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Light arrangement for family portrait

Terry Evans , Feb 19, 2004; 12:26 p.m.


Today, I plan to take a portrait of my wife and two children. The only lights I have are two Vivitar 285s on stands with umbrellas. I am used to arranging the light for only one person and am not sure the best way to use what I have for a group shot. Also, I have always used the umbrella for softer light, should I try not using one for the main light, or perhaps put the main light as close as possible. I would like to shoot at f8.

Thanks for your suggestions.



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... Timber ... , Feb 19, 2004; 07:05 p.m.

I think you are safer to simply use one vivitar for a ceiling bounce light, and perhaps the other one to bounce against an adjacent white wall or umbrella. You will need ASA 400 to give you any depth of field, using f8-f11. If you put the main light close, you will get uneven light falloff. I realize that you want to maximize power, but I would moderate the distance alittle. Use the "M" setting on the vivitar only. Go for full power output.

If you could put a white bedsheet on the floor, it may help alittle. You could experiment with the technique of bouncing a strobe off a white ceiling and also bouncing a strobe off of a white bedsheet laid on the carpet at least 6' from the subjects, and preferably if the floor cloth is tilted at alittle angle up at the camera, down at their feet position. The strobe would probably have to hang from the ceiling to work best as it points into the floor cloth. This floor cloth bounce will erase dark under chins and other wrinkles. This can work if you have only one row of people. If you have 2 rows, you have the problem of this floor cloth "seeing" the people in the last row. Maybe you could use a couch as a support to angle up this floor cloth; or use a couple of chairs. You don't need perfection here. Be sure you use a sunshade on your camera.

If you have any doubts about power, use ASA 800 film. You will lose 2 f stops of power on the bounce. This means your 100ws units apiece give you 200ws forward without bounce. With bounce, you have 50ws which is a GN of 56 for a F5.6 at 10' with ASA 100 film. So, for a f8, you really need ASA 400 film which will give you back 2 f stops for an f11. Then, you want to rate it at 250 ASA which lowers your estimate 1/2 stop for an f stop of f9.5

Given that the floor bounce probably won't be perfect and efficient, I think you will be pulled back to f8 at ASA 400. If your ceiling is not white or off-white, you can cover it somehow with white paper, like butcher paper. You could also just use your umbrella.

I think you are better off to use this "butterfly lighting" rather than to use lighting which will create shadows. "butterfly lighting" is more flattering for older women.

You could just bounce this light off of a white panel. Bounce light from the top of the panel and bounce light at the bottom of the white panel while you peer through a hole in the middle. Take your picture just alittle high on the group. This will de-emphase chins and show bright eyes. This will also tilt the plane of lens focus to your advantage to gain sharper pictures with a multi-rowed group. You could use a moderate 35mm lens, but no wider. Put taller people in the rear as a rule. However, you have few people to arrange, so you can be creative.

The cloth on the floor will give their faces a nice glow under the brow ridge. If you photograph too low, you will make them look too strong and snobby; like a hip hop CD album cover.

You could just use the vivitars as a main and fill in naked mode. However, the shadow line will be sharp.

... Timber ... , Feb 19, 2004; 07:23 p.m.

Another effective method is to simply use a white bedsheet, cut a hole nearly in the middle for your lens to peer through. Have two people hole it like a wall or panel. You could place your vivitars on chairs to hit a spot below the camera hole position. You could then hit a spot with your vivitars directly above the camera hole position, and try a position 2-3 to the side, preferably the side where their noses are pointing. This will model their cheekbones alittle. The vivitars should be at least 5-6 feet from this bedsheet in order to spread the light. If you put the unit closer, you will have a more modeled light which may be OK, too. Experment here.

When light bounces from any surface, it bounces like a tennis ball. The angle you bounce against the wall, will be the angle the light leaves the wall. So, think of playing billards when you do your angling for the most effective angle. If you don't, you will lose power to a ineffective, inefficient angle.

I would keep this bedsheet at least 7 feet away from them. In this way, you will not create distortion with your lens, and this distance gives you room to position your vivitars. Also place a piece of cardboard on the output of the vivitars so that they will not flare your lens. This card should be black, and not a color. Why? Because light will be reflected from this card into the subjects. The artstore has black cardboard. This cardboard should probably be at least 5" long, and 7" is safer. Just make sure you cannot see the flash illuminate from your camera position.

You could also use 2 bedsheets and simply photograph between the two hanging bedsheets. In this way, you don't have to cut any holes in one of them.

Tom Meyer , Feb 20, 2004; 01:05 a.m.

