Photographic Follies - The Christmas Edition

Time for the annual Christmas pictures of my brother's daughters. These are usually semi-disasters for all the usual reasons. To tell you the honest truth these sessions stress me out far more than any other shooting situation I have ever experienced. Not because they are critically important but more because they are always in circumstances that I wouldn't choose if my life depended on it. I detest shooting kids with strobes - I really really do but in mid December I have no choices.

I also do everything to avoid shooting more than one kid at a time. Anyone that has done this knows that the chance of getting two kids in good moods and nailing both of them with good expressions in some natural way on demand is just not going to happen. My M.O. has typically been natural light - one kid - let them do their thing and let the magic happen. Much better images seem to result from this. Add in another kid - strobes and all of their associated positioning dependencies and you have yourself a sure-fire epic-fail.

Most sane people do something they "know" will work in these situations. Big flat light with a couple of umbrellas, an aperture that will provide reasonable depth of field and a background that cannot go wrong. Me? well I know that I am not going to really make images that I would want to make so I go for the gusto and make it even more difficult. If not impossible to make a reasonable image.

Why do I do this? Honestly it's somewhat a psychological game that I play with myself in order to trick myself into becoming frustrated with the mechanics of the situation vs becoming frustrated with the little girls or my sister-in-law for making me do what I don't like to do or other things. Either way I am going to be making images that I don't really like that much. I would much rather just hang out and shoot candids in natural light of the kids making cookies or decorating the tree or something like that in natural light and not worry too too much about weather I get them both in the same frame looking great rather than setting up some "session" with the "dresses" and the combing of the hair, at the worse possible time of day when it's rainy and dark.

Never gonna happen… Think the cookie making or tree decorating can be "scheduled" at good time of day or re-scheduled if the day is crappy? Nope. How about positioning the tree so that it's at all possible to do some good images with the natural light - nope - never never going to happen. Too much trouble combined with the total lack of understanding about how photography works. In any case here is a run-down of this year's self-imposed heaping on of things that are a bad idea. Take this as a list of what not to do…

  • I decided to test my new Nikkor 105 DC wide open. This is a really bad idea. Ever try to manipulate two 4 and 5 year olds into the same plane of focus at 105mm and f2.0? Ha. Yea right.
  • I also decided that I wanted to use the Christmas tree as a background and wanted the lights to go all abstract and soft-big-globey like in the movies. This introduced two very difficult things to deal with because some quick testing revealed that the subjects needed to be a minimum of 4 feet away from the tree and I would have to be 3 1/2 feet away from them. This backed me into a corner with no room to move from side to side or back and forth and framing was super tight. To top that off the tree was kind of on the slim side of things and any tiny bit of framing to the left or right would be very bad as the tree was against a window and obviously would not fill the background any longer.
  • To further complicate matters I decided to shoot this with one strobe acting as two lights. Normally this is a great idea to make things simple - as long as you can control all the other factors that I just described as fixed. I decided to set the strobe up behind them and skim it off of their heads bouncing into a 36" white reflector slightly above and 45 degrees to camera right. The reason that complicates things is that you cannot control the separation light, main light or background exposure independently. They all go up or down at the same time no matter what ISO, aperture, or flash power level you use. Change any one and they all change. I know you are thinking - "hey man the shutter speed controls the background - ummm nope. The only ambient showing up is the OOF lights on the tree. So I could make the background brighter by slowing down the shutter but not any darker because the reflector (main light) subject distance to the subject and background is only about 2x giving you about a stop falloff. Now to get my subjects exposed correctly I have to over-expose the rim light in a big way. This is fine as long as you can make sure it's positioned correctly and don't let your camera angle get too much of the subjects features touched by the rim light facing the camera. Obviously the only way to do this is exert control over the subject's surfaces and how they relate to the back light and camera - angle of incidence stuff…

How did it go? Well they were both in a mood - not a mood conducive to making photos. The eldest seems to have some sort of disorder that causes her to continuously do cartwheels and other self-invented gymnastics any time she is actually on her feet. That's not my usual hyperbole - it's quite literal. She was quite incapable of standing within the same 3 foot square for more than a single second - not one second. Even when the camera was not pointed at her. I think her mom should seek some medical advice ;-). The younger sister had decided that she would keep her eyes closed and make a really sour face anytime she was looked at or talked to. No kidding.

After four shots in the original standing position I made a decision to ask them to sit on the floor to try to have the eldest contained for at least one or two seconds. This caused a non-optimal positioning of the tree and lights-as-background. It also changed my lighting plan as there was no way I was going to reposition all the crap. I just dialed up the flash power a bit to compensate for the distance change. Ummm - plane of focus. Manipulating them was a no go meaning I would have to change camera angle to mach their plane on every shot. Not a great idea with a rim-light that's over exposed, an idiotically tight background, and zero camera to subject distance flexibility for framing.

The shot at the top is typical of the session. Camera too far to the right exposing too much surface lit by the back light, sub-optimal background framing, and sub optimal composition of limbs exiting and entering the frame. I made some reasonable images - this is not the "best" one but quite illustrative of the day. If you are wondering about the hand on the mouth. This was the older sister's reaction to my trying to get her younger sister to open her eye's and look a bit more "normal". I told her she was going to look like "Da step mudder" (younger sister's pronunciation of the the evil step mother in snow white that scares the crap out of them) - the older sister then tried to make the younger one smile.

Whatever - I hope this was somewhat educational of what not to do to cause yourself issues in particular circumstances. Feel free to share your experiences with doing those family photos that you have to do for others. I would love to be amused even if you are not as nuts as I am when it comes to adding additional variables to adjust your own attitude.


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