is that the D7500's dual-gain sensor is only a tiny bit noisier at ISO 400 than at 100. So I shot in manual exposure mode and my camera settings were: 1/200, f/4, and ISO 400. 

Nikon D7500 with Sigma 50-100mm Art lens

The lighting setup was a pretty straightforward 3-light configuration – key light, background light, and hair light. All were off-camera speedlights in manual mode. 

At this point, I should introduce you to Ichabod. He's become my invaluable assistant when doing portraits of my kids. Blessed with endless patience, he acts as my subject while I get my camera and lighting perfected. Ichabod allows me to get my shit together, without squandering my kids' limited tolerance for photo sitting.

Feathering the key light across Ichabod

The key is a 48" gridded octabox placed camera-right. I had it in really tight, just off the frame, coming down from about a 30° angle. The giant octabox is probably my favorite modifier that I have, despite being a bit unwieldy to work with. I just love the soft shadows. Now you might be thinking, "Wait a second, knucklehead, that light is missing the subject!" I am a knucklehead, but that was actually by design. I aimed it in front of Ichabod to feather the light over him, rather than hit him directly with it. That makes the light intensity more even left to right, and it provides a bit more dramatic look by exploiting light fall-off.

White reflector

I put a white reflector camera-left to bounce some fill light onto the other side of Ichabod's face. I also put a diffuser on the speedlight inside the octabox to scatter the light around more because an octabox works better if all its inside surfaces are getting hit evenly with light and a speedlight at that distant is a bit too directional.

Ichabod with the key light dialed in

It took several photos of Ichabod to get the shadows to fall the way I wanted them to and to find the optimal power for my key light. I was going for a subtle Rembrandt lighting look with the signature inverted triangle under the far eye from the light, which you can see in the photo above. The key light power ended up being 1/4.

With a background light bounced off the ceiling

After I got the key light dialed in, I started working on the background light. My first thought was to shoot a light at the background wall. But you see that framed B&W photo on the wall behind Ichabod? I knew from past experience that the glass over that photo would reflect that light back at the camera unless I aimed it at a very shallow angle which would make the background light uneven unless I used a pair of them, one from each side. I only have three speedlights total and I had something I wanted to do with the third one, so instead, I bounced a single light off the ceiling to bring up the base light level in the entire room. This light was a bare speedlight zoomed to 16mm and mounted on a stand behind Ichabod, aimed directly up (you can just see it to the left of Ichabod's neck). The power was 1/32 +0.7 (the SB-700 lets you dial in the power in 1/3 stop increments). 

Highlighting Ichabod's gorgeous head of hair

Final step was the hair light. It's mounted on the same stand as the background light but pointed at the back of my subject's head. It's extremely subtle on Ichabod because he's bald (I need to get him a toupée but I'm don't want him to get offended). If you click on the above photo and look beneath and under Ichabod's ear, you can see some airborne dust illuminated by the hair light. Working with Ichbod, I set the hair light to 1/64 power, but once I started shooting photos of my son who actually has hair, it was way too bright. It looked like a Glamour Shot from the '80s. I lowered it to 1/128, which is as low as my speedlight goes and it was still too much. So I widened the zoom on the speedlight to 20mm and put a diffuser on it, trying to direct some of that light away from his head. That was a noticeable improvement, but even in the final product it's still a bit too much for my tastes. I didn't think of it until later, but I should have just covered a portion of the speedlight's head with some electrical tape. Experience comes just after you need it...

With all the lighting in place

Once I had my lighting all set up and dialed in, I moved Ichabod out of the way and put a chair in place that would theoretically put my subject exactly where Ichabod was.

From the shooting position, chair marks the spot

Unfortunately that part didn't work exactly to plan. Ichabod is an expert at holding perfectly still. My son, not so much. So I lost the Rembrandt lighting I'd worked to establish. But even so, the lighting on the final photos is really nice. And only I (and now you) know I was originally going for Rembrandt lighting. Sometimes you have to just go with the flow and not try to make things exactly perfect. Especially with teenagers involved.