Christmas (studio) lights!

Christmas will be here soon and whether you love it or loathe it, it does offer all of us the chance to shoot some great family portraiture, especially for those of us with studio flash or an on camera gun. Christmas is all about family and I’m sure that most of us will be visited by relatives that we don’t see very often, uncles, aunts, cousins, grand parents etc.

This gives you a rare opportunity, to snap some family groups and to use your studio lighting. I’m not suggesting that we all turn our lounges into studios, but if we do some simple planning, before it gets too hectic, we can get ourselves ready for action in plenty of time.

The first thing to do is to think about the relatives who are visiting and try to imagine the shots we want. Think about small group shots, just head and shoulders, nothing too complicated or demanding. Think about the family photographs that you don’t actually have, your kids with their cousins, grand parents with new babies, aunts and uncles together, your list will be much like mine, probably endless! So it’s all about getting the most out of this opportunity when the family gets together.

I mention this because we don’t seem to photograph our older relatives as much as we should, despite the fact that they make great subjects. Also, think about the generations; try to shoot a family group with all the generations in it, if you have the space of course. I’m minded of this because my wife’s grandmother is a sprightly 96 years old and I intend to shoot her with her great grand children around her this Christmas. I think it will make a great shot and something to put in the family archive! I’ll also shoot some black and white portraits of her on her own; she has such a wonderful face. As you can see, I’m already thinking about the shots I want to take.

So how do we go about this, well, as I said if we plan ahead, it will make the whole process less stressful? Think about where and how to shoot them. Perhaps you could use a spare room, or corner of a room that can be set aside if possible. Try to choose a space with a neutral background, although if we just shoot tight head and shoulders portraits, the background need not be too important, curtains or a blank wall will do fine.

When it comes to lighting, simplicity is always the key to success, and if we’re using studio flash, I would opt for one main light, positioned front onto the subject using a white brolly and another head to light any background if necessary. A white brolly is the best accessory to shoot either a single person or a small group, and just use a small soft box on the background if you need to. If you have on camera flash, use a small round soft box if you have one, it should achieve a similar effect.

With a few spare weekends left before Christmas, why not get your lights out and take a few practise shots so that everything’s familiar to you. Work out some distances from the brolly to the subject so that you have a good idea of the coverage, exposure and the camera settings. When you have decided where and how to shoot, the next thing to plan is how to group the subjects to the best advantage. This is really important, as it will help you get the best image.

Ideally you should think about creating triangles of people, two people seated with a small child or baby standing or sitting between them. Two people can be seated with another standing behind them. Try to keep everyone tight together, that way it makes it easier to light and shoot. Try not to attempt anything too ambitious as head and shoulder shots are by far the best options.

If you have a large family gathering planned, turn off that telly, (you don’t really need to watch that film again do you?), and get everyone involved in the shoot. Bring in the lights and have some fun, shoot different combinations of kids and adults, and don’t forget to get someone to shoot you! The main thing is that everyone enjoys themselves and you end up with some great shots of your family Christmas to put in the album and to email everyone after the event.

For those of you with a standard two head flash kit, why not try something a little more adventurous, some high key shots. You may think that this needs a lot more equipment and a special backdrop, but for head and shoulders shots it couldn’t be simpler, it just needs a bit more planning and a bit more space.

Most two head flash kits come with a brolly and a smallish soft box as standard accessories. We can use the brolly as a main light as before and get really good results. As for the background, I’ve got a really good tip here, the soft box can be used as the background. By turning the softbox around and pointing it directly at the camera, we get a nice, white, evenly lit square or oblong surface that we can use as a high key background. By placing our subject within the area of the soft box and by keeping our shots nice and tight within that area, we can shoot a perfect high key head shot, very simple.

To get everything set up only takes a few moments, but you do need some space to position both lights with a chair in between them. First place a suitable chair in the middle of the room and then set up the soft box behind it facing towards the camera just under 1 metre away. To make sure its at the correct height ask someone to sit on the chair and make sure that their head is within the area of the soft box, if its not, adjust the height of the soft box until its in the right place. Don’t forget to adjust the height when you shoot kids and adults.

Set up the other head with the brolly front on as the main light. To get exposure right will only take a few tweaks, either with a flash meter or a few test shots. As there are so many different powered kits out there, with different sizes of soft box, I can’t give you any firm figures to work on, but just use this simple method. Start with the main light first and get the exposure right, then adjust the head with soft box up or down in power until it gives you a nice even white background, its that simple.

Finally, I’ll be shooting most of my portraits in black and white and to justify why, let me leave you with this thought by the famous Canadian photographer Ted Grant.

‘When you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls’ Ted Grant.

I hope that I’ve given you some incentive to get shooting and I also hope that you have a nice black and white Christmas!

Steve Aves