I suggest a big comfortable chair in front of a window that isn't getting direct sunlight streaming in... Spend all of your energy on simplifying the background, and use a sheet of white foamcore propped in a chair for a reflector. Make sure your subjects are comfortable and happy. That is much more important than rigging some elaborate lighting scheme that will overwhem them... t

One day, Timber, I'd love to see a photograph you've made using some of these techniques you recommend.

but this is one light in an umbrella-like softbox. It works fine, too.

Bill Cornett , Feb 20, 2004; 10:54 a.m.

Terry-- The bedsheet stuff is OK, but for a relatively easy set-up and generally good results, here's what I recommend:

Put the main light with umbrella to the left or right, and relative to camera position it should be 3-5 feet to the side and about as far away from the subject as the camera. The flash itself should be up about six feet or more if you have the ceiling space. Take your other light and place it behind the camera, coming into your scene just over your shoulder opposite from the main light, and about 1.5 times as far away or even a little more. This will give you fill at a 1:2 ratio. Dial down the fill flash or otherwise reduce it a little to give you closer to 3:1 but no more than 4:1.

Now, this ends up being very similar to the corner quick-portrait studio, but it's a faster set-up and can result in surprisingly pleasing results if used correctly. It's a very good method to utilize if you only have two lights.

I'll upload an example with my next post. Best of luck. -BC-

Bill Cornett , Feb 20, 2004; 11:12 a.m.

Terry- Here's an example of what can be done with two lights and two umbrellas. It was taken with the lighting set-up outlined in my previous post. I had to set it up on the spur of the moment and only had a few minutes with the subjects. Now, in my studio or if I had more time, I could certainly have done something more intricate, but this worked well for the circumstances and utilized power and number of units similar to what you have. -BC

Quick two-light portrait set-up

... Timber ... , Feb 20, 2004; 02:57 p.m.

Tom M.'s suggestion is impractical: A white cardboard fill is too weak to fill shadows of 3 people. Remember, the fill card has to be at some distance so that it won't be in the picture! Only a silver mylar reflector could possibly work, and it would have to be rather large, such as 4' circle or more. A white surface will lose 2 f stops of light power. Add to this the added distance in which it must travel, and you have very little light. You would end up with dark shadows, a film noir look which detracts from a youthful look.

Furthermore, you would have to rig up a background to block out distracting detail, maybe the hallway door or the kitchen table! Using window light in a home is therefore not a reliable light source. When you use flash bounce, you can determine the direction of your shot, and the background direction! With window light you are trapped to a particular direction or 2.

The white bedsheet is fun. As you have an assistant or 2 to hold it up; the subjects will laugh at their inexperienced and silly attempts to emulate a wall. You could sneak around behind this white wall and be a silly ghost. If you are quick, you will get their laughing expressions.

Before I knew about large white umbrellas, I used white table clothes at weddings in my early days of wedding photography. White clothes actually make a softer edged light than umbrellas, a softer look.

Umbrellas will require you to have someone to hand hold the vivitars anyway. You see, the vivitars are not wide angle enough to fill the umbrella. It will merely make a hotspot in the center of the umbrella when attached 2 feet away. This means your "umbrella light" becomes a soft spot of high intensity. This is not the soft light that gives a woman a youthful look when it casts hard shadows on her face!

A white bedsheet-look is very similar to a white wall. The difference is, the "white wall" is actually slightly yellowish. So, the bedsheet will give truer colors.

Tom Meyer , Feb 20, 2004; 03:16 p.m.

"A white cardboard fill is too weak to fill shadows of 3 people" ... This is true, and that's why I suggest it. I like some shadowing, Timber doesn't...(silly ghost)... t

Nothin but window light and a big white sheet just outside the frame on the left

Tom Meyer , Feb 20, 2004; 03:40 p.m.

.... I'd love to see some illustrative images, Timber.

There are brackets made to hold two shoe mount flashes in one umbrella. And they do not make one hot spot from an umbrella anymore than my Lumedyne or Dynalite head would make one bright spot. A bed sheet will knock out a lot of power from a 283, especially as compared to an umbrella, which is constructed to be an efficient, diffusing reflector of light. This business of a "white wall" being "yellowish" and a "white" bedsheet being more predictably white is absurd... whose white bedsheet? what paint on the wall? How old is the paint job? How old is the sheet? Has it been bleached? 300 thread count? or 180? Eggsheet white or semi-gloss?

Get a sheet of foamcore and prop it on a chair just outside the frame, and/or put your 283s in an umbrella. It's not a new idea. Have a look at Lloyd Erlick's family portraits made with "unreliable" window light... t

Sure would like to see some images made with these techniques you suggest, Timber!

Window light with a white reflector panel about 6 ft away.

Tom Meyer , Feb 20, 2004; 03:42 p.m.

that should be "eggshell" white, not "eggsheet" (referring to a theoretical white painted wall)... t

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